How much fun was the Lahore Literary Festival? So fun that I had to be given an I-V drip after Saturday night, which is to say absurdly fun!
Thank heavens Lahore finally has a literary festival. Honestly, it was getting embarrassing. For years our firmament of literary stars have migrated across borders for weeklong festivals at Jaipur, Kolkata, Delhi, Dubai, London and more to enthrall foreign audiences (and Pakistanis with visas) as they spoke about love, loss and literature in the homeland. The morning after one could gather from the excited articles, jealous tweets and bitchy blogs exactly who said what about whom. I always found myself longing that I could somehow be part of it, rushing from Rushdie to Hamid to Seth and back in time for Shobhaa De.
About a day after the Jaipur Lit Fest would close, the conversations beginning with “Just think! Why can’t we do this in Lahore?” would invariably resurrect themselves like vivid zombies, only to return to their tombs with the next target killing (“Oh, that’s why…”). People would point out a dearth of readers in English, or furrow their brows intellectually as they spoke of the lack of a local publishing industry. For the most part, many were just jealous they didn’t have a book out yet and were less inclined to try and publicize those who did. People in general are Debbie Downers. That’s why it’s so remarkable that a two-day event about books and writers drew tens of thousands of people. We can, it turns out, reclaim public space (if only briefly, tentatively, gratefully).
I arrived the first day drenched and heaving, and was immediately handed an umbrella and a free coffee, which I took as confirmation that a divinity really does care about me. (The only other time I had that feeling was when I made it to the lusciously carpeted floors of Medina after traversing Mecca’s marble walkways.) The schedule had Names: Mohsin Hamid, William Dalrymple, Intizar Hussein, Bapsi Sidhwa, Tehmina Durrani (more on her later), Nadeem Aslam, Mohammad Hanif, Ayesha Jalal and so many, many more. Not gonna lie, I was star-struck.
I caught some morning sessions, including one with my own fave novelist Nadeem Aslam. (I’d never seen him speak. It’s intense. He struck me as the Daniel Day Lewis of method writing). Faced with a long rainy lunch break, I made my way to the Avari for some food because it was literally the closest place (robotic voice: “Elite Excuses Activated”). I was not alone. As my friends and I crossed the Mall, I saw a swarm of Birkins and Burberry and Chanel around me, all headed to the same place. It was beyond funny to the see the expressions of the hotel gatekeepers as the usually chauffeur-driven guests made their way to Fujiyama on foot and demanded to be let in.
Later in the day I went to the LLF’s Art lectures. Titled ‘Polemics of Time and Space’, the first lecture was fantastic. It was delivered by one Amin Jaffer, the International Head of Asian Art for Christies. Let’s all admit that with a job title like that, one may as well be called Your Highness or the Arty Emperor. Using different objects, he led us on a journey from Vasco de Gama’s arrival in South India (remember him? It’s been a while) and illustrated how porous the amorphous East/West divide really was.
The second session was delivered by Quddus Mirza, which I think deserves some kind of official apology. It was of a level so banal that there were involuntarily physical reactions in the audience. I’ll skip most of my gripes and go straight to the hernia: he began the lecture with a massive high-res slide of the artist Shahzia Sikander’s work. “Sikander is not a Pakistani artist because she doesn’t engage with the community,” he said dismissively, and then moved on to sad jokes and painful non-sequiturs about Pakistani art.
Hold up. If Shahzia Sikander is so irrelevant to art today, why did you just open your lecture on Pak Art with A SLIDE OF SHAHZIA-DON’T-MATTER-WHO-SHE-IS-SIKANDER? To those who don’t know, Shahzia Sikander is the most globally eminent artist to emerge from Pakistan. Ever. For some reason, the local art mafia has taken it upon themselves to exclude her from what they consider Pakistani Art, I imagine because she doesn’t exhibit here (would you if the MoMA was buying you?) and a whole host of personal vendettas that have nothing to do with her body of work. That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if it’s s***. What’s deeply petty is to single her out in a general introduction on art for Lahore’s first literary festival, just to say she’s isn’t one of us, when she is in fact believed by the world (let me say it again: the world) to be our best.
Later, a panelist who was a curator from Doha opened the discussion by pointing out that Sikander is actually the biggest name associated with Pakistani art, so she found the hostility against her in her own hometown remarkable. The session marked the petty small-mindedness that so often surface when Lahoris gather in public. I am thrilled to say it was the only one.
Every other talk or discussion I saw was fantastic, and I heard only good things about the rest. I wish I could describe them all. My only regret is not being able to see Tehmina Durrani as she sat in front of a slideshow of beauty shots set to Frank Sinatra’s I did it my way. All the sessions were crammed with people (mainly the LGS ushers and the boys who love them) and positive energy. At one point during his talk, author Mohsin Hamid paused to remark on how emotional he was at seeing thousands of Lahoris coming out in public again. Most people in that hall teared up, even this cynical columnist. It’s true. It was so nice to see people out again; talking, laughing, debating. All in public. All about ideas. To put it simply, the resounding success of the LLF now of all times and here of all places gave me hope, if only for a rainy day.
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