People who live in big metropolises often lose touch with what happens in other cities. For people like me in Lahore, the only two other cities of concern in Pakistan are Karachi and Islamabad. Occasionally, we also give some space to cities like Peshawar and Quetta, but that too mainly because they are provincial capitals.
Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when I was invited by the organisers of the Lyallpur Suleikh Mela (Literary Festival) which was held from February 14-16, 2017 in Pakistan’s third largest city, the present day, Faisalabad. Even though the city is just about two hours away, intellectually there seems to be a gulf between Faisalabad and Lahore. People generally think of Faisalabad as a merchant city — the Manchester of the East — and hence short shrift is given to its intellectual capital.
The Lyallpur Suleikh Mela, now in its second year, therefore challenged not only the elitism of Lahore, but also shook the usually business focused city to also take a deep look its own history, heritage, and literature.
The festival was great not just because it showcased literature — something which has now been happening around the world with the proliferation of literary festivals — but in that it challenged us at many other levels. First just the name itself threw a challenge. The organisers, the indefatigable Tohid Chatta and Amir Butt, deliberately chose to name it ‘Lyallpur’ after its birth name, rather than its rechristened name of ‘Faisalabad.’ This was a significant decision to hearken back to the city’s past where it was a multi-cultural and multi-religious place.
As a matter of fact, before 1947, Hindus and Sikhs formed the majority in the city itself with Muslims having a slight lead in the district. Lyallpur — named after the then Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, Sir James Lyall, was a canal colony, established in the latter part of the nineteenth century in the wake of the rapid expansion of the canal network in the Punjab under the British. Hence, it was a city which began with a clean chit — without the Hindu-Muslim conflict which had inflicted several other cities in India, and with its modern urban design it was a forward looking metropolis in the making.
The partition of 1947 did wound its composite life and over half of its population had to abandon the land of their birth almost overnight, but the city’s life was soon replenished with the Punjabi refugees from East Punjab and the princely states, who while not able to replicate the life of the city beforehand, did give it support to stand back on its feet. By the 1960s, therefore, the city was a burgeoning centre of textiles and industry and a poster for Pakistan’s development.
But then in 1977 the prosperous and happy Lyallpur became Faisalabad — named after a Saudi king with no connection with the city and who was killed by his own nephew in an internal power struggle — the city which was heir to a tradition of modernity, development and entrepreneurship, now commemorated a reactionary king and his medievally run kingdom. Hence, to revive the old—nay, real, name of the city is indeed a great accomplishment by the organisers.
The Lyallpur Festival is also unique because the whole event took place through the medium of the Punjab language. This was certainly a great achievement as most festivals in Pakistan are in English, with a smattering of Urdu. While there is nothing wrong with English and Urdu panels, denigrating the mother tongue of the majority of the people of the country to a level where it only becomes a rustic colloquial tongue is a grave injustice to a language with such an illustrious history and tradition.
The fact that the festival was held just a few days before the International Mother Language Day on February 21, was also poignant. And lest people forget, the reason that this day is celebrated on February 21, is embedded in the history of Pakistan: it was on this day that the police shot several people (mainly students ) in Dacca in 1952 when they were protesting the declaration that Urdu would be the sole national language of Pakistan.
Having led and sacrificed much for the Pakistan Movement, Bengali Pakistanis — who were 54 per cent of the population of Pakistan at that time — were simply aghast that their mother tongue did not merit equal status with Urdu. Hence when they protested, they were shot at and several died. Today the ‘Shaheed Minar’ stands in Dacca to honour their memory and the international mother language day is celebrated in the world to remind us that people actually spilled their blood to preserve their mother tongue.
In terms of its context and execution, the Lyallpur Festival was an exemplary success too. There were panels ranging from Punjabi literature in Lyallpur city, to a discussion on the Harappan civilisation, stories in Punjabi, Punjabi cinema, and political parties in the Punjab. There was even a panel on subaltern history — in which I participated, and a discussion on Punjabi and web media, highlighting the role of language in social and new media in the modern age.
A number of scholars, activists and others, participated in the panel discussions including, Professor Tahir Kamran from GC University Lahore, Professor Pippa Virdee from ITU and DeMontfort University, UK, Dr Nadeem Tarrar from NCA, Dr Imdad Hussain from FC College, Mushtaq Soofi, Iqbal Qaiser, Ahmad Saleem, Aamir Riaz, and many others. All these speakers spoke really well — and all of them in Punjabi (even I, a Pakhtun, spoke in my broken Punjabi!), to a demographic hardly any of the other literary festivals reach out to, or care about.
The range and depth of questions asked at the sessions was testament to the interest and engagement of the audience, as well as to the importance of reaching out to a border demographic than just the upper middle and elite classes.
The Lyallpur Suleikh Mela was indeed a breath of fresh air in the saturated space of literary festivals in Pakistan. Its challenge of history, identity and language — simply through its name is also singular, and will certainly earn it a unique place in the cultural milieu of Pakistan.
For the snooty crowd of elites who patronise such literary festivals this event must have come as a shock — how can a ‘literary festival’ be in Punjabi, they must have wondered. Isn’t Punjabi what our ‘help’ speaks in? How can one have an intellectual discussion in Punjabi? Such questions and more must have rattled the minds of people who attend literary festivals more to be seen and meet, than to actually learn and engage. The Lyallpur SuleikhMela has certainly challenged us in many ways, and good luck to it!