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Life and literature

February 28, 2013

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FOR five days in the month that ends today a fairly large number of Pakistanis had the opportunity of looking at themselves through the glasses of quite a few worthy chroniclers of the human condition. The result was certainly worth the effort.

The three-day literature festival at Karachi and the two-day literature festival in Lahore — the two events should be seen as complementing each other — reassured us of the dynamism that our society is still capable of. But they also pointed to certain inadequacies of a critical nature.

Both festivals showcased a badly maligned civil society’s capacity to launch sizeable efforts to spread enlightenment and offer people much-needed relief from the daily narrative of mayhem and corruption. The large crowds the festivals attracted confirmed not only the people’s eagerness to broaden their vision of life but also their desire to find answers to the various crises they are afflicted with or have heard of.

The Karachi festival, the fourth annual undertaking, was a mammoth affair. It reflected the benefit of experience in that it showed a marked improvement in the organisers’ capacity to broaden their franchise and attract a growing number of creative writers, artists and social activists. More importantly, they were able to diversify the programme.

A significant innovation this year was the organisation of a children’s literature festival that vindicated the soundness of the enterprise and promised better returns in future. Also much greater space was provided to the performing arts, much to the satisfaction of the audiences and the performers both.

Literature, of course, dominated the fare — the launching of about a dozen books, conversations with more than a dozen writers/poets, and discussions on a variety of trends in literature. The choice of personalities and themes embraced writers in both Urdu and English and ‘Punjabiat’ and Sindhi too were accorded some recognition, though of a token nature.

Nobody was surprised that due attention was paid to music, dance and theatre. But the organisers also provided for discussions on a number of themes which are likely to be considered in an unprogressive society as non-literary, such as scientists speaking out against the bomb, the state of education in the country, political parties and the 2013 elections, human rights in Pakistan, the situation in Afghanistan, our new political economy, the politics of child labour, dynastic politics in Pakistan, secularism, the dynamics of Karachi, et al.

The two-day Lahore festival scored high as a debut offering. The turnout was most impressive. It was heartening to see Alhamra’s large halls filled up while no popular drama or musical concert was on offer. A large number of foreign celebrities enlivened the proceedings and Lahore’s own capacity to throw up great writers was also confirmed in good measure. The organisers should find their reward encouraging enough to take the festival to greater heights in the years to come.

As compared to the Karachi event the Lahore festival was overwhelmingly concerned with literature, the exceptions being Tariq Ali’s lecture on politics and culture and a discussion on the architecture of aesthetics and urbanisation. In terms of literature too, the choice of an anglophile’s glasses perhaps prevented the organisers from recognising a good number of writers in Urdu and Punjabi who have courageously kept Lahore’s banner as a city of literature and art flying. One hopes they will do much better the next time.

Quite a few people were not happy with the Karachi festival organisers for lumping political issues, human rights, Indus waters and agriculture with the poetry of Zehra Nigah, Kishwar Naheed and Iftikhar Arif and the fiction of Intizar Husain, Abdullah Hussain and Mustansar Hussain Tarar.

This criticism springs from a narrow appreciation of the place of literature in a people’s life and the responsibility of writers not only to enable fellow beings to gainfully fill their leisure hours (if anyone still has such time available) but also to help them realise themselves in various fields, especially in times of conflict, turmoil and distress. Through interaction with farmers, workers and social activists, writers and artists too will find the means of enriching their thought and refining their expression.

The two literary events no doubt pumped some oxygen into our people’s withered lungs, but one should like to make a couple of points, not by way of criticism, but as matters that may be thought over by all concerned.

While it was good to see big audiences at discussion sessions at both Karachi and Lahore one wondered as to why such large congregations of literate and conscious citizens were not contributing to a resolution of the national issues. The latest massacre of the Hazaras in Quetta occurred on the second day of the Karachi festival and the gathering there appeared as indifferent to this horrible pogrom as the dimwitted TV channel operators who considered the killing of more than 80 innocent people less important than a politician’s press conference on a routine shemozzle.

What a blow against insanity could have been struck if the whole gathering had just walked out into the open and declared, “we will not let it pass”. It sounds strange, to put it mildly, that a writers’ gathering should conclude without taking due note of the threat to the Pakistani people from extremists.

The festivals also underlined society’s lack of accord even on non-controversial issues. Mohammad Hanif’s collection of stories about the persons who have involuntarily disappeared attracted large audiences at both festivals but the gathering at Karachi appeared more responsive to the human tragedies Hanif was talking about than the Lahore audience.

This difference not only draws attention to one of the causes of Pakistan’s decline, it is also a theme that writers cannot ignore. Indeed the book by Mohammed Hanif demanded attention more as an essay in a writer’s sensitivity to tyrannical murders than as a feat of writing despite its considerable literary merit.

Isolation from the ordinary people apart, most of the literary figures represented at the festivals seem to avoid banding together. Maybe, the best of times for associations of writers that we had 60-70 years ago has passed and one must be wary of the state’s designs to hegemonise the world of letters. Still, it may be good for literature and writers both if the latter could find the means of getting together to take up their people’s causes, in solidarity with one another and with humankind in general.

Finally, the reasons for celebrating the work of celebrities are legitimate. But meeting them is like going through the reprint of a work one has already read. There may be a need to find appropriate space for new writers with promise, so that the air can reverberate with fresh voices demanding to be heard along with those of the earlier trailblazers.