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For the Love of Letters

The Lahore Literary Festival 2016 had its fair share of hurdles but managed to hurtle along with newfound passion for the written word

For the Love of Letters
Imran Aslam and Rehana Saigol brought A. R. Gurney's Love Letters back to life, leaving the audience with an overwhelming desire to be in love.

Think. It makes the government nervous. How many times have we heard that expression before? Right, but what pushes nerves to an overanxious frenzy is the passion that follows the thought process. It’s that passion – for freedom of expression, for thoughts and ideas, for food and music, books, authors, art and architecture – that brought the Lahore Literary Festival together this year. Nerves had gotten the better of the Punjab Government, that had revoked the festival’s NOC at the eleventh hour, but albeit displaced and disoriented, it proceeded 100 yards across the Alhamra Complex, at Avari Towers.

“Dawn has called it a symbol of resistance. I’d rather call it a symbol of protection,” Hameed Haroon, member of LLF’S Board of Governors and Publisher, Dawn, announced at the opening of the festival.

The festival’s inaugural, keynote session began in conversation with Sharmila Tagore, “one of the most incredible giants of South Asia,” Haroon introduced. As she took the audience through her journey that began as a 13-year old actress in Bengali films to her tenure as an unorthodox Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (India), Tagore reminded one of the magic of a golden era that had been lost to commercialism. She spoke about growing up in an artistic environment, exposed to art and literature and how Satyajit Ray brought her into film – “I worked in a film (at a time) when I was not allowed to see a film,” she smiled.

Tagore remembered heroines of her time, how they were expected to wear white and shyly sip coca cola while they waited for their shots. This is about the same time as her infamous Filmfare magazine cover made headlines; she posed wearing a bikini. “It unnerved me,” she admitted to being affected by the response the image evoked. “I wrote to Tiger in panic and all his telegram said was, ‘I’m sure you look very nice.’” The most intimate part of the session was Tagore’s recollection of her time with ‘Tiger’ Mansoor Pataudi – “we were cricket-mad and cricketer-mad” – and it left one wishing there was time for more on her family, her children and the Pataudi/Tagore legacy that continued.

Sharmila Tagore spoke about the moral ambiguities of the film industry and brought the issues to present day, where “women continue to be oppressed and targeted; they are the first target of religious orthodoxy.” These lines were merely a teaser of the feminist-driven narrative that unraveled over the next two days.

At the heart of heated debates on feminism and sexuality was Mona Eltahawy and it was delightfully shocking to see the Egyptian feminist and activist at LLF. “I walked into the (Pakistani) embassy full of bearded men and thought F$&k, I’m screwed! I’m not getting the visa!” But she did! Eltahawy’s views were as scathing as her language but underneath her stories of sexual abuse at the hands of Egyptian military troops, her rebel and revolution, was the unabashed use of fashion as an instrument of political expression.

Read also: LLF: Just the right spirit

“I knew I would be sticking out with my red hair and tattoos in a country in which more than 90 percent women wear some form of veil,” she shared at a dinner hosted on the eve of the festival. “I very consciously put this look together, I make a very conscious effort to look the way I look. So when I do public speaking and I stand at a podium and I talk about feminism, I want to confuse people. Feminists aren’t supposed to care about makeup and jewellery but I do.”

Mona Eltahawy bumps into some fans at the Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

Mona Eltahawy bumps into some fans at the Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

The conversation, like Eltahawy’s hair, took on a life of its own. She explained how she wanted to take apart the patriarchal, stereotypical way of explaining feminism. She wore ample silver, most of it engraved with Arabic script (not Quranic) that expressed her best. And her body art: one tattoo portraying Akhmet, the ancient Egyptian goddess of sex and retribution and the other the name of the Mohamed Mehmoud Street in Cairo, where she was attacked and sexually assaulted. Her stories were intriguing to say the least.

Mona Eltahawy was vociferous about her cause – ending the patriarchal, misogynistic dictatorship in Egypt, in a nutshell – but equally passionate while being quiet and unassuming was Nancy Dupree. The 93-year old Director of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University had an enviable passion for life. “Not all days are the same,” she told me, “but I wake up every morning, thinking there’s still a lot to do.”

“I’m there at 8 ‘o clock every morning,” she continued to inspire in a lovely, sing song voice. “They make me leave at 5. And I don’t know what it is; must be some kind of medical phenomenon because I feel terrible on Thursdays and Fridays (which is the weekend in Kabul) when I have nothing to do. The trick is to not feel sorry for yourself and keep going.”

Another person who keeps going and took her audience along was Madhur Jaffrey. Her passion for food came with interesting anecdotes of cross-country travels all over India and her culinary journey all over the world. Stories of one-minute puris, serving raw fish to gourmand guests and browning onions without burning them kept men and women in the audience engaged through out the session; it was one of the most popular sessions at the festival.

“I’ll never retire,” she answered a question from the audience. “I’ll always be somewhere, learning something.” And there was something to learn from that.

Sharmila Tagore crossed the Wagah Border for LLF

Sharmila Tagore crossed the Wagah Border for LLF

Finally, when one talks of love and passion that stems from literature, there was nothing as impactful as the simplicity of Love Letters, A.R Gurneys classic stage play brought to life by Imran Aslam and Rehana Saigol under the direction of Hameed Haroon. Staged all over the world, by a variety of actors (the most famous being Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones in 2007) for almost three decades since when it was written, Love Letters was first performed by this duo in 1999. And seventeen years later, it hadn’t aged a bit in fact had acquired a sweet, nostalgic value with musical interludes and visual references to Melissa and Andy through their 50 years of correspondence. You came away with a desperate urge to be as much in love.

That is the strongest message one took away from Lahore Literary Festival this year. There has to be passion in one’s path, a love for every word written, spoken, read or even thought. Because tucked away, between the lines, is the power to change through this passionate discourse. The festival did make the government nervous enough to clamp down on it (under the guide of security alerts, of course) but was there a silent revolution in the works?

“I don’t think we’re going to be looking at a revolution through a literary platform but through literature, yes,” Razi Ahmed, Founding Director LLF replied. “It’s going to be a process. And when looking at a revolution that is not bloody, it is a revolution of ideas. We want to, through this platform, inspire the youth to think critically and to look at things afresh rather than the same tired narratives that are bandied about on current affairs shows. This kind of a platform allows people to look at new angles and explore local and global hybridity and dialogue. That, I think, is the most contribution we make each year.”

— Photos by Tapu Javeri

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