Of stars and literature – Day Two of Lahore LitFest

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The second day of Lahore literary festival brought together some of the greatest intellects and celebrities from the literary world. Diversity was the theme of the day as panels ranged from Bangladeshi history to poetry by Naseerudin Shah.

The day kicked off with much fanfare, but one panel that caught people’s eye was “Aaj ka column” which had Yasir Pirzada, Kishwar Naheed and Wajahat Masood as the panellists. Pakistan Today Editor Arif Nizami moderated the session, which involved a discussion on everything from censorship to the way different columns are treated in Urdu and English newspapers.

Kishwar Naheed spoke of censorship and how the media has opted for a form of self-censorship, even though it has been a while since Zia’s rule ended. Media is afraid of reprisal from the powers that be.

Censorship is indeed a problem. Wajahat Masood added that a lot of the censorship that ends up in Urdu columns is basically because of supposed “fahashi,” when in reality it is because of fear. A fear of the emancipation of women.

Arif Nizami added to the conversation by talking about Malala and how she has somehow drawn the ire of many columnists, only because she challenges the prevalent narrative. He also spoke of the government’s impotence in the matter and how they never bothered trying to change harmful narratives that could not help their own agenda.

Another session welcomed an interesting book. “What Will You Give for this Beauty?” by Ali Akbar Natiq with Ali Madeeh Hashmi was launched to a jam-packed event.

Natiq talked about his experience as a writer and how he writes stories. He talked about how one needs to have an understanding of the ground realities and go outside of their comfort zone to actually interact with stories. He regaled the audience with how he got an idea for one of his stories while he was on a public bus. Ali Madeeh Hashmi then spoke of his experience while translating the book into English. The duo discussed how translating things between languages is difficult because you have to convey the whole connotations and the depth of the original context.

Natiq mentioned how Pakistan’s curriculum is inadequate and does not introduce the youth to literature at all. They are deprived of a large body of works that could enrich their minds greatly.

This was followed by a different kind of a session. The panel on ‘Interview with Bangladeshi History’ was also the stage for the launch of “The Colonel Who Would Not Repent,” a book written by Salil Tripathi. The panel consisted of Salil Tripathi, Hina Jilani, and Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi with Taimur Rahman moderating.

Tripathi introduced his book by telling the audience how the war was emotional for him since he was ten years old when it happened. He said he remembered his mother cooking for the soldiers that were going to the front lines; she would also collect donations for the refugees by staging plays. He said that the atrocities committed in East Pakistan by the army were indefensible and very real.

He talked about the number of deaths that haunt the region’s history. Over 3 million people lost their lives according to Bangladeshi authorities; however, the Pakistani side only acknowledges around 25,000 deaths. The real number lies somewhere in the middle of these two claims.

Sadaf Saaz Siddiqui talked about Bengali nationalism and her experience in Bangladesh. She talked about how raped women were initially treated very well by the state, and how eventually the tide turned and they were abandoned. She also discussed Bengali nationalism and how people became quickly disillusioned by it due to events following the 71 war.

Shedding some more light on the issue was Hina Jilani who spoke of her own experiences from the time. She stressed that people have a right to know what was done in their name and that they also have a right to hold accountable the people that committed atrocities while using them as scapegoats. She pointed out the systematic mass rapes of women and how the army set the entire thing up, efficiently and ruthlessly.

During the session, a man walked out, calling the proceedings “rubbish” and calling it “Indian propaganda” to tarnish the reputation of “Pakistan army that is defending the country.” He was not followed by anyone, and in fact, people shouted against him outlining that there was a dire need to apologise to Bengalis for how they were treated during the time.

The question and answer session was prolonged, with people asking varied and interesting questions. Answering one question, Hina Jilani said that each conflict is different and similar in different ways and that we can learn from the war that broke Pakistan into two, and do better in Baluchistan. Tripathi said that he condemns the atrocities committed by the Mukti Bahini just as well as he does those by Pakistan army.

The charged session was followed by a little something from the present. Technology is forever on our minds and “Virtual Empires,” presented with Jinnah Institute, highlighted some aspects that none of us can escape. The panellists included Hari Kunzru, Barnett Rubin, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Andrew Small, Eberhard Sandschneider, and Rashed Rahman.

The panel discussed the issues of privacy, hacking and surveillance in the modern and increasingly connected world. Pervez Hoodbhoy additionally defined the influence that ideas have over people’s minds to be a form of an empire. He mentioned Isis, Taliban and Boko Haram as examples of such destructive empires and stressed the need of a counter narrative to combat them.

The final session of the day was the reading of poetic parables by Naseerudin Shah, with Heeba Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah.

The poetry in the session was simultaneously amusing and sombre. The words held a deceptive depth that held the audience. In his long poem “The Elephant and the Tragopan,” the veteran acting wove a tale evocative of Aesop’s fable with an environmentalist message. This poem, performed by all three, was very well received during the session. It was the perfect blend of a little bit of seriousness and a little bit of fun – and a beautiful end to the second day of the festival.