Pakistan is pretending to survive terrorism through literature festivals the ideological state is hardly able to support without cringing. Yet, these are building loyal followers in cities like terror-haunted Karachi, the madrasa-haunted Islamabad, ever-conservative Lahore, with its memories of more pluralist days under the Raj, and old Lyallpur, renamed Faisalabad after a Saudi king, which can’t account for why it doesn’t have a bookshop, despite being the country’s third-largest city.
On February 25, the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF 17), held at Faletti’s Hotel, Lahore, kicked off with a conversation, after a bomb blast that everyone thought was the work of ISIS. Kamila Shamsie, who lives in London and Karachi and is the author of novels like Salt and Saffron, Broken Verses and Burnt Shadows, made British comic writer-actor Michael Palin talk about his Monty Python’s Flying Circus days, which he wrote as he travelled the world looking for something to laugh about.
He mused: “I don’t think comedy and seriousness are incompatible. Comedy is very often a way of confronting the darkest things in life. I love observing human behaviour. Others may see desperation and despair, but I have a highly developed sense of the ridiculous which keeps me from deepest gloom. Having said that, I take the opportunities to pursue my insatiable curiosity very seriously. I’ve made documentaries about artists and I’ve written novels, which I hope will be taken as seriously as they are intended. But if I have a fatal flaw, it’s excessive flippancy.”
Editor of Newsweek Pakistan, Fasih Ahmed, led another conversation about “fake news” with scholar Nermeen Shaikh, author of The Present as History: Critical Perspectives on Global Power, Ahmed Rashid, author and Taliban-watching journalist, Max Rodenbeck, a Cairo-based American journalist, and Qasim Noman of Newsweek. The session highlighted insights that today’s intensely partisan consumers of information might have found shocking: “Fake” is when something is cooked up and passed off as news. “Fake” is also when what you think is reality is not projected. What has happened in several places is a polarisation of the public mind over which way the globalised world should go, now that the Pax Americana presiding over it is unwilling to protect it. In Europe, the “confederal” idea of doing away with the nation state that caused two World Wars in the 20th century, had exhausted its intellectual dominion; the voting public thought, any fact not in favour of undoing the “union” was fake.
In dysfunctional states as Pakistan, political polarisation is complicated by the difficulties of publicising facts because of a fear of being killed by terrorists or being “disappeared” by the deep state. The word the discussion at Faletti’s used was “living in an information bubble”, of social media, and dismissing facts unflecked with the bias you live with. The dismissal of non-partisan facts through hate speech has become the dominant mode of political discourse in Pakistan. This discourse is rampant also in the politics of Donald Trump in the United States and Marine le Pen in Europe. Unfortunately, “fake news” targets mainly Muslims in both continents, while Muslims are unable to take time out from killing each other to do anything about it.
Lahore’s most respected intellectual, poet Faiz’s daughter, Salima Hashmi, talked to American artist and illustrator Molly Crabapple, agreeing that “art can be used to stand against authoritarian regimes” and a divorce of art from the court of the rich must be accomplished. Lahore’s bomb-harassed citizens could hardly believe the message, convinced as they are that their country should keep resisting the normalisation of relations — which means forgetting Kashmir and opening free bilateral trade — despite India’s high-flying economy that could spend Pakistan under the table on weapons.
The New York Times book critic Dwight Garner examined Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid on his four novels, Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, and Exit West, and a book of essays cleverly reversing Freud’s great essay, Discontent and Its Civilisations. After that, Mohsin Hamid regaled the Lahore audience with his questioning of Nigerian writer Teju Cole, who “peppered the conversation with references to the writer’s works and explored the ramifications of the post-Trump world”.
From Bangladesh, the great old Pakistani actress Shabnam Ghosh arrived at the LLF 17, like a rebuke from the past, and touched the hearts of the older generation when she reminisced, “The film industry was like a family back then. We all got together to help if any one of us got into a crisis.” When Pakistan changed in 1971, she had to run away to newly-formed Bangladesh, just like the Pakistani actors who fled Mumbai after India became toxically inward-looking.
Celebrated Urdu writer Zehra Nigah likewise introspected on the good times that are no more, with Lahore’s beloved professor Arfa Syeda Zehra obstinately resisting what Pakistan wants to become. Nigah, like some others at the festival, was a godsend for those “inebriated with the spoken word” in a society that has forgotten how to speak Urdu well.
And Urdu continues to defy the written form by not having the punctuation marks that freeze speech in sub-clauses.