A literary affair

Published February 15, 2012

Valentine's Day is almost over as I write this, the Google page still had that little cartoon that brings up a sentimental animation with Tony Bennett singing "Why can't I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?"

Here in Karachi, there's random fireworks going on in my neighbourhood, and I'm not being euphemistic either. I'm still recovering from literary fatigue after this year’s Karachi Literature Festival.

My head is still swimming in a sea of fragments from talks I heard, overheard quips from the literati and glitterati sipping on lattes and the random musings of the crowd gathered there.

–Photo by Hui Huan Tang/Dawn.com

Don’t get me wrong. Like many of you, I was pretty psyched for the festival. Apart from being a chance to indulge in my share of literary pretense, it truly was a tremendous platform to be part of a dialogue about issues and topics that I was interested in and undoubtedly meet some of the writers in the hope to absorb some of their talent through sheer osmosis if possible.

As just one of the many reporters and journalists scurrying around Carleton Hotel trying to cover the two-day event, I had a seemingly unique vantage point of the festival, but it was a curious position to be in. I felt like an insider looking at the event from the outside.

With 100-some authors lined up to speak, this festival was no walk in the part. Lively on-stage conversations abounded. High-profile ones did too.

William Dalrymple decried the follies of Bush and Blair et al in Afghanistan. Anatol Lieven countered the notions of Pakistan being a basket case at the verge of becoming a failed state. Hanif Kureshi charmed with his usual dry wit as women, young and old swooned — not to mention some men too. Shobaa De tantalised with her ever-so-easy to spot saris. Ahmed Rashid discussed the future of Pakistan. Saad Haroon and Nadeem Farooq Paracha talked about satire and wealth of material our political landscape seems to provide so generously.

There was quite a bit of excitement, and quite a lot of people. All day long, throngs of festival-goers filed through the Carleton. When they weren’t frantically crowding into the next session, securing a seat in any session was a herculean task — I gave up on several panels because I couldn’t find any place to position myself within earshot of the stage.

–Photo by Nadir Siddiqui/Dawn.com

Attendees bought lunch, drinks, books, and snacks and sized each other up. College students flirted with one another over cigarettes and coffee. Book lovers chased authors for autographs. Expat journalists and writers mingled. Graduate students sipped chai from porcelain cups. Sassy aunties traded notes and judged each others’ outfits. It was, for all appearances, a happy bazaar — if not strictly of ideas, then broadly, of culture.

The show went on — and what a carnival it was! A particularly colorful panel titled "MediaSpeak: How the Media Talks To Us" made for a contentious affair between the audience and the panel itself. The panel consisting of Mujahid Barelvi, Shaheen Salahuddin, Jasmeen Manzoor, Mahtab Rashidi and Ayesha Siddiqa as moderator.

After what sounded like a brouhaha in the background, the discussion started in somewhat disarray as Siddiqa started off the discussion with a rather mundane and utterly pointless question about the panelists' credentials.

But soon enough the conversation turned to the theatre inherent in our news media and its propensity for spectacle, which many audience members argued was by design. Jasmeen Manzoor especially came under some fire for her, shall we say, voluble speaking style?

There were lines of school children. Elderly couples with flasks of chai. Yes, it was a good thing to see the young and old alike partaking in the delights of literary life in vibrant Karachi.

But before I go, let’s hear it for all the uber helpful volunteers in red shirts who, from the looks of it, easily had the hardest job of all.

 

The writer is a reporter at Dawn.com

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