The renowned historian was one of the two keynote speakers for the inaugural ceremony. —White Star
The renowned historian was one of the two keynote speakers for the inaugural ceremony. —White Star

There was a hint of summer in the air. Only a hint. The balmy breeze that blows across the Beach Luxury Hotel in the month of February every year has almost become synonymous with the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF).

It was no different on Friday evening when it welcomed book lovers with its feathery touch, amidst fears that a global health crisis might also engulf the city of Karachi, to the 11th edition of the festival.

Proceedings began with managing director of Oxford University Press Arshad Saeed Husain’s welcome address in which he highlighted the importance of education.

He said that the rise of digital technology had given momentum to the written word. It was no longer restricted, and travelled at the speed of light. The KLF is not a luxury, it’s a necessity, he added.

"Tragedy of education"

Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood was the chief guest of the opening ceremony.

He appreciated the fact that while coming to the venue he faced a traffic jam but it was because of a literature festival.

He agreed with Mr Husain that there’s a tragedy of education in the country because there existed three education systems at a time. But he claimed that by April next year, students would be able to study one curriculum across the country.

UK High Commissioner Christian Turner spoke a bit in Urdu, kitabein ahm hain [books are important], which immediately earned him a generous round of applause. He emphasised on three words: perceptions, connections and discourse.

Italian Consul General Anna Ruffino and a representative of the US consulate Jason Green talked about the event’s significance and their contribution to it.

Three prizes were also given on the occasion.

KLF-Getz Pharma fiction prize went to Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif.

KLF-Habib Metro Non-fiction prize was won by Interpretations of Jihad in South Asia by Tariq Rehman.

KLF-Infaq Foundation Urdu literature prize was bagged by Hasan Manzar for his novel Ay Falak-i-Na Insaaf.

Arts Council of Pakistan Karachi’s Balochi book prize was won by poet Munir Momin and Sindhi book prize was given to Tariq Qureshi.

Literature festivals growing in India, Pakistan

Internationally renowned writer and historian William Dalrymple was the first of the two keynote speakers for the inaugural session.

He said he was asked to speak with reference to the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is the largest fest in the world. It didn’t start off like that, though. In 2004, there were 16 people in its first session, 10 of whom were Japanese tourists who had got lost.

There are now 60 festivals in India, 10 in Pakistan, etc. It is astonishing the way in 16 years the festivals have mushroomed attracting incredible crowds at a time when we are told that publishing is difficult and reading is dying. KLF and other lit fests are clear evidence that this is not the case.

Mr Dalrymple said it’s worth considering why literature festivals have taken off in South Asia in a fantastic manner. He suspected that part of the answer lay in the fact that this region had a very profound tradition of the public performance of literature. In every part of the world it’s believed that ultimately literature is about the author writing in solitude and the reader reading in solitude. But there is also this tradition of literature being read.

He said his first visit to rural Sindh was to Bhitshah where Shah Latif’s poetry was being read out to people. The very first time he came to Karachi in 1990 to meet writers Ahmed Ali and his friends Shanul Haq Haqqee who told him that both of them were Mohajirs from Delhi.

They described to him how the Mohajirs of Karachi had reproduced the configurations of shops around Burnes Road that had once existed around Delhi’s Jama Masjid, which used to be the central place in Mughal India for the performance of public literature. Storytellers, dastango, etc, would stand there and tell stories such as that of Amir Hamza.

Mr Dalrymple said things like a mushaira were part of that culture. Farhatullah Baig gave a fictionalised version of the last mushaira in Delhi in his famous book with Ghalib competing against Zauq, two of them trying to outdo each other. This went back to older traditions of wandering storytellers. In villages in South Asia there have always been wandering storytellers.

Mr Dalrymple gave the example of a story from Rajasthan about a man who comes to Umerkot (in Pakistan) to retrieve his cow. He concluded by saying that since so many people came to literature festivals for that purpose (to listen to stories and authors) we should celebrate literature festivals.

Writer Zaheda Hina delivered the second keynote speech. She spoke on the censorship issues faced by writers.

Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2020

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