It is ironic that when politicians in power are facing the Ides of March, the literary community in Pakistan is having a long-awaited festive time. With the new variant of Covid-19 having generally subsided at the end of February, and the fasting month of Ramzan to begin in the first week of April, the month of March was the only window left for organisers of various large-scale, in-person literary events.
The Lyallpur Punjabi Sulekh Mela was organised in the last week of February, and the annual editions of the Karachi Literature Festival, the Sindh Literature Festival, the star-studded mushaira at Karachi’s Mohatta Palace, the Multan Arts Forum Literary Festival, the Gwadar Festival and Book Fair, the Faiz Festival and the Lahore Literary Festival all took place in March.
There were many other big and small literary events and book launches across different cities. After either cancelling, in some instances, or going online for the last two years because of the pandemic, these physical events attracted authors, poets, artists, performers, students and literature buffs from across Pakistan.
Notable writers, historians and academics from different countries also joined some of these events. Hanif Kureshi, Ahdaf Souief and Marc Baer, to name a few, attracted huge audiences in Karachi and Lahore. From insightful discussions on literature and culture, to launches of numerous books ranging from poetry to cuisine, there was a lot to cherish.
Most of all, meeting people on the sides and discussing everything under the sun with different writers outside the planned sessions remained the best part. The sales of books at these events marked the return of heydays for various publishers and booksellers.
I have always agreed with what our leading writer and scholar Dr Anwaar Ahmad once remarked — partly in satire, and partly based on reality — that the easiest conspiracy to hatch in our literary world is to make two writers fight on something truly inconsequential.
But, in some events that I attended this year from the long list above, I found a sense of camaraderie among the literary community. I hope it is not short-lived. Perhaps the reason is that, underneath the warm pleasantries exchanged and time spent together over teacups, there was a deep sense of loss which everyone felt.
We have lost many writers, including some of the best among us, either to the pandemic or to other reasons. It has been a long season of death and despair, spread over the last two years, when people of definite merit across all fields left us in quick succession.
For the literary community, it more or less began with the passing of Asif Farrukhi on June 1, 2020. His enormous contribution to various genres of literature and literary organisations remains unparalleled.
Farrukhi was one of the finest among our critics, fiction writers, translators, literary columnists, editors and scholars. He, along with Ameena Saiyid, remains the pioneer of literary festivals in Pakistan. He was remembered on many occasions, including a dedicated session at the Lahore Literary Festival, where a book about him, Aik Aadmi Ki Kami [The Loss of One Man] was launched.
Inaam Nadeem, Farrukhi’s friend and colleague at Habib University, Karachi, compiled this collection of writings about Farrukhi which appeared in various newspapers and periodicals after his death. Nadeem, himself an important poet, writer and translator, introduced the book in a session titled Uss Aadmi Ki Kami [The Absence of That Man]; this was taken and modified from the title of a collection of Farrukhi’s own short stories.
Asghar Nadeem Syed moderated a session with poets Afzal Ahmed Syed and Tanvir Anjum, and writer-critic Nasir Abbas Nayyar. They shared their views on Farrukhi’s work and recollected their social interactions with him.
The sombre mood of the panel was reminiscent of Farrukhi’s persona. He was sociable with those he liked and always encouraging of emerging writers from across Pakistan, South Asia and rest of the world where people are writing in Pakistani languages. But it never took away a certain seriousness and solemnity from his demeanour.
I knew Farrukhi since my childhood. Sometime in the 1990s, when we had become personal friends, I told him: “Asif, in this vicious cycle of unhappiness — living under this polity and society of Pakistan — it is down to three things that allow us to survive: verse, music and jokes.” As he was nodding his head, I said that, since he was incapable of cracking silly jokes, I would do that for him in our company. Asif burst into laughter and said: “But not at my expense.”
The key theme that dominated many sessions across these festivals was the 75th anniversary of Pakistan’s birth and the successes and failures, achievements and challenges, and the diverse literary and cultural landscape that has evolved through these years. A lot of historical references were invoked.
However, the current political pantomime in Islamabad, with the incumbent prime minister simultaneously playing all three roles of hero, villain and comedian, did manage to form the backdrop of many conversations.
The role of the Pakistani diaspora over the past couple of decades in trying to influence politics and culture in their native country was also critiqued. Some people wonder why a large number of middle-class Pakistanis, living in Western constitutional democracies and enjoying fundamental rights in largely secular and plural societies, wish Pakistan to be an authoritarian and religiously bigoted state. Of course, there is a minority among the diaspora which thinks differently.
Speaking of diaspora, Pakistani-American Urdu poet Mona Shahab and artist Irfan Murtaza held an event in Islamabad in the second week of March to meet and greet local writers and artists. Iftikhar Arif, in his presidential address, impressed upon those in the diaspora to write in Pakistani languages, but go beyond their nostalgia and participate fully in the cultural and social life of their adopted countries.
It is a sane piece of advice, only if the diaspora understands.
The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora. His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 27th, 2022