The Karachi Literature Festival’s literati list was enough to leave even the most jaded of literary enthusiasts star-struck.
Saturday morning saw enthusiasts from across the spectrum – fiction lovers, political aficionados and history fans, all congregating in Carlton Hotel and filling up the main garden for the event launch even before the sessions kicked off.
And the audience wasn’t disappointed. Keynote speaker, historian and writer William Dalrymple, proved to be an engrossing presenter, discussing his upcoming work, The Return of a King, on the first Afghan war held in 1839. Dalrymple shared an excerpt on how 18,000 troops sent by the British marched off to Kandahar with only one managing to come back home alive.
The author also shed some light into the sheer effort that goes into writing a historical book, saying that he had spent hours sifting through documents in the state archives in Lahore’s Anarkali.
“That place is not being used by anyone,” said Dalrymple.
Some well-placed one-liners earned hearty laughs from the crowd, but the speech took a graver tone when he described the brutal way the troops were killed by the Afghans, drawing gasps from the audience.
Dalrymple also knew how to keep the mood upbeat: “From this, Bush and Blair can get history lessons,” he joked. “Americans know that their game is over but politicians deny. It is the last stage for America. Next it will be China,” he said, as he left the stage to a loud round of applause.
The podium was shared by US Ambassador Cameron Munter’s wife, Dr Marilyn Wyatt, who started off by sharing her personal reading experiences. Referring to how reading was an essential activity for her, she added: “Imagine how life is for those for whom reading does not exist”.
Wyatt said that the US embassy, in collaboration with the Oxford University Press (OUP), had set up a stall for a campaign, ‘Donate a book so a child can read,’ at the festival. The embassy also plans to set up libraries in ten schools around the city.
Country Director for the British Council, David Martin, also placed fiction outside of the subcontinent in the spotlight, highlighting that this was a ‘special year’ as the 200th anniversary of literature icon Charles Dickens was being commemorated.
Founding member of the KLF, Asif Farrukhi, emphasised the inclusionary vision of the festival. Referring to a poem by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, he quoted the line “the eagerness to see things from all sides,” saying it symbolised the spirit of the festival.
Most importantly, perhaps, was a focus on diversity, which was visible in the wide range of genres and languages visible in the session titles and who’s who list of participants. Ameena Saiyid, managing director of OUP, said that sessions in English, Seraiki, Sindhi, French and German would be held to highlight the vibrant nature of linguistics on display. In October, she added, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa would have its own literary event to look forward to when a children’s literature festival will be held in Peshawar.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2012.