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KARACHI: Dusk had just fallen. A total penumbral lunar eclipse was eagerly awaited in some parts of the world. But in Karachi, writers and book readers totally eclipsed the planetary spectacle as soon as festivities of the 8th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) began on a temperate Friday evening. The two keynote speeches further enlivened the atmosphere.

Dr Ayesha Jalal was the first keynote speaker. She said, “On August 14, 2017 Pakistanis will commemorate their 70th anniversary of freedom amid heightened security, economic anxieties and uncertainties about the impact of a deadly war in neighbouring Afghanistan. The insecurity in this nuclear-armed country will be specially poignant for those who can still recall the summer of 1947 when the departing colonial masters stood aloof” as an orgy of bloodletting took place in the subcontinent.

Quoting writer Sadat Hasan Manto, she asked why human beings were thirsty for blood. The pity of partition was not that instead of one country there were now two, but the fact that human beings of both countries were slaves of bigotry, of animal instincts and barbarity.

Dr Jalal said in our times the killing of Muslims by Muslims led some international commentators to smugly suggest the inevitable fate of a country born in bloodshed. “The idea of inevitability overlooks the role of human agency and responsibility.” Pakistanis, she said, were hard-pressed to understand themselves, far less counter misperceptions about their country. She argued that events like the dismemberment of the country in 1971 had made a cross-section of Pakistani public confused and pessimistic. It was much to do with economic disparities and long periods of de-politicisation during military and quasi-military rule. She then talked in detail about the various phases of military rule.

Dr Jalal said democracy was not a magic wand waved at election time. It’s a process which couldn’t be turned off and on at will. Democracy was conflict and therefore needed institutions to mediate resolutions (to conflicts). It took Pakistan 23 years to hold its first general elections based on adult franchise. There was an urgent need for citizens to come together for their rights, she said.

Dr Jalal said another detrimental thing was the gathering strength of religious extremism which could be traced back to the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq. The ethical meaning of jihad had been completely lost in the temporal maelstroms of Pakistan’s politics. She was of the view that what Pakistan needed was an educational system that could keep pace with the expanding frontiers of knowledge of the Western world and inculcate ‘genuine critical thinking’.

“In this disconcerting scenario the burgeoning of a popular culture in the face of terrorism is a remarkable feat for Pakistan. It draws upon the rich and vibrant poetic, musical and artistic traditions that are manifested in this country’s diverse regional and sub-regional settings.”

What makes culture?

The second keynote address was delivered by writer Mustansar Husain Tarar. In a humour-tinged speech, beginning with the admission that he was in awe of film star Shabnam who was in the pandal and calling Dr Jalal as ‘our sole spokeswoman in the world’, he had the audience’s undivided attention. He said the keys (of literature) that he had were all rusty and therefore it would be difficult for him to open any sacred doors with them. He’d still try.

Mr Tarar said pushing the first door he saw someone trying to weave a story or a travelogue but was unable to carve a picture on it. Should he embellish it with the Ganga-Jamuna tradition or should he put the waters flowing in Punjab and Sindh to creative use? What culture should a Pakistani creative individual adopt? “It’s not in my capacity to follow and write the traditional Urdu language that was written in the past. Ganga and Jamuna are not my rivers. So I’m not familiar with the power of their waters. Only the waters of Ravi and Sindh can make my writings fertile. How many of us are familiar with our own country? I’m happy that KLF has created a bridge between Karachi and Islamabad. I wish they could also come to Lahore because without that city their endeavour would be incomplete,” he commented.

Opening another (metaphoric) door, Mr Tarar said he saw dozens of small snakes crawling around trying to bite our writings. Earlier they were not there. It was during the rule of a dictator that they were born and had now grown up. In the last 20-30 years a change had occurred. In the past, the rulers of the country used to persecute writers or ban their works. But now the tables had turned. Today the rulers didn’t care what you wrote about because they did not even know how to read. Today it’s society, lakhs of people, who went after you. There was a time when the rulers used to be hostile towards you and society applauded your (writers’) courage. Today the same society lynched you calling your material ‘against Sharia’.

Prior to the two speeches, the founder of KLF, Ameena Saiyid, said the festival was an inclusive event which provided a platform for cultural expression.

Quoting a line from a Masood Ashar story, “merey khwab hamaisha doosrey loag hi dekhtey aaey hain” (others have always seen my dreams), the co-founder Dr Asif Farrukhi said we could read the books that we liked.

The British high commissioner, Indian high commissioner, US consul general, German consul general, French cultural attaché, Italian consul general, Swiss consul general and representatives of KLF sponsors also spoke.

Three awards were also announced at the opening ceremony. The award for the best book in the non-fiction category was won by The Raj at War by Yasmin Khan. The book that won the prize in the fiction category was Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Spinner’s Tale. And Urdu Adab Ki Tashkeel-i-Jadeed by Nasir Abbas Nayyar was declared the best book in Urdu.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2017