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The Lahore Literary Festival

1947, A Lahore Story

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The Lahore Literary Festival doesn't want to be controversial for the sake of being controversial.

In the subcontinent that now hosts nearly three dozen literary festivals, all inspired by the success of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Lahore's entry looks a tad delayed. But the organisers of the upcoming Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), to be held on February 23 and 24 at the city's prestigious Alhamra Art Centre, are hoping it won't be just another copy with a mandatory controversy thrown in, but a definite vehicle to help the city reclaim its historic position as a vibrant cultural hub.

"Lahore has traditionally been the cultural capital of Pakistan and it is a very appropriate place for the country to regain its past and launch itself into the future, " says Yaqoob Bangash, who set the ball rolling last year, after attending the Karachi Literature Festival, the country's first. Bangash joined hands with like-minded people and started working towards the country's second literary festival from September. "At Karachi, I had a chat with the co-founder and director Ameena Saiyid, who told me that she in turn was inspired by the Jaipur fest. So, I wondered why not in Lahore, and spoke to my friends about it, " says Bangash, an assistant professor at the department of history, Forman Christian College, Lahore.

Internationally known Pakistani authors writing in English have thrown their weight behind the festival which makes it a gathering to watch out for. For instance, Mohsin Hamid, whose book The Reluctant Fundamentalist was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, is on the festival committee, guiding it on the panels and panelists. "Mohsin is from Lahore and has given us a lot of direction, " says Bangash. "He suggested the panel for unpublished authors and we hope to provide a platform to launch the works of new authors who are good but have not been published yet. " Besides Hamid, other Pakistani authors likely to make it to the festival are Mohammed Hanif, Bapsi Sidhwa, Tehmina Durrani, Ayesha Jalal, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Ahmed Rashid.

One panel that promises to be interesting is a discussion of 1947, the year in which Pakistan was born. Partition also dealt a blow to Lahore's cosmopolitan culture. "It used to be a highly sophisticated city at the time of the Partition. We still have streets named Laxmi Chowk and Charing Cross. The city hasn't forgotten its past and it's time it salvage its glory, " says Bangash, with an enthusiasm that is discernible even on a long-distance phone call.

Despite its cosmopolitan character, it was the insularity of the city's intelligentsia that left the great writer Saadat Hasan Manto so disillusioned. Manto left his beloved Bombay for Pakistan only to be tried for obscenity. "That's true and we hope to discuss Manto in depth at a panel featuring his grand-niece Ayesha Jalal, " says Bangash. A book on Manto will also be launched at this session.

Another important discussion will be on Urdu writing in Pakistan, which should help break some of the barriers that have kept it segregated from English in the country. "Unlike India, there is stigma about local languages in Pakistan, and Urdu and English writers don't mix very well. We hope to mix them up and give them a common platform for ideas. "

When asked about the humungous amount of controversy that invariably gets generated in and around the Jaipur Literature Festival and how Lahore would deal with such a possibility, Bangash says, "We will try to steer clear of purely political discussions even though literature is inherently political in nature and one cannot avoid politics completely even from a literary platform. But a lot of controversy originates from purely political discussions. For instance, Salman Rushdie's book Midnight's Children is intensely political but if a discussion on it inspires some people to pick up a copy and read it, then it's a good choice, but one cannot have a discussion just for the sake of controversy. "

However, Bangash personally hopes to strengthen people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan through the LLF as he says that the city is strategically situated to be a bridge between the neighbours. "Though this is not the main focus of the festival, I think it will go a long way in helping people interact, especially as Lahore is so close to the border. " The organisers are in touch with the Pakistan High Commission in India to expedite visas.

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