Article and photographs by Zofeen T. Ebrahim
|Literature fans discover new books at the festival.|
For three full days, from Feb 15-17, Pakistan's Karachi Literature Festival provided a menu designed to tempt the most discerning of literary palates, complemented by an enviable list of authors, writers, poets and journalists.
The place reverberated with discussions, dialogues, readings, conversations on subjects that ranged from social satire to films, from cricket to politics, from secularism to human rights. And the intense discussions were interspersed with theatre, music, poetry, storytelling for children, and puppet shows.
One could not help but notice how surreal the surrounding was. Held at the Beach Luxury Hotel grounds next to the creek, the festival experienced cool breezes and filtered sunlight that made the atmosphere perfect for the event. It was also more accessible and bigger than the previous venue.
Most sessions had packed audiences which showed how starved the dwellers of the violence-riddled city were for an intellectual discourse. "It goes to show that there are still educated people in Karachi," pointed out Farooq Sattar, a politician belonging to Mutahidda Qaumi Movement party.
Amina Saiyid, the director of Oxford University Press, one of the co-organisers, traces the festival’s galloping growth from a modest 35 speakers and 34 sessions back in 2010, to as many as 240 authors and 100 sessions now in its fourth year.
|A panel discusses Afghanistan.|
Fifty of the authors were international, and attendance has risen steadily from 5,000 in 2010 to 10,000 in 2011, and to 15,000 last year. In addition, 23 books were launched. However, the director refuses to bask in the success of the event which she terms "every publisher's dream".
Saiyid, who was awarded the Knighthood of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Ambassador of France in Pakistan, Philippe Thiebaud, got the inspiration from the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF)" which she considers "the mother of all literature festivals in South Asia" (see earlier SWAN article). However, she does not want to tread the same path as the JLF's because it has "become a victim of its own success".
"It's become quite unwieldy and lost the intimacy and connection," she said. For that reason alone, she doesn't want the KLF to become "a totally wild mob scene".
But her co-organiser, Dr Asif Farrukhi, wants to see a "bigger and better" KLF next year, but one that should "reflect Pakistan". Quite satisfied with how the events unfolded, he said he found that the questions asked by the audience after the panel discussions reflected how sharp and knowledgeable they were.
Dr Azra Ahsan, Karachi's leading gynecologist and obstetrician, liked the "festive" atmosphere which she found infectious. She said it gave her a glimmer of hope for Pakistan when she saw the crowd comprising "people of all ages there talking and not fighting".
"The fact that there was so much intellectual stimulation, the opportunity to hear and meet some of the authors and to hear what their thought processes were behind their works" is what psychiatrist Dr Murad Moosa Khan liked best.
|A session on politics and the Pakistani English novel.|
Moderating the session on cricket and cricket writers, Khan said it gave him an "opportunity to get views of those (panelists) who have an in-depth knowledge of the game as well as great writing styles".
But there were some topics that people would like to see in the next KLF.
Sumera Naqvi, a Karachi-based journalist and a literature buff, said while there were sessions on poet Ghalib and short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto, there were other epic literary giants who didn't get even a mention. "Why were poets of the 80s like Habib Jalib and linguists like Jameel Jalibi completely ignored from the literary discourse?"
Also conspicuous by his absence was Mushtaq Yusufi, an Urdu satirical and humour writer.
Psychiatrist Khan felt there should have been a session on the psychological impact of the violence that is happening to Pakistanis. In addition, he said, there was also nothing on "ethics and morality".
"I would like to see both these addressed in future KLF," said Khan.
Farrukhi, himself a writer and a critic, said he would have liked to see more of "Urdu and other Pakistani languages" represented.
But there are people who also expressed the feeling that there was too much discussion on politics.
"It may seem that there were more panels that could be termed political, but how can you separate politics from literature or from life because literature is about life?" countered Saiyid who does not subscribe to knowledge being compartmentalised. "And literature is not just about writing beautifully but also about beautiful thoughts and ideas."
Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.
Editor’s note: The city of Lahore in Pakistan will also hold a literary festival, its first, on Feb. 23 and 24.