We have been encountering extraordinary times — surreal, sometimes dystopian — for about a year now. As a consequence of the ‘new normal’ — working from home, Zoom-ing, e-classes, e-commerce, e-everything — one of this year’s first litfests, the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), went online from February 18-21, featuring pre-recorded videos of conversations and book launches.
In one of the most anticipated sessions — the launch of journalist and television anchor Fareed Zakaria’s book Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World — the author imagined “a new hybrid world. I imagine one in which we move greatly into digital economy.”
Speaking with former ambassador Maleeha Lodhi and the LLF’s chief organiser Razi Ahmed, Zakaria said not only the economy, but books, buying and selling, and watching films had also moved considerably online, with virtual retail giant Amazon taking the lion’s share of the digital economy.
HOME, IDENTITY, BELONGING
The LLF was emblematic of how life has transformed after the pandemic. There were panellists sitting in Canada (Yann Martel), the United Kingdom (Elif Shafak), the United States (Jhumpa Lahiri), and many more from India, replying to moderators stationed in Lahore and elsewhere and being watched across the world via social media platforms.
Life has, somehow, become more fluid, and this fluidity of life and identity, language and a sense of home was a theme discussed by many panellists during the four-day litfest.
Jhumpa Lahiri, one of the stars of this year’s festival, talked about her fluidity in terms of identity of place, home and language. In her conversation with BBC journalist Razia Iqbal, Lahiri raised the question of what it means to say ‘this is my language, my city or my homeland’.
The Lahore Literary Festival went entirely online in line with the ongoing pandemic’s restrictions. It also often reflected the preoccupations of the world’s thinkers in these strange times
“I have never had a fixed language, a fixed identity and a fixed belonging. Maybe I am better off not being able to wave a flag of my place.”
She revealed that she had no pure connection to any language and had also been, somehow, inside and outside a language.
The daughter of Bengali parents, raised in the West and married to a Guatemalan-American journalist, Lahiri said that being a global citizen had its other side, too. There could be a sense of loss, she said, admitting that, while being a global citizen looks good on paper, in reality we all come from certain places.
Her new novel, Whereabouts, originally written in Italian and translated into English, also raises the question of identity. Describing a scene in a train, centred on a middle-aged woman, Lahiri questions who she is, where she is coming from and where she is going.
UK-based Turkish novelist Elif Shafak also dealt with the theme of identity and belonging in ‘Multiple Belongings’ — her session with author and journalist Maha Khan Phillips. Shafak, who had earlier described herself as being a physical and spiritual nomad, told the audience that she was born in France to Turkish parents, surrounded by immigrant students. Then, her mother took her to Turkey, Oman and Spain and finally back to Turkey and that she carried Istanbul in her heart. Considering diversity important, she said that although not everybody could physically go places, they could do it through reading books.
Yann Martel, author of the Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi, in the session ‘Slices of Pi’ with journalist Fasih Ahmed, explained his sense of home: “My sense of home is not conventional. Most people usually define home in physical terms, most often a geographical place or a city. I never had a strong sense of home in terms of place. My fiction trots around the globe. I don’t have a particular attachment or detachment. My home is people. Home is a certain sensibility.”
This diasporic feeling of dispersal and question of identity was also taken on by Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, whose most recent novel, 2019’s Gun Island, starts with his encounters with Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants in Italy.
In the session ‘High Drama: Of Opium Wars and the Jungles of Sunderbans’ with critic and author Muneeza Shamsie, Ghosh said, “I was always interested in stories of dispersal and displacement. My own family was originally from Bangladesh. In the 19th century, they were displaced by a flood and went to what is now Bihar. Because of this history, I was interested in indenture, displacement and migration.”
Ghosh found the answers to many questions originating in his mind in colonialism and the colonial masters’ policies that displaced people.
He said that people coming from “other places” had a fractured consciousness and it was psychic reality that needed attention besides political reality. “The psychic sense of who we are is much more complicated,” he said.
Lebanon-born French writer Amin Maalouf also hinted at the idea of home in his session ‘The Past is Another Country’ with journalist Ahmed Rashid. He talked about how his heart broke in 1975 when the civil war changed Lebanon forever and he decided to move out of the country.
“I never thought I would spend my life away from my country of birth. I thought I would spend my whole life there. I was an eyewitness to the first tragic event of the war. After some months, I had realised something had changed forever. That year, I decided to move to Paris.”
There were fewer sessions on Urdu and regional languages this time around. However, two were distinct for different reasons.
One, moderated by poet Yasmeen Hameed, was on Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s new biography of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and piqued curiosity about new facts about the works of the bard among the Pakistani audience, though the book, Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep, is not available here yet.
The second session, ‘Kaee Chaand Thhay Sar-i-Aasman’ [Many Moons in the Sky, named after the book] on Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and moderated by Harris Khalique, was a tad controversial as, from the schedule, it seemed it would be a tribute, or homage, to the icon of Urdu after his recent death from Covid-19. But shortly into the session, the tide changed, as one of the three panellists — Shamim Hanfi, Syeda Hameed and Nasir Abbas Nayyar — turned against Faruqi’s ideas of literature and works. Hanfi, himself a reputed name in Urdu literature from India, used some harsh words for the deceased master, stating that Faruqi exhibited extremist behaviour and views. Hanfi’s opinions were not received well by many, including the other panellists and late writer’s family, especially in the wake of his recent death. Discussions on this session are likely to continue for a while.
As the pandemic continues to create situations where everyone and everything must go virtual, for the LLF, it turned out a blessing in disguise. The current political tensions between Pakistan and India make it impossible for writers and intellectuals to cross borders, but the digitalised litfest eliminated the hurdle of visas, allowing the organisers to rope in several personalities from India, including Rana Safvi, Siddiq Alam, Kavita Singh, Mehr Afshan Farooqi, Sunita Kohli and Mukulika Banerjee.
But, as with everything else, this use of digital platforms has a flipside — what Zakaria also alluded to as he imagined the world going digital: “Unfortunately, I imagine a much more unequal world, particularly for a place [such as] Pakistan, because when we talk of digital economy we talk of a small digital elite, well-trained, connected, educated people that can generate income using the virtual economy, whereas a large number of people are locked out of that right now and that reality has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Shafak also referred to what she termed “the paradox of this age”, saying it seemed that each one of us has a voice now but, at the same time, the number of people saying they are voiceless has increased in both the East and West. She wondered how this was possible in the age of social media. Considering diversity precious, she expressed concerns about inequality.
All the LLF 2021 sessions can be watched on YouTube, but seeing the number of views, one is reminded of the packed lawns of the Alhamra Art Centre — long the usual venue for the festival. It shows that the elements of festivity and socialising, as well as buying books, matter. One hopes to see the LLF again at its venue next year, after the pandemic is, hopefully, controlled.
The reviewer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 28th, 2021