KARACHI: After charters of compassion, warnings of a clerical tsunami, conversation, criticism and several thousand cups of coffee, the two-day Karachi Literature Festival came to a close on Sunday.
For those cynical souls who thought the event would fizzle out or would, at best, be attended only by the authors’ families and friends, the first session alone was enough to make them realise their error.
Arriving at 10:15am on the first day, I fully expected that I’d at least get a seat in the massive Carlton ballroom. My arrival was, after all, perfectly in tune with Pakistan Standard Time, as the session was scheduled for 10am. Instead, I found myself standing outside the entrance, as the standing-room only crowd obscured my view of the podium. Nor was it the size of the crowd that took me by surprise, but also its composition.
There were the familiar faces: the artists, the literati, the diehard leftists etc., but there were also college and high school students and even a few primary school kids who, to their credit (and their parents’ relief) managed to sit through some very heavy sessions. Karen Armstrong’s not a big hit with the Cartoon Network crowd just yet, you see.
Compared to the first Literature Festival, this one attracted about four times as many people, as both the overworked Oxford University Press staff and the hotel employees will testify. Standing at the gate, I saw visitors alighting from rickshaws and taxis as well as from Humvees and Land Cruisers.
Clearly, this wasn’t just an occasion to display the latest in Prada bags or Hobo chic but a gathering of those who were genuinely interested in the topics being discussed and those discussing them. From the symbolism of Lollywood to debates on the writing of history, from the future of Pakistan itself to children’s stories, there was hardly a topic or genre the festival didn’t cover.
And there were moments of levity as well. In one of the many sessions, Mohammad Hanif recounted the story of when he was called upon to speak at a function hosted by former Karachi Jews in Israel.
An exhausted, but delighted Syed Mashhood Rizvi (Sindh director of the British Council) pointed out that this festival attracted four times as many people as the previous one, and that there are even grander plans for the next one. While this festival also included Sindhi and Punjabi writers, the next one will focus even more on the many languages of Pakistan, and will also invite writers and critics from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. The KLF prize for the best non-fiction book went to ‘The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan (1947-2008)’ by Ilhan Niaz.
As the sun set and Laal prepared to take the stage with Ali Sethi in a tribute to Faiz, I left, having belatedly realized that there were stories to file and deadlines to meet. But I left with the feeling that it wasn’t really the end, but a beginning. See you next year.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2010.