Only in Pakistan does infanticide need a thousand fathers, and honest endeavour is born an orphan.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than the Lahore Literary Festival 2017. Five years old already, it is more than a toddler, yet it is treated by the Punjab bureaucracy as if it were a girl child, marked for infanticide. The LLF can be feted in New York where it held its sessions in the showcase Asia Society; it can book the BP Lecture auditorium in the venerable British Museum; but it cannot secure a venue in the city of its birth - Lahore.
A literary festival involving international participants requires a year of planning. One ends, and work begins on the next. Authors drop in or drop out, dates slip up or down the calendar, sessions are reshuffled. The bedrock though is the venue. Change that, and everything is up in the air. And this is exactly what happened to the LLF this year - yet again.
The organisers were told on the 363rd day that the Al Hamra complex – as natural a venue as the Royal Albert Hall is to the annual Proms concerts – would not be available; on the 364th day that the three-day programme should be truncated to one; and on the 365th day (after the foreign delegates had arrived in Lahore), that a fresh NOC was required for the substitute location.
Overnight, logo backdrops, seating, lighting and sound systems had to be installed and tested. At the inaugural dinner, while Peter Frankopan (Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford) spoke on his best-selling book The Silk Roads, the organisers behind a mask of imperturbability frantically salvaged sessions as if they were lifeboats on a Titanic hit by the iceberg of bureaucratic intransigence.
Inevitably, authors and speakers who had travelled from abroad were given preference. The inimitable wit now popular travel writer Michael Palin opened and closed the LLF. The historian Margaret Macmillan spoke hoarsely but lucidly on women of the Raj and on the Nixon/Mao meeting in 1972. William Dalrymple’s ebullience contrasted with Ayesha Jalal’s ennui about the future of Pakistan, and in his session on the Koh-i-Noor, Dalrymple demonstrated how history in a master’s hands can be moulded like colourful strands of play-dough, given fresh shape and new life. His co-author had so over-emphasised the fatal consequences of that infamous diamond that a natural question surfaced: ‘If indeed the wearer of the fabled diamond is cursed, then should it not be split? Two-thirds should be sent to India for PM Modi, and one-third to Pakistan for PM Nawaz Sharif.’ Caveat diamendatus.
The poetess Zehra Nigah always makes one want to flail oneself for relegating Urdu to the basement of a dialect. She speaks it with such natural simplicity and recites with such ineffable poignancy that one wonders why God ever invented another language.
Forbidding barriers could not deter a LLF audience from showing by their presence that literature is worth risking your life for. Inevitably, ad hoc arrangements become vulnerable to practical exigencies. The paper thin dividing screens between halls meant that Hall 1 competed with a raucous luncheon wedding, and Hall 2 with echoes from Hall 1. Hall 3 erected on the parking lot was dismantled at 7.00 pm sharp, even while Michael Palin was waxing lyrical about our Himalayan heritage.
Many with common-sense have advised the LLF organisers to give up, to surrender to crass bureaucracy. Those with more refined sense encourage them to continue, for hasn’t literature seen too many elected governments come and go to be intimidated by them? The Latin poet Horace offered LLF the best advice, albeit 2,000 years ago: ‘The man who is tenacious of purpose in a rightful cause is not shaken from his firm resolve … by the tyrant’s threatening face.’
The Punjab Government shamelessly showed one face to the LLF, another to the PSL 2017 Final. For vote-pulling cricket, no threat was unimagined, no police posts left unmanned, no bush unlit, no tree free of lighted spirals. The road to the stadium was floodlit, sustained by generators every five hundred yards. And almost 20,000 security personnel were deployed at the Qaddafi stadium to protect 25,000 spectators. By contrast, the LLF, which in the past had hosted 100,000 visitors, was told to find a manger for itself, to hire its own centurions.
Television commentators are now outdoing each other declaring that the true result was not between two polyglot cricket teams but between society and terrorism, between sense and insensibility. They crow raucously: PSL today, the World Cup tomorrow.
This overdue resuscitation of our flagging national self-esteem however cannot disguise the Punjab’s Government’s flagrant favouritism. Doesn’t anyone in it read books? They know cricket is no longer a man’s game. Don’t they know literary infanticide is not a blood sport?
(c) F.S. AIJAZUDDIN