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Festival: Surviving in times of air space closures

Updated March 10, 2019

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Poet Zehra Nigah was one of the keynote speakers at the KLF; however, another session with her had to be cancelled | White Star/Fahim Siddiqui
Poet Zehra Nigah was one of the keynote speakers at the KLF; however, another session with her had to be cancelled | White Star/Fahim Siddiqui

What was the biggest achievement of the 10th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), held last week, March 1-3 at the Beach Luxury Hotel? That it was actually held. No, seriously. With tensions rising on the border, with air space restrictions making it impossible for delegates to be where they were supposed to be, with cancellations aplenty and with the weather playing its own tricks, it must have taken some doing on the part of the organisers to be able to put up a brave face when almost everything seemed to have been stacked against them. It was like the KLF taking a leaf out of 19th century French clergyman and political writer Abbe Sieyes’s book and saying to the naysayer, J’ai vecu [I have survived]!

Cancellations and forced modifications made things take a course that was perhaps not the intention of the organisers. Take, for instance, the session that compared judicial activism with judicial restraint. Recently retired chief justice Saqib Nisar was pencilled in, but had to be replaced with two individuals; a former high court judge and a former head of the Citizen Police Liaison Committee (CPLC). While the moderators remained the same, the narrative was so fundamentally altered that it ended up sketching Nisar as one of the top-most villains in national history. Had he been there in person, the same forum and the same audience — minus, of course, the two replacements — might have clapped him all the way to the pedestal designated for national heroes. There was a big what-might-have-been haunt about the whole session.

Read more: Pakistan airspace fully reopened, says aviation authority

One thing that the cancellations settled beyond any doubt was the age-old debate related to Urdu literature. With the air space shut over the whole of Punjab, there was nobody to take hold of any vernacular session worth its name. Just take a look at the line-up that talked about the life and art of Qurratulain Hyder and you would know how badly the luminaries from Punjab were missed.

Given the circumstances, the fact that the 10th edition of the Karachi Literature Festival took place at all and, at least tentatively, explored new grounds was an achievement in itself

Mustansar Hussain Tarar, among many others, stands vindicated in the rather vocal claim that Urdu literature is alive because of Punjab, and not because of the Karachi-based descendants of those hailing from erstwhile powerhouses such as Delhi and Lucknow. Left to its own devices, Karachi cut a sorry figure on this count, and by cancelling a session with Zehra Nigah — though she did deliver one of the keynote speeches at the opening ceremony — the organisers exposed their own lack of understanding of this critical aspect. More than providing food for thought to the audience, such sessions — if taken in the right spirit — should be food for thought for the organisers.

Arguably the most cerebral session was the one discussing a new book on the psychodynamics of the rise and fall of former Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Moderated by the ever-articulate Javed Jabbar and with writer Shamim Ahmed in presence, the interaction between the two learned conversationalists was enjoyed by a full house, which in itself was a rarity. Ahmed spoke a bit about the element of hamartia — the fall of a tragic hero — as a means to understanding the rollercoaster of Bhutto’s life. Answering a question about an individual’s ability to transcend his DNA, which was Jabbar’s way of bringing in Bhutto’s feudal background, Ahmed insisted, and with some intellectual force, that circumstances and the environment were parts of DNA just as much as chromosomes are. This, in a way, was Ahmed’s way of differentiating between genetic and political DNAs. It was interesting.

In the run-up to the festival, the KLF organisers had said with some force that, with a decade under its belt, the event would break new ground by focusing on the future of not just literature, but also publishing and mediums of expression.

Even more interesting was the participation of the audience when the floor was opened. When Bhutto was criticised, the audience clapped. When he was defended, the audience clapped even more. The Bhutto phenomenon is clearly far from dead. As in his life, so in his death, the man continues to evoke extreme opinions. It was a pity that the session was slotted to last no more than 30 minutes, and two of those minutes were spent reading out the introduction of the moderator, which, strictly in the context of the duration, was a waste of time.

In the run-up to the festival, the KLF organisers had said with some force that, with a decade under its belt, the event would break new ground by focusing on the future of not just literature, but also publishing and mediums of expression. The itinerary did live up to that promise albeit with a caveat: the scheduling was such that most of these sessions clashed with something that attracted people away from what was claimed to be the focus of the festival. One example would suffice. ‘Can Literature Survive The #Hashtag?’ was a decent way of gazing into the future and was an opportunity to hear fresh voices, but the discussion took place when Anwar Maqsood was centre-stage elsewhere, both physically and metaphorically, in another session. It is somewhat ironic that Maqsood was well below par, repeating punchlines and going on nostalgia-laden forays, but the massive audience continued to wait in the hope that he would at some point burst into himself, which he never did; not on the day.

Most other sessions related to the young and the future suffered a similar fate. Maybe the organisers were testing the waters. If so, there was clearly enough ground for hope and, if that is the focus — which should be the case — it will be eternally better to let the young into the mainstream rather than giving them odd timings and low-capacity venues. There were times during the festival when the best value one could extract out of KLF-10 was a seat close to a corporate canopy that had musicians playing live. They, for sure, knew what they were doing and attracted great numbers, which made them do even better for longer.

Hopefully, at the next edition the KLF would take fresh guard and put up a better show — an even better show, if you insist. And, hopefully, we will have visitors from Punjab coming in which would make KLF worth its while for Urdu lovers.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 10th, 2019