More than just a platform

March 8, 2020

The tenth edition of the Karachi Literature Festival inspired a diverse menu of discussions on creative and intellectual pursuits

Irshad Abdul Kadir with Nadia AR.

Sceptics would have us believe that literary festivals are little more than publicity circuses that afford writers and artistes the opportunity to promote their work and raise their profiles. Others may argue that these literary extravaganzas are dominated by ill-conceived debates on everything apart from literature. If we cede to these rather myopic assertions, we stand the risk of forgetting that literary festivals exist to celebrate the creative process in all its iterations.

At its core, any creative endeavour is a maddeningly solitary gig that requires writers and artistes to plunge into the inner recesses of their hearts and minds. Literary festivals are often the only places where they receive much-needed validation for the dedication they put into their work. An invitation to a literary festival pulls creative minds out of their cocoons and encourages them to see how the world responds to their work.

The 11th Karachi Literature Festival, which was held at the Beach Luxury Hotel from February 28 to March 1, gave many creative minds the opportunity to connect with people. Even the fear of a coronavirus outbreak across the country didn’t keep enthusiasts from attending sessions and asking thought-provoking questions from panelists. This year’s theme, Across Continents: How the Word Travels, was exemplified through a series of insightful sessions on the power of the written word and the scope of Pakistan’s literary traditions.

In a conversation with literary critic Muneeza Shamsie, Egyptian novelist and political and cultural commentator Dr Ahdaf Soueif examined the nuances of her work. During the discussion, Soueif explored how transition from fiction to non-fiction had allowed her to use the written word “for the service of something [meaningful]”. The novelist said that her decision to write fiction was a conscious one while her foray into non-fiction happened almost serendipitously in the year 2000 when she was asked to report on the Palestinian Intifida for the Guardian.

“Writing non-fiction is quicker than writing fiction,” she said. According to Soueif, it takes her time to work on fiction as she has to entirely surrender to that creative process. The Egyptian novelist shared accounts of the Arab Spring and how they informed her book Cairo: A City Transformed. She also drew attention to the circumstances under which she had developed an interest in the representation of the Arab world in the Western media. Overall, the discussion delved in many dimensions of the writer’s work.

The centenary of the late Urdu novelist Mohammad Khalid Akhtar was commemorated in a session titled Khalid Akhtar Kay Sau Saal. Moderated by Karachi-based poet and journalist Nasira Zuberi, the panel discussion included Urdu writers Rafaqat Hayat and Syed Kashif Raza and the late writer’s son Haroon Khalid Akhtar. Commenting on Khalid Akhtar’s oeuvre, Syed Kashif Raza said he was drawn towards the writer’s distinct ability to employ humour in his stories.

“I was so deeply influenced by Khalid Akhtar’s work that I found it difficult to enjoy the work of Mushtaq Ahmad Yusufi,” Raza said. “Khalid Akhtar’s characters possess a sense of wonder that adds to the humour element of his stories. In Chakiwara Main Visal and Chacha Abdul Baqi, Khalid Akhtar creates characters that don’t know much and ask innocent questions. It is difficult for Urdu writers to achieve this today.”

According to Raza, Khalid Akhtar’s work depicts the essence of Karachi’s glorious past. Rafaqat Hayat shed light on the creative appeal of Chakiwara Main Visal, which he adapted for a telefilm and a TV serial. Haroon Khalid Akhtar spoke about his father’s motivation for translating Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the sensitivity that fuelled his work.

If viewed through a narrow purview, such festivals are platforms for creative minds to showcase their talent. If we take a broader view, those platforms might come across as warehouses of lucid, boundless knowledge.

“For the modern reader, Mohammad Khalid Akhtar holds special significance,” Haroon Khalid Akhtar tells The News on Sunday. “This is because of his unique writing style and sophisticated humour and satire, which is quite unlike the typically inane satire and humour that our youth usually come across. [My father’s work] creates magic out of ordinary Pakistani settings and characters.”

Around 20 books were launched at the festival. Author and scholar Sadia Abbas discussed her DSC Prize-shortlisted debut novel The Empty Room with literary critic Nusrat Khawaja. Set in the 1970s in a Karachi that has changed drastically over the decades, the novel focuses on the life of Tahira, a talented painter, who is trapped in a marriage that she can’t escape. The discussion called attention to various facets of the protagonist’s life, her reluctance to accept consolation from well-meaning relatives, and her voracious appetite for Urdu writing and books on art that help her tackle difficult circumstances.

In addition, Irshad Abdul Kadir’s third novel, Prodigal, was launched before a small but discerning audience. Moderated by the novelist Nadya AR, the session captured the nuances of a novel that demonstrates the protagonist’s search for and connection with God. The discussion was accompanied by readings from the book by sufi-and folk-music artist Arieb Azhar. William Dalrymple, one of the finest historians on India, launched his book The Anarchy.

A session titled Karachi’s Literary Heritage: A Celebration sought to trace the city’s intellectual and literary legacy. Ghazi Salahuddin, Maniza Naqvi, Rumana Husain, Iftikhar Ali Shallwani and Peerzada Salman spoke to journalist Maheen Usmani about Karachi’s diversity and its evolving identity. During the discussion, Iftikhar Ali Shallwani mentioned that any city’s evolution must occur through its political thinkers. “Gone are the days when philosophers and thinkers would go to cafes to discuss political and revolutionary thoughts,” he said. “We must now recognise those who read and write instead of being glued to their phones.” Shallwani said that the city’s traditions can be preserved by keeping its flame alive rather than looking after its ashes. The conversation highlighted unique aspects of Karachi’s past and drew on its present dynamics without veering away from the essence of the topic.

In a discussion titled Sindh mein Nisai Adab, a group of Sindhi writers and intellectuals examined feminist literature in the language. Noorul Huda Shah shared an anecdote about an influential landowner who complained to the editor of a Sindhi literary magazine where her story Haveli Sharif had been published. Shah’s editor had vehemently resisted pressure to blacklist her from the publication. In a similar vein, Attiya Dawood said she was disapprovingly labelled a feminist writer – a compliment that was flung at her like a stone. When asked why Sindhi women writers felt the need to distance themselves from feminism when they put pen to paper, Amar Sindhu said that feminism was often viewed as a form of antagonism towards men and conflated with women’s desire to liberate themselves from men.

The year 2020 marks 10 years since the KLF was launched. Over the last decade, the festival has inspired a diverse menu of discussions on creative and intellectual pursuits, and offered useful solution to complex problems. If viewed through a narrow purview, such festivals are platforms for creative minds to showcase their talent. If we take a broader view, those platforms might come across as warehouses of lucid, boundless knowledge.

More than just a platform: KLF 2020 inspired a diverse menu of discussions on creative, intellectual pursuits