Lahoris thronged Hall II at 9:30 on a Sunday morning to hear Mohammed Hanif speak about The Baloch Who is Not Missing and Others Who Are. The crowd’s enthusiasm was presumably not shared by the session moderator Rashed Rehman however, who failed to show up, prompting the organizers to hastily replace him with HRCP Director I.A Rehman whose self-deprecating sense of humour proved to be the only bit of relief in a session fraught with guilt-by-association for the Punjabis in attendance. A visibly affected Hanif set aside his one-liners for this one and dwelt at length upon the plight of the missing persons in Balochistan whose families’ continuous protests outside the Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad press clubs have been met with a stony silence by the media. That Hanif himself couldn’t risk discussing the political reasons behind the kidnappers’ motives remained an inescapable irony, however, forcing him to talk about the issue purely in terms of the personal toll it takes upon families. The establishment’s brutal crackdown on what is essentially a separatist movement remained the elephant in the room everybody tiptoed around though there was no shying away from criticism of the army in general, made especially scathing by an Urdu/Punjabi poem penned and recited by Hanif that sought to burst the myth of the ‘Punjabi army’, replacing it with the idea of the institution as a monolith that serves the sole interest of the institution itself. Despite its refusal to mention the Balochistan separatist movement one couldn’t help feeling that just the holding of this session was a bold move on the part of all involved.
Hall II emptied out the moment star attraction Mohammed Hanif exited the stage leaving a handful of people who stuck around for the ‘Narratives in Urdu Fiction’ session with Khalid Toor, Ali Akbar Naatiq and Musharraf Ali Farooqui. A good choice for moderator for this one, Ali Madeeh Hashmi comfortably straddled the Urdu/English divide, enabling him to reach out to the more ‘burger’ members of the audience without alienating those who actually knew something about the subject at hand. Khalid Toor’s reading of his story about a couple of villagers on a buffalo cart attempting to seek shelter from a strong wind proved a superb introduction to his work. The aandhi , not a full blown tornado nor just merely a strong wind, is so indigenous a phenomenon and Toor’s capturing of the rural idiom in a young boy’s voice so authentic that one couldn’t help but rue the possibility of a complete disappearance of such narratives because of the marginalization of local languages. Both Toor and Natiq laughed off such fears, however. Toor refused to ghettoize himself on the basis of the language he chooses to express himself in calling all literature the literature of the world, regardless of language or place, whereas Naatiq felt that the Urdu language is in a more healthy state than ever before thanks to the news and drama boom in the country. The festival, organized for and by the elite, with its inordinate stress on the English language bothered neither author as much as it did the 60-70 people in the audience.
Next session on another Urdu writer, but one who has been embraced by the English-speaking elite in droves, filled all of Hall I. Simply titled ‘Manto’, Ayesha Jalal’s session on her celebrated uncle also served as a vehicle for introducing her upcoming book ‘The Pity of Partition’. In a rather bizarre twist, Jalal’s defense of the idea of Pakistan riled up certain members of the liberal audience who attacked her vociferously for defending the Pakistani ideology. Even the usually abrasive Jalal had to take a few steps back to try and parry the blows. Ali Sethi, the moderator, stepped in at this point to defuse the tension with his characteristic humour and the eventful session came to an end.
Published in The Friday Times here