Beyond the digital pathway

March 13, 2022

This year’s KLF was a hybrid event, enabling audiences to enjoy meaningful conversations without being overly concerned about internet connectivity

Beyond the digital  pathway

In a pandemic-hit world, digital pathways became the lifeblood for business and culture. It is, therefore, unsurprising that a major of literary extravaganzas were also taken online and attracted a wide audience. However, these digital lit-fests haven’t been viewed as worthy substitutes to literary events conducted at physical venues. The growing public appetite for ‘face-to-face’ festivals has compelled organisers to opt for a hybrid arrangement, which allows some events to be conducted in person while others are either pre-recorded or live-streamed. The advantage of adopting this strategy is that it allows organisers the flexibility to define their own parameters of physical engagement.

The 13th edition of the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) was among the first specimens in the country of this experiment. The event was primarily held at the Beach Luxury Hotel between March 4 and March 6, but a few sessions were conducted online.

“The last KLF [at a physical venue] was held in March 2020 after which the Covid-19 lockdown [was enforced],” Oxford University Press (OUP) marketing director, Raheela Baqai, tells The News on Sunday (TNS). “In 2021, the KLF was organised as a virtual event. So, we only missed one KLF as a physical event.”

It was initially difficult for the organisers to determine whether it would be possible to host a “face-to-face KLF” this year.

“Covid-19 remained a challenge because till mid-February everything was closed,” Baqai says. “There was a rise in omicron [variant] cases and we were not sure if we would be able to hold a physical event till the third week of February. However, our planning continued with the hope that the situation would improve, which it did in the end.”

The theme for this year’s festival was “separation, belonging and beyond” – a nod to the seventy-fifth anniversary of Pakistan’s independence. Baqai explains that the theme highlights the “complete story” of Pakistan as it depicts the historical dimensions of Partition, incorporates a deep-rooted love for the country and fosters hope for its future.

“We have tried to ensure that the sessions [for this year’s KLF] are a reflection of this theme,” she adds.

On the first day of the event, a large number of people thronged to the seaside venue. The participants mostly gravitated towards the outlying book stalls after collecting their event programmes from the hotel’s entrance as the marquee in the main garden had been cordoned off. A heavily guarded walk-through gate was put in place where guests were asked to surrender their mobile phones and show their invitation cards for the inauguration ceremony. Protocol couldn’t be set aside as President Arif Alvi was the chief guest for the event.

After an unexpected delay, the ceremony kicked off with enlightening speeches from Zia Mohyeddin, the NAPA president emeritus, and historian Victoria Schofield. Mohyeddin expounded on the merits of the classics, his childhood fascination with William Shakespeare and the excessive curbs on creative pursuits in Pakistan. Schofield’s keynote address had a more personal flavour as she interpreted KLF 2022’s theme in light of her own four-decade-long journey of understanding Pakistan.

A series of book awards were also distributed during the inauguration ceremony. The KLF-Getz Pharma English Fiction Prize was awarded to Little America by Zain Saeed. The KLF-Getz Pharma Urdu Prose Prize went to Dubedha by Asim Bakhshi while the KLF-Getz Pharma Urdu Poetry Prize was bagged by Khwab Aatay Howay Sunai Deeay by Salim Kausar. Awards were also distributed for the best books in Sindhi, Pashto, Punjabi and Balochi – a practice that should also be followed in subsequent years.

Barring the constraints during the inauguration ceremony, the literary extravaganza remained accessible for all and sundry. The KLF programme boasted a rich miscellany of events that provided something stimulating for everyone. As always, sessions on literature weren’t the only items on the menu. Enlightening sessions on education, urban development, the changing nature of art, history, music, politics and news production were also on offer.

In a session titled Something to Tell You, British playwright and novelist Hanif Kureishi reflected on his journey as a writer. Kureishi spoke about how his status as a British-Pakistani placed him in a unique position to write about race and the “particular conjunction of the empire and the empire striking back”. He explored how his training in theatre sharpened his skills as a writer as it allowed him to produce terse, realistic dialogue. The playwright also urged writers to write local stories instead of those inspired by American narratives.

A panel discussion with Kamila Shamsie, HM Naqvi and Uzma Aslam Khan focused on the lingering effects of Partition in Pakistani English fiction. When asked how reliable a fictional account of the historical event can be, Naqvi said that if news and textbooks are the first two drafts of history, the novel is the third. Shamsie argued that fiction reveals how things worked on “emotional terms” during a particular period of time. She cited Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day as an example of a novel that examines the psychological effects of Partition.

A string of book discussions were held at this year’s festival. In a digital session with Mehvash Amin, poet Salena Godden explained how death and life are akin to sisters in her debut novel Mrs Death Misses Death. Bina Shah also spoke about the salient elements of Before She Sleeps – her dystopian novel about a world ravaged by nuclear war where women are on the brink of extinction. “Women suffer on account of war,” she said. “I didn’t want to say this in a journalistic sense.” As a result, she embarked on an artistic journey to present this cold fact. Speaking about her new novel The Inn, Maniza Naqvi said she had to prevent her rage over an endless war on terror from hijacking her characters’ voices. In a conversation with Ayesha Mian about his second novel Rivals, Saad Shafqat said he was drawn towards writing as he had an instinctive desire to tell stories. He also discussed the essence of character development in Rivals and how having women read early drafts of the novel helped him authentically present the voice of his female characters.

Those attending seemed predictably inclined to attend non-literary sessions or events where panellists were known celebrities. A vast number of people thronged to Anwar Maqsood’s session titled Meri Marzi while a surprise digital appearance by Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah became a source of great exhilaration. Shah spoke, among other things, about how the erasure of Urdu from Indian films doesn’t reflect a natural evolution of language in cinema.

This year’s KLF enabled panellists and audiences to break away from rectangular frames on Zoom and enjoy meaningful conversations without having to worry about internet connectivity. The three-day literary marathon brought back memories of a time before Covid-19 confined us within the four walls of our homes.

The writer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya

Beyond the digital pathway