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KARACHI, Feb 15: Nobody had expected that a murky weather, rumbling clouds and a heavy downpour would greet authors, diplomats and book lovers on the inaugural day of the fourth Karachi Literature Festival. It nonetheless created a scene that somehow befitted the kind of heartwarming keynote speeches that writers Nadeem Aslam and Intizar Husain delivered at the Beach Luxury Hotel on Friday. The festival began with a bang, literally, though it came from the clouds.

The day kicked off with the formal opening of the event. Ameena Saiyid and Asif Farrukhi, the co-founders of the festival, shed light on the importance of reading books, particularly in a society which was plagued with many a socio-cultural and political problem. Ameena Saiyid said reading led to critical thinking and made the reader ask questions that demanded answers. Asif Farrukhi said the event had grown bigger and better and hoped that the tradition would continue.

Ambassador of France Philippe Thibaud, Italian ambassador Adriano Chiodi, Russian Consul-General Andrey V. Demidov, German Ambassador Cyrill Nunn and Director Programmes of the British Council Martin Fryer lauded the effort of the organisers.

The first keynote address was delivered by Nadeem Aslam. He told the audience that he had migrated to England at a very young age, but before that he had already read Intizar Husain’s stories. In England he got a chance to go through the works of the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino and realised that he had read all of that stuff in Intizar Husain’s writings. He looked at Intizar sahib sitting to the left of the rostrum and remarked, “Intizar Husain is the greatest writer on planet earth.”

Nadeem Aslam then narrated a story. He said when he was 12 years old his cousin in Faisalabad, a beautiful 16-year-old girl, would ask him to buy Urdu magazines (Pakeezah, Akhbar-e-khawateen) for her and made sure that no one else knew about it. He described the environment around her house, which had a garden and bhanwras, with poetic detail. One day someone who had fallen in love with the cousin scrolled her name on the walls of the city. The girl was terrified. She requested Nadeem to paint over her name so that her reputation would not get tarnished. As a reward she said she would give her collection of stories, written by someone called Neel Kanwal. Later he found out that Neel Kanwal was the cousin herself who wrote those tales under the pseudonym so that her family would not object to it. The cousin had a friend who had a broken marriage. Days went by and now those two young girls lived in Karachi as grown-up women.

Intizar Husain, who received a standing ovation, in his keynote address carried on with the argument that people often objected to as to why festivals were being organised when there was so much violence around. He narrated the Alif Laila story to counter the thought. In Alif Laila a ruthless king, who married virgins and killed them after spending a night with them, was fooled by his vizir’s daughter Scheherzade who told him stories every night, and after one thousand and one nights he got transformed into from being a merciless individual to a compassionate one. Intizar Husain said the same could be done in our society. About Urdu fiction he said it had three streams. One came from the western tradition, the second from the Arab and Ajam traditions and the third from katha kahanian.

Intizar sahib’s speech was followed by a dance performance by Sheema Kermani and her troupe.

The first formal session of the day was on reality and kitsch in contemporary English poetry. Adrian Husain said contemporary poetry and prose had a lot of kitsch. He dismissed the Booker winning novel ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ as an example of kitsch, ‘an extended gossip’ column. Bilal Hamid remarked that kitsch had more to do with style than subject.

The session on cricket and cricket writings brought together Kamila Shamsie, Saad Shafqat and Osman Samiuddin. Kamila Shamsie said women in England did not follow cricket whereas in Pakistan the situation was different. Samiuddin said in Pakistan women’s cricket was established in 1975. Shafqat said reading about cricket enhanced his pleasure for the game and helped him become a cricket writer. Samiuddin attributed his fondness for writing to reading a famous cricket magazine.

The first book that was launched at the festival was ‘Half of Two Paisas: The Extraordinary Mission of Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi’ by Lorenza Raponi. The author said Edhi sahib’s volunteers and those he had helped vouched for his conduct. They were the voices of Pakistan. Later on Edhi sahib was asked to join the speakers on stage. He received a standing ovation.

The second half the day commenced with the launch of Sindhi poet’s Hasan Dars’s book ‘Hasan Dars Jo Risalo.’ Mohammed Hanif moderated the programme. Amir Mandro recited a very fine Hasan Dars poem. He told the audience that a person who was supposed to recite that poem had died of a heart attack two days back. Mazhar Leghari read out a high quality paper on Hasan Dars. It was marked by wit and sensitivity that only a close friend could have. He mentioned the poet’s fascination with horses and said while he was a revolutionary and romantic, he would also pay heed to tradition. He claimed visiting Shantineketan had brought changes in the poet’s life. He never believed in war or violence but was not a ‘bogus pacifist’ as well. He spoke about the poet’s views on publishing a book and ended his paper by saying, “Kitab lao is se pehley ke tumhari kitab laee jaey” (publish your book before someone else does it).

A simultaneous session had a brain-teasing discussion on Urdu poet Ghalib’s relevance to modern times. Dr Shamim Hanafi said Ghalib was all for science and technology and at the same time never allowed modern trends to cast a shadow on his creativity. He never worked in a particular ideological framework. The poet was a restless soul. His language reflected his personality, it was not his attire (Zaban Ghalib ki shakhsiat hai us ka libas nahin). He told the audience that the poet was fond of music and had once wished in a letter to a friend that a particular ghazal of his should be sung in raga jhinjhoti.

Poet Iftikhar Arif lamented the decadent contemporary times. He said today not many could properly read Ghalib let alone understand him. Wajid Jawad and Bari Mian recited quite a few of the poet’s couplets. Mahmood Jamal moderated the session.

A session titled ‘Writing Pakistan in English Today’ saw some interesting viewpoints. Author Bina Shah said writing about Pakistan generally meant writing about bombs, ill treatment of women and terrorism because it sold well, whereas there were other relevant topics that writers should touch on. Faisal Nazir argued it was not about the location but the positions that writers took in their stories that need to be analyzed.

A session on ‘the resonance of pulp fiction in the popular imagination’ was conducted by Kamran Asdar. He said the term pulp fiction referred to lowbrow literature and alluded to the stories that women writers wrote in magazines. Writer Zahida Hina objected to it and said it should not be confined to women. She said the term was borrowed from the West and it should be called popular literature. To drive her point home she told the gathering that Qurutulain Hyder wrote a couple of science fiction stories; had they been penned by a man they’d have been dubbed pulp fiction.

Poet and columnist Amjad Islam Amjad said every society had groups and each group had its own socio-cultural requirements. He pointed out that there could be two reasons for such kind of fiction’s popularity: one, it had an element of immediate attraction; two, it had some realistic element in it. Shakil Adilzada went down memory lane when he first began publishing a digest and carried stories by all kinds of writers.

One of the final items of the day was a delightful performance titled Dastangoi: Mantooiyat. The two Indian performers, Danish Husain and Darain Shahidi, like the classic storytellers (dastango) from the past beautifully told the story of Sadat Hasan Manto’s life. Both sat on a takht with candles lit on each side and had katoras (bowl) to drink water from. They narrated the tale from the time when Manto was a teenager and used to steal books. Their narration was tinged with humor and moments of palpable sadness. During the act one of the characters stated that there were three watershed events in Manto’s life: his birth, his marriage and when he became a writer.

The schedules of a few sessions on the first day of the festival, due to some exigencies such as the absence of Indian authors, were changed. The launch of Nadeem Aslam’s book, which was slated for the first day, will now take place on the second day (Saturday).