I discovered literature through attending festivals.
Although much of my childhood was spent with my head in a book and as I grew up it was in relation to characters in books that I increasingly understood my own identity and ambitions, it was only with attending literary festivals in my early-twenties that I encountered literature as a social, communal experience and started to engage with the world of literature beyond that contained within a book. Being read to, meeting authors, the buzz of an excited audience discussing big ideas, feeling involved in something bigger than one person sitting in a chair with a book: it was all this I fell in love with and that transformed me from a compulsive reader into someone who wanted to make a career in literature. Nothing can replace the private experience of reading a book, but for provocation and immersing yourself in literature and the world, there is nowhere like a festival.
That I’m talking so idealistically about festivals is due in no small part to my experience in Lahore. I had not realised how inadvertently blasé I had become about festivals – there’s one almost every week in the UK and authors are reeling under the expectation to promote a book at every conceivable opportunity – until surrounded with the energy of a new festival in a city recently starved of cultural opportunity.
Imagine living in a society where cinemas have closed down having been targeted by terrorists, sports teams no longer visit, and even the fabled kite flying Basant that heralds the coming of spring and covers the city in a brightly coloured blanket each February has been cancelled. And now imagine that into this desert comes a literary festival, complete with authors from around the world, high profile Pakistani writers, discussions on themes such as ‘Literature and Resistance’ and ‘The Globalisation of Pakistan’s Literature’, and the chance to discuss political troubles in a secular public space.
In such circumstances, the raucous, almost bawdy yet respectful atmosphere that was like nothing I’ve ever experienced at a festival starts to make sense. The very existence of the festival was an act of social defiance that said things like this can happen safely in modern Pakistan. That it passed off so positively may mark a watershed for the city.
Had it not been with British Council, I never would have thought to visit Pakistan. In fact, I’d have been terrified to. Yet three days there showed me how narrow such a viewpoint would have been. The Lahore I encountered was populated with friendly, warm, engaged, intelligent, liberal people. We were safe walking the streets both around the festival and the old city centre, were welcomed as tourists into Mosques, and saw nearly nobody wearing the burqa. It was a city I felt comfortable in.
‘I feel like our generation has been deprived of so much this city has to offer’, wrote @azafark on Twitter as the early Spring sunshine appeared in the sky above Lahore for the second day of the festival. Crowds bulged. If the auditoriums of the Alhamra Art Centre were two-thirds full at 9am on the first day, they were bursting at the seems and spilling into the aisles by the second. The festival concluded with a conversation between William Dalrymple and Ahmed Rashid on ‘Cultures in Conflict’. Outside the queue of those who couldn’t get in snaked around the paths of the centre. I quickly abandoned any hope of attending and settled into people watching as they crowds enthusiastically discussed what they had seen and heard during the day.
In total, more than 15,000 people came through the festival over the two days. The audiences were made up of an even split between men and women, and ranged in age from teenagers through to those in their late eighties. If a theme emerged from the festival it was the state of Pakistan: its difficulties, challenges, and international standing. There was no shying away from recent troubles, but a pragmatic approach to the future abounded. ‘Yes we have challenges. But that is not who we are,’ said Nadeem Aslam, whose recently published fourth novel, The Blind Man’s Garden is both a metaphor for, and exploration of, life in Pakistan over the past decade. Reading from the book he treated the audience to the first chapter, where the main character, Rohan, recalls a conversation he had when his son was a child. On finding Jeo distressed by a story, ‘Rohan had given a small laugh to comfort him and asked,
‘But have you ever heard a story in which the evil person triumphs at the end?’
The boy thought for a while before replying.
‘No,’ he said, ‘but before they lose, they harm the good people. That is what I am afraid of.’'
It was a passage that resonated with me and, I suspect, the entire audience. At other points in the weekend, a range of other writers responded to the challenges of the day. Lahore born prominent left-wing academic Tariq Ali echoed the sentiments of Rudyard Kipling a century earlier in calling for the teaching of history through stories and narratives so as to keep it alive and prevent aberrations such as the Taliban occurring. Discussing satire, Mohammed Hanif and Moni Mohsin argued that in difficult times ‘you have to laugh in the dark,’ especially when ‘the darkness keeps getting darker…and the lightness more hysterical.’
Elsewhere passionate debates about national identities and self determination brought anger towards the behavior of both Pakistan and India in Kashmir, and dismay at the utter breakdown in political relations between the two. And yet conversation returned time and again to the question of whether literature can actually change anything. There’s a dichotomy in literature between the quiet, private artform we all fall in love with, and how that then impacts on the world itself. No author involved was able or willing to categorically suggest that either writing or festivals alone can change the world. Yet there was a sense that, in ‘building self resistance’ (Selma Dabbagh) and ‘letting you live’ (Basharat Peer) they can change people. And how else is the world changed?
‘Now that it's over,’ writes Komail Aijazuddin in the Indian Express, ‘the energy and intensity conjured over the last few days have nowhere to go. I am anxious, but for once it is because of something we've gained, not lost.’ I had expected my experiences in Pakistan to be somewhat different to the Pakistan of the news. But what I encountered was a as far from that which we see as it is possible to get. The country has its significant problems to overcome. They were openly discussed and will take time and concerted effort to resolve. Yet the people I met convinced me that better times lie ahead for the people of Lahore. They certainly deserve it. And in the meantime, they now have a literary festival that can only go from strength to strength.