A bonfire of literary festivals – 19 Feb 2023

What use do we have for the poets, writers and, in a general sense, intellectuals whose business it is to teach us to think, to feel and to dream? Well, a measure of what such creative individuals have contributed to our society is available in the quality and strength of our intellectual, educational and cultural resources.

Sadly, any assessment that you make in this regard would leave you with a larger deficit than there is in the nation’s financial balance sheet. And we do not seem to be so worried about our intellectual deficit while we struggle so desperately to make ends meet, collectively. Nor is it so evident to us that both the deficits have a symbiotic relationship.

Anyhow, we have some comforting distractions around this time of the year. Call it a bonfire of literary festivals. This weekend, we have the 14th edition of the Karachi Literature Festival – KLF – that may rightly be designated as the mother of all literary festivals of Pakistan. It is surely a big event, tilting somewhat towards an economic dimension with the theme: ‘People, Planet and Possibilities’.

But as I write these words, I have still to fully recover from the hangover of the literary festival I attended in Lahore last weekend. Actually, a certain kind of mood that is aroused by a literary festival is passing on from one event to the next. While there will be time to sum up one’s involvement with the present season of the KLF, let me dwell a bit on my experience of Lahore.

In fact, the three-day Pakistan Literature Festival – PLF – held at Alhamra was an inaugural event of its own kind, adding a new chapter to the catalogue of our literary celebrations. It was sponsored by the Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi, and was wholly organized by a team transported from Karachi. It goes to the credit of the Arts Council’s president, Ahmed Shah, and his energetic team that it turned out to be a success, with its focus on youth and a lively blend of literature, current affairs, arts and music.

For me, the real worth of a literary festival is not so much the discourse that is held in specific sessions but what transpires on the sidelines. This coming together of scores of leading writers and critics, including some from abroad, inspires an endless series of casual encounters that can be so insightful and invigorating. Lahore last week, thus, was a feast for me as Karachi is turning out to be.

Ah, but the PLF was flanked by sad news. When some of us were waiting to board the flight for Lahore on Friday last week, we got the message that Amjad Islam Amjad had died in Lahore. When we left for the airport for the return flight on Monday, we learnt about Zia Mohyeddin’s demise in Karachi. However, the timing of these tragedies has allowed us to share our sorrow. Amjad Islam Amjad’s absence was very conspicuous in the Lahore festival and both, he and Zia Mohyeddin, are fondly being remembered in Karachi and in Lahore.

In Lahore, because this weekend the Faiz Foundation is holding its 7th three-day Faiz Festival at Alhamra and it is as elaborately designed as, say, the KLF. That these major festivals have overlapped is not nice because the literary stars we have are limited in number and some of them have to rush from one place to the other to make appearances in both.

And then, there is the tenth edition of the Lahore Literary Festival – LLF – next week, also at Alhamra. That is why I see all this as the bonfire of literary festivals, illuminating for a brief period our relatively barren cultural and literary landscape. For the literati of Karachi and Lahore, this fleeting interlude is a moveable feast. The pity of it is that with all these really enterprising ventures, they cannot bring Basant back to Lahore.

Incidentally, this past week during this month of February, marked as spring in the calendar, had landmark dates that provide an edge to literary festivals. Monday, February 13, was the birth anniversary of Faiz and Wednesday, February 15, was the death anniversary of Ghalib.

Another anniversary that I feel should be observed as a part of our quest for social, intellectual and political awakening fell on February 11. This is the date on which the torchbearer of human rights in Pakistan, Asma Jahangir, died in Lahore in 2018. What a strange coincidence it was that on this date, just over a week ago, something dreadful happened that reminded us of an unfinished struggle that Asma had fought with such courage and clarity of purpose.

Yes, I am alluding to how an enraged mob lynched a man accused of blasphemy in Nankana Sahib after attacking a police station where the victim was under custody. If you find it impossible to believe that the armed police that was posted at the station surrendered so easily to the unruly crowd of the locality then you have not been aware of the power of the dark, primitive forces that are rampant in Pakistan. Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his own guard 12 years ago. Mashal Khan was lynched on a campus by his fellow students six years ago.

So, what can literary festivals and a congregation of writers and thinkers promise in these circumstances? At one level, the battle lines are clearly drawn. Those who can think and point the way towards peace and harmony have to confront those who hate and promote bigotry and intolerance. It is a battle for the survival of Pakistan, more crucial than building foreign exchange reserves.

Thankfully, the messages that these literary festivals deliver are generally positive and project progressive and liberal ideas. But a lot more is necessary to improve the prevailing intellectual environment, particularly in the domain of education. In a society ravished by extremism and obscurantism, even thinking can be a form of action.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

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