I returned last week from Lahore where I had gone to attend the Lahore Literary Festival for a session on my book Gold Dust of Begum Sultans. The day after my arrival there was a bomb blast in Defence Housing Authority, an elite residential area with upmarket stores and restaurants. The blast occurred late morning at an under-construction site. It killed eight persons and injured 36. Ten days earlier, outside the Punjab Assembly at a place called Charing Cross, 14 persons were killed in a khud kush hamla (suicide attack), responsibility for which was claimed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Given this and alerts of a series of explosions in Lahore, the festival’s fate was uncertain.
On my second day, I heard sounds of sirens outside the house where I was staying. This was yet another posh area, Gulberg. With many others, I rushed to the gate. Later it was confirmed that this was a hoax. My first thought was a bomb blast in Gulberg meant the death of the Litfest. But what brought me to tears was the realisation of the precariousness of the lives of the ordinary people of this beautiful city. In an article, ‘When fear takes over’, published in Dawn the day after the blast, Nasir Jamal wrote about the mother who rushed to her daughters’ school when she received “unconfirmed” reports about an explosion at an American fast food chain’s outlet, which is close to the school. “It was like I had already died. The message numbed my mind and body totally”. With a sinking heart I thought that for parents — whether in Lahore, Karachi, Quetta or Peshawar — this trauma is a daily occurrence. Faiz Ahmed Faiz had written of times such as these when the arts will become casualties of oppressive forces:Jab khoon e jigar barfaab hua aur aankhen aahan posh huein/ Ye saaz kahan sar phodenge iss/kil ke gauhar ka kya hoga (When blood will turn ice and eyes become iron clad/ Where will instruments smash their music/ Pearl-words, where will they go?)
This prophecy has been fulfilled time and again for the people of South Asia, particularly in Pakistan. The three-day festival was curtailed to one day. Its original venue, Al Hamra, was declared a security risk by the Punjab government. So the organisers scrambled to hold it in Hotel Avari, which also did not work. The venue was shifted once again to Faletti’s Hotel. This triple-shift in two days meant a drastic reduction in footfall. This deprived people who came from all over Punjab and elsewhere for a rich fare of creative writing, contemporary arts, issues and debates in literature, politics and media.
I could only salute the resilience of the organisers, in particular Razi Ahmed and Nuscie Jameel. As the lone Indian delegate, I wanted to applaud them and the entire audience that came out. Next time people tell me I am brave to go to Lahore, I will feel sorry for their timid banality. My session on elegy poetry became, for me, a metaphor for the times we live in. But what has continued to stay with me is the short poem by Zehra Apa, Suna hai jungalon ka bhi koi dastoor hota hai, about the law of the jungle where small and big animals co-exist and get together to defend her if the earth is at risk. It ends with invoking Allah to give humans jungalon ka dastoor.
I.A. Rahman in his piece in Dawn (March 2) says it all: “ Disruption of normal life and creation of a climate of fear are rewards the terrorists cherish the most. While all precautions must be taken to save lives…one must not forget the dictum that sometimes it is necessary to die for saving life.”