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February 3, 2019

An invitation to dream


February 3, 2019

Karachi, enjoying an unusually long spell of wintry weather, is hosting a literary festival this weekend. In that sense, the city’s literati are having an exciting time and it is surely a joy to be able to get together with a cluster of like-minded people in an intellectual environment.

Apparently, this should be a familiar experience for people who are attracted to a literary festival. After all, it has become a hallmark of the city. The annual Karachi Literature Festival was launched 10 years ago. But, as Bob Dylan said, “the times they are a-changing”.

In the first place, what we have this weekend is a reincarnation of the original festival, though with the same parentage. Ameena Saiyid and Asif Farrukhi, the founders of the KLF, are launching their first Adab Festival Pakistan. Oxford University Press will present the KLF in a month’s time. There is a change of venue too and the Adab Festival has landed within the precincts of the Governor’s House.

I would not want to be distracted by how this literary mutation has taken place. One view, if you look for the brighter side of it, is that two festivals are better than one. In fact, Karachi is to be gifted with a more cerebral version of a literary festival, the Afkar-e-Taza ThinkFest, with the motto: “Come. Think. Question”. It had its soft launch in Karachi in December. Unlike the KLF, it originated in Lahore.

The point, actually, is that a city of Karachi’s potential and aspirations deserves many more cultural and creative undertakings. There is a feeling that this metropolis is deeply wounded in terms of its civic and cultural amenities because of its violent political and social disharmonies. Hence, its concerned citizens are forever struggling to make it a place of hope and happiness.

For that matter, Karachi has again become a source of distress for its citizens in the wake of this campaign against encroachments and unlawful constructions. The human cost of it is considerable. But the damage done to the civic environment is not so tangible or calculable. The very face of Saddar, the repository of Karachi’s physical and cultural heritage, has changed.

We can be sure that these and other matters of topical importance that impact national affairs will come up for discussion at the Adab Festival, in addition to the obligatory sessions on books, authors and literary themes. The programme that we have is extensive. In many ways, it is a certified replay of the KLF. We have more than 50 sessions and almost 150 speakers are participating in the event. As many as 15 writers and scholars have come from abroad.

This means that those who are fond of books and who represent our intelligentsia in Karachi are having a very hectic weekend. There must be many who are just spectators, not participants. In any case, we should be grateful for what we have and make the most of it.

At the same time, I am unable to resist the thought that the overall literary and intellectual scenario in Pakistan is very depressing. Not only that, I feel that our deprivations in this domain are symptomatic of what may be described as the crisis of Pakistan. For me, the measure of this national malaise is the value that we ascribe to academic, literary and intellectual pursuits.

We understand what it means when someone says that a city the size of Karachi cannot survive without public transport. It is more difficult to appreciate the view that Karachi also cannot survive without a proper public library. It has been my mission to try to improve students’ reading habits in my encounters with them on college and university campuses.

I have tried to follow – monitor – literary activities in other countries, such as the number of books published and the number of specific titles sold in the market. When I compare these figures with what we have, it always breaks my heart. This situation is more difficult to comprehend than the game that our authorities are playing with the Sahiwal tragedy.

It’s a pity that our rulers do not find time to think about these matters. No efforts are made to improve or build the intellectual infrastructure that is necessary to take a nation forward. There are bound to be reasons why a young man can be lynched by his fellow students on the sacred grounds of a university campus just because he had expressed views that were alleged to be sacrilegious.

Like a few others of the same magnitude, we have lived with these tragedies without any searching of our soul. Our ruling ideas have survived in defiance of the reality of our existence.

Incidentally, I had an opportunity to share my ideas with a group of university teachers, in a setting very far from Karachi. I was in snow-clad Murree for two nights to attend a conference sponsored by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. The idea was to have a dialogue on creating social harmony. I spoke about the culture of reading.

In this context, I began with a reference to various surveys and formal assessments that have found Pakistan very near the bottom of the heap. Gradually, almost all our South Asian neigbours have surpassed us in terms of social indicators. So much so that comparing Pakistan with Bangladesh could be a painful exercise. We are told that the Maldives and Bhutan are ahead of us in terms of per capita income.

In addition to whatever other reasons there are for our lack of progress, I argued that our poor reading habits have also contributed to this drift. In this formulation, I often lean on Einstein’s quote: “imagination is more important than knowledge”. And it is fiction that enhances our imagination and teaches us to dream. There is so much more that can be said to build this argument, but that will not be relevant at this time.

The point I would like to stress is that perhaps our collective imagination has been restricted by our exceptional lack of reading habits and this would surely affect the capacity of our society to become creative and innovative. I invoke a story of how China held a conference on science fiction many years ago after conducting a research that found that the IT professionals of the Silicon Valley in the US were voracious readers of science fiction when they were young adults.

We need to worry about what our young adults are reading or engaging their minds with in the digital age. In a marginal sense, this Adab Festival invites them to discover a world of untold possibilities.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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