To say that Karachi Literature Festival is a household name is not an exaggeration. It is a major event on the city’s calendar. Since 2010, when it was started, the festival has seen a lot of transformation – some good, some bad.
To start with good things, the attendance has shot through the roof. You can literally not find space any more – which is a good thing. The competition for space and seats was fierce. “Dekhne mai tu parhay likhay lagtay ho!”, raged a lady at a youngster trying to jump the queue outside a hall. A lazy estimate would be around 100,000 people this year. Even Faisal Subzwari, MQM leader, complained that he called a friend so he could park in his house as there was no space around the hotel.
It was somewhere in the walkway that Nadeem F. Paracha admitted he is a Raheel Sharif fan
There were a lot of young people and school-going kids at the event. As much as you hear people complain about monotony of the event – we will come to this later – it is important to understand a large number of people, are first- or second-timers who go back with a very different experience compared to serial festival-goers who complain the most.
Unfortunately, one of the things which used to be good about KLF was conversation about painful political issues. Mohammad Hanif moved the audience to tears when he brought families of Baloch missing persons to a session in 2013. You see nothing of that sort in 2016. But even if you ignore that for a second and look at this year’s programme, it is as if the organisers have consciously decided to keep it apolitical. To be fair to KLF, this is also the national mood these days. We are high on nationalism and self-censorship is preferred over dissent. Why should a literature festival be viewed as a bastion of progressive thought?
Having said that, the hotel lobby was abuzz with conversation about national issues. It was somewhere in the walkway that Nadeem F. Paracha admitted he is a Raheel Sharif fan. “I have not seen a general like him my entire life,” claimed Paracha.
KLF has taken some serious steps to ensure Urdu is a substantive part of the format. This year there were at least 17 sessions dedicated to Urdu literature and writers. On top of this, there were plays and Mushairas which are generally well received. Interestingly, regional languages are somehow not on the radar anymore. Compared to 2013 and 2014 – when there were interesting sessions about Sindhi, Punjabi and Balochi – there was almost nothing about regional literature this year. Maybe someone thinks talking about Balochi undermines our national interest!
As for the sessions (apparently you have to attend those), I tried sitting through one titled “Urdu Digest and Digest Writers”. The highlight was Zaheda Hina unable to recognise her fellow panellist Haseeb Asif. Then she asked Haseena Moin about her work in Urdu digests, which the later answered by denying any relationship with digests. In another session, Mohammad Hanif talked to German author Steffen Kopetzky about his book Risk. Kopetzky started reading from his book and went on for a good 15 minutes, in the most stoic manner possible. Hanif had to rescue the session by interrupting the author and asking him about how his book’s ending is set in Karachi. Finally, the compulsory India-Pakistan relations session was taken over by Khurshid Kasuri as he lectured the audience about Pakistan military’s seriousness on peace with India. However, it was nice to see Hina Rabbani Khar remind her very senior panellists that hoping for peace will do very little to achieve it.
The presence of comedians was a good change for KLF. In a session titled “Laughter: the best medicine”, Indian comedian Sanjay Rajoura talked about political humour and stressed how it is important to make fun of the oppressor instead of the oppressed. There were some good adult jokes!
As I walked out of the session and ran into fashion journalist Mohsin Sayeed, we condemned the euphemisation of language around us. ‘Chinaal ko Chinaal nahi kahengay tu kya Chilghoza kahengay?”, asked Mohsin in his characteristic style.