Lahore Literary Festival’s (LLF) London edition had only one drawback, it was too short. None of the panels in that day-long festivity seemed wanting in content nor was any flaw manifest in the articulation of the carefully chosen contents. Razi Ahmed’s verve, gusto and organisational skills were impressive.
The number of luminaries gathered at the British Library, where the LLF happened, was impressive. It needs a big corpus of resources and persuasion. But a love for the city of Lahore was the most important motivation for organisers. For people ambivalent about their cultural configuration, events like LLF become extremely meaningful. They help the nation to anchor itself culturally. To put it in simpler terms, Pakistan must have a cultural definition, which is rooted in the historical consciousness. I earnestly believe that literary festivals are the best means to that particular end.
On a personal note, LLF was an opportunity to rub shoulders with a few extraordinary people. Meeting ace architect Nayyar Ali Dada for three days in a row was a great privilege. Versatility in the art of conversation is the most salient feature of his multidimensional personality. He is a great believer in the history and legacy of the past, and emphasises its optimal representation in architecture. He was concerned about the fate of various heritage sites which are in danger because of development projects undertaken by the Punjab government. His presentation at the LLF about the Lahore’s monuments was absolutely mesmerising. It comprised of detailed images of various monuments, with instrumental music in its backdrop. That was really fascinating.
Listening to Zehra Nigah, the poetess par excellence, was indeed a rare privilege as along with Dr Arifa Syeda, all four of us were put up in the same hotel. Zehra Apa, as everyone at the LLF addressed her, has retentive memory and she can relate passage after passage from the texts of classical literature. I was teamed up with Prof. Ian Talbot and Dr Yasmin Khan, a historian from Oxford, was assigned the task of quizzing us on the Colonial Lahore, a job that she did admirably well.
Besides, meeting Prof. Sara Ansari, Farzana Sheikh, Nasreen Rehman and Prof. David Taylor was indeed a pleasure. Conversation with Asif Farrukhi on the current scene of Urdu literature was very illuminating. Similarly Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Dr Maleeha Lodhi had a lively debate with Christina lamb and Owen Bennett Jones. Dr Lodhi was assertive and put forward her viewpoint very well. Defending everything whether it’s defendable or not requires a lot of guts and sharp wit and Dr Lodhi has both of them in large measure. I found her discourse very pertinent because Pakistan bashing has virtually become a norm. Pakistani diaspora, in order to justify their decision of moving to the West, derives gratification by castigating the country of their origin. Several young scholars, in order to be acceptable to the Western academia, take an unkind view of Pakistan and its people.
Malala Yousafzai was announced as the keynote speaker but she did not give any keynote speech. Instead, she had an hour long chat with renowned fiction writer Kamila Shamsi. Obviously she did not say anything new. The right of young girls to acquire education was the usual refrain. Besides she told about her life and the struggle that she had to go through in Swat was re-told. What really amazed me was her confidence coupled with innocence and newly found English wit. Overall, Malala has come a long way. She is cognizant of her importance and so are her parents. Now an undergraduate student at Oxford University, there is sophistication in her manner of speech and her body language oozes confidence. When she was talking about the girls’ right to speak, I thought how will it be possible without carrying out social reforms whereby familial relationships will have to be re-defined.
Then more crucial question cropped up: is it not the modern-Western style of thinking. In our case (do read Pakistan here), state does not perform the role of the alternative to the family or the clan. The institution of a family or clan gives an individual safety and stable life. In any of the third world dispensation, state could not develop a support system for individuals opting to turn their back(s) on family or clan. Given that scenario, what sort of social reforms Malala envisages, could be a very interesting question. Or she thinks, girls ought to rebel and chart their own course of action in defiance to the wishes of their parents.
In third world countries, despite education and awareness, independent thinking among girls has remained on the margins. If one turns to Michel Foucault, he totally inverts the idea about education as a mechanism for freedom. He thinks it to be quite the other way around. For him, education disciplines and, to him, any disciplining process is antithetical to freedom. Reverting to Malala, it is interesting because her own family is extremely close knit, father being the head of the family. At the LLF London, Malala was accompanied by her parents that suggests a very strong familial bond. I hope, it is not contradictory to what she professes.