Can the Karachi Literature Festival be more inclusive?

Updated 28 Apr 2016


The session "Transaction or Transformation in Film and TV" in progress. —White Star
The session "Transaction or Transformation in Film and TV" in progress. —White Star

No one will deny literary festivals are needed and many more of them in a city as big and diverse as Karachi.

For what it was worth, Karachi Literary Festival offered a liberal perspective on culture, books, and society; an opportunity for young people to become acquainted with the work of an iconic class of writers, lawyers, artists and activists such as I.A. Rehman, Arif Hasan, Asma Jehangir, Sheema Kirmani and others, before we lose them to oblivion.

There are clearly two generations of people who need to know about the history of political theatre, the leftist poetry of Jalib, documentations of the middle-man economy that rules Karachi, the HRCP research on human rights challenges, including missing persons, etc.

KLF, in that respect, provided a minimum level of exposure and literary political education.

But for the vampires, KLF offered little that was novel or intriguing, and what one couldn't find from a link on social media or the English newspaper.

I found, often, the discussion veering into banality. Recurrently, I wished, speakers had prepared their speeches. Being on stage, speaking to 500 listeners, comes with a responsibility, and one should not merely bank on timely revelation of brilliance and wit.

I personally did not like Jugnu Mohsin’s accents, and all the 'intellectualisation' came to a deserved halt when an audience member, appropriately enough, asked her to mimic Benazir.

The pen writes with abandon.

Descriptions of the female anatomy, secretly woven for the reader owe no one any degree of political correctness. Without an intuition for sensibilities or a clear vision of feminist literary critique, let secrets remain secrets. Let’s not discuss Alice Bhatti’s breasts.

KLF may be a successful, private effort of the privileged educated, but when you purport to be the city’s biggest literary event, questions of inclusiveness and transparency become relevant.

How democratic are the decision-makers at KLF?

How do marginalised voices make it in? How can regional literature be represented without being tokenist? How can you be more inclusive of new authors from the South Asian diaspora?

A visit to the South Asian section at Liberty Bookstore will reveal a proliferation of authors. Why can’t we entice them? Manu Joseph, Rohinton Mistry ... the list of established and exciting new struggling authors is endless.

Any event in Karachi with its expanding peripheries will necessarily be exclusive. The question is:

Does KLF have the capacity to be more inclusive?

Perhaps not. Maybe if it were, we'd be talking about a different event altogether.

What would it take for the working class and rural people to come? To go into literary functions is to accept their limitations of capacity and really demand more festivals in radically diverse spaces.

But who has the money to fund pluralistic, people’s events? And, even if you pitch the idea of a KLF in a katchi abadi-accessible space with massive pre-event efforts at outreach, in a society with a strong elite lobby, it faces the risk of co-optation.

With major foreign embassies and aid organisations pitching in, as well as the ubiquitous Coca Cola, the question of money is inevitable.

Even though KLF tries to raise human rights concerns, can you really call out the worst human rights violations of our times when multinationals and foreign governments foot the bill?

Pakistan has been attacked with drones 400 times; almost 3,600 people, many of whom were civilians, have been killed. We are living in a country where companies and businesses violate people’s rights with impunity.

Even if sponsors are non-intrusive on content, it is the slow and gradual de-politicisation which comes from unspoken obligations to funders, that is the problem.

It is this insidious invisible hand that has reduced this country’s human rights narrative to a diluted punch-less, public relations version of what it could be.

Bushra Ansari and Nimra Bucha during the session "The Complete Performer: In Conversation with Bushra Ansari". —Mahjabeen Mankani
Bushra Ansari and Nimra Bucha during the session "The Complete Performer: In Conversation with Bushra Ansari". —Mahjabeen Mankani

Can we talk about literature and films against drones, without being the isolated heckler?

Should people with aristocratic heritage be permitted to perpetuate the power they already enjoy – and our oppression as the constant listeners?

Should authors of the military court bill share stage with the ghost of Habib Jalib, who was a fierce critic of establishment?

Would the old boys’ network of mining and banking industries – who may sponsor initiatives at KLF – allow us to talk of climate change and capitalism?

Without state support for literature, the space to talk about the politics of money has disappeared.

If you do, it enrages people with questions of sustainability, accusations of a lack of pragmatism, and claims of hard work.

There are serious class issues in our fragmented society that only a movement will overhaul.

As the people are devoured by neo-liberal interests on the one hand, and controlled and monitored by the military establishment on the other, at least get Margaret Atwood and Naomi Klein on Skype to add some perspective.