Karachi Festival Shows Pakistan’s Booming Literary World

A dispatch from Karachi, where a new literary festival draws big-name authors, but the public comes for the politics and humor, reports Faiza S. Khan.

Dr. Behrouz Hashim

Welcome back to the “Pakistani literary boom”! Over the last year the limelight might have been stolen by the Arab Spring, but international interest in Pakistani literature continues unabated. The “literary boom” itself is belied by the fact that the place has, from a population of 170 million, produced approximately five authors of international renown (think Daniyal Mueenuddin or Mohsin Hamid). I expect the argument is that this is twice as many as there were a few years ago. Nonetheless, the international attention provided enough of an impetus to launch the Karachi Literature Festival, which started three years ago and appears to be steadily finding its feet. Held at a somewhat down-at-the-heels business hotel and offering 50 sessions over two days; this year’s more prominent speakers included Vikram Seth, Hanif Kureishi, William Dalrymple, Indian writer Shobhaa De, Kashmiri novelist Mirza Waheed, and most of Pakistan’s best-loved talent, including Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, and Kamila Shamsie.

The festival proper kicked off with India’s Jackie Collins, veteran best-seller Shobhaa De, whose gratifyingly lurid novels about high-society debauchery behind closed doors, written in the more rigid, elitist pre-economic miracle India of the ’80s, could as easily have been written about Karachi, then or now. De had everyone thrilled with loving comparisons of the two nuclear rivals, charting out their precious few remaining similarities to an adoring audience consisting largely of socialites in oversized sunglasses and gilt-chained handbags. The book lover’s main attractions, however, were novelist and poet Vikram Seth, whose quick wit and gentle manner charmed the birds off the trees, and scathingly incisive British author Hanif Kureishi. Kureishi is responsible, among other things, for My Beautiful Laundrette, which in the mid-’80s gave us cinema’s first gay British Pakistani. Had one been expecting a kerfuffle, one would have been most disappointed. “The Pakistan Action Committee told me there were no homosexuals,” Kureishi said, talking about the protests at its release, “having been fondled all over South Asia, I’m not convinced.” Kureishi’s session was disappointingly attended, with literature not specifically about this region often being ignored as the Pakistani reader tends toward being more interested in the state of the state. This was in evidence at Anatol Lieven’s panel discussion, the historian and policy analyst who released Pakistan: A Hard Country last year. Assuming the manner of a presidential debate, Lieven was thoroughly grilled by military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa before a throng of spectators in a hall filled to the rafters.

Along with politics—a subject that unsurprisingly holds unending fascination and substance for most conversations—women were another prominent theme this year over three discussions: Legal Rights and Women’s Reforms in Pakistan; Honour Killings: Untold Stories; and, just to remind one that it was in fact a literary festival and not a human-rights conference, Women on Writing Women. All of the above were fairly well received, the first two outlined a dire situation that appears to be inching its way further backward, while the third appeared a peculiar excuse to gather Pakistani women authors, as one was left unsure on how or why a woman writing a novel would be any different from a man attempting the same. While the numerous political sessions ranging from military failure to nuclear strategy to, naturally, the scourge of extremism drew an older, somewhat somber audience, the festival’s younger attendees flocked to comedy/satire featuring a stand-up comic who works in English and a biting young satirist whose politically themed song “Aalu Anday” recently went viral to great acclaim. Employing a lightness of touch to highlight the many cruel absurdities of life in Pakistan, for example, that the slain Punjab governor’s murderer is a public hero, while Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate is all but forgotten due to his religious persuasion, the song struck a chord with an age bracket that’s both thoroughly politically engaged and simultaneously entirely disillusioned and jaded. While the session’s title suggests a lack of gravitas, it’s closer to the truth to say that when a political situation is as ridiculous as Pakistan’s, the only appropriate response is laughter, in the dark.