WHAT was remarkable about Lahore’s Litfest 2015 was not that it was done well, but that it took place at all. The three-day programme from Feb 20 to Feb 22 attracted scholars and specialists from all curves of the globe — from the US, UK, Norway, Germany, Egypt, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Australia.
Yet, even until the night before, no one — neither the organisers, nor the delegates, nor their intended audience — could be sure that Lahore’s Litfest 2015 would take place. Rumours ricocheted across Lahore about a possible postponement, even a fatal cancellation. Finally, at 9.30pm on the 19th night, news came that the necessary NOC had been received from the Punjab government.
Overnight, the Lahore Arts Council complex underwent a magical transformation, as every space within its brilliantly malleable design expanded and contracted to accommodate programmes at five different locations simultaneously.
On the morning of Feb 20, pouring rain could not deflect the determined. Sodden but undaunted, they filled Hall 1 to hear Dr Romila Thapar’s keynote address titled ‘The past as present’. Since the 1960s when her book A History of India appeared, Dr Thapar’s scholarly publications have amassed into becoming the Himalayas of our history. For her lecture, she delved into her study of Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (2004), in which she traced the various, often conflicting, self-serving versions of the desecration of Somanatha temple by Mahmud Ghazni in 1026. Persons who could not locate Somanatha on the map or within a millennium of history listened to her, enraptured. They watched her unravel the skeins of memory, demonstrating that history is not simply the version of the victors. Like Kurosawa’s famous film Rashomon (1950), it has as many facets of reality as it has witnesses.
The Lahore Arts Council was magically transformed.
The first formal session paid homage to the late Khushwant Singh, who — had he lived a year longer — would have celebrated his centenary this month. Rahul Singh represented his illustrious father, Basharat Qadir his own no less illustrious father Manzur Qadir. (Khushwant described the Qadirs as ‘his closest Pakistani family’.) The fecund novelist Shobhaa De personified the articulate femininity Khushwant so ardently admired. And Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan demonstrated that, but for the alphabetical aberration of having the initials AA instead of BB, he could have been leading a prominent political party. This lively session ended with thanks to all five participants — to the four present, and to the fifth — the ever-present Khushwant Singh.
Once the Litfest began in earnest, the public had to scuttle between choices. Should they attend a session on ‘The cosmic dance’ with Zulfikar Ghose or one on ‘Cordoba: the legacy of tolerance’? Those who chose the second witnessed Pervez Hoodbhoy being pilloried gratuitously by a rival. Hoodbhoy’s response was Cordoban.
‘What happens in Kabul stays in Kabul’ — unless of course it is the topic at Lahore’s Litfest. The moderator Lyse Doucet (of the BBC) tried hard to persuade the young Afghan ambassador to pass through the porous border between the audience and the stage. He chose, however, to speak from the safety of shadows. He spoke with incisive clarity, reminding one that he represented the new Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul, one that speaks with a World Bank twang.
The Indian editor/journalist Shehkar Gupta always provides good copy, especially so when he is in the tinderbox company of Khurshid Kasuri, Hina Rabbani Khar and Najam Sethi. The session on Pakistan’s cricket could not have been better timed. The country is passing through a slough of despondency after our cricket team’s humiliating debacle at the 2015 World Cup. The book launch of Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan reminded the audience that Pakistan First XI cricketers are not unlike
the eighth, last Nizam of Hyderabad Mukarram Jah. They squandered a seemingly limitless inheritance, until it ran out. Malcolm Muggeridge’s famous quip about Randolph Churchill fits them: “A great future — behind him.”
A number of sessions on Urdu poetry translations in Hindi and English, and on the Tilism-i-Hoshruba made some sections of the alternate public cavil at the paucity of sessions dealing with the Urdu literary scene. Their complaint has substance. While every educated Pakistani concedes that Urdu is his or her mother tongue, not all of them would confess to matricide.
One of the penultimate sessions on the last day carried the title: ‘Living with internal differences: the South Asian dilemma’, discussed by a female trinity of intellect — Romila Thapar, Ayesha Jalal and Asma Jahangir.
This same issue agitated Dr Ambedkar 75 years ago. In his treatise, Is there a case for Pakistan?(1940), he described Hindus and Muslims as “two armed battalions warring against each other”. His prescient advice to both was that if they are to live together, they must first “‘long to belong together”.
The writer is an author and art historian.
Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2015