The festival that is Lahore
THE culture of historical Lahore has had problems coming to terms with the new and the modern.
Many of the old landmarks have been obliterated or are direly threatened. Governments have found new pet projects and the most consistent of rulers in the last few decades tend to dismiss calls for preservation as elitist, making a fetish of their standard connections to the future and trampling on much of what was required to be urgently protected.
The elite the ruling families form is yet to show sufficient ‘waywardness’ for them to branch off from palaces into areas where they can enrich folklore.
When culture makes it to their to-do list, easier options are readily taken. Food streets are set up obsessively, derived from and in aid of the Lahori reputation as fun loving people.
By contrast, calls for exploiting other cultural aspects have only grown weaker with time. Among these, the demands for setting up a permanent book fair where it is complemented by the historical ambiance were much louder a few years ago.
This is a situation fit for citizen initiatives which could later be expanded and ultimately enlist everyone including the official minders of affairs. Small, scattered groups are doing their best to carry on with past literary traditions. Literary meetings are held at various places in the fast-expanding city.
Sometimes it feels as if it is more a case of old centres and players losing their exclusive abodes and identities.
The long-running lament says the links to the past had been summarily severed for hampering progress or these were impossible to maintain because of reasons of diversification of themes and ideology and lack of patronage. But increasing physical distances and a lack of organisation are huge factors here.
The number of readers, in proportion to the population, has increased. They are only more widespread now and thus somewhat difficult to manage as an entity. More books are published in Lahore in a month than one can skim through, and not too far away from the Lahore of the establishment exist numerous thinking islands working for greater refinement and seeking to be truly invoked into arbitrating on behalf of the people and their culture.
Icons are important. In a city that has struggled to prevent old pivots of literary dialogue such as Pak Tea House from being crushed under the wheels of time, a literary festival has taken a while.
The event, which is to take place at the weekend, opens up the immense possibilities that the city offers. Inevitably, the occasion kicks off a historical tour from even beyond the moment when Masood Saad Salman produced his lost first Urdu or Hindi verses a thousand years ago to Iqbal, Hali, Azad, Kipling, Faiz, Nasir Kazmi, Munir Niazi, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and a host of others who carried forward literature through an adherence to the classical code and by experimentation.
The Sufis encamped in the city and its vicinity peek out from their khanqahs to find out if they are needed, speaking the people’s language and as a choice against the oppressive order.
At the festival you will certainly hear about Manto and be treated to Intizar Husain. This is a good enough start, which can be built upon thematically and linguistically. Of course, the mela will take time debating bolder issues some of which may have political connotations.
But while it does create expectations of a needed institution taking shape it has to diversify and representation from all around will be central to its evolution. Intizar Husain and Zahrah Nigah have to be ultimately joined by other Urdu writers, and by great names from other languages such as Najm Hosain Syed, the greatest living figure of Punjabi literature.
The list of the first literary festival includes celebrated writers most of whom have drawn on Lahore at some point to keep their story going. For Daniyal Mueenuddin it is a homecoming, as also for Bapsi Sidhwa who must update herself on the partitions happening since.
Or those who know their way around may not find it impossible to as yet locate Tehmina Durrani’s feudal lord here. You might run into him, hung upside down a tree in a public park early in the morning, as if an old bat reduced to playing the daylight watchman.
The city where the carrier of Mohsin Hamid’s first novel found his muse is also bound to figure prominently as the panelists at the fair sit down to discussing aspects of the cinema in the country. Mohammed Hanif’s Shigri is on the proud list of those who underwent torture at Akbar’s fort during the Zia regime.
Whereas the imaginative Hanif did avenge his generation by setting Shigri on a vengeful pursuit of the dictator, Nadeem Aslam was one of those who fled home because of the same regime. Aslam ended up dedicating his Map for Lost Lovers to Faiz and to Abdur Rehman Chughtai, the last of the great Mughal patrons of art in Lahore.
It is the same fort of Akbar which provided the title image for William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal. It is a picture of King Bahadur Shah Zafar — “a poet of Persian, Bhasha and Punjabi” — which the historian discovered here, apart from much else of use.
The archives located in Anarkali’s tomb are a relic of the British war against the 1857 freedom fighters in which the new rulers of India had used Lahore as a vital operation base. This is where Dalrymple found at least some of the material that informed his books.
It would be intriguing to have Khair-un -Nisa from The White Mughal coming face to face with Lahore’s very own Anarkali, a readymade and ageless story that never ceases to fascinate despite the noted inaccuracies in the accounts. It matters not if Anarkali comes accompanied by Akbar himself or his sufficiently wayward son Salim. For when Lahore is the venue, everyone and everything is interconnected.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.