March is the brightest month for literature lovers in Pakistan as it ended the suffocating era of COVID 19 and it brought a panorama of the year’s largest literary and cultural events in Pakistan. I had always been equally excited since I got a golden opportunity to meet and interact with some of my favorite writers and artist during LLF 2018 and 2022 sessions and it still fills my heart with the same delight and pleasure to relive those moments spent with Mohsin Hamid and Ben Okri years ago which once the greatest of romantic bards felt while seeing a group of daffodils tossing in breeze. Sounds Euphemistic? Never mind. Like all my comrades who love to live in the company of bards and artists, LLF 2020 proved more fruitful when Turkish Nobel Laureate graced the occasion with his presence and illuminated a nation that always remains ready to fall in love with anything Turkish whether it was Turkish dizzy or building Ottoman tombs amidst the vast structures of most modern local institutions. I can recall the sensation created by young Fatima Bhutto’s book launching session and how a die-hard middle-aged Bhutto fan kept telling me about the sacrifices and struggle of Bhutto family during all that conversation surrounding Fatima Bhutto’s book Three Kings of the World. LLF 2020 ended with an optimistic note and for me, it was the best of times that I found some wonderful people in my acquaintances including Muneeza Shamsie,Osama Siddique, and Mehvish Amin. Surely it was the best of times and it was also the beginning of the worst of times. Settings changed and a dystopic world replaced this wonderful scene and COVID 19 engulfed the whole world then coming days were hard times. Due to pandemics, all these glorious gatherings were shifted to the virtual world and to add in injury LLF 2021’s session included a name whom I believed to be the best interpreter of maladies in the world of literature, yes it was Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri and many others couldn’t travel to Lahore and I among many others put my senses to grasp all that I could from that virtual event. But if winter is there then how can spring be far behind? The dark clouds of pandemics started vanishing and the beginning of this new year brought a new life to the whole world. March 2022 brought three of the largest annual literary festivals and Pakistan’s largest cities Karachi and Lahore geared up to host Karachi Literary Festival and Faiz Festival. Karachi Literary Festival kicked off in the first week of March and brought a panorama of wonderful artists and writers together from different parts of the world. Writers, poets, artists gathered in the coastal city to inspire, appreciate and fascinate the world of aesthetics. Karachi Literary Festival 2022 brought Naseerudin Shah,Kamila Shamsie, Ben Okri, and Hanif Kuresihi who interacted with a wide range of audiences and a diverse group of people. This cosmopolitan gathering proved to be the first ray of hope and what made the week more exciting was the beginning of the annual Faiz Festival in Lahore simultaneously.Faiz,the great revolutionary poet of Pakistan, stands as a metaphor of resistance and revolution and also taken as synonyms to culture, attracted a number of big names including poets, intellectuals, novelists, artists, singers, and actors in Lahore to celebrate the legacy of this great man who inspired people from this part of the land to the other corner of the earth in Pablo Neruda’s homeland. All these gatherings included discussions upon literary subjects, book launches of established and novice authors, philosophical and ideological discussions revolving around socio-political trends, a celebration of local culture and musical events to pay tribute to great minds of our world and since all that plethora of aesthetic activities inspired general audience I decided to speak to some of the people who were among speakers and tried to find out their experiences.
Prominent Pakistani novelist Osama Siddique whose innovative novel Snuffing Out the Moon’s Urdu version was launched during Faiz Festival responded to The Prelude.
“It is a huge relief after being deprived of the opportunity to engage with fellow writers and readers in person. One writes to communicate and interface and listen and learn from one’s peers and readers. After living under the oppressive and ominous shadow of the pandemic the scent of the spring breeze and the warmth of the spring sun, the happy sound of peoples’ voices outdoors as well as in halls in rapt conversations on ideas and books, and the sight of colorful bookstalls with earnest buyers is indeed a rejuvenating one.”
Dr Osama also spoke in different sessions during three days long LLF 2022 where he joined the stage along with his fellow Novelists Musharaf Ali Farooqi, Maniza Naqvi, and Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Maniza Naqvi who has recently launched her publishing company The Little Book Company also encouraged the newcomers to continue their efforts to make their worlds in the world of imagination.
I also tried to speak to prominent literary critic Muneeza Shamsie to extract some words from the veteran author during my interaction with her during different sessions of LLF.Muneeza Shamsie, whose illustrated family including her daughters Kamila and Samman Shamsie also joined different sessions during these festivals, commented.
“Well the pandemic made us all look at our lives differently and on the plus side it open out online possibilities and interaction with writers and scholars across the globe, as well as free access to many live-streamed literary events, plays, concerts, dance performances and much else. But of course, there is nothing to quite equal to the person-to-person interaction between panelists and speakers and also with their audience.
Then there is so much else that literary festivals such as KLF and LLF have to offer, including the discovery of books or writers that you may not have considered before, or making a ‘connection’ with the work of delegates from different cities or different countries, which suddenly open out new dimensions for you. And there is nothing to quite equal plain, straightforward intermingling.
Having said that, I think it is important to be aware the pandemic hasn’t entirely vanished from our lives – though a lot of people seem to behave as if it has! We still do not know when it will all come to an end and I am entirely in agreement with the need for safety precautions such as masks and vaccinations.” Shamsie accompanied by her younger daughter graced the main stage in various sessions and concluded the event with her discussion with the author of acclaimed The Map of Love Ahdaf Soaif and booker nominated Mohsin Hamid on the subject of Writing; Its Promises and Disappointments.
Fatima Ejaz, an emerging Pakistan poet who recited her poetry during KLF 2022 found it a very exciting experience and emphasized upon its diversity and pluralistic essence. While speaking to The Prelude she commented.
“KLF 2022 came with all the verve and intensity that were its due and announced itself with certain authority – and shouldn’t this be so in order to truly celebrate the spirit of literature? Pakistan grants much popular claim to politics, to cricket, to the TV industry – so why shouldn’t there be a festival of this kind for literature? KLF did not seem to be only for the literary elite – anyone could attend any of the sessions, and engage in discussions during or after the talks. In the session “Voices across the Generations: English Language Poetry”, moderated by Salman Tarik Kureshi, there were many new, young voices that were also given a chance to be heard. This session was of particular interest to me, as it gave us, Pakistani English language poets, a stage to make our presence felt and to also feel part of the literary community.”
Fatima Ejaz whose poetry collection “The Shade Of Longing and Other Poems” deals with nostalgia and personal loneliness further added.
“There were many prominent book talks: The Inn by Maniza Naqvi; Betrayal by Omar Shahid Hamid; Hairan Sar-e-Bazaar by Harris Khalique; Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah, The Liar’s Truth by Haroon Khalid Akhtar amongst others. We got the chance to meet and listen to all of these writers. Further, these sessions affirmed the thriving presence of the Pakistani English Novel.
Poet and editor-in-chief of The Aleph Review Mehvash Amin who joined the stage along with Judith Nika Pfeifer and Yasmin Seale during a session titled Poetry Across Borders” moderated by Pakistani poet Athar Tahir, also shared her views with The Prelude.
For the last two years, I have been participating online at various literary festivals…LLF, KLF, EShe (India), and others. I have gotten used to setting up the PC and worrying about internet connectivity and the right light, then getting ready waist upwards (never mind the sneakers and track pants), shushing everyone around as the countdown begins to speak to an invisible audience. There is no palpable ripple of anticipation, not really any butterflies in the stomach. You are in the comfort zone of your home, and the participants are removed and depersonalized entities without faces, without expression, without feedback. You see the ‘likes’ floating up, of course, emoji balloons, and you read the comments later, but it is nothing as rewarding as real murmurs of appreciation or as scary as the moment when you end reading out a poem and look up expectantly for the reaction. I am looking forward to that, with a slightly knotted stomach. I am in a poetry session this time, and the preparation will be the same as for a virtual session, but the feelings as one sits down on the stage and takes in the people who will be witnesses to your literary output will be challenging and rewarding.
And I had better take out some decent shoes.”
Haroon Khalid Akhtar whose novel The Liar’s Truth was launched during KLF put his sentiments in words while talking to The Prelude.
“What have festivals and old people shared in recent times? Well, it’s the struggle to prevent the soul from escaping. Covid came down hard on both. The virus put both on a ventilator, and in case of festivals, the ventilator was the virtual version that the organizers insisted were festivals. False! Festivals only happen when people willingly or unwillingly bump into each other, both literally and figuratively. The more the former type of bumping, the greater the success. This year, after recovering from Covid, KLF was off the ventilator and came bouncing back. The jostling was back as were the book talks and signings and above all the bookstalls. Mind you, in a society where books face extinction, KLF with its crowd again provided assurance that news of the demise of literature in this port city is a bit exaggerated. While the festivities returned in full swing, my only plea to the organizers will be to spare us the politicians.”
actress and writer Mira Sethi also launched her short stories collection Are You Enjoying? in LLF 2022 and spoke very openly about her fantasies combined with crude realism. She very cleverly but clearly hinted how her stories were inspired by the very heart of Pakistani society and culture.
These festivals ended with an optimistic note and once again the belief in a world more beautiful, more tolerant, and more inclusive is restored and these men of letters, these women of great aesthetic sense, these artists of wild imaginations, these authors of fantasy lands have once again made us realize that the world of utopias still exist. In an age of anxiety, in an age of sickness and death, these gatherings remind us of happy endings and wild celebrations on some distant Shakespearean island where everything ends with a happy ending.