At the Alhamra

By Ayaz Amir
The News, Feb. 28, 2014

Ayaz Amir

I went to the Lahore Literary Festival at the Alhamra last week and it was fun. Seeing so many eager, bright, and good-looking faces milling around having a great time was bracing, like a tonic. My 14-year-old son Shehryar said to me, “Baba, you should have brought me here yesterday too.”

Our cities are dull. There are no regular concert halls here. We don’t have a national symphony orchestra. Opera is unknown in these parts and even our own Hindustani classical music has fewer listeners and doesn’t get the airing it should. So when something like a literary festival takes place, bringing people out of their homes and into a public space, and our “existential” crisis is forgotten for a moment and the mind turns to other things—even if there is some pretention and make-believe involved in this—it is to be welcomed.

The pretension comes from trying to invest even the pedestrian and ordinary with profound significance. But this happens. When you are dealing with anything literary or cultural (with a capital C), some dressing up and some made-up profundity, is inevitable. But the important thing is that under the pressure of the event, we start thinking of other aspects of life, different from what passes for the usual in our monument to hypocrisy and false piety, the Islamic Republic.

And those other things are art and literature and music and listening to intelligent, well-read people talking. I was invited to a session on Ardeshir Cowasjee where I was just able to mumble a few words without adding to anyone’s knowledge of the man. But the person conducting the discussion was the historian Ayesha Jalal and it was a joy seeing her keep everything tight and controlled, not letting the discussion wander or allowing anyone to get too wordy. I couldn’t help wondering how it would be if we had one or two people like her imparting some flair and understanding to what is in danger of becoming our No. 1 public nuisance (after the uncontrolled mosque loudspeaker): our interminable TV talk shows.

Now, of course, the crowd at the festival, for the most part, was LUMS, Kinnaird, upper-crust Lahore. But this wasn’t a fashion event and this wasn’t an empty-headed crowd. These were young people, and the not-so-young, who were very obviously—you could see this on their faces—involved and engaged, interested in the event, and standing patiently in long queues to gain admission to various sessions. And because most of the sessions were full, many would be politely turned away. But there was no jostling, no pushing, and no shouting. There was no police at hand, only the young organizers showing the way and with a minimum of effort keeping things in order.

Why was this? Quite simply because these were educated people from educated backgrounds, their upbringing and privilege (and culture) showing in the way they were dressed, the way they spoke, the way they conducted themselves. In this republic we insist on calling Islamic, this class of people is a minority, indeed a tiny minority, not representative at all of the whole. No one will call this a healthy state of affairs. No society is egalitarian; egalitarianism is one of the oldest of human pipedreams. But in any society worth the name, the uneven distribution of wealth apart, there are some common currencies in use across the community: education and culture, or at least a modicum of culture. Not so in Pakistan where the apartheid in vogue is multifaceted and the trenches dug as a result very deep.

Walking in the courtyard of the Alhamra, the whole complex by common consent Nayyar Ali Dada’s architectural masterpiece, I couldn’t help thinking that the smart women there were moving about freely because they were in a protected environment. Were they to choose to step out on the Mall and start walking down toward Hall Road they wouldn’t be able to do it because the traffic would come to a stop and passersby would gape and gawk.

It was not always like this, but this is what the onslaught of piety, to which Pakistan consciously subjected itself these past 30-odd years, has brought about. Besides, we chose consciously to raise high our walls of apartheid. Why on earth do we still have multiple systems of education? Of all our national shames none is worse than this. And this is not because of the Taliban. Education and public health have never been priorities. There is no incentive for the ruling classes to invest in health and education. We used to pay lip service to social justice. Now we don’t even do that.

So what should we do? Give up altogether? No, all the more reason to have such gatherings where the focus, whether fully or partially, is on other things, on books and music and culture. If, in the process, a light is shone on the deep social divisions of our society and it leads to soul-searching, it is only for the good.

See the original article here.

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