A good read at age five MAKE no mistake

Karachi:19 February: the Karachi Literature Festival is an annual event that must be celebrated and extolled.

Two obvious reasons come to mind: one, it provides book-lovers with a unique opportunity to listen to and interact with well-known authors and thinkers.

Two, it exudes a pleasant, carnival atmosphere for a few days that helps Pakistanis, mostly Karachiites, forget the unsavory happenings that they've become accustomed to, and rekindle in them the hope that things can look up.

For those who think the KLF is an elitist affair, well, it's not. One of the most delightful aspects of the festival is that book readers representing a wide cross section of society visit it. If there are fans of Intizar Husain's fiction itching to shake his hand, admirers of Waris Shah, Gul Khan Naseer and Amar Sindhu can also be found avidly listening to speakers highlighting the finer points of the life and work of their favourite writer. To boot, it's not a ticketed event.

The KLF had a humble beginning in 2010. By the third edition in 2012, writers William Dalrymple, Hanif Kureishi, Vikram Seth and Shobhaa De were there to bedazzle the audience. As the organisers claim, since 2010 the event has gone from strength to strength becoming bigger and better. True that. But then, in the first three years the festival saw such a meteoric rise that literature buffs were spoilt for choice.

Notice the trend. In 2010, it was the noted Indian critic, poet and novelist Shamsur Rehman Farooqui who graced the occasion along with a host of Pakistani writers. Next year, in 2011, the stage broadened with the arrival of Karen Armstrong. Her plenary speech titled ‘A Charter of Compassion’ still resonates through the corridors of Karachi's Carlton Hotel. “Dialogue is meant to enrich us. Dialogue between nations has to begin with absolute respect.”

These words, having a global context, struck a chord with the attendees, which is precisely the purpose of a moot arranged on such a large scale.

Then came 2012 and the festival witnessed a new height. The attendance was unprecedented.

However, last year the sudden return of Indian poet and filmmaker Gulzar to his country from Lahore in circumstances that are still unclear, and this year journalist Robert Fisk's absence despite his name being announced in the first pre-show press conference were bit of a dampener. Again, it's the thrilling experience of the three previous editions that had raised the bar of expectation a tad higher.

The event, in its infancy, was lauded, rightly so, for initiating debates that were once not possible to be touched upon at public forums. What has to be seen now is whether we have gone beyond those debates or are stuck in a loop, resting on our laurels for being big, better and bold.

The programme's list this year sounded like variations of the topics that one had been hearing about for the past four years. Now the difficulty is that what more can one do with subjects like ‘the world of the novel’ or the ‘geopolitical equation’ or with matter pertaining to the ‘fourth estate'. But therein lies the challenge for the festival organisers.

For the debate to sustain and expand, KLF co-founder Asif Farrukhi says what is needed is a culture of patient listening.

“Initially the festival lasted for two days, Mr Farrukhi recalls. “At that point in time some complained that it's too short a duration and they wanted to have more of it. As a result we added one more day.”

But he says the organisers cannot have long-winded sessions, “for people's attention span doesn't allow us to do so.” “Also, we have yet to develop a culture where we can patiently listen to a speaker for long. During the question-answer slot, instead of asking questions some of us start delivering speeches. For example, during a programme when a prominent Urdu poetess was reading selected poems, a man got up and started reciting his own poetry.”

That's how exciting the KLF can get and in the larger scheme of things, the story of the festival is one that should be told with a fair degree of pride and conviction.Dawn.