A movable feast - Ghazi Salahuddin - Sunday, February 13, 2011

Source : http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=30976&Cat=9&dt=2/13/2011

When you open a good book, perhaps a great novel, you are magically transported to another world. Attending the Karachi Literature Festival, held last weekend, was a similar experience. For two lively and heady days, the venue became an enchanted place where literary luminaries and book lovers had a movable feast. In some ways, it was an unreal encounter in a city that is remarkably lacking in cultural and intellectual attributes.

Already, after the passage of less than a week, it seems as distant as a dream. We do have our infrequent escapades, in our private spaces, in this unloved and socially disjointed city. But the KLF was a celebration to which everyone who wanted to come was invited. And hundreds of them came and had a wonderful time.

A dynamic interaction between writers, critics and readers is surely necessary to nurture a society’s creative impulses. Given the state of our intellectual infrastructure, ranging from the state of our libraries to the quality of discourse that is possible on our campuses, the KLF may be seen as an assertion of our longing for cultural survival. It is also to be noted that this second KLF came at a time when there is a perceptible rise in obscurantism and intolerance in the wake of the murder of Salmaan Taseer. In that sense, it became a morale booster for the liberal intelligentsia in a climate of fear and uncertainty.

My purpose here is not to review the event. It would hardly be possible in a column when it had more than one hundred speakers, panelists and moderators. I am also not making any reference to its shining stars or to the salient points they raised in their presentations. It is gratifying that the festival was widely covered, mainly by the English language print media.

As an aside, it is instructive that activities that relate to Urdu literature are more seriously reported in the English newspapers, while the Urdu dailies generally cater to a conservative and relatively less sophisticated readership. This is just one dimension of the crucial and complex Urdu-English divide in our society, irrespective of the fact that Urdu literature, particularly Urdu poetry, remains the most eloquent expression of our collective genius and our experience as a community.

I have repeatedly lamented what I see as the subversive implications of using English as a means for empowerment. This was my main argument in my column on last year’s KLF. This time I felt that there was a more useful mingling of the two languages in a number of sessions. Still, it was English that had a larger sway and not just because it was sponsored by the British Council and the Oxford University Press, with assistance from the US and the French Consulates.

As a consequence, the occasion did have an elitist bias. It would also have mattered that the venue was very far from the more populous neighbourhoods of Karachi and had the ambience of a resort, tucked away as it is on the edge of the vast Defence Housing Authority enclave. In any case, the attendance was very impressive and there was a good sprinkling of the young.

While the focus, understandably, was on literature, it was good that the festival also had a conceptual linkage with our dominant concerns as a society, highlighting the presence of scholars, social critics and performing artists. There was a session on ‘the writing of history without bias’. Another probed the challenge of ‘re-imagining Pakistan’. Very topical was the panel discussion on ‘literature in the age of extremism’. Some prominent commentators of the current affairs participated in a session titled: ‘taking stock: where is Pakistan now?’ There was one lecture on ‘geopolitics and literature’ in a Pakistani context.

The point I am stressing is that though the festival was a celebration of joy and excitement, it did not duck the burning issues that constitute the sorrows of Pakistan. Indeed, literature has a way of interpreting social upheavals and conflicts in the mirror of individual lives. Some of the world’s greatest novels have woven their tales around wars and revolutions that convulsed the world. So, how would our present predicaments illuminate the works of our writers and poets?

Ah, we do have Faiz who became the conscience of a nation struggling for freedom and dignity. His poetry is also the celebration of the creative potential of a people who have forever been betrayed by their rulers. It was fitting that the Karachi Literature Festival concluded with a tribute to Faiz, including with musical renditions from his stirring verse.

We know that 2011 is being observed as the centenary of his birth and some major events are taking place this weekend in Lahore. But today is exactly his birth anniversary. He was born on February 13, 1911. This should have prompted me to devote the column exclusively to Faiz and there was an occasion to dip into some personal memories. But I felt constrained to commemorate a festival that relates to the urgency of mobilising our intellectual resources to liberate this country from the dark forces of ignorance and fanaticism. It would, in a journalistic sense, be dated as the peg for a column.

Still, Faiz is an abiding point of reference for all such activities. We have the rest of the year to recite Faiz and to invoke his poignant message to affirm our will to lead a meaningful and spiritually exalted existence. Now, I am also not able to write in any detail about the glorious victory of the people of Egypt who changed history when President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down on Friday evening.

That such a revolution can take place in a Muslim country and led by unarmed populace is something that calls for a proper analysis in the context of the confused and uninformed slogans for a revolution that are raised in Pakistan. Watching that spectacle in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I thought that the most appropriate caption of that event would be Faiz’s moving words: “Hum dekhain gey, lazim hai key hum bhi dekhain gey...”.

A question that is often raised is whether poets and writers can bring about tangible political change. One answer was provided by poet Ted Hughes when the Poetry International Festival was first held in London in 1967. He said; “If the various nations are ever to make a working synthesis of the ferocious contradictions, the plan of it and the temper of it will be created in spirit before it can be formulated or accepted in political fact. And it is in poetry that we can refresh our hope”.

This means that Faiz and other poets of his tribe would finally be our saviours.

The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail. com

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