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February 18, 2018


Nine years is a long time to keep the momentum going for a festival that relates to a domain of life — literature — that is, at best, a laggard within the overall spectrum of our national existence. It is in that specific context that one needs to see the ninth edition of the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), to be able to appreciate what the organisers have been able to cobble together year after year.

Urdu buffs this year had reason to heave a sigh of relief for, at last, KLF broke new ground with two potentially wonderful sessions that promised something fresh. A session on Jaun Elia was as much to look forward to as was the one featuring Irfan Sattar, one of Elia’s distinguished disciples who has fascinated millions around the globe with his poetry that is seriously, almost unbelievably, refreshing in terms of thought and expression.

And then there was an exclusive session with the evergreen Iftikhar Arif. The more you hear him talk and recite his stuff, the more you want to hear him talk and recite his stuff. Seriously. The session, as is always the case when he is around, was packed to capacity and beyond. Elsewhere, Kishwar Naheed was her usual energetic self and so was Asghar Nadeem Syed with his convincing articulation. But as far as the Urdu component of it goes, KLF 2018 would be remembered for three sessions that individually represented the most enjoyable, the most cerebral and the most disappointing peaks touched this year.

Karachi Literature Festival’s Urdu segment had fresh elements this year that needed better treatment to be as effective as they had the potential to be

By a margin that was massive, Arif stole the show with his peek-in-the-past narrative. It was in some ways a continuation of his conversation at the Urdu Conference a couple of months ago: light on the senses and gripping to the core. There were two moderators, but, honestly, none was required. As he narrated one anecdote after another and mixed it up with his poetic renditions, Arif’s connection with the audience grew more and more intense with every passing minute.

When the moderators tried to keep the KLF format intact by opening the floor and letting the audience put questions to the guest, there were no questions; just a unanimous and quite vociferous demand that Arif should continue in his own vein. And he did. It was a session that could have gone on and on. It was fun with finesse of the highest order. Clearly, it was the most enjoyable of all that was there to enjoy.

Moving on, the most cerebral session featured Sattar alongside Shahida Hassan; two genuine poets who have moved abroad. They spoke of poetics in the context of their experiences as immigrants and poetry at large. A bit of fun was spoiled by the moderator who kept using flowery expressions which was in irritating contrast to the everyday, dipped-in-realism expressions of the two guests. That made the flowers in her flowery expressions even more artificial. Sheer plastic.

The session was themed around ‘dreams’ and ‘journeys’ and it was fascinating to see Sattar differentiate between ‘targets’ and ‘dreams’ as symbolic representations of ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’, linking the journey of idealistic souls with that of Socrates and his ilk.

It was a pity that the session was placed at a distance from the main area, causing many to struggle as they made their way to the specific location. The poetry read out by Sattar and Hassan actually deserved better handling at the hands of the organisers. It was roundly appreciated by the rather modest crowd that was finally able to make it to the session.

One interesting line Sattar drew was between what he called ‘poets’ and ‘non-poets-presenting-themselves-as-poets’, insisting that he was willing to acknowledge ‘weak’ or even ‘bad’ poets, but a ‘non-poet’ was an insult to the art and craft of poetry.

Talking about the art of poetry, Sattar made a pertinent point when he spoke of the “journalistic approach” to reacting to incidents happening around. Versification of one’s reaction to something on the spur of the moment has its limitations, he said, arguing that “real poetry needs processing time for the mind and the soul to absorb what needs to be absorbed and to discard what is not worth it.”

One interesting line Sattar drew was between what he called ‘poets’ and ‘non-poets-presenting-themselves-as-poets’, insisting that within the first category, he was willing to acknowledge ‘weak’ or even ‘bad’ poets, but a ‘non-poet’ was an insult to the art and craft of poetry. Both Sattar and Hassan were in agreement — and so was the moderator — that conferences and festivals organised in the country mostly featured ‘non-poets’ from abroad, just to call themselves ‘international’ events. Hassan called it “commercialisation of literature”, while Raju Jamil, son of the iconic Jamiluddin Aali, in his remarks when the floor was opened, called it “the rule of nepotism and favouritism.”

And ‘favouritism’, perhaps, is the right cue to move on to the most disappointing session. Both as a person and as a poet, Elia was a phenomenon like few others. As such, a session dedicated to him was only apt. The problem was with the guests lined up to speak about him: Shakeel Adilzada is a man of prose and could say little about poetry; Saif Mahmood from India could do little else than recite Elia’s couplets; Aqeel Abbas Jafri is a genial soul who thought it was beyond him to speak about a master and Muhammad Ahmed Shah remained busy telling everyone what was the perfect distance between the lips and the microphone, and to the technicians, what was the correct level of echo while operating the sound system.

Apart from feeling frustrated sitting in the audience, one could only feel sympathy for the moderator who tried his best to keep things on track, but had no chance in the presence of one guest whose sole reason for being there was the time he had spent — like thousands of others — with the master crafter. No prizes for guessing who that guest was.

Things got so bad that Naheed, sitting in the audience, suggested that the panel would be better off reciting Elia’s poetry than talking about him. The floor had to be opened halfway through, which was a blessing because painter Shahid Rassam, actor Munawwar Saeed and rights activist Rahat Saeed made a little more sense than the panellists. There were still 10 minutes left in the session when the moderator decided enough was enough and pulled the curtain down, but not before he had the occasion to snub that particular guest for using the word ‘drama’ to capture the life of a literary genius.

The audience left with a sense of what-might-have-been, as the only worthwhile and composite words in the session came from Arif who took less than a minute to contextualise the man and the poet that Elia was. The facility with which he spoke was characteristic of one great talking about another.

The other side was brought up by Sattar in the other session when, talking of his interactions with Elia, he called him a “university for budding poets.” With Sattar and Arif on stage, the session would have had the converged energy of the most enjoyable and the most cerebral, making it a tribute fitting and worthy of that prodigious soul. But that was not to be. Unfortunately.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 18th, 2018