The Islamabad Literature Festival is for me a barometer of what goes on in Pakistan. What people are thinking about and doing, tweeting, writing, and creating. The writers present make us listen to what they have to say; they ask questions and sometimes give answers. They make us think and be inspired. After the 3-day festival, we can go home and reflect, yes, and read more and discuss issues with friends and family.
This year was the fifth festival in the capital. I have attended all, and hope to attend many more in the years to come, as long as I am in Islamabad in April, about the time of birthday and the Easter holidays; it becomes a double or triple feast.
Ameena Saiyid, the Oxford University Press chief, and her co-chair of the event, Asif Farrukhi, spoke well at the opening and closing sessions, jokingly admitting too, that they take most of the credit, while many others do most of the work. Ameena thanked all the visible and invisible hands behind the event, indeed the schoolboys and girls in red festival T-shirts, who were volunteers, showing everyone where to go at the Festival’s fifty separate events, with a hundred and fifty speakers, dignitaries and ordinary people. This year, the President of Kashmir, Sardar M Masood Khan was the most prominent guest.
I always come a bit early the first day, so I can chat and joke with the volunteers, the young teenagers, full of energy and excitement, and maybe some worries about what to do, if they have understood all properly, wanting to do their best so their seniors can be proud of them. I made friends with some of the boys and girls at the opening, and they looked after me ever after throughout the festival. The more jokes I tried to make, the quicker they replied with new jokes, ideas and stories.
The youth had invigorating thoughts, giving us all energy, including a literary and history guru from India, an old man who was among the prominent speakers; the volunteers wanted to know if he liked Pakistan, and he did, he said, especially the friendliness of people. We were all impressed and happy with the youngsters around us, impressed by their formulation and quantity of ideas. And then I thought: What a fantastic country Pakistan is: What great children the land fosters, so polite, thinking, joking and daring, confident, but not too self-assured either, indirectly asking for some guidance and road signs, too. As an old teacher, I thought the best I can do is to encourage them; tell them to go ahead, do what they love and like, be considerate and trust their guts, listen to others and themselves, never be arrogant and never believe that they have the final answers in all fields, just be able to do things a bit a bit better than the previous generations could.
In the land of Pakistan there is much to do, much to worry about, much to be sorted out for the poor and underprivileged; much to be corrected for women and people from remote areas; things to be done for the people in the slums and those belonging to minority groups; and how to live better in cooperation and peace with all neighbours on the sub-continent and beyond. Yet, there is also much to cherish in the cultures, religions and traditions of the land. I hope the youngsters sort out these issues well, so that we can all feel more optimistic about tomorrow. If there is something Pakistan lacks, it is optimism, including more confidence and trust in institutions and organisations. As regards the latter, however, when an accomplished writer said at the festival in a fairly sweeping statement, that many people lack confidence in Pakistan, I felt he went too far. But he helped me think and reflect about it afterward.
One of the things I believe writers can help us to do is to use words carefully and accurately. Well, some writers may be too fluent in the way they use words. Sometimes, they may not stay long enough on a topic, so they don’t really discuss issues deeply and precisely. Many times that also goes for academics, talk show participants, and columnists. We don’t measure our words and focus our ideas properly. I thought I also noticed a few such writers of prose and poetry at the festival, along with some politicians and other opinion leaders.
But there were representatives of the opposite, and they were probably in majority, those writers who struggle with writing their books, being too self-critical, wanting to know more and write better before the book is released. I believe Mohsin Hamid and H M Naqvi are such writers, and many others. They take time to finish each book, but they are still confident enough to know that they are indeed writers. We readers should encourage the creative minds of all writers; we should ask them for their thoughts and analyses, and tell them that the books don’t have to be perfect. They could still write prize-winning books. Somehow, I believe in ‘good books’, not ‘excellent books’.
The Islamabad Literature Festival 2017 was held just after the tragic murder of the 23-year old student, Mashal Khan, at the university in Mardan. Words of shock and sadness were spoken at many sessions of the festival and there was a minute of silence at the closing ceremony, indeed worthy of the kind people of Pakistan. The perpetrators must be held responsible. Yet, I would also like us to realise that they are also victims because they somehow thought they did the right thing, confused and cruel, though, and they stopped thinking rationally as the violent situation flared up.
We must all teach each other never to allow such incidents to happen again, in Pakistan or anywhere else, whether the causes were political, religious, or something else. Writers and other thinking people, all of us, have a responsibility to discuss matters and find solutions related to violence. We must seek mercy, not revenge; through doing good, we learn to do good. That is the spirit of all faiths, and all moral and ethical thinking. We should reflect on what the father of Mashal said in memory of his beloved son: Rays of sunshine cannot be put in chains.
Whether we always do the right thing, say or write the right words, is not the most essential. The most essential is that we try to do what is right, ask difficult questions, try to understand and seek the truth. We must try to be as good as we can be in whatever field we are – as students, teachers, writers, carpenters or musicians – even as seen from the point of view from those we disagree with. None of us are perfect, and no one is born great, something that writers know too well. It is through our work, right intentions and good deeds that we contribute to the people and world around us – and help others do and be the best they can be.