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Karachi and the festivals

Updated February 24, 2014

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I relocated to Karachi about a half a year ago and among the volatility and religio-political grandstanding of the city rolled out all sorts of festivities and festivals.

In a short span of a few weeks, in fact just over the past month, alone I was regaled by invitations to events to ‘experience’ (celebrate) food, books, clothes, and culture.

However, at times it isn’t clear whether you or the festivity revellers are there because of the ethos of the festival or because it’s fashionable to be seen at said place – akin to making a statement of sorts, political or otherwise. Perhaps it’s both which suits me just as well.

The literature festivals are particularly intriguing to observe. Presented with a diverse palate of flavours from books, clothes, food as well as culture, you can take your pick. Photo Photo

It is unfortunate though that during my last 15 years in Texas, I never experienced a literature festival being observed in the same vein and therefore I missed out on seeing people attending them with such gusto and in such great numbers.

After attending the literature festivals in Karachi, one would think that this is a city (and therefore a nation) of readers. In this regard, I think Karachiites could teach our friends, families and colleagues in Texas a thing or two about the real worth of literature festivals. I remember attending a book launch session at the Austin Literature Festival — serendipitously the book happened to be a political and historical commentary on Karachi. Photo Photo

The Caucasian author was a well known talk show host of a radio channel that prided itself in being quite unbiased in its coverage. As happens frequently at literature festivals, although I’m unsure why, there was a panel discussing not only the above book but also the ‘Afpak’ situation. Oddly, however, none of the panellists were from Karachi or even Pakistan for that matter.

The discussion could have definitely benefited and been much more vibrant and objective had there been someone from the place that was written about and discussed at that forum. That was not the case with the Karachi Literature festival (KLF). The session on the ‘Afpak’ region had a diverse panel of representatives from the region, all of whom seemed equally well informed.

After the literature festivals and festivities are over and done with, there tends to be a spate of articles in the popular media extolling the organisers, key note speakers, authors, attendees. Pledges are made for continuing such activities as a counter force to the volatile, insecure and unstable environment.

On the other hand, you also get to read articles that question the ‘real’ objectives and impact of such festivals. They make the case that events such as KLF, by being accessible to only a certain ‘class’ of people, tend to polarise an already polarised society. Photo Photo

As is almost always the case there will be opposing camps to everything. Presently, I am unsure which camp I belong to. I can speculate though based on my attendance of both the KLF and the Children’s Literature Festival (CLF).

(1) KLF = elitist - publicised and projected as such; hence, no surprise that it is not an equaliser.

(2) CLF = non-elitist; publicised and projected as such; hence, also no surprise that CLF too is not an equaliser. Photo Photo

Furthermore, the most insight was gained while chatting with one of the book stall owners at the CLF. He said that the CLF was completely ignored by 'burger type Karachi wallay' (loosely translated: ‘the uppity Karachiites’), hence, both book and food sales were nowhere as lucrative compared to the KLF. Photo Photo

The recent Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) has piqued the curiosity of Karachi wallahs. As I have never attended one I cannot objectively comment on it. But perhaps it’s somewhere in between KLF and CLF? Or perhaps not — if LLF has been able to distinguish between ‘literary’ and ‘literature’ festivals that is.

In all seriousness though, I ask the naysayers why these mismatched festivals should be considered as 'social movements'?

Maybe they should stop calling them literature festivals — and call them social movements instead. Although KSM, CSM and LSM don't roll off the tongue as well.