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Photo by Arif Ali/White Star

By Sheheryar B. Sheikh

“Don’t you just love seeing Lahore like this?” Mohsin Hamid asks the audience. The hall erupts. This is Hall One of the Lahore Alhamra on the Mall. The hall seats more than a thousand, and the aisles are packed. And everyone loves it, this Lahore-loving moment.

“I mean,” Hamid continues, once the crowd quiets down, “there are yellow balloons outside.” Everyone cheers again, not as loudly, but now with laughter. “I wish,” Hamid goes on, “there were yellow kites in the sky too.” The laughter turns to groans. Basant is sorely missed. But that missing, that craving for the celebration of Lahore’s cultural heritage, has given birth to this occasion: the Lahore Literary Festival.

It is, of course, not the first literary festival of Lahore, as many may think. The city is well known for multi-day mushairas and Urdu literature gatherings. But it is the first internationally recognised event to bring together globally known authors and journalists to generate discourse in the city on matters of national and global concern. Writers of Pakistani origin remained the main highlight of the event. There were panels on contemporary literature, modes of writing, and discussions with authors with newly released books, including Hamid and Nadeem Aslam.

Lahoris defied many stereotypes and expectations from them were proved unfairly low. They poured in, in groups and solo. They brought books to be signed. Panels started on time, for the most part. Audiences were treated to genuinely informative discussions, rather than the usual themes. Small organisational upsets, such as disappearing panellists, were handled well, covered up by quick quips, and then rendered insignificant.

The scale would have been just the necessary bit larger had Indian editor, Chiki Sarkar, received her visa on time and been able to attend. Silly things like troublesome microphones could have been avoided. In the age of Bluetooth, microphone problems should not exist.

The biggest complaint was the severe lack of representation by writers of Urdu and topics of relevance to Urdu literature. The panel topics specifically dedicated to Urdu literature discussions read ‘Future of Urdu Literature in the Punjab’ and ‘Narrative Forms in Urdu Fiction and Poetry’. The latter of these is so obviously vast it reads more like ‘Discuss Urdu Literature — All of It’. The impossibility of that within the 45 allotted minutes was a glaring mistake.

A related criticism was that the event catered to the eliterati, whose common language is a vernacular in the vein of Moni Mohsin’s Social Butterfly character who speaks neither Urdu nor English properly. Many writers embraced that criticism and said they had an international market for their language and their stories, so why shouldn’t they be celebrated as much as the purists. Others defied the criticism by displaying how adept they were at conversing in either language.

Secondary school and college students thronged the festival, as did an eclectic mix of professionals. The halls were packed for nearly all sessions, which crushed the notion that nobody reads anymore. There may have appeared to be a class-based representation bias among the attendees. But that is difficult to determine without a proper survey.

Hamid became the showstopper and took over the mantle of Lahore’s Writer. He has inherited it from Bapsi Sidhwa, the beloved and lover of Lahore, who was also there, still as sharp and witty, though frailer than when  Lahore last saw her, three years ago. Students mobbed her at the end of her talk.

There is lots of room for improvement on this great start. Future iterations of the festival could do with enforced media-free zones, where authors and readers can interact without cameras from news stations and journalists plugging their dictaphones under the noses of the authors. In such an area, there can be sessions on craft for students of writing, and perhaps just informal conversation on matters other than writing, to give the authors a breather.

And here’s a subversive idea for panel discussions: how about taking audience questions first, to see what ideas and questions a given topic (say, ‘Globalisation of Pakistan’s literature’) generates among the audience, and then addressing those concerns through discussions between professional writers.

The purpose of literature festivals — to celebrate books, writers and readers, and give them a forum to interact — was more than adequately fulfilled this past weekend. Basant is not forgotten — it cannot be replaced, and it will continue to be missed. However, the Lahore Literary Festival is a welcome addition to the cultural calendar.

The writer teaches rhetoric at Lums