LitFests as a window on the world

Raza Wazir shares his impressions of the Lahore Literary Festival 2019

LitFests as a window on the world
With Basant banned and Nowruz quite late by standards of Lahori spring (which I believe starts closer to the 21st of February instead of the 21st of March) the one remaining festive occasion is that of the Lahore Literary Festival. Held every year in the third week of February, it has become a regular feature of the cityscape. This year it started on a bright sunny day – which itself has become a rarity in recent years due to the awful smog phenomenon during the winter months. The LLF lasted from the 22nd to the 24th of February 2019. I ritually went to it like previous years to meet friends and to listen to a few favourite novelists, poets, artists and political commentators. Quite a few book launches provided the opportunity to engage with writers face to face – opportunities which we don’t have otherwise despite living in a big city like Lahore.

LLF had some 75 sessions featuring more than a hundred speakers. On the first day I went to the session “Populism and the Future of Global Democracy” moderated by Ahmed Rashid, the renowned journalist, with Ayesha Jalal, historian; Afshin Shahi, political commentator and Eugene Rogan, historian and author of The Arabs: A History. Commenting on the populist trend in recent years around the world from India to America and Turkey, Afshin Shahi came in with stinging observations on how populist regimes build false narratives. For example, the biggest threat to human security is poor mental health – not migrants or terror.

Harris Khalique read from his poems
at the LLF

The next day there was a book launch for Tell Her Everything by Mirza Waheed – the story of an immigrant doctor father (Dr. K) who wants to tell his daughter about his entanglement in a morally suspect web of activities while he was a doctor in London. The story reveals our fragile selves when it comes to compromises for family and children, in an increasingly perilous and competitive world. Moderated by Zarrar Said, the author revealed the process behind writing a novel and how a story is woven over time to give it the shape of readable product. And so, for instance, he had to consult an actual doctor for the parts of the novel that depict surgical and medical procedures.

Next on my schedule was the session featuring Pankaj Mishra, one of the most astute thinkers of our time. In conversation with Mohsin Hamid, he discussed various currents of history and appeared to be of the opinion that “It’s possible to see the rise of certain ideologies as consequences of social breakdown... nationalism and Zionism were also responses to massive shifts in the social and political economies of these nations,” he noted. He also spoke at length about Mao’s vision for Asia as opposed to other thinkers of our continent or of the West.

Three of my favorite sessions related to poetry and photographic art. Harris Khalique launched his latest collection of poetry in English (he writes in Urdu and Punjabi as well.) This collection No Fortunes To Tell includes a few very haunting poems to which I can instantly relate. One poem about Waziristan, from where I myself come, had a profound effect on me when I first read it on Facebook a year ago.

The boy looked straight into the magician’s eyes.

“I come from far.

I remember watching you in the circus with my father.

You had cut a woman in half,

then joined her back.

They were all burnt to death after the bomb went off.

Only my mother’s body is not charred.

I bring her to you.

She is only cut in half.”

He was asked as to how despite being a dweller in a city with a comfortable life, he was still able to convey the feelings of those at the receiving end of wars not of their own choosing. Harris answered that the circumstances of one’s birth are arbitrary but the values one should stand for are entirely of one’s own choice. The question of art and propaganda also came into discussion with the point emphasized being that art should never be sacrificed at the altar of a cause, however exalted. Failure to separate art from propaganda means that in the final analysis it becomes mere sloganeering and will wither away in time.

A discussion about War Gardens by Lalage Snow with Aysha Raja revealed the other side of wartorn lands like Afghanistan, South Sudan, Ukraine, the West Bank and Gaza. It was interesting to know how in contexts like these, gardening could prove therapeutic for the ordinary people who have otherwise no escape from the harrowing everyday existence of conflict.

The last session of the festival that I attended was “The Country Without a Post Office: Kashmir Through The Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali” featuring Christopher Merrill, Mirza Waheed, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, Shaista Sirajuddin and an introduction by Rachel Cooper. Merrill shared a few interesting anecdotes about how the late Agha Shahid Ali came up with some of his more memorable lines picked up from everyday conversations with friends. Waheed spoke about the influence that Agha Shahid Ali had on his generation of Kashmiris and how many people in Kashmir today look at him as Kashmir’s national poet – though he was even more than that.

All in all the festival every year provides a rare opportunity for students, writers and artists to meet, socialize and enjoy an exchange of ideas and a few moments of relaxation amidst live music on the lawns of Alhamra cultural centre.

Though this year the festival was thinly attended and the degree of enthusiasm might even be waning, it is remarkable that it is occurring at all for the seventh consecutive year! Apart from the quite valid criticism of the overall event not being inclusive enough to accommodate critical voices especially from the periphery and regional languages like Punjabi, Seraiki, Pashto etc, this festival nonetheless needs to continue and grow. It provides a rare window on the perilous and jingoistic world we live in and spares us a few calm moments to reflect and contemplate about a more peaceful world where we and our coming generations could live in peace – or at least, to dare to hope for it!