FESTIVAL: A philosophical fusionArchive
INSPITE of the short notice that the organisers had to contend with, this year’s LLF ran comparatively smoothly. Some important features from last year’s festival, such as the live streaming of events in outside booths for those unable to squeeze inside tightly-packed halls, were missing. There was also the occasional technical difficulty with sound and presentation. But Pakistanis are used to electrical as well as political disturbances, and exertion by the organisers coupled with stringent security checks ensured that, even in a reduced form, LLF was both educative and entertaining.
One of the most absorbing events was an interview with Roza Otunbayeva, the former president of Kyrgyzstan, and the first woman to hold the post in that country’s history. Amongst the many things she spoke about was the diversity of opinion in Kyrgyzstan on the state of the region before and after independence from the USSR. Many people of an older generation, she revealed, did not regard themselves as living in a postcolonial state, and felt that life in the Cold War era was not quite as bad as it might seem.
There was something to be said for the high literacy rates and power-by-association that the peoples of Central Asia enjoyed as a part of the Soviet Union. With a doctoral degree in philosophy to accompany her long practical experience, Otunbayeva’s insights into politics and people were both earnest and relevant, but most impressive of all was her commitment to broadening relations between Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, and her frank opinion that the implementation of justice in corrupt regimes was “just a matter of your internal maturity”.
A similarly nuanced view on colonialism and its effects was espoused by Javed Majeed, a professor of English and comparative literature at King’s College, London. In a session titled ‘Iqbal: Islam, Aesthetics and Postcolonialism’, Majeed dwelt in some detail on the Western influences on Iqbal and how the philosopher-poet’s modernity reflected an embrace and fusion of diverse philosophical ideas. The professor argued that whatever the deleterious political and economic consequences of colonialism, the period of British rule did also have the positive effect of enriching and evolving the literature and art of the subcontinent.
Some of the Urdu events also touched upon the linkages between East and West, even if this was not the focal point of the conversations. For instance, Amjad Islam Amjad, at the climax of a rousing discussion about Mir Taqi Mir featuring fellow panellists C.M. Naim, Aitzaz Ahsan, Khurshid Rizvi, and Zehra Nigah, urged audiences to marvel at the similarity in pathos between the verse of the 18th-century poet and the Romantics of a later time.
In addition, Indian-American Urdu scholar Naim’s presentation on ‘Urdu Mystery Literature (1890-1950)’ considered the translational efforts of various publishing houses in the early 20th century. Some of these century-old translations, he disclosed, had higher print runs and were more successful than present-day endeavours.
Another excellent session related to publishing, titled ‘Mobilising New Readers’, was more notable for its candid revelations about publishing practices and literary festivals than the subject matter ostensibly being treated. “Publishers never quite know what they’re doing,” opined Alexandra Pringle, group editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Publishing, and cited the unpredictable phenomenon of the Bloomsbury-published Harry Potter novels as an example.
Ameena Saiyid of Oxford University Press (OUP) Pakistan agreed, describing the efforts by her publishing house to translate Harry Potter into Urdu as resulting in unexpected failure — a unique failure, it would seem: Pringle mentioned the fact that in all other regions where Harry Potter has been translated, successful sales have always followed.
Another informative event which nevertheless failed to satisfactorily answer the questions raised by the programme title, was named ‘We Can Be Heroes: the Promise of Pakistan’s Youth’. During the discussion, young and prominent figures such as Pakistani cricketer Sana Mir and politician Saifullah Magsi debated the hurdles that Pakistan’s youth face as they strive to prosper in an economically and politically challenging environment.
In her interview, Otunbayeva had rhetorically asked if the British strived to propagate the English language in Pakistan and, if so, how. Detractors of LLF might point to the festival itself as an indirect answer to this question. But despite the abbreviated programme and the conducting of most events in English, the festival put forth a reasonably diverse array of literary, musical, political, and historical sessions ranging from recitations of Ghalib to demonstrations of Islamic calligraphy. Iqbal, one feels, would not have been displeased.