Nostalgic Pakistan

Harking to a 'golden past' remained the theme of this year's KLF. By Saim Saeed

Nostalgic Pakistan
There were familiar heroes and villains at the sixth installment of the Karachi Literature Festival this year. Among the heroes: Manto, Mama Qadeer, Pakistan’s ‘resilience’, its ‘soft image’, Benazir Bhutto, and Liberty Books. The villains’ list was also familiar: Ziual Haq, Abdul Aziz and Hafiz Saeed, Partition, generals, capitalism, ‘aaj kal ke log’, the scramble for ratings, Arab monarchs, and the MQM.

This is a good thing. The relentless pace at which public space has ceded ground to bigotry and the establishment line is dizzying. This public space is both physical (‘no-go’ areas, land grabs, mosques and seminaries run as a front for militancy) and digital (websites continue to be banned, publications redacted, talk show agendas predetermined), and it compels the KLF, perhaps inadvertently, to act as a rebuff, as a deliberate ‘no’ to - or at least an unwillingness to participate in - what passes for political discourse in the country these days. Where else can one discuss the Long March led by the Voice of Missing Baloch Persons, especially since the media hardly alluded to it? How to talk of extremism without being labeled a blasphemer? Where can one speak of public parks and recreational facilities in a city whose name ought to be prefaced by ‘Bahria Town presents’?

Most importantly, how often is literature the front and centre of public forums in this country? Asad Rahim Khan explained in a column he wrote two years ago: “Unlike with Britain and France though — where the fight is now to keep bricks-and-mortar (and ink and print) alive in the age of the Kindle — the Pakistani problem is basic: no one reads.” While it’s tempting to talk of the KLF as ‘defying’ the Taliban, perhaps the defiance is more narrowly directed towards the culture of illiteracy that seems to be pervasive from the bottom, through the middle, and right up to the top of Pakistan’s social strata. At this KLF, there were plenty of books and authors to go around. Osman Samiuddin published The Unquiet Ones, a history of Pakistan cricket; Bina Shah, a new novel called A Season for Martyrs; Anna Suvorova, a Russian academic, published a biography of Benazir Bhutto; former ambassador Syeda Abida Hussain, a memoir; and architect Arif Hasan wrote a book on Karachi, focusing on the scramble for its land.

Osman Samiuddin signs his book 'The Unquiet Ones'
Osman Samiuddin signs his book 'The Unquiet Ones'

With the heavy subject matter – terrorism, militarization, corruption, murder, censorship, lawlessness – that passes for current affairs in this country, one can see why panelists ventured frequently into nostalgia. There were tribute sessions devoted to Benazir, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Manto, the former Dawn editor Musaddiq Sanwal, and the late artist Asim Butt. Panels were also held with titles like ‘Reading in the age of TV and Social Media’ and ‘PTV aur aaj ka drama’ where senior panelists made it a point to glorify the hardbound books and dramas of yore, chastising ‘aj kal ke log’ for their ‘commercialism’. Perhaps understandably, even a session on Pakistan cricket was more focused on the different leadership styles of former captains, Imran and Kardar on one side, Miandad on the other. The match and spot-fixing scandals, this world cup’s prospects and the ostentatious religiosity of the team under Inzamam were left for the question-answer round.

Najam Sethi also went back in time in his session, recounting his interactions with many generations of Pakistan’s leaders, both elected and not. The frequent references to Pakistan as it used to be could be a collective attempt to reject what it is: an intolerant, dangerous place with little in the way of societal and moral progress. Or it simply could be an inability to accept it. Poet Amjad Islam Amjad said, “The communication gap between parents and children has changed into a generation gap”. The rise of e-books, private channels and mobile apps seemed to have brought a hint of despair to the veteran screenwriters and actors present, perhaps most affected by the technological tilt. Or perhaps they were referring to what it could be. After all, recreating the Pakistan of old requires no less imagination than the Pakistan of the future.
Some might call KLF a suspension of the rules: for a weekend, a vibrant, liberal, diverse Pakistan comes to life

Some might call KLF a suspension of the rules: for a weekend, a vibrant, liberal, diverse Pakistan comes to life. One sees senior citizens wearing suspenders, mufflers and hats; musical performances in the evening; young volunteers with ‘fros and streaks in their hair flirting happily; diversity is cherished. In this alternative reality, actor Ali Saleem, famous for his alter-ego Begum Nawazish, advocated for more Pakistani women doing item numbers. Women’s breasts and the words to describe them were discussed openly on a panel with Mohammad Hanif.

It’s easy to dismiss KLF for classism. The tension between Urdu and English as the lingua franca continued; some audience questions were premised condescendingly around ‘the common man’, who is apparently indifferent to the words, spoken and written, by the participants; colonial English accents straight out of Aitchision and Karachi Grammar School; and Rs100 coke cans, even if they were for charity. But that would be unfair. One doesn’t have to be an aristocrat to know that there is plenty wrong in the country at the moment, and that at this festival one can meet and listen to various people who in their own capacity are trying to make something of it.

With yet another uncertain and tumultuous year ahead for this country, I’m sure there will be plenty more to discuss at the next installment.