Thank heavens for the Lahore Literary Festival!
The rise of the Pakistani author has been steady and increasingly global. No one agrees on who the “first” big writer was and even fewer on who the “best” may be, but everyone recognises that, until this weekend, you probably had to be in a different country to see our stars speak, usually India (you can see the dilemma, right?). Every year we send our litter of literary lovelies to festivals at Jaipur and Kolkata and Dubai and London, and then read with anticipation the next day about what they said or who they dissed, all with a twinge of longing. Given how many new writers have emerged from Pakistan in the last two decades and the space Pakistani fiction takes up at other festivals, it seemed strange not to have a literary festival in Lahore. (Karachi started one a few years ago, ever the over-achiever.)
Whenever the topic came up, people assumed the security situation would be too much to handle or that logistics would be a nightmare. The more jaded bemoaned the lack of a local publishing industry and the truly bitchy were usually just jealous they hadn’t been published yet. All in all, people were downers. That’s what makes the fact of the LLF this weekend such a watershed moment. Its very existence is an act of reclaiming public space; its resounding and undeniable success is proof, long-awaited, that that was still possible.
Despite the rain last Friday, thousands of people made their way to the Alhamra Cultural Complex in downtown Lahore to see Mohsin Hamid, Tariq Ali, Mohammed Hanif, Bapsi Sidhwa, Daniyal Mueenuddin and many others as they spoke in hour-long sessions on everything from the literature of conflict to the role of courtesans in the written word. It was like the Lahori Oscars. I arrived at the festival drenched and cold at 11 am, and was immediately handed a large umbrella, a free coffee and a well-thought-out schedule. The energy the moment you entered was palpably and overwhelmingly positive — people were laughing, shouting, arguing, debating. Still, it was funny to see upmarket begums and the expat community prancing around in Burberry trench coats and Wellingtons on the Mall in front of po-faced commuters in a traffic jam.
The first event I attended was a conversation with the writer Nadeem Aslam about his new book The Blind Garden — a talk that was smart, witty and fun. Most sessions turned out to be as good. Personally, I really wanted to see the satire session. The panelists included Hanif and Moni Mohsin, and the talk was moderated by the affable William Dalrymple, lord of the festivals.
One of the panelists had written a book about a Shia girl being married off into a Sunni family, and the funny (read: sad) drama that ensued. At one point, a woman in her 70s in the next seat leaned in, unsolicited, and whispered: “She’s had a very tough marriage. Bechaari...” I regarded my neighbour for a moment and went back to the panelists, but she wasn’t done. She went on for a good three minutes about how bad the marriage was and how she knows all this because she’s a friend of her mom’s. All of this was being said about an author who had written a book about being judged according to silly, desi moral standards while we were in a session on satire. Lady Loveless, I wanted to say to my new friend, you are the reason satire is redundant here.
There were sessions on art, art history, architecture, politics, children’s literature poetry recitals, and a rare dance performance by the ever-graceful queen of Kathak, Nahid Siddiqui. The second and final day had heavy hitters: Hamid talking about his new book, Dalrymple talking to Ahmed Rashid, Ayesha Jalal on Manto, etc. I wanted to be at Tehmina Durrani’s session, the woman who became famous for writing My Feudal Lord and infamous for later becoming one of Shahbaz Sharif’s wives. She filled the space I imagine Shobhaa De does in literary festivals elsewhere. I didn’t get in, so I stood outside the doors hoping someone would leave. All I will say is this: Her session began with her onstage and dramatically lit, while a slideshow of personal photos whizzed by accompanied by Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way”.
Now that it’s over, the energy and intensity conjured over the last few days have nowhere to go. I am anxious, but for once it is because of something we’ve gained, not lost. That such a wonderful, intelligent, free public event went off without a hitch renewed a sense of vigour in Lahoris. “You can just feel the hope, na?” one woman said to me at the festival. She’s right. For once, you could. Here’s hoping we see one next year. And the next. And the next...
Aijazuddin is an artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan