At the beginning of every year, when the schedule for the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) is announced, opinion pieces in print and online publications start pouring out pieces appreciating the organisers’ efforts or questioning the very idea of such a festival. When the event is held, details of the events, the various sessions, the highs and lows of the whole affair are covered extensively. Who made it into the list of participants and who was left with no invitation – or did not get a visa, as was the case this year – become topics of much discussion. Books that are going to be launched or re-launched and issues highlighted or overlooked are the subject of debates which will continue for a couple of weeks on the internet and on the pages of periodicals.
This year was not different. It started with the visa row. Conflicting accounts of the whole episode and cynical remarks over the issue of inviting Anupam Kher to the event were in circulation, with standup comedian Sanjay Rajoura saying, “Why he was even invited? If he had to talk about peace and love, he should have started it there while sitting in India.” Veteran writer, translator and publisher Ajmal Kamal commented about the histrionics on the part of Mr. Kher: “If he was desperate to talk sense and had two sessions at the event, the organisers should have made an arrangement for video conferencing through Skype. What is the fuss all about?”
The whole controversy had set the tone for the event which had a couple of sessions on Pakistan-India relations. Iconic Indian journalist and talk show host Barkha Dutt, senior congress leader Salman Khursheed from India, two former Pakistani foreign ministers Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri and Hina Rabbani Khar and former diplomat Najmuddin Shiekh were there to be part of those discussions.
Burkha Dutt’s book “The Unquiet Lands” and Kasuri’s book “Neither a Hawk nor a Dove” were considered worthy of a dedicated session each at the Festival. Both were sticking to the ‘official’ positions of Pakistan and India on various issues while Hina Rabbani Khar was quite unorthodox and pragmatic – at a packed session in the main garden of the hotel. She spoke at length about her experiences at the Finance Ministry in the Musharraf era and Foreign Ministry in the previous PPP government. She was quite straightforward about our “image problem” and the uphill tasks on the foreign policy front. She said, “Pakistan should focus on Balochistan instead of its futile and ambitious pursuit of interests in Afghanistan.” Also she revealed an experience from her days at the Finance Ministry, in 2007, when she participated in World Economic Forum at Davos and was shocked at Pakistan being on the list of ‘failed states’ despite optimistic economic indicators at that time. The reason for this, in her view, was Pakistan’s lack of control over its own territories – and this was long before the drone attacks started hitting targets inside Pakistan.
The furious lady kept shouting, “Quaid-e-Azam ke barey mey baat nahi sunni chahiyye” (We won’t tolerate criticism of the Quaid)
Another highlight of the event turned out to be the sessions with Indian standup comedian Sanjay Rajoura who was surprisingly different from run-of-the-mill South Asian comedians. Rajoura was politically sound on the issue of Pakistan India relations, acutely aware of the rising waves of intolerance in India and religious terrorism in Pakistan. He did not crack a single joke on the common stereotypes and was tasteful in his references to women – the latter being a refreshing change from the churlish lampooning of South Asian women in our own mainstream “humour”. His comments about re-evaluating our national heroes and ‘questioning our elders’ sparked furious remarks from a section of the audience when a woman in the front row interrupted him when he referred to Jinnah. The furious lady kept shouting, “Quaid e Azam ke barey mey baat nahi sunni chahiyye” (We should not tolerate any criticism of the Quaid e Azam).
Sessions about the Urdu language consisted of the routine stuff: lamentation of the state of the language and how ‘Arabicisation’ has changed it. One wishes it were not simply discussed in terms of a Hindi-Urdu divide in South Asia. In Pakistan, commercial enterprises are fanning the flames of latent religious radicalism, as banks have come forward with services and products with new fangled Gulf Arabic names and insurance companies have followed the trend. The textbooks taught at private schools by mainstream publishers are influenced by the trend where Urdu and Arabic terms are altered with emphasis on the letter “D” – in much of urban Pakistan, “Ramazan” is now “Ramadan”.
The session on Urdu columnists and bloggers moderated by Wajahat Masood – veteran intellectual, Urdu columnist and editor of a popular online Urdu magazine Hum Sub – included senior columnists Masood Nayyar, Zahida Hina, Asghar Nadeem Syed, Wusatullah Khan and Mubashir Ali Zaidi as the panelists. Time constraints left the panelists with very little time to cover all the aspects and the trend of online blogging and mini-blogs hardly got any mention.
One major problem with the event and the organisers was their poor choice of moderators in various sessions. Some of them clearly had no idea of the matters they were discussing while a few considered themselves more informed than the panelists and resorted to long monologues, forcing the audience to yawn or leave the sessions. Often, they left no time for the audience to participate with questions.
“KLF is a great event. Once a year, you realise that the people you were interacting with on social media physically exist”
There were problems with the “questions and answers” sessions in which most of the questioners took the opportunity to expound on their own views at length. Particularly tedious were their long introductions of their own self, which had nothing to do with the topic under discussion. In one such session on “Pakistan: Modernity and Post-coloniality” when a participant among the audience, instead of asking question kept on sharing his own views for quite a longer time, the annoyed panelist Professor Naqvi stood up and asked him to take a seat the rostrum and enlighten the audience!
The audience and participants in the event had their own list of expectations and disappointments. People from Sindhi and Baloch communities were wary of the growing indifference to their language and cultural concerns in a literary activity held in a Karachi. A student from the Mass Communication department of Sindh University was questioning this trend of neglecting Sindhi literature and perhaps he had a point: the three-day festival had very few sessions relating to Sindhi literature.
The presence of Baloch participants could be felt in the lobbies and main garden with familiar faces from Lyari and other parts of the city; as well as Baloch students and women activists, who could be seen wearing their distinctive handmade dresses.
“Karachi Literature Festival in the previous years had sessions dedicated to human rights issues in Pakistan and had highlighted the issues of Baloch missing persons. Farzana Majeed Baloch and Mama Qadeer Baloch were part of the discussion. A book on the missing persons and struggle of Mama Qadeer, written by veteran journalist and author Mohammed Hanif and published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was launched. Hence Baloch activists come in the hope of another opportunity to discuss those issues” Mir Mohammed Talpur remarked.
But for many people, the event is more than just attending sessions and book launches – they consider it a good opportunity to socialise. “It is a sort of get-together. You cannot otherwise have the opportunity to meet all these people at the same time,” observed Jamil Abbasi, an Urdu blogger. He had come from Hyderabad to join the event.
Talat Aslam, editor at The News, summed it up: “KLF is a great event. Once a year, you come to know that the people you were interacting with all year on social networking sites physically exist.”
Kenan Ali is a journalist based in Karachi