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City of Culture

Lahore reclaims its title with its first literary fest

March 2, 2013 12:50:51 am

Ladies and Gentlemen,” said the announcer delightedly,” pinch yourselves,we’re having a literary festival in Lahore!!” A great roar greeted this announcement which marked a somewhat unusual opening statement for a litfest. The young man on stage smiled,nodded and offered a few words about Lahore’s literary tradition,almost lost,now being revived and then he seemed to do a hop,skip and jump,wheeling back to the lectern and repeating,“Ladies and gentlemen,pinch yourselves again,we’re having a literary festival in Lahore”. And this time there was thunderous applause and the LLF had well and truly begun.

Outside,it was raining – but people’s spirits weren’t dampened. They came in large numbers,chatting among themselves about their festival,‘Karachi ka chota bhai’ as someone put it,alluding to the recently concluded Karachi Literature Festival,now in its gloriously successful fourth year and already making its mark internationally.

The home of Punjabi and Urdu poetry and shaiyri,a city whose history is closely entwined with its cultural landscape,a place where the most powerful political statement could be a poem by Faiz,or Kishwar Naheed,a story by Manto or Attiya Dawood,Lahore had for years bemoaned the loss,or disappearance,of this vibrant tradition. For visitors to the festival,it was this confident return of Lahore the city of culture that was most heartening.

A glitch or two apart,the festival was everything the organisers could have wanted. A combination of Pakistani and international writers (some stars,some old,some new,some young,some women,some men),an odd Indian or two,some media people,filmmakers and musicians. The opening address by Tariq Ali,saw him being welcomed enthusiastically back to Lahore,his city. Later Bapsi Sidhwa spoke of how much she loved Lahore,her city and how Lahore featured in all her books. In a special feature in Newsweek,Khalid Ahmed and Pran Neville described Lahore,their city.

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Everyone bemoaned the disappearance of kites from the sky at the time of basant,the loss of this harmless sport being linked to other,more serious losses and fault lines — the closing in of the boundaries of identity for example,the killings of Shias,the outcasting of Ahmediyas. Politics lurked as a constant presence,reminding everyone of how essentially political literature itself is.

Indeed,the politics and the political lurked behind nearly every discussion,whether on satire and humour where Moni Mohsin and Mohammad Hanif offered their takes on the seriousness of humour,or in a discussion on national narratives where Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer told the audience in no uncertain terms how both India and Pakistan had destroyed the lives of ordinary Kashmiris for their own political ends,younger writers writing in English spoke about their work,confident,funny and unembarrassed about their language of choice. Audiences complained good naturedly about the absence of Punjabi,Balochi,Sindhi writers,suggesting that they be invited next time. No matter how strong the political statement,no furore ensued.

For Lahoris the LLF was more than just a festival,it was an occasion to meet old friends,to buy stacks of books,to spend a leisurely weekend in the presence of literature,of film and art,of cinema and of music and dance — so not only were the strictly ‘literary’ sessions full of enthusiastic listeners,but evening events drew large crowds and for those who had the stamina,there were the private parties that followed a mushaira there,a music recital elsewhere. But also,the festival was a statement,a bold and confident one,that Pakistan is not only about war and terror and the Taliban,but it is about good writing and good writers,about celebrating talent and about storytelling and story making.

Taken together then,the two festivals,the bada bhai and the chhoti behen,less than a week apart,herald something important and significant. Even before LLF had ended,people were already talking about the next edition. Karachi’s next edition too is already on the cards. And next time round,people will not be pinching themselves to see if they are dreaming.

Urvashi Butalia is director of Zubaan and co-founder of Kali for Women

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