Once again the literary festival comes to stimulate Lahore’s ancient intellectual and artistic sensitivities
It was a grey day, overcast and drizzling softly. Not entirely common for February, which usually sees Lahoris welcome the onset of spring. A canopy of lush green leaves sheltered Lahore’s busy Mall Road from the potential downpour, as the rain dripped slowly onto pedestrians and cars. I drove along the Mall, slowly relishing the myriad red, yellow, and orange banners announcing the Lahore Literary Festival 2013, as they fluttered in the gentle February breeze. As I approached the Alhamra Arts Centre, official venue for the event, it was immediately evident that I was not the only person who’d thought of heading over early. Crowds in the thousands – children and adults alike – thronged the courtyards and entrance to the historic Arts Centre. Of course, Lahoris take great pride in our city’s fantastic cultural heritage. Lahore has long been known as Pakistan’s cultural capital; for centuries, this historic city has been a hotbed of literature, poetry, theatre, music, and art. It was therefore unsurprising to see the sheer joy and enthusiasm with which Lahoris greeted last year’s Lahore Literary Festival. For two fun-filled days of literature and dialogue, the Alhamra buzzed with palpable energy; the echo of laughter and excited conversations filling the air, bouncing off the classic red-bricked walls of this historic centre for arts and culture.
I entered the venue, my pulse racing with anticipation. As I passed the registration desk, I noticed in front of me an LLF board displaying the names of all those present for the various sessions: there, amongst the many literary luminaries – including the likes of Tariq Ali, Mohsin Hamid, and Bapsi Sidhwa – was my name, Anam Zakaria.
It was hard to stay standing. Even so, I managed, mingling amongst the hundreds of friends and acquaintances I kept bumping into. Following a sunny first day, us stalwart Lahoris were in no way discouraged by a ‘little bit’ of rainfall. Indeed, I overheard some attendees enthuse that even the heavens had opened up to welcome Lahore’s first Lit Fest (and that the raindrops bouncing off the stylish LLF-logoed umbrellas were tears of joy that Lahore was once again witnessing a cultural revival and renaissance). Truly, this is what the Alhamra was conceived for – to be a gathering place for sharing ideas, and visions, and artistic expression. Despite the grey skies above, there was a tangible aura of intellectual fervor. I glanced beside me to see Musharraf Ali Farooqi, renowned author and translator, standing with his LLF umbrella in hand. Musharraf was entertaining fans, flocked around him, asking questions about his work and writing as a career.
Lahore has long been known as Pakistan’s cultural capital; for centuries, this historic city has been a hotbed of literature, poetry, theatre, music, and art
I must confess that I too was one of those dreamy-eyed girls, star-struck by one of my favorite authors, despite being a writer myself. I had just completed my first book, a non-fiction chronicle documenting the stories of travel between India and Pakistan, and the construction of the state ideology (the book is expected to be published later this year by Harper Collins India) – and had been selected to attend the panel on ‘Aspiring Writers’ (as described within the official schedule). I have to admit, the title of the session was a little misleading, as it did not refer to individuals who want to be writers, but rather amateur authors on their way to becoming professionals. Earlier that morning, upon arriving at the Alhamra, I had met with my moderator for the talk, Afia Aslam, the founder of the Desi Writers’ Lounge blog. We chatted about our upcoming session, peeking outside at the increasingly wet weather – our session had been scheduled to take place outdoors and we were understandably concerned as to how we’d manage any attendees given the dreary weather. As we spoke, the skies opened up and a veritable deluge soaked the crowd outside.
Yet despite the pouring rain, the Lahori crowds were not to be deterred. Families, friends, white-haired ladies and gents, fresh-faced teens and tweens, all meandered about the wet green lawns of the Alhamra, holding their LLF brollies aloft, figuring out which sessions to head to next. Luckily, the organisers were kind enough to adjust our session indoors: we were given a small corner, initially reserved for the Desi Writers’ Lounge; the furniture was removed and chairs crammed in. I sat on one side of the room, along with two other ‘aspiring writers’, Haroon Khalid and Kanza Javed, while Afia sat on the other side, moderating the session. During the session, we all read out small excerpts from our upcoming books. As I looked into the crowd, I was quite surprised to note that along with the requisite friends and family, there were more than a few unknown faces, most of them young school students, still in their uniforms. Of course, the questions that followed our session were as innocent as the faces from whence they came: “How do you overcome writers block?” “How do you choose a topic?” “What should you do if no one believes that you have it in you to become a writer?” In that moment, I felt truly empowered as a writer – I was guiding young minds towards sharing the same goals and aspirations I have held my entire life. As I aspired to be a writer, they aspired to be like me.
There will be a session celebrating the life and works of Mr Ardeshir Cowasjee, possibly one of Pakistan’s most brilliant columnists; scholar Pierre Alain Baud will talk about the legacy of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; attendees will be regaled during the session on Lahore’s lost daughter, Amrita Sher Gil; and of course, there will discussions galore by Pakistan’s young new writers on creating fiction
This year, the Lahore Literary Festival comes once again to the hallowed halls of the Alhamra. Realising the Lahori hunger for all things artistic and cultural, the organisers have added a third day to the schedule. And once again, the Festival promises to deliver – and then some! According to the organisers – who are for security reasons keeping relatively quiet about the main attractions – there will be over a hundred delegates from eight countries. I was particularly pleased to find out that Kamila Shamsie will be launching her new novel, A God in Every Stone; there are also several exciting panels on Punjabi literature – a welcome addition to last year’s schedule.
Some of the other big names participating include literary giant Zia Mohyeddin; internationally-acclaimed miniature artist Shahzia Sikander; poetess Zehra Nigah; and journalist and satirist Jugnu Mohsin. There will be a session celebrating the life and works of Mr Ardeshir Cowasjee, possibly one of Pakistan’s most brilliant columnists; scholar Pierre Alain Baud will talk about the legacy of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; attendees will be regaled during the session on Lahore’s lost daughter, Amrita Sher Gil; and of course, there will discussions galore by Pakistan’s young new writers on creating fiction. Rain or shine, I expect the same warmth, colour, and vibrant atmosphere that brought Lahore to life in February 2013. 2014 promises to be bigger and better. LLF can’t happen often enough.