Originally published in Instep Today, The News. February 25, 2014.
The second Lahore Literature Festival, a sequel to last year’s successful debut was held last week at Lahore’s Alhamra Center on the Mall. This time around, the festival boasted of an impressive line-up of speakers that ranged from writers and journalists to academics and film-makers, promising a show of unprecedented literary activity in Lahore – bigger, brighter and whiter than any before. Instep presents a detailed, (dis) passionate review of what transpired in what seems to be a gem on Lahore’s cultural calendar.
Books, not (read: and) bombs…
As an increasing number of literature festivals are being called out for carrying too much politics (I’m thinking of you Jaipur – though writer Namita Gokhale in the session ‘It’s raining litfests’ took pride in the fact that the JLF had become “a political process” in which “all voices are accommodated”), the LLF this year also came with a hefty baggage of serious discussions.
While Shehrbano Taseer drew parallels between the political parties of India and Pakistan, Shobhaa De had something interesting to say about Sonia Gandhi: “I really hope she’s packing her bags!”, as she classified India’s politicians charmingly as mufflers, duffers and bluffers. Calling Bilawal Bhutto ‘a babe in the woods’ landed her an overwhelming cheer.
Vali Nasr’s great insight on all things Middle East added substantially to the people’s understanding of the region. The session ‘Reportage on Pakistan’ was particularly charged with grave discussions on journalism and the questions of safety, censorship and ‘national interest’ that come with it. A lady seated in the front row asked directly which countries funded the Taliban. Like always, direct questions garnered no direct answers and a bold Munizae Jahangir adroitly wrapped up the session.
Many of the sessions including those with Ahmed Rashid, Maleeha Lodhi, Aitezaz Ahsan and Rashed Rehman had a large part of the audience firmly glued to the seats to listen to the experts. Some however, were seen dozing off or wondering why hadn’t they just gone for the book launches in the Baithak Hall!
The (not so) reluctant (not so) fundamentalists…
When Mira Nair was asked about the process of getting a film financed, pat came the reply, “Lie, scam, bulls***; do whatever you can to get your work done”, before she went on to elaborate the pains she had to take for her debut film, Salaam Bombay. The acclaimed director has quite a large following in Pakistan, and all her sessions were jam-packed. ‘Innay saaray log Mira Nair day waastay?’, loudly questioned a stupefied lady on witnessing the queue before her hall. While trying to secure some time from her so that I may have a word, I was told I’d be contacted on Sunday. Sunday came with a complete absence of either the contact or Ms. Nair. ‘Lies, scams…’, rung in my head.
Masud Ashar made a lot of hilarious comments that had the audience in fits – stereotyping Pathans included, but I guess everyone enjoys a sexual innuendo (as long as it’s not directed at us). Khaled Ahmed on the issue of Mohenjodaro and Pakistan asking India for its dancing lady wondered, “But what will we do with the dancing lady once we have it? Impose Hudood Ordinance on it? Make her cover her head? Behead her?!”
And since it’s Lahore…
No activity in Lahore seems complete without excessive musings over the city’s impressive literary heritage. A number of speakers waxed lyrical about their love for the city in various sessions. And the traditional rivalry between the two cities was again leapt upon. “Lahore is laid back and isn’t in a hurry, it finds time for things like poetry, food and love”, said Shobhaa De before stating which could itself result in a heated debate: “Lahore is like the pampered, beautiful mistress, while Karachi is just the boring wife!”.
Mira Nair kept no qualms about her love for the city and said it’s like home. In the session about The Reluctant Fundamentalist, she went on to state that Faiz Ahmed Faiz is the reason she loves Lahore and made the film. She indignantly expressed that Faiz deserves more in the city than an underpass named after him, “Faiz would be amused to see that he’s now an underpass in Lahore!”
Mohsin Hamid, arguably amongst the biggest crowd-pullers at LLF said that the citizenship of Lahore is greater than that of Pakistan. Lahoris, as expected, always welcomed such comments with a thundering applause that alone could account for a considerable addition to the noise pollution in the city. Not that I’m complaining!
Hina Rabbani Khar made quite some sense in her talks during the session on Afghanistan. The only flip-side is that the group of Lahore’s socialites sitting in the row before mine were more interested in the shoes she was wearing. “Where do you think I can get those?” inquired one.
Kamila Shamsie, who couldn’t be at the debut LLF was a treat to listen to. So absorbing was the discussion on her latest novel, ‘A God in Every Stone’ that the book started selling like hot-cakes as her session ended, while Shamsie happily signed away the copies for the excited buyers, sitting neatly on a desk.
Sherry Rehman in the session on India’s cultural conundrum (though Shobhaa opined the session should be rechristened ‘political conundrum’ instead since that was all the panel could debate upon) had the audience with her in-depth analysis of Pakistan’s current standing and jovial disagreement with Shobhaa’s patriotically shaped opinions. Tehmina Durrani’s session paled in comparison to the magnificent show she put up last year, but was a success nevertheless. As people thronged haphazardly to the stage to have their copy of ‘Happy Things in Sorrow Times’ signed by the elegant author, a frustrated Nusrat Jamil suggested Tehmina to leave the hall. And then there was the kindergarten moment, “We won’t sign any books if you don’t make a line!”. Durrani, however, continued politely to do away with the signings. ‘I finally like Tehmina’, said a guy as he had his copy adorned with the author’s wishes.
Points to ponder…
When Mohsin Hamid was asked if the filming of The Reluctant Fundamentalist had made him uncomfortable, he said that if you’re doing comfortable art, you’re not doing it right. When I asked him which among his novels was his favourite, he said, “Mere teen bachay hain. I just cannot compare!”.
Vikram Seth’s countless talents, including that with words, made for interesting talks. People were seen penning down many of his one-liners, most probably to tweet them later.
Accounts of Kamila’s tireless research she underwent for portraying the Peshawar of the past was an endeavor that inspired many.
Alex Von Tunzelmann’s natural flair for humor came as a relief. The session on imagining cities touched some topics that were as captivating as informative – even if not completely accurate.
As Amit Chaudhari, H.M. Naqvi and Saba Imtiaz contended with the place of fiction in a non-fiction world, the general consensus was that that fiction itself is becoming a class of non-fiction now – since the research in the former is just as real. Something tells me V.S. Naipaul would tend to agree.
In the session about our culture and foreign influences, the exalted panel that included the likes of Intizar Hussain, Asif Farrukhi and Fehmida Riaz, many big things were said before a small thing was asked by a guy from Quetta, ‘How exactly do I define what my culture is?’; the answer lurked somewhere in the air. Fehmida Riaz was of the view that whatever our culture is, it’s not beheading people. Oh, well!
Striking the right chords…
The third day of the festival kick-started with the launch of Mobeen Ansari’s poignant photographic book on Pakistan, ‘Dharkan’. The session, moderated by an eloquent Nadia Jamil incited awws, applause and sighs from the audience in equal measure. The special presentation celebrating the minorities of Pakistan demanded a standing ovation from all. In the session ‘Angraizi Mushaira’, hot tears rolled down the cheeks of some as some bitter memories of 1971 were reminisced. Naheed Siddiqui enthralled the audiences with her exuberant performance on day one. ‘Kathak is poetry of the limbs’, she explained. Mohammed Hanif, otherwise known as Pakistan’s best ‘mango’, had the audience roar with laughter on various occasions. “Irfan Siddiqui is the dullest of them…really!” was his unbridled opinion on Urdu columnists. Jugnu Mohsin’s absorbing and humorous exploration of political satire saw extreme traffic of the people. While her experiences of writing satire on various politicians made for a memorable session (“He seemed to have a sense of humor but only in the beginning,” she presented while referring to how well her satire on Imran Khan was received by him), her mimicry of some politicians resulted in laughter-pangs. Sachal Orchestra at the end of Day Two took away the breath of quite some – not literally though, thankfully. Same goes for Zia Mohiyuddin’s impeccable recitals – he adeptly devised his people through laughter and spontaneous praise. ‘It was so feel-full yaar, so feel-full!’ – exclaimed an over-excited, under-grammatical lady just after one of his sessions.
Missing the right notes…
The technical glitches this time around were something that hadn’t marred the festival last year. Lights went off at times, the projector in Vikram Seth’s ‘An Equal Music’ went bad – depriving the people of a video on Seth’s works. ‘You were gonna love it’, teased the moderator Asim Fareed.
The limited spacing capacity in Alhamra’s Halls (specifically Hall 3 and Baithak) are going to be a concern for the organisers in coming years (I couldn’t get in Pervez Hoodbhoy’s session on Tagore this time, but that’s that for me!).
And the people attending the festival should get a crash-course on the decorum of a litfest – too many over-acting, over-accented folks jumping ferociously like bean-bags on seeing each other just isn’t the sight you’d laud in a festival on books. If it’s a social get-together you care to have, please plan it in Avari next doors.
Lastly, a literature festival should be more inclusive an event than what’s being shaped up in Pakistan. When you’re making a seven-hours drive to attend it, you want to have more opinions than the popular narrative on current affairs. Literature is tolerant of all kinds of voices, so should be the festivals. Not just a mouth-piece of exactly one kind. Good luck LLF! Hoping to see you next year. In better shape!