Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pakistan Diary - The First Karachi Literature Festival

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Portrait

A trip to the fatherland.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Reeling under unending terror attacks, Pakistan hosted its first major literary event on March 21, 2010. The budget of Karachi Literature Festival was less than the film-signing amount charged by Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor, whose face is seen in billboards all over Karachi. “We are doing it in Rs 50 lakhs (Pakistani rupees),” says Ameena Saiyid (see picture), managing director of Pakistan’s Oxford University Press, which is organizing the event in collaboration with the British Council.

Ms Sayid hit upon the idea of hosting such a carnival after attending the fourth Jaipur Literature Festival in 2009. “I had never before seen such a big gathering of writers at one place,” she says. “When I returned to Karachi and discussed the possibility of having a similar kind of event, not one person was discouraging.”

The two-day festival saw 50 authors from Pakistan, India, the US and the UK. They included Bapsi Sidhwa, Muhammed Hanif, Kishwar Naheed, Mohsin Hamid, Sadia Shepard, Fauzia Syed and Fahmida Riaz. India’s presence was marked by only two Urdu writers, though many were invited. “William Dalrymple (the co-organiser of the Jaipur festival) is not coming because the date is clashing with his birthday,” says Sayid.

From south Karachi’s Carlton Hotel, the mostly Pakistani origin novelists, poets, playwrights and newspaper columnists hoped to divert the world attention to the other Pakistan. “Our nation has come to be identified with Taliban and terrorism,” says Ms Saiyid. “But there is more to the country.” Karachi-based columnist Irfan Husain who will be moderating a session says, “This festival will help in dispelling the notion that Pakistan is just full of the military and mullahs. The world will realize that the country has readers, writers and other people living normal lives and that the current terrorism, hopefully, is a passing aberration.”

In a country where a book is a bestseller if it sells 5,000 copies, the reading culture is hardly vibrant. ‘Bestselling’ novelist Mohsin Hamid will not be mobbed if he goes for a coffee in Karachi’s fashionable Zamzama Boulevard. “For millions of people even a cheap book costs double their daily wage. Millions more can't even read because we never bothered to educate them. So reading is mostly a pastime for a middle class minority who some how acquired the habit at an early age,” says Mohammed Hanif, the author of the international bestseller A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

“The reading scene was more depressing till some time ago,” says Junaid Zuberi, a financial analyst in Karachi’s posh Clifton neighbourhood, who describes himself as a lover of arts and literature. “There weren’t many readers. Bookshops were closing down. Libraries could be counted on fingertips. The arrival of the Internet further dampened the book-reading culture.” However, publishers are now taking more initiatives to organize literary gatherings through book launch parties. Karachi has also seen the opening of a few literary cafes that hold at least one book-related event every week.

"Pakisan had a thriving popular fiction scene in the seventies but that is being replaced by political rants and pseudo-religious texts,” says novelist Hanif. “Islamic publishing is going through a boom period. You can find books on Islamic medicine, Islamic banking, Islamic parenting... But I have seen some young people who are very very keen readers and I keep hoping there'll be more of them.”

The domestic readers may be indifferent to the Pakistani authors writing in English, but they are becoming a rage in the global literary circuit. Short story writer Daniyal Mueenuddin is regularly published in the prestigious New Yorker magazine. Journalist Ahmed Rashid is a fixture in The New Yorker Review of Books. Young novelists such as Ali Sethi have become the darlings of the Western press that is hungry to know more about the inner life of a country frequently described as “the world’s most dangerous place.” In the Jaipur Literature Festival held in 2010, Sethi was flooded with interview requests from American journalists. In fact, he won’t be able to make it to Karachi due to his book promotional tour in the US.

Perhaps it is the renewed interest in the country that Pakistan’s Diaspora writers have started returning to the country. Daniyal Mueenuddin whose stories subtly unravel the life of the feudal society graduated in the US but now he runs a farm in rural Punjab. In 2008, Muhammed Hanif returned to Karachi after 12 years in London. “Our writers are coming home to find stories and collect materials so they can present themselves to the West as insiders,” Saiyid says. “The credibility is not the same if they write from abroad.”

Since the festival was planned on a short notice and lacks any government or corporate sponsorship, it didn’t even have a PR firm to do its publicity. In a bookstore in Karachi’s glitzy Dolmen Mall, browsers were unaware of it. “Not one of us knows about it,” says Yumna Zia, a business student of the city’s Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology who had come to buy books with college friends. “But the idea is good.”

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