Before pretending to say anything substantive, it’s worth mentioning that this year’s Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), held at the Carlton Hotel on the 11th and 12th of February, was a very well-organised event. There were no last-minute cancellations, no major administrative hiccups; the organisers, and their team of volunteers had the dodgy sound system under control (for the most part); the attendees seemed interested and aware; and the book stalls, set up by publishers, both big and small, saw a great deal of business. The only blot on the entire festival was the terrible biryani vendor — an insult to a city otherwise known for its art of mingling rice with spices and meat.
If judged on such administrative benchmarks, the event ticked almost all the boxes. Some of the star-studded literature sessions, like the ones featuring Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, Hanif Kureishi and Mohammad Hanif, witnessed packed auditoriums. Similarly, attendees became voluntary sardines to see journalist and flavour of the month Anatol Lieven, author of Pakistan: A Hard Country, talk about his book in one session, about Pakistan’s economic and political challenges in another session, and, with The New York Times correspondent Declan Walsh, on writing about Pakistan from a foreign perspective in a third.
As a friend put it, the salty sea breeze was thick with an air of earnestness. Earnestness on part of the organisers as they rolled out a fairly successful event; earnestness among the audience as they scurried around from one session to another, in pursuit of their preferred panels; and earnestness on part of the speakers as they attempted to present a human (humane?) face to go with their written work.
That said, and this is a completely personal observation, one couldn’t help but notice just how uncontroversial the entire event was. Even the most politically charged session on paper, the one where defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa was supposed to grill Anatol Lieven over his purported admiration for the Pakistan Army, petered out into a meek affair, further mitigated by the late addition to the panel of an apolitical – and completely out of place – novelist, Mohsin Hamid. There were roughly 15 sessions on ostensibly political topics like honour killings, civil war in Balochistan, minority rights, Bangladesh, and nuclear weapons. Yet almost all were conducted in the same sterile, art-for- art’s-sake context reserved for the festival’s literary discussions. Speakers speaking for a few minutes to a largely homogeneous, upper-class audience carrying concerned expressions.
This sterility, though, is nothing new. In fact, over the last three decades, it has become entrenched in the very nature of how politics is viewed by the upper echelons of Pakistan’s urban, educated class — as a collection of “problems” meant to be resolved through technical deliberation. This essence was captured, almost poetically, in one of the sessions, when a former ambassador to the United States prophetically remarked that Pakistan’s biggest challenge is its fledgling economy, and how its salvation requires the population to set aside politics and work towards the “national” interest. A member of the audience took this as a cue, and showered us with some (derived) wisdom about how strict anti-corruption laws could solve Pakistan’s corruption problem. There was resounding applause at the mention of this technocratic, exogenous solution to what is, in reality, an endogenous, political problem.
Beyond all of this, what remains interesting is that the presence of these sessions at the Festival points towards another trend in Pakistan. Apolitical as it may be, the KLF demographic, by default or by design, has ceased to be apathetic. They recognise Pakistan’s problems: the civil-military imbalance, the question of a very public and assertive form of Islamism, the issue of provincialism and regional identity, the persistence of gender discrimination and patriarchy, and the existence of endemic poverty. And yet, they’re fairly clueless on how to go about bringing structural change. Their earnestness and new-found positivism are appreciable, but their insular existence and general mistrust of anything outside of a neatly constructed, consumerist bubble – whether trade unions, political activists, or working-class organisations – are incredibly damaging.
Writing this, one doesn’t need to be particularly clairvoyant to predict the handwringing and disapproving headshakes that will follow such a blatantly political reading of a literature festival. Yet, if anything, these observations stem from the very fact that political issues were, for whatever reason, added on the agenda. If, for example, Dalrymple had stuck to talking about his writing, as opposed to the Taliban; or there had been two more sessions on regional language verse, like Nukhbah Langah’s talk about the evolution of Seraiki poetry; or there had been more from stonemason-turned-Urdu poet and short story writer Ali Akbar Natiq on experiential expression, nobody would’ve raised any justified objections.
Based on what actually transpired though, the Karachi Literature Festival resulted in two things: apolitical sterility and insularity stifling political conversations, and, subsequently, an unfulfilled demand for more literature
Originally published in India's daily Business Standard on 18/02/2012