Until last year, literature festivals were among the few public events in Karachi that provided locals with a physical space in which to observe and engage in literary, artistic and intellectual discussion. In Karachi, such conversations are usually limited to the print and digital realms, including social media, which brings with it the baggage of toxicity. Litfests provided a respite from this.

With the pandemic, however, things changed. Riding on Covid-19’s coattails, the cyber realm increased its sway over our lives and reclaimed the communal experience of attending a literary gathering. The 12th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), held from March 26 to March 28, was, therefore, a virtual event. With the third, and arguably deadliest, wave of the virus tightening its grip on the country, we had no alternative but to stay at home and face the computer.

In one of the most interesting sessions, titled ‘A Fire in My Head’, Nigerian poet and author Ben Okri, in an interview conducted by Maheen Usmani, said that individuals as well as nations had seven layers of stories that ran their lives. For the sake of simplicity, he had distilled these down to two: the public story and the secret story.

The public story is the one that we project to the world, the things we say when we talk to other people about ourselves. “The secret stories are much more mysterious,” he said. “They are the deep stories of our psyches. And I think, from my long observation, that it is the secret stories that really drive our lives.” He said that often we are unaware of these narratives and internalise them. “We live lives of extraordinary unawareness of the deepest things that drive us.”

The 12th Karachi Literature Festival was a digital event with audiences forced to take part only from their homes. But it still offered plenty of diverse and intellectually engaging sessions with the literati

Okri often applies this analogy to people who want to become writers, or artists, or those who want to start a business and make every visible attempt to do so, but never actually get down to doing it. “People express one thing, but their lives shape another,” he said.

Poet Salman Tarik Kureshi wrote in and asked, “Then, do poets plumb our secret stories?” to which Okri replied that they did and cited Dante Alighieri’s Inferno as an example. “You couldn’t get a more damning document about the psyche of a nation. Goethe’s Faust revealed many strange, uncomfortable things about the psyche and spirit of Germany that only became clear much later.” He added that, when they were published, these works were highly controversial and ran contrary to the mainstream narrative.

In the panel discussion ‘South Asian English Literature: New Directions’, Mehvash Amin, a poet and editor-in-chief of The Aleph Review, said that she had of late noticed a loosening and fluidity in the structure of poetry, as well as the inclusion of Urdu words in English poems. The latter, she said, was a form of decolonisation.

She lauded the emergence of graphic literature in Pakistan, even though it was not very widespread, and referred to the graphic poem ‘Reliquary’, by Indian poet and artist Ishita Basu Mallik, which was published in The Aleph Review.

Bangladeshi writer and translator Khademul Islam spoke of a new form of street poetry that had emerged in Bangladesh during the pandemic. He described it as “raucous and graphic” and lacking in political protest or the slamming of institutions.

“In fact, the only institution that it slammed was the poetry establishment itself,” he said. The poetry was orally transmitted in the student cafes of Chittagong and other areas outside Dhaka, in regional dialects. Despite its vulgarity, it provided a valuable day-to-day account of the pandemic, through the use of street idioms and was “vital, refreshing and wonderful.”

In the session ‘To Read or to Watch? Books versus Films’, moderated by television writer Beegul, actor Beo Zafar said that a “tsunami of easy viewing is being hurled at us” and that her personal preference had always been for the written word. She said that even before the internet and Netflix, not everyone was reading books; some were just reading comics, magazines or newspapers. Reading books, on the other hand, required serious concentration and a specific urge to do so.

Author of crime fiction and policeman Omar Shahid Hamid added that there was no escaping the influence of visual media on our lives, but that he would have to side with books over films. Hamid, whose novel The Party Worker is being adapted into a Netflix series, said that an author must never interfere in the film adaptation process and should let the screenwriters and directors do their thing. He observed two contradictory trends across the globe today: on the one hand, there was greater accessibility, thanks to technology, while on the other, the capacity of societies to take offence had also increased.

Farid Panjwani, dean of the Institute for Educational Development at the Aga Khan University, in the panel discussion ‘Anti-colonialism: South Asian Pasts and Presents’, said that education in Pakistan was largely determined by the divide that existed between English, Urdu and regional languages. He argued that our education encouraged us to develop the kind of imagination that harboured a colonial mindset and that words such as “sir” — used excessively even when speaking in Urdu — were examples of colonial terms.

In light of the current discussion in Pakistan of a single national curriculum, Panjwani said that he had seen the history curriculum of classes six to eight and noticed that students weren’t being taught how history is made and how open-ended things are before they gradually get narrowed down by events. “We have a habit of glorifying our colonial history and ignoring the violence,” he said, adding, “we have a long way to go in overcoming the shackles of colonialism.” He lamented the fact that schools were not exposing students to literature or poetry that was revolutionary and progressive.

As is always the case with litfests in Pakistan, the political element inevitably creeps in. At the start of the session ‘Progressive Politics in a Populist Period’, British public intellectual, activist and writer, Tariq Ali, said: “I have to admit, I don’t particularly care for these festivals, because there is a lot of vanity involved in them. But since we are being permitted to discuss politics, it’s useful to do.”

Ali pointed out that the figures of economic development in Bangladesh are, on virtually every level, above those of Pakistan, despite the fact that both countries are run by similar types of people and face similar problems. Why is it, then, that they are doing better than us? One reason for this, he said, is “the total political and moral bankruptcy of our elite, which lives in secluded parts of the country, in cities, and which has created two Pakistans” — a tiny one for a small minority (themselves) and one for the rest. The other reason is that “quite a lot, though not all, of our senior officers in the armed services are just as corrupt as the politicians.” He said that if it takes a populist movement to improve things, then he would be in support of it.

Historian and political activist Ammar Ali Jan said, “Hollywood imagines dystopia, but we are living through it; this is dystopia.” He had, earlier that day, attended a protest at Chungi Amar Sidhu in Lahore, where a man’s corpse had been fished out of a drain so deep that the body lay there unidentified for 15 days. He said that, in contrast to this, the elite housing societies existing alongside such slums were a different world, with their residents, at least mentally, living in the United States. “This kind of apartheid that you see in Pakistan, is unsustainable,” he argued.

In the panel discussion ‘The Air We Breathe: Pakistan’s Vulnerability to Climate Change’, environmental scientist Tabitha Spence said that, while the rapidly unfolding climate crisis was putting us on the precipice of disaster, we had been slow in cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions. She lamented that the annual meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change were filled with corporate lobbyists, who largely determined what was on the table for discussion.

At the launch of his poetry collection titled Baagh-i-Gul-i-Surkh [The Garden of Red Flowers], Iftikhar Arif was asked by moderator Mubeen Mirza whether he ever wondered how his latest work would be received in an age where fewer people were reading Urdu poetry. Arif replied that he had given it little thought; as a poet, his job was to write, regardless of whether it would be received or not. Nevertheless, it was a daunting prospect, he admitted, and that what he found rather scary was the act of getting his work published, despite the fact that it is so easy to do so these days.

Arif said that his poetry did not follow any particular theme and that he wrote on a wide range of subjects, including his family, his faith and his state of mind. The session was held at a physical venue and the audience, unable to contain themselves, insisted that he read a few verses from his new collection, which he did to a wide round of applause and gesticulation (“Wah wah!”, “Kya kehna!):

Mehek rahay hein jo yeh phool, lab-balab meri jaan,
Jo tum nahin ho tau phir kaun hai sabab meri jaan
Udaasiyon bhari shaamein jahaan se aati hain,
Vahien se aaee hai ye sa’at-i-tarab meri jaan

[The flowers are brimming with fragrance, my love,
If you are not the cause of it, then who else is, my love
The melancholy-filled evenings come from the same source
As the companionship and happiness, my love]

The writer is a journalist. His writings can be accessed at www.alibhutto.com and he tweets @_alibhutto

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 4th, 2021

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