Pakistan’s literary festivals: The alternative discourse
With 200 million people in a country, there will be a lot of talk. But the rationality and intellect in Pakistan’s noisy public conversations are not coming, as one would expect, from talk-shows in the media or the departments of academia. Instead they are rising from an alternative narrative-building space: literary festivals.
From the inaugural edition of KLF in Karachi in 2009, literary festivals in Pakistan have became a symbol of citizen resistance against alienating state narratives and an indifferent media. The festivals reclaimed the space for a citizen-centered pluralist discourse that had been lost to people in the previous decade.
With barely 70 days into the new year, half a dozen prominent festivals have already been held in some of the country’s largest cities and many more are chalked into the calendar for the rest of the year. Even with a closed national airspace and dramatic military clashes between Pakistan and India last week, the Karachi Literary Festival (KLF) went ahead, recording its tenth annual edition.
The Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) similarly held its seventh annual edition earlier this month. Then there was the big Sindh Literature Festival and the Pakistan Adab [literature] Festival in Karachi, as well as the Hyderabad Literary Festival. Other major ‘thought festivals’ this year were the Mother Languages Festivals in Islamabad, the Afkar-e-Taza [New Thoughts] Festival in Lahore and the Punjabi Sulekh Festival in Faisalabad. More are planned in Islamabad, Gwadar, Quetta, Peshawar, Lahore, Multan, Gujranwala and Rawalpindi.
In many ways, the literary festivals of Pakistan have become the alternative national discourse on ‘Where do we go from here,’ as a pluralist state, and the state’s tendency to be functionally unitary.
The discussions are both cerebral and celebratory, and the arguments and opinions passionate. But these Pakistani festivals encompass more than just academic discourse. There are book launches, poetry recitals, dance and musical performances that bring together a celebration of heritage, culture and literature into one whole, often mesmerizing, package. The festivals themselves bring in varying audiences, from the elite at the LLF to more public crowds outside of the major urban centers.
The festivals bring together Pakistan’s best-known novelists, poets, critics, academics, auteurs, thespians and thinkers, holding panel discussions and engaging with enthusiastic audiences. The festivals often run for three days or more and can conduct up to 100 parallel, often heated and engaging discussions. In 2018, over 300 books were launched in these festivals. Authors are looked upon as celebrities and often mobbed for selfies beyond organized book signing sessions. The turnout can be huge. Over 200,000 people attended both the KLF and LLF last year.
This begs the question: why have literary and other thought festivals become such a rage in Pakistan?
It would appear they have cropped up as a replacement for traditional [non-literary] culture festivals such as the spring [basant] festival in Punjab, and Sufi festivals in Sindh which were banned or halted after militancy and terrorism rose to its crest with festivals, like other large gatherings, becoming targets.
With the gradual disappearance of such public festivals, Pakistan’s cultural, ethnic, linguist and social pluralisms lost their interfacing in public spaces. In the same period, the country’s media landscape rapidly expanded but conspicuously avoided a focus on Pakistan’s socio-cultural pluralisms partly because of a lack of professionalism and because of a rising tide of censorship.
It is no wonder then, that literary festivals in Pakistan have evolved to raise, dissect and discuss issues that are missing from the media and state narratives. These can range from radical reinterpretations of history to raising questions about the country being a security state that does not explicitly focus on the future or decentralization; and from constitutional reforms to equal rights and social justice; to the changing forms and priorities of the country’s emerging literary trends and their meaning and relevance in the new millennium for a pluralist polity, social milieu and changing demography.
In many ways, the literary festivals of Pakistan have become the alternative national discourse on ‘Where do we go from here,’ as a pluralist state, and the state’s tendency to be functionally unitary. Whether this alternative discourse will eventually build a critical mass of influence over the state and play a part in subverting its redundant thought processes remains to be seen. In the meantime, the conversations will continue, the books will be signed and the poetry recited- and somewhere in between the dynamics of speakers and audiences, a new Pakistani intelligentsia will be born.
– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.