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February 8, 2015

Another Karachi is possible


February 8, 2015


There is verily a touch of fantasy in the Karachi Literature Festival, an annual event that momentarily brightens the horizon of a city that is continually darkened by violence and disorder. And its sixth edition this weekend is particularly uplifting because of the gloom cast by recent events.
As I write these words on Saturday morning, I can only recall the excitement of its inaugural ceremony on Friday evening, enveloped in a gentle breeze at the Beach Luxury Hotel. Its highlight was the keynote address by Indian writer Nayantara Sahgal, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit.
Hence, the stage was set for two entire days of hectic and, in a sense, spiritually and intellectually exhausting proceedings. That is how literary festivals are designed but it becomes an exceptional experience for us because of the debilitating deprivations of our daily lives. So, for many thousands of Karachi’s educated citizens, this weekend is almost an escape from reality.
But it would still be hard to shut yourself off from Karachi. Indeed, a festival of this kind provides an opportunity, among other things, to explore various facets of our national state of affairs. One may pick out a number of sessions focused on specific issues of public interest. We have a very formidable gathering of the country’s men of letters. Writers have also come from other countries.
It would not be possible, in this space, to go into any detail about the distinguished participants or the themes of the numerous sessions. Besides, the summing up will have to wait until the festival is over. Then, too, the rush of memories and impressions could be overwhelming. But within the exclusive limits of the inauguration, I have an excuse to talk about Karachi.
It so happened that I had the privilege of speaking on behalf of the newly formed Karachi Consortium, after the founders of the festival, Ameena Saiyid and Asif Farrukhi had made their welcome remarks. Karachi

Consortium has launched the ‘I am Karachi’ campaign to strive for peace in a city of violence and its presence was visible on the venue.
As someone who has chronicled the sorrows of this city, I was constrained to note that the situation had worsened in recent years and called for a concerted and well-structured civil society initiative to make Karachi more human. We would need comprehensive social and cultural engagements to heal the wounds of Karachi and to inspire hope, pride and ownership in the citizens. The main task is to bring people together for the cause of peace and social advancement.
With 30 founding members and more than 100 individuals and civil society organisations as supporters, the consortium is in the process of developing its structure and its programmes to try to reclaim the city’s public and social spaces. Given the circumstances that have made it one of the most dangerous cities in the world, the challenge is forbidding.
However, an attempt is being made to assemble social activists who have mostly been active in their own spheres and create a momentum for peace. A literary festival, of course, is a shining manifestation of the cultural vitality of a city. That is why it makes sense that this year’s KLF has an affiliation with the ‘I am Karachi’ campaign.
In my remarks, I said that the battle for Pakistan’s survival will have to be fought and won in Karachi. After all, Karachi is not only the engine of economic growth, it is also the largest reservoir of talent, ambition and enterprise in the country. Karachi’s diversity should be seen as an asset for social and economic development. Everything will change when Karachi is at peace with itself.
In a larger perspective, we have to contend with the history of the freedom movement and how Karachi was transformed in the wake of the partition. We had some intimations of our historical legacy in Nayantara Sahgal’s address. She chose to give it the title: ‘Insanity Fair’. About her cultural identity, she said it had elements of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and atheism and could not be reduced to anything simpler. We know she lives in North India.
It was her reference to Urdu that prompts deep thoughts about the evolution of linguistic and cultural policies in South Asia. One always knew about the Nehru family’s facility with Urdu. But Nayantara had a story to tell. She recalled that when a list of languages to be classified as official languages of India was made soon after independence, Urdu was not included in the list.
This list was presented before the then prime minister. Nehru asked why Urdu was not in the list and was told that it was nobody’s mother tongue. Nehru replied that it was his mother tongue. Thus, Urdu was added to the list.
Irrespective of what we make of it, creative writers have a way of interpreting reality in their own way. In fact, I have always felt that politicians, diplomats and even historians cannot decipher the spirit and an age as well as poets and writers can. That is how Faiz keeps us company through all our national travails and tragedies.
Poet Zehra Nigah conformed to the mood of the occasion as the other keynote speaker. She spoke about how times had changed and lamented the loss of today’s youth’s interest in books and learning. Her composition had its lyrical tone. But the message of how our society is being de-intellectualised was something that may linger throughout an otherwise very engaging encounter.
We do not know if an overpowering, mega event like the KLF can make a difference in a city that is so impoverished in a cultural context. But it is a great gift for so many of us. It brings to the surface many of our literary, educational and cultural contradictions. For instance, we do have all our luminaries of the Urdu literature. But their influence appears to be fading out. Not many in the ranks of our social elite would be as fluent in Urdu as Nehru was many years ago. I feel that Nayantara would do better than many of them even now.
I am sure these and other relevant issues will be raised and discussed in various session of the KLF. But this level of discourse does not seem possible on our campuses as well as in the media. It does not help that we are so distracted by the struggle for our survival as a modern democracy. And militants and extremists have no use for literature or rational debate.
The writer is a staff member.
Email: [email protected]




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