In its fourth year, the Karachi literature festival (KLF) has become a public event that brings together the cosmopolitanism and the fissiparous identities of Karachi. One of the greatest consolations of today’s Pakistan is the quiet yet formidable growth of this festival as a cultural marker. Such has been its influence that Lahore – otherwise deemed as the cultural centre of Pakistan – has now kicked off its very own literary festival.
The fourth KLF was a bigger event than its past lives. The list of organizers and partners has also grown over the years, but the credit for weaving it all together belongs to the indefatigable Ameena Saiyid, MD Oxford University Press. Little wonder that the world continues to recognize her contributions, as Saiyid was recently conferred the Knight of the Order of Arts & Literature by the French government.
KLF attracted thousands of people from Karachi, and beyond. This time, I noticed that the majority of the attendees were from the younger generation, with a large number of schoolchildren involved in a parallel world of books, storytelling, art and simple fun activities. Of course, a liberal bubble is always deceptive, and on day two the tragic incident in Quetta – which killed and injured hundreds of Hazaras – shook the participants. Despite the action packed days, the Hazara killings loomed large and most sessions articulated a strong condemnation of the ghastly massacre.
The festival started with another, albeit lesser, tragedy. Gulzar ji, the celebrated Indian poet, lyricist, and filmmaker, decided not to attend KLF after his brief sojourn in Lahore and his birthplace Dina. Prior to KLF, I had been most excited about conducting a session with him and another formidable talent, Vishal Bhartwaj, the avant-garde Indian filmmaker. The last time I had met Gulzar ji was at Ghalib’s birthday celebrations at Delhi, where I walked with him like a shamelessly smitten fan. Ameena Saiyid read out Gulzar ji’s letter in which he had apologized for his absence by saying, “Mujh se naraaz na hona” in his simple and evocative style. The wretched Indo-Pakistan politics continues to haunt cultural exchanges. Perhaps it was the post Afzal Guru scenario played up by the so-called security experts, or his emotionally draining trip to his birthplace that rendered him incapable of further staying in Pakistan. Either way, it was the curse of history that kept us all away from listening to Gulzar ji. Apparently, he composed this couplet upon his return to India, in a spirit of defiance: “Shehr-e-Pak mein agarche ghar banana mana hai; qabr ik basana chahoon main wahan toh kyun nahi” (Even though it is prohibited to build a house in a Pakistani city / I could wish for my grave to be built there).
KLF, otherwise, kept me pretty occupied with an eclectic variety of sessions, some of which I moderated. The first one was with Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s about his new book; ‘Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian scientists speak out.’ Hoodbhoy has compiled this book with this question which he reiterated at the KLF: “Are we safer today than before we acquired the nuclear bomb?” Sadly the answer can only be in the negative as Hoodbhoy reminded us all. This was a spirited session with a huge, enthusiastic audience, endless questions and a generous dose of Hoodbhoy’s wry witticisms. To one of my earnest questions, he asked me to hold on and told the audience how telling it was that Dr. Qadeer Khan (who flaunts the fatherhood of Pakistani bomb) had joined hands with the Jamaat-e-Islami. Having spoken at an earlier book launch in Islamabad, I found the difference between the two audiences staggering. In the patriots’ capital, many hyper-nationalists undermined Hoodbhoy’s worldview, but most at KLF agreed with his position[s]. […]