Literary blues

Published in Dawn

Speaking at the Karachi Literary Festival four years ago, Zia Mohyeddin said, “The homes of the rich in Pakistan have expensive crockery, rugs, crystal, hideous paintings … and no books.” Which raises the question: what to do with a class that manages to be both literate and unread at the same time?

Show them the way, it turns out: the rise of our literary festivals has made reading fashionable again, if for a few moments each spring. Rather than wave off our finest talent to Jaipur or Sydney as we used to, it’s Lahore that’s burst onto the literary scene, pulling in thinkers from across the globe. And despite a fresh wave of terrorism, a shortened LLF soldiered on to completion. As the saying goes, ‘done is better than perfect’.

One would think — for a city that denies itself Basant, neglects the Rafi Peer Theatre, and struggles to host the PSL final — any event to do with cultural expression can only be a hit. Yet even here, the critics wiggle through the cracks: there’s less literature than there are festivals, we’re told, and the festivals only serve elite islands (a critique often arising from those islands themselves).

But that’s giving our elite far too much credit. Admittedly, the arts have long been cultivated in our part of the world by princes and pretenders of all sorts. Yet much of today’s intellectual poverty is down to an upper stratum that would rather be seen at such events (or in the society glossies covering them) than have anything to do with literature, the humanities, or inquiry in general. Our litfests remain happy outliers.

Part of this is down to priority: no one reads. Writing in 2012, The Last Word bookstore owner Aysha Raja called it a wholesale debasing of the intellect:

It struck me first when a college graduate attributed the intellect to ‘intellectuals’, as if to imply that only a small class of people should be called upon to read and think. The rest, if I were to extrapolate, remain to work, build businesses, design lawn and raise kids.

Nor is this neglect exclusive to a vapid, English-speaking elite: turn to Karachi’s Urdu Bazaar, and it is textbooks that show up in the greatest volume. As this paper’s editorial noted years ago, assigned texts trump any personal quest for knowledge.

Indeed our malaise is democratic in nature: we refuse to read, regardless of aspiration or income level. In some ways, they may well be inversely proportional – aspirations are best confined to mobility and material baubles, and income levels are best guaranteed by engineering degrees, not literature or the social sciences.

It follows that there is a crisis of inquiry in this country, and the solution — now and forever — lies in our higher education system. While slamming Britain’s universities, scholar Terry Eagleton wrote, “What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique … the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the names of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future”.

Eagleton blamed Thatcher, but in Pakistan, we have a laundry list. Our entire education budget, according to Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman, is outstripped by the Orange Line alone; the market offers nothing to our social science grads; and even our vice-chancellors have plagiarised their theses, what to say of original research.

Litfests, for all the above reasons, can’t be expected to cure the crisis — that’ll take everything from educational reform to market incentives to societal change. But they are the start of a conversation, one we’d forgotten to have in the first place: the march towards a greater interest in the humanities, a broader acceptance for diversity of opinion, and maybe even a revival of the arts.

Not least, they lead us down paths we avoid otherwise. This paper’s Saher Baloch recently covered a book festival held in Gwadar, and though we associate Balochistan’s poetry with rage and resistance, the festival opened everyone’s eyes to the bigger picture. As writer Dr. Shah Mohammad Marri put it, “Since the province has seen so much bloodshed, [resistance] has been the driving point. But most of the poetry is related to love, human entanglements and nature, which is often sidelined”.

He went on to cite Mast Tawakali, the Sufi poet that snubbed the sardars and their colonial masters. According to Dr. Marri, Tawakali’s poetry leaves the most rational of people “spiritually scarred, as he makes you human”.

That, perhaps, is the first aim of any literature: though written in isolation, it remains an attempt to connect with other lives. And in making that connection — the place beyond class and creed and language — we remind ourselves of our humanity. May we read on, and may the conversation continue.

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