Pakistan appears to be vying to be recognised as a normal country. Consequently, several literary festivals are held throughout the year, mainly funded by foreign donors, primarily in three major cities: Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. This year, too, two festivals were held in different cities but with varied clientele, audience, expectations and socio-political idioms. They also differed in terms of media and elite attention.
Literary festivals are indeed political expressions of both their organisers and audience. The annual festival in Lahore is of an international nature and meant to cater mainly to the English-speaking audience that many would term as a dominant part of the elite. It usually receives a lot of media attention because the organisers know the art of international and national networking. They jealously guard the event and its reputation as the key forum in the city, to bring what they rate as the intellectual cream together. Their organisational politics certainly requires hard work but can also beget similar politics as it happened this year. The 2016 festival got truncated due to security. But everyone including Charley’s Aunt knew that security was just an excuse to shake up the event. There were other issues happening behind the curtains, which was certainly unfortunate, and not correct. The right to dissent is one of the beauties of a healthy democratic system. If a political system does not allow it then there is something wrong.
In any case, the Punjab government ought to have allowed the full festival to go through because this was not a forum that would really be used to generate internal dissent and question behaviour of the political system or the state’s politics. In fact, the elite festivals are largely irrelevant to the masses. These bring home the world to the elite’s ‘doorsteps’ and allow them to listen to dissent in other parts of the planet. Interestingly, both the organisers and audience remain less engaged with domestic dissent. In fact, there were occasions on which voices were curbed and in an almost feudal manner. The organisers took away the right of competitors to invite speakers before they could showcase them. This is hardly the formula for freethinking, free choice and intellectual empowerment. Moreover, while there is enough of display of international networking expressed through foreign speakers, there is very little in terms of local art and culture. What is presented as local is a result of a very cliquish narrative and personality-building.
The other festival held a few hundred kilometers away in Islamabad, was the more indigenous Mother Language Literature Festival. You entered the grounds of the Lok Virsa where this was being held and could smell, feel and see a stark difference with the one mentioned above. It did get some visitors from the city’s intellectual and social elite but majority were middle-class, eager to seek out literature and debate representing their respective linguistic identities. This is an event that would not get easily noticed by the media until there is something worth noticing, which in this case was the final session chaired by the federal minister for information, broadcasting and national heritage.
The festival also denoted a civilised protest against the formula of corporate literary festivals that give little space to local literature and culture. The festival, in many respects, was an embodiment of dissent not just with the corporate sector or the elite but also with the state that has historically been uncomfortable with recognising the significance of people’s primordial identities. There was a lot of political contestation and ‘looking the state in its eyes’. In session after session, speakers touched upon the need for the state to recognise the importance of mother languages and not relegate these to the subservient category of ‘regional’ languages and literature. There are several national languages that need to be recognised and given their due status.
Lest the security state gets nervous, there was also an engagement with the state. Given the diversity of ethnic and linguistic groups in Pakistan, the working language was Urdu. Sitting through the event one could realise how Urdu had turned into a lingua franca that may get accepted open-heartedly as the medium of communication only if the state demonstrated an open heart in accepting other cultures as well.
Furthermore, not all the questioning was directed towards the state. There was an interesting conversation amongst the varied cultures as well. Not just between Punjabis and Sindhis (or others) but also between Baloch and Sindhis. For instance, there was a discussion of how Sindhi theatre and drama depicts the average Baloch. It was interesting to hear about feminist discourse, resistance literature, drama and much more. Sitting there and listening, one appreciated how identity politics and literature were laced with perception of comparative power.
The Mother Language Literature Festival was the first event of its kind. It is hoped that it will be repeated next year with better planning. The gap between different kinds of dissent needs to be bridged. I am particularly referring to the session on mother language and its role in de-radicalisation and peace-building. Almost all speakers at the session tried to emphasise the role that your own language and cultural ethos could play in bringing back memories of peace and harmony. However, little thought was given to the issue that being embroiled in 30 years of radicalisation, war and conflict has left its deep marks on society. We may sing songs and play Sufi music or read good poetry as we used to, but there is something much more fundamental that is required to turn society around. There is almost a naivete to imagine that radicalism cannot go underground and resurface when it needs to.
This is where it becomes relevant for the audience of the Islamabad festival to also hear the discourse of other parts of the world. The event can also be used as a platform to introduce the world to the world-class literature and poetry being written in various languages in Pakistan. There must also be a way to introduce the world to the internationally undiscovered treasures from this land.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 25th, 2016.