March 08, 2020


William Dalrymple, keynote speaker at the opening ceremony | White Star/Fahim Siddiqi
William Dalrymple, keynote speaker at the opening ceremony | White Star/Fahim Siddiqi

While the country at large has been fortunate enough not to get affected by the dreaded coronavirus (so far, that is), the 11th edition of the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), held from Feb 28 to March 1, 2020, was not as lucky. The threat did bite it (ouch!), bringing the number of visitors considerably and visibly down, even though there were enough at various points in time for the organisers to justifiably call it a success.

Among those who made it to the venue, only a few were wearing protective masks. Over the three days of the event, it was quite interesting to keep calculating if there were fewer people with masks at the venue, or fewer sessions directly discussing literature at the KLF. Of the 77 sessions — barring the opening and closing ceremonies — 30 had no direct linkage with literature, and that makes up 40 percent of the planned schedule. A big chunk, really.

This 40 percent of the schedule included exhaustive but seriously out-of-place sessions on, say, Karachi’s water crisis and, of all the things, financial inclusivity. Talking of the latter, it might have been quite the crowd-puller had it featured Shabbar Zaidi, the ‘ailing’ chief of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), who roamed the venue with the proverbial spring in his step. But that was not the case and the gentleman had a comfortable outing all by himself, and was overheard telling people, “I am back [in Karachi].”

But, to be fair to the organisers, they had done enough in terms of their part of the deal — from the guest list to logistics and even their fresh approach to give refreshing titles to the sessions — that, had it not been for the virus threat, KLF-11 would have attracted many more. Many, many more, actually. It was just a bad coincidence. Those who were there — not a small number by any means but smaller than previous editions — actually ended up being enthralled by a wide spectrum of speakers who ranged from William Dalrymple and Egyptian author Ahdaf Souief to Zehrah Nigah and Iftikhar Arif.

Hit by fears of the coronavirus, the Karachi Literature Festival nevertheless managed to pull off what is still the largest festival of its kind. Now it needs to focus more on the design of its sessions

Taking the initiative, the KLF-11 needs to be credited with having gone where it never went in its first decade, and no other festival, conference or any such gathering went either. Moving away from the staple diet of the known and the celebrated, it acknowledged the might of two legendary lights: Shafiqur Rahman and Mohammad Khalid Akhtar. But perhaps the organisers were not sure if they were doing the right thing — which, incidentally, they were — and that explains the half-a-slot placements for the two iconic figures who illuminated the world of Urdu literature for long and with great distinction.

The session on Akhtar — ‘Khalid Akhtar Ke Sau Saal’ [100 Years of Khalid Akhtar] — was a decent effort as the panellists and the moderator knew what they were talking about. It went well and ended while there was much left to be said, shared and enjoyed.

Rahman was not that lucky, though. The session on him, ‘Readings by Khalid Ahmad from Mazeed Himaqatain [Further Idiocy] by Shafiqur Rahman’ only entailed readings by Ahmad, which went fine. What went horribly wrong was the presence of moderator Huma Mir, who spent all of one minute talking about Rahman — that, too, in English — and the remaining four minutes of her time about Ahmad, and while she was clearly in awe of the man (Ahmad, not Rahman!) those few minutes were long enough for her to make a factual blunder which Ahmad had to clarify before he could get going with the actual business. For the rest of the 25 minutes of the session, she sat there aloof and disconnected after having put her shades on. One wondered how Shafiqur Rahman would have described the situation in his own inimitable manner.

But those who felt offended by all this could take solace in the words uttered by Asghar Nadeem Syed when he had a verbal spat with moderator Mujahid Barelvi during the session ‘Noon Meem Rashid: Nazm-i-Azaad, Shayer-i-Azaad’ [Free Verse, Free Poet]. The moderator insisted that Rashid didn’t get his due; Syed said he did. When Barelvi, in all his naiveté, tried to recall the number of sessions done on Faiz Ahmed Faiz as compared to those on Rashid, a seriously irritated Syed said what is obvious, but generally remains forbidden and unsaid: “These festivals do not represent the correct parameter to judge the legends.” The word that had to bear the brunt of Syed’s frustration was ‘not’. The moderator in the session on Shafiqur Rahman clearly proved Syed’s point.

Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, one of two keynote speakers at the closing ceremony | White Star/Tahir Jamal
Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, one of two keynote speakers at the closing ceremony | White Star/Tahir Jamal

Incidentally, Rahman also came to mind while browsing through the KLF outlay which had as many as 23 book-launching sessions — 30 percent of the schedule. And one of them was on cookery! In one of his short stories, Rahman has a character differentiating between someone having “a 10-year experience” and someone having a “one-year experience done 10 times.” The malaise (stress intended) of book launches has really gripped the litfest circuit. You write one book and get to launch it at every festival across the country, even if there are multiple such occasions within a single city. All these are in addition to the book-launching sessions held by the publishers, the writers and even the friends of writers. The number of books penned and the number of book-launches held in the country every year have a serious disconnect and the KLF-11 was no different on this count.

Moving on, there were two non-literary sessions that attracted people in large numbers. One of them was on the interpretation of jihad. It was arguably the most cerebral — though not literary — session at the KLF-11. Moderated by Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed, it had Pervez Hoodbhoy and Dr Tariq Rahman discussing the latter’s latest offering, Interpretations of Jihad in South Asia: An Intellectual History.

The intellectual and scholarly vibe of the session was on an altogether different plank. Present in the audience were people from all shades of opinion — from the extreme right to the ultra left — and they all expressed their thoughts when the floor was opened, but, to the credit of the three gentlemen, the session was never derailed. If anything, with every expression of opinion, the session became — and was allowed to become — livelier. If this could only be seen by those who think difference of opinion leads to trouble, a number of issues might get resolved on their own.

The other session was on India-occupied Kashmir, and everyone — the moderator, the panellists and, indeed, the audience — seemed to be on the same page. ‘Kashmir: The Paradise Lost’ brought out the political, diplomatic, security and human aspects of the issue and everyone agreed with the notion that bilateralism was not going to do anything anymore as, in the words of Maj Gen (retd) Athar Abbas, former head of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), “India, under advice from Israel, was only interested in keeping the United States on its side, and as long as that does not change, New Delhi is not going to listen to anyone.” Panellist Mushaal Malik offered that “Multilateralism is the only way forward,” and everyone agreed. Malik is chairperson of the Peace and Culture Organisation and the wife of Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) who is currently imprisoned in New Delhi’s infamous Tihar Jail.

It was kind of odd that the session, or even the KLF at large, had absolutely nothing to even remotely touch on what was going on elsewhere in India and what it means for Pakistan. It was as if the Indian Muslims have got equated with Uyghurs. That must not have been the case, of course, but it did look like that, especially in the presence of a full-fledged session discussing the Middle East, with which we do have a very strong emotional bonding, but in terms of political, geographical and, indeed, emotional proximity, Indian Muslims deserved at least that much attention, if not more. But that was how the KLF-11 panned out.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 8th, 2020