IN his keynote speech at the recent Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), historian William Dalrymple spoke of the litfests that have mushroomed in South Asia in a “fantastic” way. There is no denying that these literary events are crowd-pullers. Dalrymple estimates that India, which initiated the trend with the Jaipur Literature Festival — the most well attended in the world — in 2004, now has 60 litfests a year. He spoke of 10 being held in Pakistan, though I am not clear how he arrived at this figure.
It would appear to be a paradox of sorts that a country with a high rate of illiteracy (41 per cent), poor educational achievements and a publishing industry that is always complaining of low sales should have such a passion for events of this kind.
Dalrymple attributes the success of these festivals to the rich oral tradition of public performance of literature in our society. There is no doubt that indigenous literatures have had rich traditions like mushairas and qissa khwani (storytelling), which are popular with the people. Yet our society has failed to translate the oral tradition into the written word. Books are not in demand. But discourse, discussions and debates in which we excel are modes of communication that people generally enjoy, irrespective of their ability to read. Unsurprisingly, book festivals have had little impact on the sale of books in the last decade.
Random checking with people from all walks of life, as well as college and university students, has not given me the impression that public interest in books today is on the rise. For instance, many would still love to listen to a story by the extremely popular reading group Zambeel, but the same listener would not pick up a book to read. Similarly, the Readers’ Club has managed to sustain itself since 2001. Once a week, its members meet to listen to a presenter who talks about a book — old or new — which is followed by a discussion. I believe similar groups have emerged in several places.
We have failed to translate the oral tradition into the written word.
The oral tradition was strong in the West before the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. Writers would hold gatherings of their friends and read out the manuscript of their book before it was published to get their feedback. Once books began to be published in large quantities, people began to buy personal copies for themselves. Libraries expanded and the book trade began to flourish. Thenceforth, writing and reading became solitary activities as described by Dalrymple.
But the need to boost sales created the compulsion for authors and publishers to keep public interest in literature alive. Books were reviewed and news about them appeared in the media. Booksellers published their newsletters, and literary magazines made their appearance. This would seem to be a very natural process; one thing evolving from the other. This has not happened in this country.
Yet literary festivals are popular and have proliferated all over the country, in the provincial and regional languages as well. The latest to enter this field is the Mother Languages Literature Festival, which held its fifth chapter recently in Islamabad.
These festivals have also had their share of criticism. Some people are not happy with the festivals for expanding their scope beyond literature to include the performing arts in their programmes. One writer dubbed the KLF — and by inference all such events — as “staged performances”.
But were the organisers playing to a foreign gallery? I do not believe so, considering that some glaring weaknesses would have been avoided at any cost if the show was intended to create a positive image of Pakistan for the outside world. For instance, there was the organisers’ failure to have new faces and ingenious ideas for the overloaded panel discussions, the gradual inclusion of political personalities, and the presumable submission to the demands of the ‘sponsors: a session on “the perils of being a patient” in an event sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. Above all, not all panellists are authors, writers or even academics.
I agree with writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie on one count. She says, “The literature festivals create awareness about books.”
But what use is this awareness when book sales have not gone up in a big way? Here, I would make an exception. The Children’s Literature Festival (CLF), which followed on the heels of the first KLF, has been an amazing phenomenon in terms of its impact on the children’s book trade. The sale of children’s books has been rising.
It is, however, too early to say whether the child reader of today will grow up to be the adult reader of tomorrow. While we wait for the results of the research being done on the impact of the CLF on the education of children, we can certainly celebrate its success in showing the power of the word to the excited youngsters who attend the CLF.
Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2020