Though he spoke sporadically, Mushtaq Ahmad Yousufi stole the limelight as only he could. This, in many ways, was the highlight of the entire Karachi Literature Festival, but for Urdu-lovers, there was absolutely nothing that could come even close to rivalling their net gain from the event. It was indeed the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud that engulfed the Urdu component during the three-day affair.
Yousufi did make fleeting appearances at the last two editions of the Urdu Conference (that precedes the KLF on the cultural calendar of Karachi), but he never uttered a word. Even at the launching of his own book, he chose to remain silent. Word of mouth had it that he was too old to speak or to focus for any length of time. At the KLF, he enlivened the proceedings with his words and even more heartening was his timing — absolutely spontaneous.
At the session titled ‘Ageless poetry and graceful wit,’ Yousufi, Zehra Nigah and moderator Asif Farrukhi played their respective parts to perfection which made the whole definitely greater than the sum of its parts. It was the session that salvaged the relevance of the event for those who came primarily to celebrate the national language and to have a chance of interacting with the giants of Urdu literature.
It is a strange state of affairs that Urdu just about survived at the KLF
The proceedings started off on the wrong foot, so to say. Mustansar Hussain Tarar, who delivered the keynote address at the opening ceremony, was introduced to the audience in fluent English that was factually wrong — Tarar has never been a literary critic, for instance, and the name of his ‘latest’ book was outdated by a couple of years. The only thing that needed to be uttered in Urdu was the title of the book, and such a mess was made of it that Tarar had to begin his speech with an acknowledgement of the announcer’s “supreme command over linguistics.”
To his credit, Tarar spoke well in touching upon two critical issues; one interesting and one disturbing. The diction of Urdu literary output, he contended, should revolve and evolve around local influences rather than the “facade of finesse” that was imported by the people who came here in the wake of Partition. It was a debate, by the way, that also cropped up during another session — ‘Urdu nu kiya hua’ [Whatever happened to Urdu] — which focused on the so-called Punjabisation of Urdu, and where Arfa Syeda Zehra repeatedly referred to the arguments put forth by Tarar, rejecting all of them.
The opening ceremony ended, but what didn’t end was the misery of Urdu. Saif Mahmood, who was here from India for the second time and who built quite a reputation last year with his eloquence and humility, decided to tarnish his image this year. Moderating a session on ‘Adab kay sitaray’ [Literary stars], he had no clue how to manage a mature conversation with Tarar, Nigah, Kishwar Naheed, and Masood Ashar. He started off with Naheed. Got snubbed. Moved to Tarar. Got snubbed. Kept quiet for the rest of the session before making the formal announcement about its conclusion. His humility was the saving grace, but, in the famed words of Winston Churchill, he had a lot to be humble about.
The ineptitude of the moderator allowed for chaos on the stage where the four guests tried to take the session in their own preferred directions. Naheed threw around questions to the other three. Tarar was interested in quoting excerpts related to Nigah and Naheed from his latest book on Lahore. Nigah wanted to talk of Mir, Sauda, Firaq, Faiz, Hafeez, and Rashid as the true literary stars. Ashar, on his part, was quite content with speaking when spoken to. There was no method behind this administrative madness, and this is not the first time the KLF has done this.
What did happen for the first time at this year’s KLF was the absence of many leading names that have been crowd-pullers over the years. Iftikhar Arif was missed by many, and so were Amjad Islam Amjad, Anwar Masood, Ataul Haq Qasmi, Asghar Nadeem Syed and Nasir Abbas Nayyar. It appeared as if there was some parallel event going on somewhere else, but, as explained by co-founder Farrukhi, none of them had been invited “to avoid repetition.” This sounded rather hollow in the presence of so many others who have been regular features for the last eight years and who have yet to attract a crowd beyond their friends and relatives.
Nigah was the only literary figure in the session ‘Celebrating Faiz.’ It was only the presence of artist Salima Hashmi and actor Adeel Hashmi that brought a reasonable audience in terms of numbers. They weren’t disappointed because the Hashmis and Nigah assessed the mood correctly, narrated anecdotes related to Faiz Ahmed Faiz and recited some of his poetry. What someone like Iftikhar Arif could have done to the session in terms of value addition is beyond debate. To keep him — and indeed, others — away in the name of “avoiding repetition” is the greatest disservice to the KLF the organisers could have done, and it is unfortunate that they did it.
There was a session on new Urdu writers, ‘Nayee awazain’ [New voices], and Syed Kashif Raza did make his presence felt, but one wonders if some organiser was there to see the chasm between what is available in the name of ‘new’ and how preposterous it is to leave out the stars while they are still glittering. Had it not been for Yousufi’s presence and his willingness to do away with his silence, the Urdu segment at the KLF this year could have been eminently forgettable. And this is being charitable.
The writer is a member of staff
The shifting scenario
The nomenclature still has the word ‘literature’ in it, but that seems to be a technical compulsion rather than the spirit behind the KLF. With quite a few foreign missions coming on board, the flavour is seriously changing. There were 74 sessions at the event and of them, 36 discussed history, current affairs, social issues, and entertainment. The Two-Nation Theory, for instance, is still in vogue at the festival.
This shifting of focus over the last couple of years has come along with another shift; that is the demographics of the visitors who are either too young — schoolkids who are brought in by the hordes — or those who have already surmounted the peak of their lifespan. The numbers might still be impressive for the embassies and corporate sponsors, but the energy of the audience has definitely taken a hit.
By the looks of it, the 20-40 age group in Karachi has come to the simple conclusion that there are better hangouts than a literature festival where literature has turned out to be a distant second.— HI
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 19th, 2017