Seventy-six-year-old Urdu poet Aftab Iqbal Shamim was left outside the very auditorium where he was supposed to receive a literary award.
His only solace was perhaps that he wasn’t alone. Countless other guests scrambled in vain to enter the venue that they had travelled miles to reach.
What was intended to be an evening of tribute to the country’s literati left both the hosts and the guests red-faced on Thursday.
More than 200 of the country’s most respected intellectuals, writers, scholars and poets were forced to wait under the sun for around two hours at the prime minister’s secretariat. The auditorium had already been declared off-limits to them at least.
Even luminaries such as Iftikhar Arif and Amjad Islam Amjad were made to sit through this series of mismanaged events.
Hundreds of the country’s literati were invited by the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) to a two-day International Conference of Writers and Intellectuals on the theme of “Literature and Democracy.”
But the government set a new benchmark for hospitality when the last-minute venue turned out to be smaller than the number of guests invited.
The invitations sent out by PAL mentioned the National Library Auditorium as the venue. A PAL official, requesting anonymity, told The Express Tribune the academy had made arrangements for 500 participants at the National Library but the venue was changed to the Secretariat Auditorium, next door from the Library, at the last minute.
Most of the participants viewed the change as a move to accommodate the chief guest, Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf.
By noon, only a handful of the invitees were able to make their way to the smaller auditorium, while a crowd of visibly upset writers, poets, essayists and intellectuals thronged the road leading up to the front door of the main Secretariat building.
“The government has upheld its tradition of mismanagement,” said Amjad Islam Amjad, who had been waiting in a shade-less spot for over an hour. “Senior writers should not be treated in this manner.”
Amjad said the writers had gathered at the conference to show their support for a state institution and not the government.
Because of the limited capacity of the Secretariat auditorium, only half of the guests could be accommodated there. The doors to the auditorium were closed once it filled to capacity and participants who could not get in, moved back to the National Library where they waited for another hour for the ceremony to end.
Frustration was evident and a group of writers from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa decided to boycott the inaugural ceremony in protest.
Saadullah Shah, a poet with 35 published books to his name, termed the organisers’ behaviour an “insult” to the literary community”.
Sooraj Sujawal, a Sindhi poet who had travelled from Sujawal, Thatta, expressed dismay at the situation. “This is no way to treat writers and poets.”
Meanwhile, at the ceremony, the prime minister pledged to allocate Rs30 million to PAL to build an auditorium at its H-8 office. Ashraf also announced that the literary awards distributed by PAL would be doubled in value from Rs0.1 million to Rs0.2 million and from Rs0.5 million to Rs1 million.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 11th, 2013.