LAHORE, Feb 23: The First Lahore Literature Festival kicked off on Saturday, to a great response. Despite persistent drizzle and nippy weather, the Lahoris turned up in droves to attend various sessions on different literary topics featuring eminent authors and journalists from all around the world.
A big percentage of the visitors comprised youngsters spoilt for choices by the programme but determined to attend as many sessions as they could. They appeared as keen to listen in person to the old masters as eager they were to have a face-to-face with the young generation of Pakistani fiction writers in English who were present in force at the festival.
British Pakistani writer, journalists and filmmaker Tariq Ali delivered the key-note address. The working of capitalism was a major theme running through his talk and he drew on example of China and South America to explain the complex world of today. Teaming up later on with Ayesha Jalal for a session, he narrowed down to discussing the modernity versus Pakistani realities debate.
In a morning session, Hameed Haroon of the Dawn Media Group gave a presentation titled: The Holy Warrior and the Enemy: Film, News Media and Music 1958 – 2008, showing the emergence of the holy warrior in Pakistani cinema.
He began with Munir Niazi’s anthem in the 1958 film ‘Shaheed’ and spoke of the 1970s, which carried the remnants of the progressive movement of the 1960s. There were bans, such as one on a bhajan by Noor Jehan, just as there were bold counter-replies like the one offered by Raza Mir’s ‘Laakhon Mein Ek’ (1967) which told the story of a Kashmiri Hindu girl falling in love with a Kashmiri Muslim boy. A clip from the movie showed an exchange between a Muslim man and a Hindu child, where the man tries to protect her from an angry mob, invoking Islam’s message of peace.
But the holy warrior, as we know today, properly emerged in the 1980s. Haroon said Jameel Dehalvi’s ‘The Blood of Hussain’ seemed like the last desperate attempt by liberals to fight against the state, preceded many years earlier by ventures such as ‘Zarqa’.
By 1990, the stage was set for Sajjad Gul’s ‘International Gorillay’—a film pegged on the Salman Rushdie affair.
In 2007, Jamil Dehalvi’s film ‘Infinite Justice’ screened at Kara Film Festival, showed the holy warrior in a much more nuanced form. But the exercise in enlightened moderation actually took place in cinema after the Lal Mosque operation under Musharraf. During this time, ‘Jinnah’ and ‘Khuda Ke Liye’ were released, supported by the regime as a counter to the now very established warrior.
One session at the festival was dedicated to satire. It featured Mohammed Hanif, Moni Mohsin, Shazaf Haider and Shehan Karunatilaka as panelists, and was moderated by William Dalrymple.
“I do consider myself a satirist,” said Moni. “Because the objective is to first make you laugh and then make you think. There are certain subjects you can’t say straight.”
She said the narrator in her famous column ‘The Diary of a Social Butterfly’ was an airhead, but nonetheless a witness to her times. She only thought of herself, which was a common strategy in Pakistan. “No social butterfly actually reads my columns, but people come up to me and say I know who this story is about! So they actually miss the point.”
Shehan Karunatilaka from Sri Lanka, where journalists can be locked up for writing controversial non-fiction, claimed his novel ‘Chinaman’, was not satire. “It’s an intensely serious novel, told by a drunk.”
Mohammed Hanif described himself as living in a kind of post-satirical society. “I think of myself as a slightly hung-over person,” he said. “I just wanted to write a murder mystery with dirty jokes.” He said Pakistani society had moved beyond satire: many readers actually thought ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ was all true.
Hanif quoted an incident where an army official took him to a corner and said, “My dear son, you’ve written a brilliant book…now tell me your sources.” “You can make up any kind of rubbish in this country and people will believe it,” Hanif said dryly.
Moni added that writing satire illustrates how ridiculous things were forcing your attention in a specific direction and Shehan said it was entertaining and a useful way to speak out under oppressive rules by stretching the truth.
“I’ve been coming like a pilgrim to Lahore since years,” said Pran Neville, taking part in the session, ‘Lahore in Literature’. “I came (here) in 1997 after 50 years because I did not want to disturb my images of childhood. In 1992, my book on Lahore came out. Lahore is beyond any definition. It can only be experienced. It’s an internal city. I have been everywhere, but Lahore is Lahore. I’ve been thrilled to participate in the festival. Lahore has been with me ever since I was born and I carried it in my heart everywhere I went.”
Another old Lahorite Bapsi Sidhwa remembered it as not being a violent city at all, as it may have become today. “It’s a city where we indulge in our appetites. From Heera Mandi to eating joints…no other city has more eating places.”