The reach of literature
IN the last week, Karachi was treated to a riot of literary activities. Liberty Books started things off with its Big Book Fair at the new location in Defence’s Phase 2 Commercial Area.
Next came the Karachi International Book Fair at the Expo Centre in Hassan Square on the other side of town; at the same time a four-day Urdu conference was held at the Arts Council. The British poet Lemn Sissay visited town and held workshops and a public reading, and the Pakistani writer Aamer Hussein, resident of London, participated in the Urdu conference and another reading. For once Karachi’s literature aficionados were left scratching their heads as they tried to decide where to go!
But how far of a reach do these events really have? The quick answer is that they cater only to a very intellectual crowd, an elite within an elite: English-reading, educated Karachiites who live in Clifton or Defence and can afford to take a few hours off to travel, usually by car, to locations often within their backyards, as in the case of events at The Second Floor.
The Urdu Conference appealed to a different kind of elite: lovers of Urdu literature, and even then, only those in the know about the conference, and who could access the Arts Council.
The 8th Karachi International Book Fair, organised by the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association, reached yet another kind of audience: what our political leaders somewhat condescendingly refer to as the awam, the middle class which is educated in Urdu-medium schools but does not necessarily have an interest in high literature; it’s telling that the majority of publishers who displayed at the book fair were publishers of religious books, which points to the interests of this particular market.
Still, reading one kind of book can serve as a gateway to cultivating a general love of reading, especially amongst children who, if they see their parents reading, will be encouraged to emulate the practice, creating a new generation of readers.
I attended the Karachi International Book Fair to sign books and meet readers at the Liberty Books stall. Crowds of people browsed the books and wandered between the halls, where according to one newspaper, hundreds of thousands of people visited over the four days of the fair to look at the one million books on offer from 310 different publishers.
Most were dedicated to religious books, but there were stalls for Sindhi publishers, Indian distributors, textbooks, technology.
Children excitedly dragged their parents to look at the children’s books, housewives who accompanied their husbands checked out cookbooks, and family members consulted each other on what kinds of books to buy.
As I left the Expo Centre, people in droves all walked away from the fair clutching shopping bags filled with books, a sight that filled me with happiness even though not one single person had bought my own book while I was there.
That evening I moderated the Second Floor event with the British poet Lemn Sissay, who had come to Pakistan on a British Council grant. Lemn had worked with students at the Karachi University, and was travelling to Islamabad to meet students at Fatima Jinnah Women’s College to lead a workshop on the power of creativity.
He wrote later on his blog about his visit to Karachi University: “Poetry is at the heart of revolution because revolution is at the heart of the poet and it’s an inspiration to see them inspired, to see them transform into budding writers.”
If people can’t come to the elite locations to see and hear poets and writers, it’s important to take the poets and writers to the people in their own environments; this outreach, in the form of focused cultural exchange, will vastly increase Pakistani exposure to literature and the arts.
Another tool which will aid Pakistani accessibility to international literature is that of translation; we need to put a lot of effort into translating the world’s body of literature, both classic and contemporary, into our own languages, an initiative which had been taken by Shafiq Naz of Alhamra Publishers, but has not yet been actively pursued by mainstream publishers in the rest of Pakistan.
But it was a literary activity of a different sort that caught my attention this month. Talea Zafar and Rabia Garib run an organisation called Toffee TV which promotes Urdu songs and storytelling for children. They upload songs to their website on (the unfortunately banned) YouTube, and hold events in which parents and children participate in sing-alongs and listen to live storytelling.
This one took place at The Second Floor, that bastion of the elite, yet it was the children from the Kiran School in Lyari and the Soch School in Bin Qasim Town who were the guests of honour; they sat front and centre in the audience and sang along to the songs with as much gusto and confidence as anyone else, and later enjoyed snacks and took photos with actors Marina Khan and Sania Saeed.
It’s easy to complain that Pakistan is not a reading nation. But there are so many ways to change that: donate books to a local library; read a story to a few small children in the neighbourhood; hire a tutor and teach your servants to read.
The big conferences and literature festivals may be the exclusive playground of the rich and privileged, but with effort and creativity, literature-related activities, small scale and large, will inevitably take our nation in a different, better direction. And that’s a journey in which none of us should sit and wait for an invitation.
The writer is the author of Slum Child.