Sights and sounds at the Karachi Literature Festival
Foreign correspondents like conjuring the “books, not bombs” angle to justify the expense of flying down to Karachi to hear a bunch of people talk about politics and their books (in that order).
But at this year’s Karachi Literature Festival there were bombs everywhere. Pervez Hoodbhoy led a discussion on bombs of the nuclear kind, Ayesha Siddiqa lobbed a few verbal bombs in Anatol Lieven’s direction for not nursing sufficient hatred for the Pakistan Army while Mohammed Hanif even dropped the deadliest bomb of all: the F-bomb.
I began my annual pilgrimage to the Karachi Literature Festival by making a mental note of all the political panels on the programme, vowing to stay away from all of them and somehow ending up there anyway. Since political writers tend not to be shy about expressing their views in print or on TV, I didn’t exactly learn anything new but it was refreshing to see travel writer William Dalrymple step out of his comfort zone and allow us the privilege of hearing his views on the Taliban (spoiler alert: he disapproves of them). Pervez Hoodbhoy’s opinions are also well-aired by now but his voice is so melodious that he should consider moonlighting as a singer of lullabies to bratty babies.
There was also a hint of homo-eroticism at the KLF. Loving chronicler of Indian high society, Shobhaa De was flanked at all times by a coterie of middle-aged women fans. Hanif Kureshi’s boast of hanging out with David Bowie and Billy Idol was breathlessly repeated by those men old enough to know how ineffably cool that makes him. At one point, Kureshi narrated a story of his response to a Pakistani who claimed that there are no homosexuals in the country. He said, “Having been fondled all over South Asia I’ve had a different experience.” He needn’t have looked far: plenty of boys at the Carlton Hotel would have done the same.
As entertaining and well-organised as the KLF was, the Oxford University Press did make one scheduling blunder. The Hanifs (Kureshi and Mohammed), Vikram Seth and Shobhaa De may have been the de-facto rock stars of the festival but the event featuring the one true rock star, Salmaan Ahmed, was held at 10 am on Sunday. Any self-respecting fan of rock’n’roll, albeit that of the Sufi variety, would have been nursing a hangover at that inhuman hour.
In the coming days you will read a lot of self-important blather from those who would like to hold up the KLF as liberal Pakistan’s riposte to the right-wing. Expect lots of inane comparisons to be made between the festival and the Difa-e-Pakistan Council rally held in the city at the same time. Then there’ll be the perpetually aggrieved hardcore leftists who’ll be wondering why a literature festival didn’t try to educate society aunties, stoned teenagers and socially-awkward geeks on the ins and outs of resistance. This wasn’t meant to be a political indoctrination camp or the latest meet-up of the liberal fascists; it was a chance to listen to writers, shake their sweaty hands and get their signatures on a piece of paper.
Surely we aren’t jaded enough to deride that?
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