Capital Talk

Poetess Fehmida Riaz's notes from the ILF

Capital Talk
His young face was frozen in sadness as he kept repeating, “We are irrelevant. We are irrelevant to Pakistan and what is happening here. Don’t you see, it is a fight not between good and evil, but only between forces of evil and darkness.”

One felt duty-bound to cheer him up. Youth and despair do not go well together. It is a heartrending sight.

Between the three days of the Islamabad Literature Festival, thousands of citizens, young and old, attended this event (last year, the number was 15,000), and 178 men and women of letters came to enlighten and entertain them, even as a pall of gloom hovered on the horizon and threatened to submerge its smallish, bursting-to-capacity venue. It is no ordinary city or town, our capital. Only weeks ago there was a blast here that killed many people; and just last month, one of its prominent citizens, Raza Rumi, barely escaped death in a car attack. Last year Rumi was the life and spirit of the festival, moderating many sessions, but this year he was nowhere to be seen. Similarly, while the ILF was held, the well-known journalist Hamid Mir was lying in a Karachi hospital bed, having survived a terrible attack on his car, allegedly perpetrated by nameless “angels”.

In such dismal surroundings the participants were discussing topics as varied as the new novel, reforming state schools, Pashto poetry and dance and dissent. Many books were being launched and short art movies being screened. Most halls were full to capacity. I did not see much of the bearded crowd that usually creeps into cultural events these days. However, in my session on Qawwali, when I pointed out that Maulana Rum was an evolutionist, and clearly states in the Masnavi that humans have evolved from several stages of inert matter, vegetation and animals, a young Islamist wanted to know if that was not blatantly anti-Islamic. The others did not pay much attention to him though. Rumi is sufficiently loved in the capital, it seems.

There were five participants from India at the ILF, among them Ritu Menon, founder of Kali, the first women’s publishing house in South Asia. She was speaking about the need for co-publishing in India and Pakistan; and Shobha De, beautiful, dignified, witty and serious-minded, who minced no words about the present threat of religious communalism in India. The festival was a brave effort to retain some semblance of civilized life by the citizens of our sad and frightened capital.

But there is a well-defined circle proscribing the unmentionable, making the session on Afghanistan: the Next Chapter truly hilarious. Retired secretaries from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs rolled out the usual pearls of wisdom. Among them helplessly sandwiched was the editor and journalist Rashid Rehman. The participants were given a set of questions and they had to answer only those questions, lest they wander into forbidden territories. Most participants began by expressing great approval of the wisdom of those questions with relief, as this made their arduous task much easier. They said that Pakistan wished from the bottom of its heart for peace in Afghanistan, and that nothing could be farther from its leaders’ minds than again installing one of their personal favorites in the seat of power; nor, according to these panelists, could Pakistan think of being on the lookout for one such group, but there being little possibility of a peaceful transformation in that land of brave fighters. We know, and the whole world knows that we are totally bankrupt now  for which obviously Pakistan will most urgently need substantial assistance in Euros and Dollars, to perform this great historic duty.

The audience, capitally understanding the meaning of these words, clapped fervently.