March Issue 2015

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 9 years ago

The Karachi Literature Festival has become the cultural event of the year. And again this year, a pleasant February evening saw the sixth incarnation of the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) open its doors to the literati and glitterati of Karachi for another weekend’s worth of intellectual stimulation at the scenic Beach Luxury Hotel.

Welcoming the guests at the inauguration ceremony, Oxford University Press Managing Director, Ameena Saiyid said that events like KLF are part of democracy and assist in stimulating dialogue and the exchange of ideas which promote understanding, harmony and inclusiveness.

“The word ‘festival’ is the operative word,” she said. “This is not a seminar or conference or convention.”

Senior journalist and member of the ‘I am Karachi’ consortium, Ghazi Salahuddin urged members of civil society to play their role in bringing peace to the city. “Karachi is a city that is one of its kind — a city that lacks love,” he observed.

He said that civil society is now in a battle and needs to fight to reclaim public spaces and promote art and culture.

Nayantara Sahgal, the keynote speaker and niece of former Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said that though people had come to celebrate literature, we should understand that literature is in danger.

“Politics has become part of literature,” she remarked. “Politics might not have affected Jane Austen’s writing but it has now affected private lives to such an extent that it reflects in the writing of various writers.”

KLF 2015 saw the inclusion of one of Lahore’s most well-known families: Najam Sethi, his wife Jugnu Mohsin, son Ali Sethi and daughter Mira, who arrived in Karachi as panelists and moderators of various sessions.

Kicking off the second day was a session titled Politics and Personalities of Pakistan: In Conversation with Najam Sethi, which was moderated by Agha Ghazanfar with none other than Sethi saab himself. The cheeky talk-show analyst, adamant PCB official and editor of The Friday Times related anecdotes about his interactions with various politicians throughout the years, from his early days as a supporter of the Baloch nationalist cause to his experiences as a journalist writing in politically interesting times. It was one of the more engaging discussions of the day, as Sethi gave insights into the personalities and quirks of a number of senior politicians. While Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was remembered in unfavouraPolitics-and-Personalities-of-Pakistan-1ble terms (i.e. arrogant), Sethi had kinder words for Bhutto’s daughter, with whom he shared a “rocky friendship.” He used the terms “aloof” and “suspicious” to describe Benazir, but at the same time, said she was “open and accessible” and very different from her public persona. Musharraf was described as “impetuous” but “likeable,” who would apologise after realising a mistake. As always, Sethi was more circumspect about Altaf Hussain, against whose wrath he maintains he has a “safeguard mechanism,” his wife, Jugnu Mohsin, whom he said the MQM leader regards as his sister.

Mohsin took the stage next, and spoke about the evolution of The Friday Times and the use of satire as social commentary, in the session titled In Conversation with Jugnu Mohsin. She impersonated everyone, from public figures such as the late Lady Diana and Altaf Hussain to the Pakistani British and American diaspora communities. However, those of us who may have seen clips from her session at last year’s Lahore Literary Festival would have found the act on Benazir Bhutto a bit repetitive. Even moderator Zafar Hilaly tried to join in with the impersonations, but he was less successful. Leave satire to the satirists.

The session titled Kitabi Chehre se Facebook tak discussed the impact of social media and technology on reading habits. Most panelists agreed that Facebook, and technology in general, is not detrimental to the culture of reading. Drama writer Asghar Nadeem Syed, known for his drama Chand Grehan, pointed out that the advent of newer forms of entertainment like cinemas in Pakistan did not wipe out the older forms of television or theatre. However, veteran script writer Haseena Moin minced no words in telling the audience that she does not understand how to use Facebook, nor does she want to learn. True solace, she said, can only be found in a good book, which is a vessel of knowledge that no modern invention can ever replace.

Building upon this idea, poet and writer, Amjad Islam Amjad spoke about how while Facebook does provide users with a regular stream of information, this does not amount to real knowledge, because only books provide in-depth analyses. But Facebook and other forms of social media are not without their benefits, and actress Neelofar Abbasi pointed out that it actually helps popularise books by giving authors the opportunity to market their books and establish a direct link with their readers.

The session titled Can Local Cinema Travel Globally? discussed the international appeal of local cinema. The panel comprised Sanjay Iyer, Munizae Jahangir and Meenu Gaur and was moderated by Mazhar Zaidi, who discussed issues of distribution, production and audience reception in the film industry.

Meenu Gaur, co-director and co-writer of the critically acclaimed film Zinda Bhaag, explained that the film received international recognition and had an eight-week run in multiplexes despite the producer’s earlier doubts that the film’s audience would be limited.

Can-Local-Cinema-Travel-Globally-3You can’t release a film like Zinda Bhaag the same way you would release a film with Shaan,” she said. “You have to come up with other ways to market indie films.”

But Gaur was also of the opinion that the recent opening of multiplexes in all major cities had led to class divisions in film viewership, and the decline of single-screen cinemas has prevented films from reaching certain audiences.

The panel used the example of the film Lucia to highlight new ways of distributing and funding films. They elaborated that director Pavan Kumar was fortunate to gain support on social media, which enabled him to get more than five million followers through an online campaign.

Iyer, who acted in the film, said that Kumar made the film independently by crowd-funding — an increasingly popular way of financing projects through the Internet. Iyer also remarked that cinema-goers are declining because alternatives such as Netflix now cater to niche markets in private spaces.

“There is a paradox at work here,” said Iyer. “Neither did Lucia have mainstream content nor was it a typical Bollywood film, but it reached out to audiences globally.”

Iyer concluded the session with an optimistic outlook on the revival of Pakistani cinema. “Although Pakistani cinema is still in its infancy, it holds the potential to grow and compete with developed film industries such as Bollywood,” he said.

The World as the Author Sees It was a session moderated by Sarah Humayun, assistant professor at Habib University, where the panelists comprised authors Mohammad Hanif, Aaker Patel, Alex Preston and Benyamin (Benny Daniels) who engaged in a lively discussion on whether authors present the world in a unique way and whether it is their duty to bring to light a view of the world that isn’t presented in the mainstream narrative.

Hanif spoke about viewing the world through the eyes of other writers, even if the work is fictional. Preston, a British author and journalist, added, “Stories are a way of trying to give structure to a world that is difficult to understand.” Indian writer Patel insisted that it is imperative that writers do not submit to the narrative peddled by the state or those in power, and instead offer an alternate perspective. Regarding the issue of self-censorship, Malayalam writer Benyamin said, “Writers have to commit to telling the truth, even if it means hurting the sensibilities of some section of society. They must tell the real story, despite the consequences.”

The panelists then mused upon whether fiction writing or journalism is best suited for the task of telling the truth. Hanif argued that this is a political decision, and that oftentimes one cannot tell certain stories in journalism due to the vested interests of those who own the media. Benyamin summed up the debate succinctly saying that, “The real world is in the novel, not in history books. That is the magic of fiction.”

The Satirical Pen: In Conversation with Mohammed Hanif was this year’s rendition of the annual conversation with the irreverent Hanif which has become a KLF tradition.

Not surprisingly then, the critically acclaimed author of, A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our The-Satirical-Pen-6Lady of Alice Bhatti  seemed to be in a ‘been there, done that mode’ in this session, which was moderated by Naveed Shehzad.

Hanif, who began his career as a journalist and became a novelist later, was asked about the dual role he plays as an author and a journalist.

“Being a journalist in Pakistan is a grim job, covering carnage after carnage after carnage,” he said. “At some point, you decide that you might as well sit down and write a novel.”

Talking about how he came to write his first book, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Hanif said that there are certain events in history, such as the death of former president General Zia-ul-Haq, that we will never know the truth about. He found a solution to it: he simply made it up. “We will believe anything that we are told — we believe the fiction in our headlines.”

Shehzad then touched upon the topic of journalistic responsibility. Hanif pointed out that many issues simply do not appear on television or in newspapers — often these issues are just as important as those that do appear.

“What we choose to ignore says a great deal about who we are, where we come from and where we are headed,” Hanif remarked, referring to the long march led by the Voice of Baloch Missing People’s leader, Mama Qadeer.

In a repeat of last year’s literature festival, Shehzad read out an excerpt from an Indus Valley School convocation speech Hanif had made in 2013. While it was funny, people were overheard saying, “They did this last year too.”

“We want purana Pakistan, not naya Pakistan,” quipped well-known businessman, Amin Hashwani, while moderating the session titled Compassionate Karachi. He was referring to the time when Pakistan was on the road to becoming an Asian Tiger. Hashwani began the session with the assertion that the key to solving Pakistan’s multiple problems is not political.

This was the idea behind the Charter of Compassion, initiated by the British author on comparative religion, Karen Armstrong, in 2009. After winning the TED Prize in 2008, her wish was to launch this charter, which 180 countries, including Pakistan, have signed so far. Joining the panelists from London on Skype, Armstrong explained that the charter is based on “universal principles of justice and respect,” and aims to spread compassion within and between states.

Renowned Pakistani physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, spoke about the city’s imploding population. “The city I grew up in was a very caring one,” he said, but issues of space had actually changed people’s behaviour towards each other, as could be seen in road rage, for example.

Asking people who have to fight every day to fulfil their basic needs to be compassionate is absurd, according to businessman and founder of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), Jameel Yusuf.

Responding to a member of the audience who wondered whether, given the culture of nepotism in Pakistan, it was possible to change for the better, Dean of the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) and former State Bank governor, Ishrat Hussain replied in the affirmative. He said Karachi under former nazim Mustafa Kemal was a much better place than it is today, and added that devolving power to the citizens is the only way forward.

Clearly Karachi was a hot topic of discussion at this year’s KLF. According to Mansoor Raza, one of the researchers who contributed to the compilation of Karachi: The Land Issue, that was launched during the session titled Vitality and Violence: The Chaos that is Karachi, Karachi’s land issues are directly related to its deteriorating law and order situation. The book analyses newspaper clippings from the last 10 years concerning land issues in Karachi, bringing to light several dominant trends.

According to architect and urban planner, Arif Hasan, who has also authored the book, Karachi’s ethnic and religious tensions can be attributed to the shrinking availability and affordability of land. One of the key statistics Hasan shared was of Karachi’s inner city density which currently stands at about 6,000 persons per hectare — which means that 20 people share a single bathroom. He also said that the average citizen of Karachi can no longer afford to buy a house, explaining that home-owners are increasingly becoming renters, which is an added burden on bread-winners. According to Hasan, the root of the problem is “absolute corruption” among government officials, bureaucrats and NGOs, but there are at least four steps that can be taken to alleviate the crisis. These include setting a 500-yard limit on houses; enforcing a heavy non-utilisation of land fee; ensuring that the average population density does not exceed more than 800 persons per hectare; and developing low income housing.

The session on Habib Jalib titled, Shaer-e-Awam: Habib Jalib was one of the highlights of this year’s KLF. With personalities like Aitzaz Ahsan and Asma Jahangir weighing in, and moderated by Mujahid Barelvi, the discussion was peppered with personal anecdotes and interesting stories about the late poet. The large screen set up onstage also showed Habib Jalib reading out his own verse, which added to the mood, even if the recording could have been clearer.


Asma Jahangir spoke of Jalib’s role and support for the women’s and human rights movement in Pakistan and of his sense of humour, which helped him weather hard times. She recalled the many times the poet would be on the run from the law and would seek refuge in her father’s home.

Aitzaz Ahsan reminisced about the times spent with the poet in jail and about the latter’s pride which allowed him to live in poverty without ever accepting financial help from even close friends.

Mujahid Barelvi reminded audiences that Jalib’s entire career was spent writing under martial law regimes, starting with Ayub Khan right up to the Zia years. His pen spared none of them. This led to a debate on the role of the army in present times, which saw Asma Jahangir and Aitzaz Ahsan vociferously offering their differing perspectives.

The real treat was, of course, seeing clips of Jalib reading out his poetry to an audience from all walks of life.

Another interesting sessions of the day was Crossing Genres: Transmuting Fiction into Drama. Moderated by writer Muneeza Shamsie, the panelists consisted of Kamila Shamsie, Nimra Bucha, Arshia Sattar, Framji Minwala and Alex Preston. The participants soon established a comfortable rapport with one another, resulting in a sparkling discussion about the potential and limitations of turning fiction into a performance. Preston remarked that turning a novel into a play or film necessarily entails transforming the novel’s inscrutability to a clarity that can be presented on screen, stripping away its stylistic techniques so that only the essence remains. Minwala, who teaches theatre at IBA, said that he makes his students adapt a short story into a play, so that they can clearly understand each medium and how it differs from the other. Sattar, an Indian author who has worked in theatre, remarked upon the theatre scene in Bangalore and said that epics such as the Ramayan and Mahabharata lent themselves to varied theatrical adaptations. She was particularly pleased about the fact that young people are adapting and using these epics to address contemporary issues.

In contrast to the vibrant theatre scene in India, Pakistan’s dearth of plays becomes all the more obvious, and the panelists mused upon the reasons for this. Bucha said that the desire to perform is present, as can be seen in the rise of dramatic readings in recent years, but the problem is mainly the lack of funding. “The rise of dramatic readings is due to necessity. It’s very expensive to put up a play,” she remarked.

In the most anticipated session of the day, Freedom’s Niece: In Conversation with Nayantara Sahgal, the most striking thing about the prolific Indian writer and niece of Jahawarlal Nehru, was her unflinching optimism in human beings being able to create a better world for themselves, which was surprising, given her close association with politics and her experience of living through some of the most turbulent times in South Asian history.


In her conversation with poet and columnist, Salman Tarik Kureshi, Sahgal discussed her experiences, as she witnessed from close quarters the struggle for independence and the formation of India as a secular, democratic state. “It was a time of great exhilaration and also of great grief,” she said.

Sahgal explained that the non-violent approach that Gandhi and Nehru gave to the independence struggle had convinced her that it was possible to effect change without violence. Acknowledging that non-violent struggle seems to be the exception rather than the rule today, she nevertheless stressed the need for its revival. “The fact that something failed doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthy or that it should not be revived — we need to work our way back to non-violence.”

When questioned about whether the world today can do without war, Sahgal was firm. “Of course war can be abolished,” she said. “Why not? The next stage in human evolution will be when all of us collectively say no to war.”

While challenges such as terrorism and religious extremism are among the country’s major concerns, there is a “deficit of logic and common sense in governance” that is compounding such issues, remarked senior lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir during a panel discussion on The Changing Face of Pakistani Politics. 

Moderated by Mehtab Rashidi, the panel also included senior journalist I.A. Rehman, veteran politician Syeda Abida Hussain, and political scientist and professor Sahar Shafqat.

Jahangir conceded there were also some ways in which the country had progressed, for instance, people are now more aware of the poetry of Habib Jalib. When she was young, she said few people believed that the illiterate and the poor had any rights.

A pessimistic Rehman said that he hadn’t seen any change in Pakistan’s politics.

“If you see the broader picture, every few years we start a movement for the restoration of democracy,” he observed. “Have we realised the dreams mentioned in the Charter of Democracy? Have the basic issues of politics been resolved? We are constantly regressing.”

Veteran politician Syeda Abida Hussain said that in her view, the change in Pakistan was signified by a “far more vibrant civil society and the electronic media” and that the youth of Pakistan was the country’s biggest asset.tSahar Shafqat said that “it’s easy to fall into the trap that nothing has changed,”  because in Pakistani politics the faces tend to remain the same.

In her opinion, two major changes have taken place that should be given due credit: the completion of a full five-year term by an elected government, and the trial of former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. Further, she added, that despite the controversy surrounding the lawyers’ movement, “it was the first time the judiciary stood up.”

Jahangir railed against the meddling of the military in Pakistan’s politics.

“The same way the politicians don’t get up and start fighting at the Wagah Border, the military also needs to stay out of politics. But if you think about it, 90 per cent of parliament has come from GHQ.”

She also took the politicians to task for using religion in their politics.

“We eat, drink and sleep religion but we accomplish nothing,” she remarked, adding that in today’s political climate, anyone can get away with all kinds of corruption so long as he or she maintains a religious persona.

This session was followed by an aptly titled one: Mental Health in a Troubled City. It was a slight digression from the literary theme of the festival, but the number of people that attended was indicative of the turbulent times that Pakistan is presently experiencing. The December 16 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar was on the minds of most members of the audience, many of whom asked panelist Dr Ayesha Mian, the Chair of the Aga Khan University’s Department of Psychiatry, what parents can do to alleviate their children’s anxiety when it comes to attending school. Mian cautioned parents against fear-mongering and suggested they talk to their children regularly about any fears they might have.

Dr Saadia Quraishy, the CEO of Mashal, Aman Foundation’s mental health initiative, also highlighted the importance of strengthening our coping mechanisms against mental health issues. Naeem Sadiq, a social activist and columnist, meanwhile, suggested we should directly address the underlying issues that are causing stress and anxiety among the public. In order to combat the growing problem of terrorism and violence in the country, he said we should raise our voices (whether by writing or conducting peaceful protests) in support of de-weaponisation and a ban on illegal SIMs, for example.

Responding to a rather agitated member of the audience who asked the panelists why counselling groups in the country were almost non-existent, the session’s moderator, Dr Murad Moosa Khan said it is because psychiatry is not a popular occupation in Pakistan. The statistics are telling: there is only one psychiatrist for every one million people.

Art, too, was a topic of discussion at this year’s KLF and included a rather lively debate on its commercial aspect. The panel comprised gallery owners and artists, and artist Quddus Mirza moderated the session.

The discussion threw up the usual questions of how educated and discerning the buyers are. What is the role of the gallery in promoting good art as opposed to simply selling popular work? What is the social responsibility of the artist and of the gallery? Does early success help an artist or hinder his or her creativity?

The two artists represented in the panel were interesting in their contrast. While both are successful and respected figures, Adeela Suleman came across as very earthy and level-headed, while Muhammad Zeeshan was fiery and flamboyant in his green jacket and blonde tinted hair. Zeeshan questioned why the artist is always asked to carry the burden of social or creative responsibility.

Can creative Pakistan undo unstable Pakistan? This was the question posed to Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, and Jude Kelly, the artistic director of the Southbank Centre in London in a session moderated by Peter Upton.

Upton began by asking Rehman if Pakistan could afford to worry about arts when it was mired in a range of issues such as “power cuts, economic crisis, crime, unemployment, etc.”

“I wouldn’t burden culture with the responsibility of those who are our elected representatives,” she answered, even while acknowledging the importance that culture plays in the polity of a country.


Kelly held a more optimistic view and gave the example of Britain, which has taken a number of steps to ensure that culture becomes and remains a part of the government’s policy, though aknowledging that the UK still had a long way to go.

“What helped Britain to move forward after World War II was that people came to understand that cultural expression was their right,” she explained.

Rehman stressed that while culture and art are important in the lives of nations, more so now in Pakistan as it is finding its way through a dark tunnel, she underscored that culture cannot be the silver bullet to all of Pakistan’s problems.

“But we can build culture through discourse with literature festivals like these and other cultural spaces which are very important, ” she said.

Rehman and Kelly were on the same page on the subject of women’s empowerment and said that despite the number of women’s movements, women were not accorded the same importance as their male counterparts.

“If you want the story of the world to change, you have to give women’s voice equal importance,” Kelly said

This year, as in the years before, KLF wasn’t without its hitches, especially when it came to scheduling, but that goes with the territory of hosting an event of such proportions. One smart move that was made this year was to move the food court outside, which was an immense help in separating the sincere festival attendees from those hanging around coffee stalls simply looking to schmooze.

While there will always be cynics —one was overheard referring to the festival as, “hypocrites coming to listen to hypocrites.” What was not lost was the irony of her saying that while attending the festival. And the attendance at this year’s festival, which brought in about 1,20,000 people, was proof that the nay-sayers are only a small minority.

Here’s to next year!

This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.