The Lahore Literary Festival came as a breath of fresh air on the city’s depleted cultural landscape
"Pata nahin kee hai, koi kitaaban da mela lagda hai," one of the numerous policewomen deployed outside the Alhamra Arts Council last weekend was overheard saying perplexedly into her phone. It was easy to understand her confusion for it’s not every day that the city witnesses an event of the magnitude that was the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF).
Spread over three days, the festival put up a remarkable 75 sessions that gave the people of the city, as well as those who’d converged on to the Alhamra from various parts of Pakistan, a taste of literature, politics, culture and music. The sessions ranged from tributes to Pakistan’s legends such as Madam Noor Jehan and Faiz Ahmed Faiz to talks by the country’s new generation of fiction writers including Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid and Bilal Tanveer, interspersed by discussions on global and regional politics that engaged international journalists such as Roger Cohen of the NY Times and Lyse Doucet of BBC with local experts and politicians.
News of a bomb blast in Lahore just a few days before the LLF, uncomfortably close to the venue, had made its way into the international media, just like bad news from Pakistan always does. Many of the foreign delegates admitted that it was with trepidation that they made their way to Lahore, yet none regretted their decision. Roger Cohen hailed the people of the city for showing up in droves, comparing the situation in Lahore to what he witnessed as a reporter in war-torn Bosnia - how its citizens were intent on living life to the fullest despite the insecure times they lived in.
"Let me salute the Lahori people who showed up at the Lahore Literary Festival," Laila Bokhari, a Norwegian diplomat of Pakistani origin, said at the beginning of her talk at the popular Day 1 session No Permanent Friends or Enemies that discussed the uneasy yet inevitable ties binding the US and Pakistan.
For the people who showed up - and they came from everywhere, Multan, Islamabad, a bus-full of college students from Quetta, as well as Lahore’s elites and masses - the festival was less about defiance and more about reclaiming the cultural and literary spirit of Lahore that has been facing the threat of oblivion over the years. The security threats were serious enough for the Punjab government to contemplate cancelling the event a night before it was to begin. What motivated Lahoris, however, was a simple desire to have fun, celebrate life and engage in some meaningful conversation in a public setting.
There was no shortage of the latter at LLF. One of the most popular sessions of the three-day event was Naseeruddin Shah’s book launch, and the long lines that snaked around the outer wall of the Alhamra structure prior to the session bore witness to the consummate actor’s huge fan following in the country. Mincing no words, Shah spoke candidly and eloquently about his personal life, calling himself "a selfish son, a bad husband and an absent father" as well as about the struggles of being an actor. "Ask yourself if you would die rather than take up any other job," he advised aspiring actors. "If the answer is ‘yes’, only then step into it."
The fiery Shobhaa De, who cut a stylish figure in her sweeping skirts and jangling bracelets, was another guest from across the border who elicited an enthusiastic response. It’s hard to believe that the writer is in her 60s, with six children and two grandchildren! Speaking about the role of Bollywood in objectifying women during the Fifty Shades of Feminism session, she brought the house down when she expressed her unmasked adoration for Mr. Khoobsurat himself, Fawad Khan. "Even men are objectified in Bollywood," she remarked. "Salman Khan’s shirts fly off all on their own, John Abraham rarely wears anything more than blue boxers, Aamir Khan was recently seen using nothing but a transistor to hide his modesty and SRK loves getting hosed down in songs. If Fawad Khan decides to strip next, I can tell you Indian women will be whistling in the aisles."
Writer and activist Rachel Holmes, who edited the collection of 50 feminist essays that lent the session its title, explained how the name was conceived during a girl’s night in as she and her friends bashed the popular yet regressive book Fifty Shades of Grey that had given ulcers to feminists the world over. She also proposed the radical idea that a feminist revolution was possible by the year 2040 if a portion of the current generation of women opted not to get married and have children, but instead stayed within the workforce.
Jazz aficionado Leon Menezes of Karachi, in his session All that Jazz in Bombay and Karachi, gave the audience something just as radical to think about but more grounded in reality. He reminisced about a time in Pakistan when discotheques ruled the night life and jazz bands came to life each evening as well-dressed men and women danced their worries away.
Those looking for a dose of reality found it in a discussion on the current nature of television news channels in the country titled Journalism or Mirch Masala. Has news been dumbed down and spiced up in a race for ratings, was the question the panel consisting of Fahad Hussain, Director News at Express, journalist Munizae Jehangir, Arif Nizami of Pakistan Today, Fashih Ahmed of Newsweek and Saad Mohseni, a media executive from Afghanistan tried to answer.
While it’s too much to expect such weighty questions to be neatly wrapped up in a bow at the end of 60-minute sessions, it was the chance to air them that left literary enthusiasts on such a high by the end of the event. According to Nuscie Jamil, one of the organizers of LLF, over 75,000 people attended the festival, an increase from the previous year, owing in large parts to the inclusion of sessions in Punjabi, Urdu and Seraiki.
"We tried to make the LLF more inclusive this time around by focusing on regional languages," said Nuscie. "The previous LLF received criticism for being too elitist so this was something we worked on consciously."
Creativity, culture and diversity were out in full force at the LLF. While it’s true that the Punjab government has banned Basant and killed off one of the city’s most vibrant cultural events, the organizers at LLF give it credit for fully supporting the literary festival. And given the carnival-like atmosphere that transformed the Alhamra into a hub of frenzied activity for one weekend, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that LLF is ready to fill the cultural vacuum that Lahoris have bemoaned for the past many years.
"This is the Lahore of our past," exclaimed one visitor. "This is what it was like when we were growing up - dynamic and full of life. We’re here not to make a political statement, or to stand up to the Taliban, much as the West would like to portray it so. We’re here because this is the future we want for our children."