KARACHI: The 7th Karachi Literature Festival began at the Beach Luxury Hotel on Friday morning with the usual celebratory tone but tinged with sadness for the eminent novelist, short story writer and columnist Intizar Husain who passed away on Feb 2 and who was a regular participant of the festival.

It was thoughtful of the founder of the event Ameena Saiyid to request everyone to observe a minute’s silence for Intizar sahib before the formal start of proceedings.

Ms Saiyid said Intizar sahib took part in every single edition of the Karachi Literature Festival. She said in 2013 the keynote speaker for the event, novelist Nadeem Aslam, called him the greatest living writer on the planet. She said he was Pakistan’s greatest literary treasure. He was supposed to participate in two sessions of the 7th edition, so now one of the sessions had been dedicated to celebrating his life and work.

Ms Saiyid said it was in 2010 that she and Asif Farrukhi came up with idea of the festival. She termed it ‘an act of defiance’ because at the time Karachi was mired in violence. She thanked book-lovers for making the event a resounding success. She then spoke on the Islamabad Literature Festival, Children Literature Festival and the inception of a Teachers’ Festival which she and her team were organising to further the cause of reading.

Asif Farrukhi related the seventh year of the festival to themes like the seventh sky, seven seas and the proverbial seven questions. He said along the way the event had achieved remarkable landmarks. He likened the assembly of authors to the assembly of birds in one of Fariduddin Attar’s poems saying that it had to be seen in which direction the king of birds would take us.

Mr Farrukhi said when he and Ms Saiyid thought of setting up the festival, he asked the late Intizar sahib about it. The writer approved of the idea and encouraged and blessed them. He said he empowered them with his credibility and gradually became the father of all festivals. He said Intizar sahib had now joined the assembly of the immortals. He said in his keynote address in one of the editions, the late writer had stated that ‘the story is a vagabond’. He thanked him for filling our times with stories. German Consul-General Rainer Schmiedschen, UK High Commissioner Philip Barton, British Council’s Robin Davies, US Consul-General Brian Heath, Italian Consul Jianluca Rubagotti and the French cultural counsellor also spoke, among others. Some of the speakers like Ms Saiyid and Ms Farrukhi talked about Intizar sahib, echoing the sentiments of the earlier speakers. The German consul-general said the writer was a nominee for this year’s peace prize.

After the speeches the following awards were given. The best book of fiction 2016 went to Aamer Hussein’s ‘37 Bridges’, collected short stories. The best non-fiction book’s award was won by Dr Aroosa Kanwal for ‘Rethinking Identities in Contemporary Pakistani Fiction’. And the award for the best Urdu fiction book went to Najiba Arif’s collection of poetry ‘Ma’ani Se Aage’.

The first keynote address was delivered by poetess Fahmida Riaz. She expressed her grief over the deaths of two individuals, poetess Nasreen Anjum Bhatti and writer Intizar Husain. She said once she responded to an acquaintance on the issue of death that there was a time to philosophise about death and there was a time to mourn it. She said we could find what our literature was all about in our collective persona. Referring to Intizar Husain’s views, she said we belonged to the region which had three historic streams in it: of Hindustan, of Arab/Ajm and of the West.

Ms Riaz said all these streams encouraged us to move forward. She said in both India and Pakistan efforts had been made to exclude one of these three streams. She said we were living in an age of denial. Nasreen Anjum Bhatti was a Christian, she said, while Intizar Husain belonged to the Shia community. She said today Shias were being killed. She said she would like to label the literature that’s being produced nowadays as literature written in the times of terrorism and bloodshed.

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2016