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Books in times of war

September 19, 2012


A CHILDREN’S Literature Festival in Quetta sounds like a contradiction in terms. Quetta is in Balochistan and one doesn’t have to be reminded that the province is in the grip of a violent insurgency.

When I went there last week I could feel the tension in the air. Fear was palpable. So how could a festival — that too for children — be held in a place not considered very safe?

For me the festival amounted to making a political statement: children need peace. We knew that whatever the state of security, life has to go on. Yet one could not turn a blind eye to the tight security which in turn made one feel insecure. The event was not advertised and was reported in the media only after the show was over.

People of all backgrounds and classes — highly educated professionals and workers with no schooling — speak of the ‘problem’ but each sees it from his own point of view. That is why I could get no single answer to the question of who was behind the killings — many following enforced disappearances — and why. There is a blame game on with the army, the Baloch nationalists and the religious militants being held responsible. But the army and the government which have the power to do something are not bothered. No dialogue is on the cards.

Death haunts the hills and valleys, the towns and villages. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan titled its recent report on Balochistan Hopes, Fears and Alienation which captures the emotions being generated by the crisis. How is this affecting the children? No one has time to really address the issue. The impact of violence on the child’s education, health and family life has not been documented sufficiently. And no one speaks of what violence does to a child’s mind.

Against this backdrop the proposal to hold the Children’s Literature Festival in Quetta was a courageous move and an act of humanism. It needs a woman to think of the children. On this occasion there were two women with a third prodding them on. Ameena Saiyyid of the Oxford University Press and Baela Raza Jamil of Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi are the brains behind the idea of a children’s literature festival, the first of which was held in Lahore last November. Zobaida Jalal, a former education minister, now an MNA and the founder of the Female Education Trust, suggested Quetta as the venue and mobilised local support.

It was a calculated move to counter the negative repercussions of the Balochistan crisis on the child’s psyche. It has now been universally documented how war has a devastating effect on the young mind. Many of the children in Balochistan have never experienced what one can call a normal life. The festival was designed to expose them to a life — even momentarily — that is different from what they know. The idea was to introduce them to the world of books — even though it was amidst tight security.

In these circumstances, the presence of a contingent of nearly 50 people from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, which included singers and musicians as well as artists and storytellers, brought cheer to the hearts of the young audience. For some time, they could forget the danger and indulge in dance and music, storytelling and painting. That was good therapy for the 5,000 or so children from 125 schools (over 40 of them being government institutions). Students from madressahs were also present and the gaiety at the Boy Scouts headquarters, the venue of the festival, was a good change for them from the austerity of their daily life. They are children after all.

The message that emerged loud and clear was that education that should equip a person with the tools for reading, writing and critical thinking is important for the personal development of a child. But to make education really meaningful it is important to also unlock the power of reading. In other words, introduce the book to the child and create the reading culture. That is what the festival was all about.

The fact is that the ability to read is just a tool. What really counts is what you make of it. As Quratulain Bakhteari — who has done phenomenal work for female education in the province through her Institute for Development Studies and Practices — so aptly observed, education can either empower or enslave you.

The education secretary of Balochistan, Munir Ahmed Badini, quite uncharacteristically a highly educated man and an author of renown, was the first to get the message of the festival. He announced that from next year the government would include an annual literature festival in its education programme. Moreover, he promised to have a library set up in every school.

Such moves should give a boost to education in the province, the insurgency notwithstanding. It will provide an avenue for self-expression to young souls in pain. After all, the boy who read out his story of the youth whose father had been shot in the head was trying to articulate his anguish. .

Now that the children’s literature festival seems to be there to stay, the organisers should plan some kind of a follow-up assessment. It would be interesting to know how that memorable day in Quetta impacted on the schoolchildren and whether we can hope for books to change their lives.