The third Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) just concluded a few days ago, and what an event it was! Inspired by other such literary festivals, the KLF is the brainchild of the dynamic managing director of Oxford University Press Pakistan, Ameena Saiyid and art critic Asif Farukhi. In a parched land where discourses on a failed state, terrorism, and a fledgling economy are staple, it was indeed a breath of fresh air.
Such big festivals are a rather complicated matter, since they seem to be about everything. The neighbouring, and much larger, Jaipur Literature Festival, is certainly five days of multiple themes, ideas and people, which at times have nothing in common. However, such diversity is usually what attracts a broad cross section of people. The KLF, too, was a mix of themes and ideas, which made some people perceive it as being badly organised, but others a chance to partake in events they might have otherwise not attended. From my personal experience, I can say how exhilarated I felt when I attended the Urdu mushaira at the end of the first day. I had not attended such an event for about a decade, and listening to poetry in Urdu made me realise how disconnected a certain section of our society is with this critical part of our culture. The branching out of an English-based festival into Urdu is a commendable step.
The festival also included highbrow literary talk, including an interview of Vikram Seth by Shaista Sirajuddin and of Hanif Kureishi by Muneeza Shamsi, which were great treats for literature specialists, as well as more general talk by various other authors and commentators. There were also panels on literary criticism, modern fiction writing in Pakistan and creative writing workshops. Luminaries like William Dalrymple, Hanif Kureishi, Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Muneeza Shamsie, Kamila Shamsie, and others mingled freely with the participants, allowing people to interact with them on a personal level. I was glad that the organisers did not specially invite high-profile government officials since their security details usually sour the egalitarian nature of such events. That said, the inimitable Sanam Bhutto attended both days, shuttling between the various interesting panels without any visible security.
As with other such events, the KLF could not all just have been about literature. After all, themes in literature are dependent on and emerge from our everyday lives and so, there were also panels on history, politics, art, culture and even pedagogy. From listening to Ayesha Jalal talk passionately about her uncle Saadat Hasan Manto, to Ayesha Siddiqa taking on Anatol Leiven and his assertions about Pakistan, the KLF gave some depth to the everyday discussions we have in our drawing rooms. An elating concert by Salman Ahmed rounded off the KLF to everyone one dancing his tunes.
Not everyone was happy about the KLF. Obviously, not everyone could be accommodated in the already-packed weekend and others were unhappy with the limited time they had at their panels. Also, some panels did indeed seem very random and the usual mix of a late start, faulty sound system, and people talking for too long, left a lot of people underwhelmed.
However, what needs to be understood is that such a festival simply cannot be all encompassing and only in its third year, cannot be perfectly organised. More importantly, the real problem in Pakistan is that we only have one literature festival. Compare us with the UK, which has less than a third of our population and that country has over three hundred such festivals dotted throughout its cities and the countryside. The lack of such festivals at the local level puts the one larger one on a pedestal where its success becomes dependent on the satisfaction of all.
The KLF has shown, for the third year, that Pakistan has an amazing range of people who want to get together, talk about their work, learn from others, and help others realise their potential and hidden talents. All we now need is about a thousand KLFs.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2012.