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The fickle switch

The fickle switch

THE Lahore Literary Festival has become a light-switch in the hands of the Punjab administration, to be flicked on and off at a whim.

In case participants at last year’s LLF had forgotten how official permission to hold the event had been withheld until the night before the festival was due to commence, this year they were reminded that such permissions, like the supply of electricity in our country, should not be taken for granted.

One would have thought that the success of previous LLFs, reinforced by the equally happy experience of sister festivals in Karachi and in Islamabad, would have reassured officialdom by now that, while the concept of a literary fiesta was revolutionary, its conduct is not. International and local scholars, writers, poets, artists, and critics gather for a few days to talk to audiences about their craft, to pose obligingly with readers for selfies, give interviews, promote and autograph their books, and then return home laden with publications exchanged with fellow authors. There is nothing subversive in their assembly. They leave no gunpowder behind.

Perhaps it is this very innocuousness that disturbs the equanimity of glassy-eyed administrators. They wonder how such innocent pleasures cannot be sinful, why such congregations can be anything but seditious.

Planning for LLF 2016 began last February, the moment LLF 2015 ended. Experience of the last became the template for the next. During the intervening year, official NOCs were obtained, bookings made at the Alhamra Arts Complex, delegates sourced and invited, a matrix designed of 91 choice sessions spread over three days at six separate accessible venues. Everything was in place for LLF 2016 to commence on Feb 19.

Suddenly, on the 18th night, rumours began to permeate, like the noxious ethers in Bhopal, threatening the very life of the LLF. First, that the LLF had been cancelled; then, that permission would be granted but only for two days; later, that the truncated LLF could be held, but at another location. Some organisers were led to believe that no Indian invitee would be permitted to speak, except for Ms Sharmila Tagore at the inaugural session and the art historian Dr B.N. Goswamy at the concluding one. The LLF team was told to relocate, overnight.

In a trice, they set up camp across the road, in the Avari Hotel. It must have been a logistical nightmare, not unlike the tent camp movements endured in 1837 by Miss Emily Eden, the sister of Lord Auckland, the governor-general: “It seems somehow wicked to move 12,000 people with their tents, elephants, camels, horses, trunks, etc., for so little, but there is no help for it.” Orders have to be carried out. Officialdom never supplies the means; it merely demands the ends.

This is not the first time such whimsy has been flaunted. Who can forget the occasion when, in 1996, a day before the Cricket World Cup was due to be played in Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium, the then chief minister Punjab Sardar Nakai threatened to cancel the match? His pout was that no chief minister’s enclosure had been created to accommodate his friends and constituents. No amount of persuasion could dilute his petulance. In the end, he got his seats, and the World Cup organisers their fixture.

Twenty years later, the LLF 2016 — compressed, oppressed, but never depressed — fought valiantly to survive. Deflecting every challenge, dislodging every obstacle, it brought brightness and light into the public recesses of a darkening Lahore.

Such a Promethean victory, however, does not go unnoticed, or unpunished. The cookbook and travel writer Madhur Jaffery was incarcerated in a club and forced to taste offerings stewed by its unimaginative chef. Hosts living in Lahore’s sacrosanct Cantonment were ‘advised’ to rearrange their dinner for LLF delegates to a less sensitive area, like Scotch Corner. The actress Sharmila Tagore — an ageless diva — was invited to meet our prime minister and his family at Raiwind. Young when she was, he found it impossible to resist a long dormant impulse to meet his screen heroine in person. If only his underlings had shared his infatuation. The very next day, Ms Tagore was turned back from Wagah border for failing to report to the police before departing for India.

The LLF is the modern Prometheus. Shackled, it has its liver eaten away repeatedly by the eagle of bureaucracy. Yet, it survives. Shelley’s lines from Prometheus Unbound are a prescient ode to LLF’s spirit: “To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite,/To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;/ To defy Power which seems omnipotent,/to love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates/From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.”

In 2016, LLF created from its own wreck yet another laudable, splendid success. And it achieved this, despite the whimsical flick of a switch.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2016

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