In a land where there are limits on the freedom of speech, literature festivals take on a special significance. Rather than focusing primarily on poetry and prose, they serve as an outlet for dissent and a platform for the exchange of new ideas — the kind that may not be allowed space in the mainstream media. Perhaps this is why these events tend to be dominated by politics, current affairs, academia and retired army generals who now have something to say.
In Karachi, where books and bookshops are an endangered species, lit fests resuscitate the city’s soul. They keep it from turning into an intellectual desert. The Adab Festival 2020, held at the Arts Council From Jan 31 to Feb 2, gave Karachiites a reason to turn away from the screens of their digital devices and attend a poetry recital, or a book launch, or a panel discussion, at the end of which they could ask the panellists questions.
But the most important questions were the ones we were made to ask ourselves, after hearing some of the profound statements made by the experts.
We were, for instance, made to question the very premise on which this nation was founded. Who would have thought that Mohammad Ali Jinnah himself had no idea about what kind of country Pakistan was to be? Yet, this is exactly what renowned academic Pervez Hoodbhoy pointed out in one of the Adab Fest’s opening sessions, titled ‘The Never-Ending Battle for the Pakistan Narrative’.
“When asked about it, he [Jinnah] would reply, ‘when we achieve Pakistan, we will see’,” said Hoodbhoy, adding, “he never wrote a single research paper or an essay. He gave many speeches saying very different things — such as, ‘this will be a land where Islamic law will be applied’ — but there was no mention of getting rid of the jagirdari [feudal] system, or whether Pakistan was to be a federation or a confederation.”
The turnout at this year’s festival was significantly lower than last year’s inaugural event, but its significance and spirit could not be dimmed
Hardly surprising then, that on the following day moderator Shahnaz Wazir Ali, a former member of the National Assembly, said she sometimes worries for Hoodbhoy: “he is bold, but he is speaking for our conscience.”
Malik Ahmad Jalal, founder of an alternate education platform called Cordoba Ventures, provided a refreshingly unconventional approach towards a clichéd argument concerning the country’s elite. In a session titled ‘Is the Top One Percent (Elite) the Problem in Pakistan?’ Jalal argued, “We are having an industrial-age discussion at the advent of the information-age,” adding, “unfortunately, in the West, ‘elite’ has become a negative term, whereas it is, in fact, a good thing. Everybody deserves to become an elite. The question we should be asking is: why have our elites failed us? Having a competent elite is in everyone’s best interests.”
The architects of the city’s salvation, Arif Hasan and Marvi Mazhar, downplayed the nostalgia and romance often associated with the yearning for Old Karachi and opted for a pragmatic approach in the session ‘Karachi’s Urban Planning, Public Spaces and Garbage Management’. “I’m anti-nostalgia,” said Hasan. “There are nice memories and all that, but you cannot take this city back to what it was. There needs to be focus on making Karachi commuter and pedestrian friendly.”
Mazhar highlighted the “constant social violence in a city [such as] Karachi” — a truth that every denizen of the metropolis can relate to. Referring to the government’s alleged restoration of Clifton Bridge, she said that she had ventured under the bridge and seen the loose mortar and bricks. What good was it, she asked, if the government’s idea of restoration entails putting up signposts such as “uptown” and “downtown”?
Former inspector general Sindh, Aftab Nabi, also dismissed nostalgia for the colonial period in the session ‘A History of the Sindh Police’. He said, “We seem to think that the police was better in those days, but it was far more inefficient and corruption was rampant.” The Sindh Police was structured by Charles Napier from the outset as a militarised force, in which the bulk of the officers were army personnel. But the deterioration, according to Nabi, began between 1870 and 1895 — long after Napier was transferred out of the province. It was during this period that the seeds of what is today referred to as the wadera-police nexus were sown by the British administration. The powers of the police were diluted and the waderas [landlords] were empowered to solve problems through faislas [arbitrations].
Lit fests can also, by accident, provide citizens with the rare opportunity to communicate directly with elected political representatives and voice their concerns. In a session that featured Saeed Ghani, Sindh’s Minister for Labour, Information and Archives, members of the audience insisted that they be allowed to have regular interactive sessions — described by one of them as an “open kutcheri [court]” — with him so that their issues could be addressed.
The turnout at the Adab Fest 2020 was significantly lower than that of last year’s event, but this did not seem to dampen spirits and some sessions erupted into heated debates, especially when festival-goers asked questions that aren’t allowed to be asked. At the launch of Maj Gen Fida Hussain Malik’s book Balochistan: A Conflict of Narratives, a student from Balochistan inquired as to whether any of the panellists would speak on the issue of enforced disappearances in the province. This was one question that remained unanswered.
There was also the recital of what can be described as environmental poetry. In a speech at the pre-launch for his book, Edge of Delta: Karachi’s Korangi Creeks, architect Tariq Alexander Qaiser read out a poem he had written as an ode to the city’s decimated mangroves. “Tree huggers lose battles,” he said. “Tree huggers have their legs cut with the trunks of the trees they hug. They learn you don’t need legs to stand tall. I am a tree hugger, I know I will lose my legs.”
But it isn’t just the mangroves that are under threat. Some booksellers are finding it increasingly difficult to set up stalls at literature festivals, as they can no longer afford to do so. This year, Thomas and Thomas, an old bookshop in Saddar, set up a stall for the first time in three years. This is because it is costlier to set up a bookstall at the Karachi Literature Festival (Rs 40,000) than it is at this year’s Adab Fest (Rs 20,000). A lit fest with a depleted supply of books does not augur well for the cultural climate of the city.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based journalist who has written for local and international publications
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 9th, 2020