A festival of ideas in Lahore

The 8th edition of the LLF saw a host of delegates discussing issues from poetry to multilateralism

Published - February 29, 2020 09:36 pm IST

The eighth edition of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) that took place from February 21 to February 23 in the city had a plethora of writers and speakers. They included Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, historian William Dalrymple, Nigerian-British novelist Oyinkan Braithwaite and strategic analyst Vali Nasr.

One of the most important cultural events in South Asia, the LLF “is a labour of love”, said Razi Ahmed, the fest’s founder and CEO. Every edition is planned a year in advance and it requires a lot of persuasion to get the best delegates to travel to Pakistan. “We work closely with our delegates to show them a multi-faceted sense of the city — Lahore — where it’s surely pivoted around the LLF but also encompasses an experience of the city’s streets, architecture, food, museums and private homes.” Mr. Ahmed said.

Why Lahore, one may ask. “Lahore has historically been a gateway of ideas and cultural encounters,” Mr. Ahmed told The Hindu . “After [former Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, fear had started enveloping our collective psyche, festivals like Basant were being banned, and Lahore’s rich and varied creative expressions were not being celebrated at home. This made for an urgent case for Lahore to have a platform, a public space, for the triumph of ideas over fear and curtailing freedoms,” he said.

Inspired by that idea, the LLF decided to take that spirit of Lahore to two of the most dynamic global cities — London and New York — to introduce the rich social and literary thought that this city has produced to the Pakistani community abroad and also to showcase Pakistan in a different light.

This year’s edition saw discussions on a host of topics, ranging from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry and Pakistan’s role in the Muslim world to the situation in Kashmir and the “global retreat of multilateralism”.

Shared South Asian connection

Who’s Mr. Ahmed’s favourite delegate in the eight years of the fest? “While all our delegates are special and we roll out the red carpet for them, I personally enjoyed hosting Romila Thapar [in 2015] the most as I see a shared South Asian connection to understand the historical truths which were manipulated by the colonial powers. Her memory and knowledge of Lahore, while we drove together to sites such as Bradlaugh Hall and Maryam Zamani Masjid have contributed to my growth as a person.”

Nitasha Kaul, a London-based academic, author and poet of Kashmiri origin, was in Lahore for the LLF. Ms. Kaul said her visit to Lahore was brief and memorable. “I loved glimpses of the city... It is a city with striking parallels to Delhi, unsurprisingly so, given the common historical roots.” She says she found the LLF to be neither too large or too small — “just Goldilocks right!”

Asked if literature festivals should be political, Ms. Kaul said everything is always already political. “In a sense, silence upon political matters at the present global moment is in itself the proclamation of a kind of politics. In my view, literature is an important way of reflecting, reimagining, and dialoguing with social and political realities. And so, yes, litfests should be political with a view to making the world less oppressive and more liveable for all, especially those who are marginalised anywhere.” Ms. Braithwaite, the Nigerian-U.K. novelist whose debut book My Sister the Serial Killer was longlisted for the Booker Prize, said: “The food was fantastic, the weather was just right and the people were warm and welcoming.”

Ms. Braithwaite said she saw more young people at the LLF than she is generally used to seeing at festivals. “I understand a lot of effort was made to ensure students took part. The participation from the audience was always very encouraging.” She enjoyed shopping at Liberty Market. “I was particularly drawn to the wooden crafts. I had to consider my luggage allowance or I would certainly have acquired more things.”

Marium Chaudhry, a broadcast journalist and founder of the media platform The Current , said LLF 2020 had a very diverse set of speakers and it was inspiring to see that the events were not just attended by adults but by avid teens who were attending book launches.

Audrey Truschke, author of Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India's Most Controversial King , told The Hindu that the LLF brings outside voices into Pakistan and highlights important voices within the country. “I think the festival is a space in which ideas are shared, discussed, and debated in ways edifying to both the panelists and the audience,” she added.

(Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore)

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