I rushed to the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) 2018’s maiden morning session, already late. As I adjusted to the darkness of the hall, trying to find a seat, I discovered the hall was nearly full. After the unenthusiastic response to last year’s truncated festival, this came as a surprise. Also because no one knew where and if the sixth edition of LLF was going to be held; the schedule was out only a day before.
Soon I started getting a sense of the discussion around ‘Trumpian disruption’ by the three celebrity participants — Ben Okri, Reza Aslan and Mark Leonard. It centered on the phenomenon of Trumpism, of polarised democracies, the nostalgia of the liberation movement of 1968 juxtaposed with Trump supporters’ warning about 2042 when the grandchildren of white men would become “a hated minority in their own country”.
Okri countered all this emphatically by suggesting how this false nostalgia, this denial of history, denial also of colonialism, would not help. He pointed at the failure of nerve on the part of the intellectuals in the West, the Left, who have remained all silent while the Right has displayed all the passion. His conclusion was that we need a “new kind of language”, a “new kind of intellectual activism” to counter all this.
Like always, there was too much on offer to choose from at one particular time. Riz Ahmed with Mohsin Hamid was the next star attraction in the same Hall I (was this why the hall seemed so full?) but I opted for historian Audrey Truschke discussing ‘Aurangzeb Alamgir: Man and King’ with F.S. Aijazuddin. That this too was a well-attended session was heartening because it affirmed the growing interest in history, and the rare opportunity it receives to get out of the problematic textbook context. There was a special interest in the historical construct around this Mughal emperor and the controversies around him on both sides of the border.
Truschke tried to sift myth from reality as best as she could in the one hour, including the one about demolition of thousands of temples by Aurangzeb. The session was followed by some intelligent questions, many of which were adequately answered except one on Aurangzeb’s repression of Shias which she said was a task left to another historian to explore.
Read also: Authors, readers, bibliophiles
Meanwhile, outside the halls, the mood remained strangely sombre, the yellow and red satin sheets on takhts lying in the central garden refusing to bring back the nostalgic memory of the first two LLFs. The food stalls were fewer than before, the buyers equally thin. The long queues for free tea or coffee were missing because there was none on offer this time. The smart ushers from elite schools were vigilant and responsible as ever. Something was amiss but what.
The session that I found of immense value was the launch of an important book The New Pakistani Middle Class by Ammara Maqsood. The speakers included the author of the book and architect Arif Hasan and the talk was moderated by senior journalist Khaled Ahmed. It was only proper that Maqsood’s ethnography of Lahore’s rising middle class was compared with the one in Karachi by Hasan; interestingly, the middle class in both cities is following opposite trajectories.
The session tackled crucial questions like what the middle class is, what caused it to take existence, but more importantly “how hard it is to define it with economic indicators alone”. The author said she understood middle class more by “how they socially position themselves and the aspirations they have”. She talked about the progressive and secular ideals of the old middle class of the 1960s giving way to the religiosity of the new middle class while Arif Hasan added his insights like the contribution of universities in interior Sindh to the province’s growing middle class.
The Baithak (Hall 4) that was packed in the session on the middle class wore a comparatively deserted look an hour later when the LLF, thankfully, held a session with critically acclaimed Urdu writer Ikramullah. A contemporary and friend of 50 years, Masood Ashar, was there to discuss his literary journey with critic and fiction writer Nasir Abbas Nayyar as the moderator. The session was aptly title ‘Gurg-i-Shab ka Novel Nigar’; Gurg-i-Shab being Ikramullah’s novel that was banned by Ziaul Haq as soon as it was published. His other creative works and translations were discussed at length. One can only laud this gesture of recognising a leading light of our literature who likes to stay away from limelight.
Day two began with a session on Asma Jahangir and, from what I heard, one or two sessions were sacrificed for more people to be able to attend the one on Asma. Some warm recollections were shared by friends, colleagues and family about the iconic woman the country has recently lost. Given the fact that Asma’s politics and life was all about common people, the session could well have been conducted in Urdu or Punjabi or perhaps a combination of languages instead of just English.
The most educative session of the day for me was ‘Khaab Saraab Lucknow Ki Tareekh’ in which Lucknow-based critic and writer Anis Ashfaq was placed with Masood Ashar and Nasir Abbas Nayyar to talk about his latest novel Khaab Saraab. The hordes who had come to listen to Anis Ashfaq that afternoon had read his earlier novella Dukhiare and seemed like avid fans. Ashfaq did not disappoint them. He tried to recreate the civilisation that Lucknow represents as well to the audience in Lahore as he has done in his fiction. Apart from elaborating the new experiment that he has successfully made in Khaab Saraab, he dwelt at length on the form of writing and why a work of fiction must not appear to be a treatise on history or politics.
Other writers that were constantly invoked were late Intizar Husain and Naiyer Masud as was poet Iftikhar Arif who shares his hometown with Anis Ashfaq and was sitting among the audience.
By evening, as the temperature started falling, more young people poured in to listen to Laal, the band, along with compulsive Zia Mohyeddin listeners who were there to hear him read his first love — Shakespeare.
Overall, it seemed good, except for that slight unease that hung on the entire festival like a mist, because many people had decided to boycott it this time. It came as a shock to know that those who had decided to take sides in a recent war on social media against some organisers were blocked by LLF’s Twitter handle.
Of course, people like a space where there is freedom to express ideas, to be among a crowd that is intellectually engaged, where women can roam and smoke freely, where bearded men and women with abayas are as welcome as left-wingers or junkies. But they do also expect a certain sense of responsibility and are, therefore, right in questioning this expression of sense of entitlement by some organisers. This is where the LLF went wrong this year and this is something it must make amends for.