Setting the Expectation bar high

Missed the Karachi Lit-fest this year? Kenan Ali regales us with his impressions from the event

Setting the Expectation bar high
Damning the influence of English - even though but a few thousand people could speak and write the language effectively, and a few more perhaps might be able to read and understand it - and lamenting the state of Urdu: this is what comes up as a recurring theme in the literature festival in Karachi every year. Organized by Oxford University Press (OUP) with a handful of sponsorships and collaborations, the event has gradually become a critical part of the literary scene in the country: a centre of attraction with an increasing number of visitors and participants each passing year.

Let us go over a few moments that, for me at least, were fairly memorable.

Imagine, if you will, a session on the decline of Urdu and the influences on it from other languages. The moderator Saif Mehmood, a delegate from India, and one of the panelists Arfa Syeda Zahra (a well known cultural expert) took most of the time cracking jokes on regional influences on Urdu, accompanied by poet and novelist Ali Akbar Natiq.

Mohammed Hanif with Rafaqat Hayat and Syed Kashif Raza
Mohammed Hanif with Rafaqat Hayat and Syed Kashif Raza

The diversity of the subjects covered spanned some 75 sessions. 200 speakers and performers drew people - no mean achievement, that

Arfa Syeda Zahra, meanwhile, lamented how languages are seen in terms of regions and geography. She spoke about the softness and richness of Punjabi and Sindhi that have influenced Urdu in Pakistan, but, in very next sentence, in her bid to amuse the audience, she cracked a joke about Pashtuns by saying, “KPK mey agar mohabbat ka jawab mohabbat se na miley, tau goli chal jati hai” (In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, if love is not responded to with love, it results in violence). This was followed by a burst of laughter from the audience. Ali Akbar Natiq retorted, “Aur agar mohabbat ka jawab mohabbat se miley tau aghwaa hojata hai” (And if love is reciprocated with love, then kidnapping happens). This time the burst of laughter was louder.

Faheem Tareen, an electrical engineer from Pishin, Balochistan, waded into the fray, terming such comments about the Pashto-speaking region as racist and based on gross generalisations. “If they are ignorant and care less about other languages and people, how could they complain about English and the social and economic aspects of its influence?”

Saima Iram, short story writer from Lahore, was on the panel moderated by Mohammed Hanif
Saima Iram, short story writer from Lahore, was on the panel moderated by Mohammed Hanif

Nadeem Farooq Paracha spurns the notion of the KLF as an 'elite' activity

A Sindhi-speaking social sector worker let loose his own broadside: “It’s a favourite activity of the elderly middle-class aunties and uncles who got their kids enrolled at elite schools for better future prospects and to get better jobs: now they lament as to how their kids do not know their Mirza Galib or haven’t read Faiz Ahmed Faiz. This newborn love for Manto and Jalib, too, is a product of nostalgia and guilt.”

Fakhruddin, a Karachi based Pashtun recalled the last time when a book of Pashto poetry got a session in the KLF, “Perhaps it was the only time that a book on Pashto literature was discussed.” He expressed doubts that even that one instance was for the love of Pashto literature, though.

As one can imagine, in the debate on Urdu and its influence in other provinces, Balochistan hardly gets a mention. So is the case with Gilgit-Baltistan too, where many indigenous languages like Shina, Balti, Burushaski, Khowar, and Wakhi are spoken - and possess significant literature on their own -,but in the mainstream one sees little interest in these languages.

But as Asif Farrukhi, one of the organisers of the event, pointed out in a TV interview while explaining the huge number of visitors this year, the diversity of the subjects covered spanned some 75 sessions. 200 speakers and performers drew people – no mean achievement, that. He hoped succeeding KLFs could be more inclusive.

The Dawn of Freedom - The Pain of Partition
The Dawn of Freedom - The Pain of Partition

Nadeem Farooq Paracha, the well-known journalist and author, has participated in the KLF from the very first edition and has been a ‘regular’ as a panelist and moderator for the last eight years. He also termed the event this year as ‘huge in terms of numbers’. He spurns the notion of KLF as an ‘elite’ activity. Pointing at the huge crowds around in the main garden and the lobby – many members of which approached him for selfies or signed copies of his recently published and much awaited book The Pakistan Anti-Hero - he remarked, “Some of the delusional people who themselves are sitting at distances of hundreds and thousands of miles cannot see what you and I can see through the people who participate in such events.”

He went on to observe:

“You can see young students - boys and girls - who have come to Karachi from the far and distant regions of Balochistan and Sindh. I face them, and happen to interact with them. They ask questions - to these I have answers for a few, and not all, but they are curious, and you see them posing questions in different sessions and demanding answers. Only those who abhor the idea of interaction with these young minds, and cannot face their questions, could term it all an ‘elite’ activity.”

On the second day in a session with Paracha as the moderator and the hosts of the popular talk show Zara Hut Ke, Hamza Baloch, a young social activist from Karachi, lauded the Zara Hut Ke team for discussing sensitive issues, and then posed a vital question: if they raised their voice on critical issues, they did so with journalistic cover and the backing of a powerful media group, but what about activists and political workers who are vulnerable? He referred to the recent disappearances of bloggers, which was followed by a vitriolic campaign on social media, which aimed to label them ‘blasphemers’. To such a question, no answer was enough. But it set the tone and the issue of bloggers’ disappearance and the aftermath was a point of reference in that session - and the other sessions that followed.

One promising element of the KLF is the changing tendency of the moderators and panelists to interact with the audience in Urdu instead of English. This was typified by a session moderated by Muhammed Hanif who had Saima Iram (a short story writer from Lahore) and Rafaqat Hayat and Syed Kashif Raza (both Urdu novelists) as panelists.

Hanif gave every panelist adequate time to read from their literary works, and answer his questions. The session had the hall packed with people, as one can imagine.

Another session on the question of regional and national identity featured the work of Amar Jalil, a well known Sindhi literary figure and Urdu columnist, and Munir Badini, a novelist in Balochi language. Noor-ul-Huda Shah (feminist writer and playwright) and Masood Lohar provided much food for thought to the audience. The situation in Balochistan got frequent mentions, and Noor-ul-Huda Shah had the sobering observation: “We speak of Balochistan, and none of the disappeared bloggers was Baloch.”

Masood Lohar, a development sector worker from Hyderabad criticised the botched narrative around nationhood and nationalism in Pakistan, and hoped that what could not be achieved through the intellectual discussions and debates would be achieved through the increasing role of technology in bringing Pakistani languages and people together.

A film on Perween Rahman, followed by a discussion on the developments pertaining to her murder investigation, was another highlight. Describing Perween Rahman as ‘a rebel optimist’, the film directed by Mahira Omer featured excerpts from Perween Rahman’s interviews in which she had explained the way she approached development and the problems of Karachi. Faisal Siddiqui, senior lawyer, and Aquila Ismail, Perween’s elder sister, explained in detail how civil society helped them following Perween’s heart wrenching assassination, and how elements within the police department created obstacles in the investigation.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, had words of criticism regarding singer-turned-evangelist Junaid Jamshed, who recently died in a plane crash. Junaid’s friend and singer Salman Ahmed, in a session on conflict resolution through art and enterprise, played a video of his collaboration with Junaid Jamshed. He presented it as a case of coming together for initiatives like peace-building despite ideological differences, but Pervez Hoodbhoy felt that criticism of the departed singer was nevertheless valid, not least on account of the misogyny he expressed on occasion.

Mohammad Masood Khan former diplomat and now President of Azad Kashmir, graced the occasion with his presence as a panelist in the session on veteran journalist and TV talk show host Mujahid Barelvi’s book “Fasana Raqam Karain”. He took this opportunity to bemoan the lack of response from the literary community when it comes to the plight of the people of Jammu and Kashmir: “I didn’t see an inspiring write-up, a poem, or an elegy from the progressive writers on the atrocities against people of Kashmir by the hands of India.”

Nevertheless, writer and poet Haris Khalique told him about the event of his book launch and the poem he read on the Kashmir issue.

This was the 8th edition of KLF, and it is clear that the literary festival has come a long way. There was a time when it was held in Carlton Hotel, in a relatively isolated part of the city. I remember this to be the case until 2010, with participation restricted to a few thousand. With the change of location in 2013 to the Beach Luxury Hotel - a place which is easily accessible from all parts of the city - and the open and free entry for all, the event grows year by year. There is no denying that KLF becomes the talk of the town when it’s happening. Discussion of it on social media adds to all the buzz.

How could we not set the Expectations bar high for such a crucial annual event?