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Festive season

March 01, 2013

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I AM not one of those who yearns for Pakistan to be in the news “for the right reasons”.

While it is unfortunate that an overwhelming number of news items in circulation both within this country and abroad are related to war, social conflict and general despair, it would be intellectual dishonesty of the worst kind to paint a picture of Pakistan with all of the “bad things” missing.

Having said this, I appreciate the value of celebrations of the “good things” that do exist in this society, and there are many. This is ostensibly the spirit that motivates high-profile events such as the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) and Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), both of which recently concluded to great fanfare.

The significance of big gatherings of artists, writers and other cultural figures in a country that is often described as a cultural wasteland is not to be understated. Amongst the most damning legacies of the Zia years has been the shrinking space for cultural expression in the public sphere, and collective efforts of the KLF/LLF kind are therefore to be lauded.

Yet as should be the case with any such largely elite gathering, serious introspection about the purpose and symbolism of the exercise is imperative. In the first instance, it is necessary to remind ourselves that cultural production in Pakistan is not limited to the headline acts that draw crowds in metropolitan centres. In fact, poets, short-story writers and budding theatre buffs plying their trade in Sindhi, Seraiki, Pushto, Punjabi and so on are very much in the majority, spread out as they are across the length and breadth of this country.

Some of these artists and writers are able to perform orally in public, while many others rely on the printed word, whatever form the latter may take. In any case, the so-called vernacular arts and literatures are hardly ever brought into the spotlight in the way that English and Urdu writers are, whether at publicised events in big cities, or otherwise.

A second and related point has to do with the way in which Pakistan — and its society in particular — is represented in big shindigs such as the KLF and LLF. Both fiction and non-fiction writers consciously comment on the societies and cultures about which they write. It is of course impossible for any one writer to do justice to the complexity of any given society; most writers pick and choose themes that they wish to highlight.

In Pakistan’s case, there is an alarming self-selection that takes place in terms of the themes that have dominated over an extended period of time. This is in part because of the way in which the country is typically depicted abroad. But it also has to do with the priorities and limitations of those who are considered the “experts”, both in the realms of fiction and non-fiction.

So even gatherings like the KLF and LLF which seek to move beyond tired themes such as “terrorism” and the like, and focus on what is projected as a vibrant and organic literary culture, are unable to transcend the elitist cul-de-sac.

This is not to downplay the achievements of celebrated Pakistani writers and artists, but simply to note that many of those who are celebrated are known better to foreign audiences and to a limited circle of readers of English and Urdu at home than to a wide cross-section of ordinary people in this country.

To be fair the organisers of events such as the KLF and LLF presumably wish to challenge the prevailing public discourse which is shaped by a reactionary media and retrogressive system of formal education.

I am simply noting that there are many more “alternatives” or literatures of resistance than those that are celebrated at “high cultural” events. Indeed many of the cultural celebrities who headlined both of the recent festivals preach only to the already converted (both because of the languages in which they work and thematic concerns).

Once upon a time, not so long ago, progressives in the literary field coalesced around organisations such as the Progressive Writers Association. We now live in an era in which entities such as the PWA — which for most of its existence was a front for the Communist Party of Pakistan — are considered anachronisms.

What has changed is not so much that writers and artists have ceased to express their political leanings; I have already pointed out that contemporary writers and artists do consciously comment on society and project imaginaries of what should be. Rather the “experts” that dominate the literary field today are increasingly alienated from ordinary people and their daily struggles, and this is therefore reflected in their specific political sensibilities.

Meanwhile, the much more organic cultural production taking place in small towns and villages in the “vernacular” is neither able to occupy the urban public’s imagination nor brought together under the guise of a wider progressive initiative such as the PWA.

Having said this, as scholars such as Kamran Asdar Ali have documented in recent times, the PWA itself constantly struggled to transcend its ashraf, Urdu-speaking genesis. The question, therefore, is not of how to simply revive progressive literary traditions of the recent past which were themselves beset by problems, but how to improve upon what came before and also address the growing elitism in what is considered progressive literature today.

I think there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Notwithstanding the alarmism that afflicts the Pakistani elite — some writers and artists included — there is indeed a lively and diverse cultural scene in this country that is amongst the few “good things” that we have going for us.

It is, however, important for those who want to celebrate these “good things” to be cognisant of the cultural production that takes place outside of the urban public sphere and in a language — both literal and figurative — that is alien to the usual suspects.

Such an appreciation of peripheral literatures goes hand in hand with support for the daily struggles of the people in peripheral spaces, the proverbial poor and voiceless about whom too many people make mention but with whom too few people actually engage.

In this festive season it is important to remember that it is this “category” that is the life and blood of this society, and that must be empowered if we are to move beyond the “bad things” that we would like to wish away.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.