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It was said once that Life magazine was for those who cannot read and Time magazine for those who cannot think. LitFests have been invented for those to whom a mobile phone has become their third eye. Attendees can record events even while they are watching them; better still, they can take selfies with authors without having to read their latest books.

The star of the Lahore Literary Festival 2020 over last weekend, was undoubtedly Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Laureate in Literature 2006.  A trail of devotees snaked to have a copy of his book – any book by him – signed with a personal inscription. Every one of his books on display at the Al Hamra complex had been sold out by the time he spoke at the closing session. Booksellers had thoughtfully stocked enough books by him and also by every author participating in the LitFest.  

Orhan Pamuk had serious competition. Second in popularity came William Dalrymple, a co-founder of the Jaipur Literature Festival which has become the template for such LitFests across the subcontinent.  Dalrymple’s presence at the Lahore LitFest is more than a benediction by a portly patriarch. For those privileged to hear him speak on a spectrum of subjects – history, Mughal art, Pahari paintings, work done by local artists for imperialist British patrons – is to complete a PhD course in under fifty minutes. Dalrymple knows the danger of imparting history through Powerpoint presentations. Done incompetently, they can be flawed examples of reductio ad absurdum, as inherently dangerous as national governance though tweets. Done skillfully with the dramatic panache Dalrymple employs, it is as instantly assimilable and stimulating as a distilled tonic.

LitFest sessions in Pakistan are bilingual. They offer conversations between authors whose forte is Urdu and those who choose to write in English. Inevitably, there is a slippage of the tongue from one language to another, from either into hybrid Urdish. Whoever is privileged to hear Zehra Nigah recite Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry will understand why nightingales fall silent when she trills. Blessed with a faultless memory, softly, very softly, she echoes recitations by fellow panelists, and occasionally discreetly, ever so politely, she completes the verse when their memories fail.

The LLF offers all things to all men and women. One session addressed the challenges of translation from one language to another, spiced by the observations of an Urdu-proficient Spanish author. Poets discussed their poetry. Conservationists spoke about urban restoration. Painters analysed their craft.  A flotilla of books was launched, a choked press given voice. The ongoing trauma of Kashmir relived in the conscience of Pakistanis. Kabul, Baghdad, Istanbul, Mumbai, New Delhi, and Karachi found a second home in Lahore. The post-Mughal anarchy prevailing within the country remained barred outside the steel gates of the Al Hamra. It had no place within this brick paean to culture.

To those familiar with previous LitFests, the absence of government could not have been more welcome. One remembers earlier occasions when a vindictive Chief Minister Punjab would cause permission for the LLF to be withheld until the very last minute when the festival was supposed to open the next morning. Once, permission was suddenly withdrawn, forcing the organisers to relocate to another venue. That is not to say that the LLF is not beyond the tentacles of government grasp. Its founder sponsor is still in the clutches of NAB, held for months unconscionably without charge, without explanation.

Mercury may be in retrograde this month, but mercifully Lahore’s destiny is not affected by the mal-conjunction of planets. The ThinkFest and the Biennale and now the Lahore LitFest 2020 explain why UNESCO has designated Lahore as a City of Literature. Lahore may not have produced Nobel Laureates in Literature yet. No city in Pakistan though could offer a more receptive, hospitable womb than Lahore to an unborn Laureate.

Fortunately, the fickle spring weather held out. Those attendees who sought a break from the serious conversations inside Al Hamra’s five venues could sit in the benign sunshine and listen to lunchtime performances by a team of energetic qawals. At the Al Hamra, literature, art and music were fused by the LLF into one. To paraphrase the emperor Jahangir’s remark about Kashmir, paradise was there, it was there.

All this activity circled around a statue of Allama Iqbal in the Al Hamra garden. Within earshot of it, a member of the audience collared one distinguished speaker and told him that he regarded Allama Iqbal and that speaker as equal in his eyes. Pressed to elucidate, he explained that he could not understand much of Iqbal’s Urdu and he could not understand the speaker’s English. But he never missed LitFests, because they raised his intellect to the height it ought to be.



[DAWN, 27 FEB. 2020]

27 February 2020
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