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FESTIVAL: MORE THAN BOOKS AND AUTHORS

March 03, 2019

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Fatima Bhutto, whose unscheduled appearance was a pleasant surprise, in discussion with Sanam Maher about her new novel, The Runaways | Aun Jafri/White Star
Fatima Bhutto, whose unscheduled appearance was a pleasant surprise, in discussion with Sanam Maher about her new novel, The Runaways | Aun Jafri/White Star

Lahore, like the rest of Punjab, witnessed a comparatively longer winter and chilly spring this year because of recurring rainfall. The sunny days at the end of last week were more conducive for literature enthusiasts and readers to come to the seventh Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) which was held Feb 22-24. The annual event has become a mainstay in the cultural calendar of the city and so was expected to generate heavy attendance but, contrary to expectations, that was not to be. The inaugural day always has a limited time slot and the main focus is the opening ceremony held in the evening. The second day usually brings people out to sessions that take place through the day. However, the first half of the second day — Saturday — witnessed thin audience attendance. One expected more people to arrive by evening, but that too did not happen. The third and final day (Sunday) has always seen a rush of visitors ever since the first edition of the LLF, but it was surprising to see people coming only after the lunch break.

Some sessions were jam-packed, such as ‘Manto and the Recovery of Historical Imagination’, although it does bear mentioning that the session had the same panellists — Ayesha Jalal and Khaled Ahmed — who conducted sessions on Saadat Hassan Manto at previous editions of the LLF. Classical dancer Sheema Kermani’s and singers Suraiya Multanikar and Rahat Multanikar’s performances were also well received.

Anil Zia, a literature and music enthusiast, was at the LLF on the last two days. “I found Ayesha Jalal’s sessions more stimulating along with Sheema Kermani’s performance. Mohsin Hamid’s talk with Pankaj Mishra was also good.” Zia’s opinion was that, besides having first-hand interaction with writers and seeing them live, the lit-fest gives him the chance to socialise and meet those friends and likeminded people that one does not meet often. He attends most of the various lit-fests that take place in Lahore.

However, Raza Wazir, a blogger and freelance journalist from Waziristan, was a tad disappointed. He was in attendance at the Alhamra Arts Centre on all three days, but very few sessions appealed to him. Panels featuring Mirza Waheed, Pankaj Mishra and Harris Khalique held his attention, but “The schedule this time was not very attractive. Whatever little space used to be given in earlier editions to political sessions and regional languages had been squeezed up more this time. Whatever critical and political voices there are in the country were not given space. It appeared to be totally apolitical. It was also a repetition of the same faces and similar sessions,” complained Wazir.

Despite shortcomings in its programming and attendance this year, the Lahore Literary Festival is a welcome blessing in a time when the space for debate and dissent is shrinking

What Wazir said could be one of the reasons for the lack of public enthusiasm regarding this year’s LLF. People want new faces along with writers who have become popular. The organisers did include star writers such as Waheed, Mishra, Mohsin Hamid and H.M. Naqvi and they did pull in the crowds, and a pleasant surprise was the sudden appearance of Fatima Bhutto, who was not part of the initial schedule. Another reason for the slim attendance could also be that Indian personalities could not participate; Mishra and Waheed were exceptions, but then they are both based in the United Kingdom. Nandita Das was one of the scheduled panellists unable to come because of the recent escalation in tensions between Pakistan and India, but she sent a message to her fans which was read out to the audience by Ayesha Jalal. Indian writers are definite crowd-pullers. Writers from other parts of the world, including the West, have no comparison with them.

This year, there was also far too much focus on book launches or talks on specific books, amounting to more than 20 sessions. Book launches or discussions only on a specific book cater to a limited number of readers and cannot match the inclusivity generated by a broader topic of discussion or even a general talk by a writer.

Sessions on politics or democracy in Pakistan, that used to draw crowds earlier, were also conspicuous by their absence. In her conversation with Sanam Maher about her most recent novel, The Runaways, Fatima Bhutto remained apolitical even when discussing her father, Murtaza Bhutto, although she did say that everything is political, even if one is writing literature. Bhutto also did not take questions from the audience; perhaps it was an attempt to avoid controversy. Regarding public expectations from her, being a scion of the Bhutto family with calls for her to join politics and ‘save’ Pakistan, she replied that Pakistan did not need any saviours as “it is above all of us.” On the recent tension between Pakistan and India, Bhutto said the two countries shared geography and history and called for peace between them, saying she did not want to see any Pakistani or Indian soldier die.

There were a couple of sessions on democracy and politics in the rest of the world but, unlike earlier editions, there were hardly any talks on Pakistani politics or the media, which perhaps hints at the state of affairs in the country and the increasing curbs on society and the media. Such sessions spur debates, raise questions and sometimes create embarrassing situations for the government or those in power. But there is a counter-argument, too. Novelist and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who was present at the venue but not part of any panels, said he was against politicians or politics getting space in lit-fests as they get plenty of time on other platforms. “Lit-fests should be only about literature and books,” he said.

The lack of enthusiasm among the public for this edition of the LLF should move the organisers to change their style and try to make it more relevant to local audiences and readers. Indigenous writers and local voices would definitely draw more people than little-known writers from the Middle East or the rest of the world. Faces from literature in Urdu also need to change for diversity’s sake. Consistent calls for more sessions on regional languages seem to be falling on deaf ears and organisers need to pay attention to this aspect if they want to keep the audiences the LLF has already engaged, and add to their numbers.

It must be said though that, while the LLF 2019 was not as good as one would have liked, there were still quite a few sessions that captured interest, such as the one on Qandeel Baloch, one titled ‘City in Fiction’ — where Lahore was the topic of discussion — and the ones exploring political and social consciousness in Urdu literature, the impact of ghazal on Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and another on Punjabi folk songs.

In the words of blogger Wazir, who attended all three days despite not liking the schedule, the LLF is more than just a gathering of literature aficionados. Other than listening to and meeting one’s favourite writers, the event is also a platform for socialising and a way to enjoy the advent of spring. This view points to the social value of the LLF and is evidence that, for visitors, the event goes beyond literature and authors. It is a place where people get together, meet friends, buy books and share ideas.

And despite this year’s shortcomings, the LLF is a welcome blessing given the political and social conditions of Pakistan where the space for debate is shrinking by the day and all kinds of curbs on dissent are increasing. Keeping the festival going means there will always be an opportunity to discuss pressing issues of the times. The need to have a space for dialogue is imperative because it exposes the truth — such as on the first day when former chief justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, was exposed with his statement that the much-hyped fund-raising for the Mohmand and Diamer-Bhasha dams was not meant to actually build any dams. Such events and sessions enable one to have an optimistic view of the relevance of the LLF and other lit-fests happening in the country.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 3rd, 2019