Fears of a Lahori elite schmoozefest coupled with the counterintuitive idea of a festival about reading, essentially a solitary activity for solitary people, had me sceptical about the first ever Lahore Literary Festival. However, the two days of the event ended up charming me for several reasons, chief among them the festivity they returned to the Lahori spring.
Watching my bevy of students, who had recently been assigned Mohammed Hanif’s ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ as extra reading, brave the pouring rain to get their pirated copies of his book signed at all costs must also have gone some way towards the softening of my stance. A sea of black LLF-logo umbrellas bobbed from Alhamra’s Hall I to II, from the grounds to the food stalls, helping stave off the downpour while keeping the determined spirits of culture-seekers and people-watchers alive. Nothing less than this level of organisation was required to smoothly pull off a festival of this magnitude, attended by 30,000 people over two days.
The evening before, the festival was declared open by the Chief Minister of Punjab who, in an attempt to distance himself from the legacy of General Zia, rued the disappearance of strolling couples on The Mall Road, the Parsis who once formed part of the Lahori landscape and the lost cultural vibrancy of the city and gave his support to this attempt at the revival of Lahore’s cultural landscape.
Tariq Ali’s well-attended keynote speech threw the festival open to the public on the morning of March 23 and in a subsequent session the famous left-leaning intellectual declared his intent to vote for the PTI, an announcement that was apparently met by a hallful of cheering Lahoris. Far from the madding political crowd, however, I attended a session with barely thirty people in attendance, that of Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka on his DSC Prize winning first book, ‘Chinaman — The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’. Moderated by Owen-Bennett-Jones this was an excellent session to attend. Shehan turned out to be just as disarmingly charming as his book and Jones asked him all the right questions, a circumstance that made the pedantic audience’s ‘questions’ even more painful to bear.
The first man who got up did not allow any qualms about clearly never having heard of the book to hinder him from announcing his credentials as Assistant Professor of English at a local college and a member of its Literary Society, no less, in a loud, authoritative tone before asking Shehan something unintelligible. Nonplussed by this attack, the sprightly student volunteers quickly handed over the mike to a middle-aged woman who turned out to be a member of the same cult and pressed on even more urgently about the aforementioned literary society whose mere membership seemed to confer a sense of accomplishment upon its members.
Meanwhile Shehan looked on bemusedly. If there was any residual doubt left in my mind for the need for such a festival, it was cleared up by this practical demonstration of the service such platforms render in updating foggy old professors beyond Hardy and Frost.
Speaking of old, the Lahore in Literature session was marred by an excess of very old and frail panellists (Bapsi Sidhwa, Intizar Hussain and Pran Neville) who should have been balanced out by a few younger faces. Sidhwa, whose work I have a healthy regard for, suffered from a lack of preparation for the session, launching into a never-ending excerpt that did not seem to have any direct bearing upon either Lahore or its Literature.
Rafay Alam the moderator, being young and polite, failed to take the proceedings into his hands as the droning panelists refused to acknowledge the need to connect with the audience. This is where the conflict between the written and spoken word reared its head, writers aren’t meant to be performers and they cannot be judged on the basis of their ability to read their works in a manner as engaging as their writing.
Sometimes though, this is reversed. Moni Mohsin’s accented inflections while reading from her ‘Diary of a Social Butterfly’ enhanced the flavour of her writing brilliantly. The satire session in which she read her work, in fact, turned out to be the best session of the day. The crowd roared at the banter between Mohammed Hanif, Shehan Karunatilaka and Shazaf Fatima Haider facilitated by the irrepressible William Dalrymple. Each of the writers read out a humorous piece from their writings, some bawdy, some satirical which made for a light but thought-provoking session.
‘The Literature of Resistance’ session saw a video message from Arundhati Roy being played on the screen. For me its star attraction was Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh who spoke with great clarity and grace about the problems of being a writer attempting to explain a conflicting situation to the outside world. BBC’s Lyce Doucet was also a star attraction on this panel who spoke about her experiences reporting the Arab spring and her views on Lahore and Pakistan.
If there is one thing the festival did for me, it was to dispel the myth of the writer as unattractive nerd slaving away in a corner on his laptop, unwilling and unable to communicate with a world beyond his words. Most of the authors I listened to, with the exception of the very old ones, were savvy crowd-workers with ready wits and charming personalities, often quite different from what one might have imagined from just reading their works.
Daniyal Mueenuddin, for instance, with his gora looks and accent made for an odd contrast with his subject matter, i.e. the lives of ordinary villagers in rural Punjab. William Dalrymple whose works I haven’t read I had always slotted in my mind as a historian (the word conjures up very dry associations), so his affable charm came as quite a surprise. Writers like Mohammed Hanif and Musharraf Ali Farooqui dispelled my notion of authors as self-obsessed narcissists unwilling to engage with the less accomplished.
On the second day of the festival three back to back sessions left me with little energy to do much else post-lunch so I decided to sit out the rest of the afternoon on the Alhamra steps reading, people-watching and soaking the sun’s rays after a long week of rain and dreariness.
That my city allowed me to do that, for once, without any prying eyes or groping hands was cause enough for celebration, add to that people listening to authors, buying books and engaging with ideas without a bomb blast in sight and I was a happy trooper.
Published in The News on Sunday here