The unofficial guide to the Karachi Literature Festival

With 150 names to choose from in just two days, The Express Tribune gives you the low-down on the high brow.

Imran Yusuf February 11, 2012


The programme starts with a bang: ‘superstar writer’ Shobhaa De. Eleven ‘o’clock might be too early for some to digest the glamorous Mumbai writer of steamy potboilers, but there is a curious sub-plot. Will the Amazonian Shobhaa eat her mild-mannered moderator Asif Noorani for brunch? One hopes not, for if all goes to plan Mr Noorani will coax some fantastic stories about big egos and beautiful evenings from her days as Editor of Stardust.

More earnest types will have opted for ‘Changing paradigms of Literature: Urdu and beyond’, which is sure to be fizzing with fun ideas but, with its use of the word ‘paradigm’, has already ensured that only earnest types will attend.

Meanwhile, navel-gazers are expected to be at ‘Megacities’, where the gloriously unbuttoned HM Naqvi will hold forth on the urban condition alongside the coolest old-timer in Karachi, Arif Hasan.

At high noon, the blazing bad boy of British fiction Hanif Kureishi rides into town. The only damper is that he will be moderated by Muneeza Shamsie. Surely a more provocative, prodding muse could have been found, one who can begin a conversation with Kureishi with the word ‘sex’ and then end it threatening him with the real thing. Why isn’t he being interviewed by Veena Malik?

Perhaps Veena will be at ‘Women Writing Women’, speaking about her tattoos, for otherwise one sees little point in carving a space for such a special-needs literary sub-species in 2012. That is, until one sees the session is moderated by the wife of the US Ambassador and then it all makes sense: a must-attend for all budding young festival-goers intent on networking the hell out of KLF.

Also at 12pm, two legends of old-school Pakistani journalism, Ahmed Rashid and Khaled Ahmed, will go over new Pakistani narratives being formed in contemporary fiction. Sure to be a tidy, learned chat, this will be like listening to your two favourite uncles, only these guys will be more sober and erudite.

Rashid and Ahmed can talk of fiction all they like, but one also hopes they are able to throw in their unique knowledge of the appetites of every maulvi east of the Suez. That might generate the velocity any festival worth its sponsorship needs.

Alongside these sessions, novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab is teaching a masterclass in creative writing while a troupe performs Dickens in the theatre. Dickens is all very well, but what the Pakistani upper-middle classes need are performances of Tennessee Williams; in fact, that’s what the American ambassador should lobby for.

It’s then time for a well-earned lunch, when readers will pretend not to stare at authors and authors will eat biryani with warranted self-consciousness.

At 2pm we have a conversation between Anatol Lieven and Ayesha Siddiqa, two experts on Pakistani politics, particularly military politics. Thus, the most fun is to be had picking out the ISI goons in the audience.

Meanwhile, Urdu and English letters go head-to-head, with Intizar Hussain and others in one room and Mohsin Hamid and co. in another. Both crews sport terrific writers but don’t actually have a new book out between them, so perhaps it’s worth checking out a random German, Jurgen Frembgen, who launches his Nocturnal Music in the Land of the Sufis at the same time.

Next there is ‘Tolerance Through Children’s Literature’ which, judging from the title, is sure to extinguish any interest in reading your kids may have had.

Mohammad Hanif’s latest book has been out for a while, but a session with him is worth the entrance fee alone, which is admittedly free, but then so is laughter, something guaranteed from this talk with the author of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti at 4pm. Incidentally, the highly rated Indian author Siddharta Deb will be speaking in another room. One hopes everyone is attending Mohammad Hanif, so Deb can research a coruscating essay on Karachi, write it up, and leave town before he can say ‘Gotcha’.

From 5pm to 6pm there is a chat about Ibn-e-Safi, a great way to bring in the sunset and prepare for dark deeds ahead. Indeed, from 7 to 10pm there will be an extensive ‘Mushairah’ session. With the combined reputation of poets and the Carlton Hotel, these after-hours could be the most interesting of the lot.

On the Sunday, 10am has everything a person could want: Khaled Ahmed and co. talking about Bangladesh, ‘Reading Urdu Classics Today’, ‘Literary Criticism’ with Hanif Kureishi and Aamer Hussain, and to top it all, ‘Rock and Roll Jihad’ by Salman Ahmed of Junoon. It might be best to avoid making a decision and go out for halva puri. Three serious political discussions, the pick being one on the Arab Spring, vie for attention with a satire and comedy session between 11am and 12pm.

Following that, there’s a talk on legal reforms for Pakistani women as well as one on ‘Nuclear Pakistan: An Overview of the Strategic Dimension’. To save time, the organisers should perhaps merge these; they are surely related; they might even be the same thing.

Following lunch is Vikram Seth, for my money the biggest draw of the weekend. Seth is ideal literary festival material: a brilliant writer whose work stands tall on its own, but also a lively, lovely speaker who will charm the pants off even those wearing burqas. If, however, you do not wish to part with your underwear, ‘Pakistani Languages’ is in another room.

At 4pm we have ‘Electoral Malpractices during the 2008 Elections in Pakistan’, which might be very topical and very urgent, but sounds very unlike literature to these ears.

At 5pm historian Ayesha Jalal fights for audience members with filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, but this hour is best spent sipping sundowners to prepare for Hanif Kureishi’s speech at 7pm and then a concert by Salman Ahmed, which one hopes will be better than his performance at Imran Khan’s Karachi jalsa.

Then, finally, we can all go home and read a book.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2012.


Rashid Ashraf | 9 years ago | Reply

Dear Sohail Sahab! Thanks for mentioning ibne safi in your report. i have fully covered the said program, recorded videoz and took pictures of speakers. Now i am writing an article on Ibne Safi-Eik Naey Andaz Main"

Rashid Ashraf Karachi

Ayesha | 9 years ago | Reply

Just what I needed to read, in a painless format - the schedule as it stands is rather bald and uninformative : )

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