Karachi Likes to Read

Karachi Scribbles VII

Well, not really. To quote Mohammad Hanif, “humein parhney likhnay ka shoq kum hai. Humein BBQ ka shoq hai.”

However, for most of the year we may prefer barbecued kabobs to books, but come the first weekend of February and we forget that for a couple of days. Instead we gather around to listen to writers, activists, politicians, showoffs, playwrights and more; we walk around blue, green, yellow, orange books laid out like bright candies across tabletops and stacked on shelves, the glistening dirty water of the creek by Beach Luxury Hotel catching the sun in the backdrop.

I remember the first Karachi Literature Festival, back in 2010, and how incredulous I was at the idea of walking in for free and listening to some of my favorite Pakistani authors and those I hadn’t ever read, of getting the chance to hear a heartthrob former instructor talk in that articulate way that makes you believe in things, going over a program to figure out if I wanted to hear views on politics or art or how fiction and drama intersect. Actually walk past these guys and discover which ones have an ego resting beneath their chin, propping it higher than necessary, and which ones are just cute and wear mismatched socks.

Five years later, the festival has become much bigger with over 70,000 people (the stats from 2014) walking in through the metal scanners over the spread of three days and although I don’t quite like having to push through people for my free water bottle (seriously, sometimes I like corporations because they arrange for free things at already free festivals) and have uncles trip over my feet in their excitement to shake a famous person’s ordinary hand, I can take a step back and appreciate it.

It was a bright blue sky with a smattering of white clouds, the palm trees looked taller, more like we were at a beach in Florida, and the breeze wafted sweetly, moving the canopy over main garden and softening the heat of the sun, making people sitting in the shade glad they had their shawls and light jackets.

I didn’t get a chance to sit in on more than two sessions (to tell you the truth the speakers and topics this year weren’t very exciting to me) but I enjoyed both. The first was in the open area under the abovementioned canopy with the abovementioned Mohammad Hanif. Seriously, there are few men who can pull off light pink pants and a white shirt with a matching pink print of thankfully tiny polka dots, but M.H is definitely one of them.

I like listening to him because he’s funny, witty and disarmingly honest. There are no airs about him at all. He admits to making things up on the spot (rather than give a convoluted abstract reasoning that people can only slightly tell they kind of don’t really understand but like the sound of). He told his audience how he actually hates the process of writing. While other authors would extol the painful but rewarding process of penning their lofty thoughts down, about how they can see themselves do nothing but write and it just comes to them like dryness to ankles in the winter, M.H. said he procrastinates for ages when it comes to writing. I like the finished products though, he had added. (So do we.) He talked about his son who overthinks the act of getting his dad a glass of water, and he shared his thoughts about how hard it is to be a journalist, and the responsibility of media, so forth.

The moderator was a funny lady if a little self-involved (I mean why do you need to read so many things written by a writer who is actually sitting there cross-legged in his pink pants next to you?). She was theatrical though and I did enjoy M.H’s discomfort when she brought up his description of female anatomy. “I think a writer always regrets having written things like that,” he had mumbled and tried to shift her attention elsewhere, mentioning the kids in the audience.

And the audience! Whenever the discussion shifts to the question answer part, I wait for a few minutes. There are certain kinds of people who stand up and ask for the mic. Some have interesting questions but most say things like: “Writers don’t make too much money … blah blah… you must have made quite a lot of money with your bestsellers!” and since that wasn’t direct enough, the kind lady went on to ask M.H. about how much he really made.

Then there are the ones who just want to complain and say things that don’t really need a reply, and to that M.H. would say: “I guess I’ll try harder next time.” Almost all of these questioners love to hear themselves talk, sometimes losing track of what they had wanted to ask in their useless comments aired aloud (things like: I love coming here to the literature festival.)

The next session had an Indian theater person as well as a British writer along with three Pakistani literati. The moderator lady, however, really shouldn’t have. Been a moderator, I mean. She kept forgetting she was in a large hall with a lot of people sitting far from the stage and so instead of eliciting responses from the panelists in clear, loud tones she would start mumbling away from the mic, an incomprehensible accented muttering of words as annoying as the buzz of mosquitoes that tickles our ears when we’re trying to fall asleep at night. The speakers though were better and they brought the theater scene in Bangalore and that in England in comparison with the experiences in Pakistan, highlighting a lot that we lack here but some things that can take pride in too.

Another thing worth mentioning about KLF is that unlike the other festivals (Creative Karachi and Karachi Eats), you don’t see the same class of people milling about. The free entry, a location with grass, water and some not-too-pricey food options, it allows a lot of people to come in and listen to talks about tolerance, poetry and politics or even just walk around. Students from colleges and public schools browsed books and ate biryani from Styrofoam plates, there were jeans and scarves and shalwar kameezes and just a lot of Karachi. Maybe a few years from now, the food festival will be able to break down the barriers just a little bit too.

The late afternoon sun was beautiful, orange and mellow, making it hard to take selfies without squinting (unless you were cool and wearing sunglasses like all cool people do), and casting the entire place in a golden glow, with the wind and an occasional rower out in the water, hot tea and bun kababs, books and writers, and perhaps a friend or two, it really was a lovely time to be in Karachi.


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