Hailed as the cultural capital of Pakistan, the city of Lahore has been a hub of literary activities for much of the last century. Many prominent literary figures and magazines housed themselves in Lahore and weaved their magic over the rest of subcontinent. The month of February brings winters to an end in Lahore and the atmosphere is pregnant with hope and joy. For many centuries, the festival of Basant was celebrated in Lahore and other parts of Punjab during these days, a practice that has been discontinued due to dangerous string being used by over-competitive kite fliers. While the absence of Basant can’t be compensated entirely, two events warm the hearts of literature enthusiasts each year. One of them is the Lahore International Book Fair and the other one is the Lahore Literary Festival.

Lahore International Book Fair (LIBF) attracts bibliophiles from across Punjab to Lahore and provides an opportunity to booksellers to showcase their collections. Regrettably, over the years, the number of books catering to spiritual or religious needs of people have been dominating the fair, edging it past fiction and non-fiction works. Historically, publishers used to print both religious and non-religious books in equal number and both categories were available for customers. In the last few decades, publishers have limited themselves to particular genres and in this competition, the non-religious segment has been affected adversely. Barring a few recognisable names, Pakistani publishers are not interested in publishing good non-fiction books in Urdu or English. For people who frequently decry the dying of reading habits, a visit to the Expo Centre at the last book fair would have been an eye opener. Large families, young adults, the odd ‘couples’ and plenty of young men were seen browsing through the book stalls. Foreign publishers, particularly from India, were conspicuous by their absence.

A fortnight after the book fair, the third Lahore Literary Festival took place. In the last two editions of the festival, it had rained on the first day. The tradition somehow was maintained this year as well. The odd thing this time around was the huge police contingent performing security duties. Parking was not available within a mile’s distance and puddles formed after the rain didn’t make it easy for anyone to reach the venue unscathed. After braving rain, water, multiple pat-downs and security checks, people reached Alhamra Complex’s Hall 1 to listen to eminent historian, Romila Thapar. Dr. Thapar regaled the audience with history of Somnath, and how different narratives about the Somnath temple and its ‘destruction’ were weaved by various historians.

Over the course of three days, there were talk sessions on topics as diverse as Politics, Diplomacy, International Relations, Saadat Hasan Manto, Debut Novels, History of Pakistani Cricket, Karachi, Noor Jehan, Punjabi Folk stories, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Seraiki Language, Quetta, Feminism, Comics, Television Journalism, Urdu Newspaper Columns, Violence in big cities, Cordoba and Identity Crises. Delegates from all over the world were part of the programme and attendees of the festival showed up in numbers at almost every session. The smaller halls were filled to capacity throughout the day and long queues of eager people formed outside. Young volunteers welcomed and helped the guests with smiles on their faces and a spring in their steps.

In the last few years, the literary festivals organised in different cities of Pakistan have received flak for catering to the ‘elite’ class only. Haseeb Asif, a cultural critic, rubbished this claim in the following words, “Art and literature have traditionally depended on patronage from the elite. Some of the most famous and most aggrandised names of the subcontinent’s literary canon wrote under pension from the nobility or the state. If socialites flock to these events now to see who is important enough to invite back home for dinner, well, it is what they have always done.” Compared to Karachi Literature Festival (also held annually in February), Lahore’s festival is definitely more high-brow (and thus, lots of people claiming ‘entitlement’).

Amidst the International isolation faced by our country in the last few years (mostly as a result of our own flawed policies), International festivals pave the way for our people to interact with the outside world and to be subjected to different shades of opinion. Uncomfortable truths can (and do) cause mental anguish amongst the best of us and this was showcased during some sessions when audience members balked at the notion that their version of ‘truth’ was not the actual truth. In a session with renowned columnists, an audience member considered it his duty to defend the defunct ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ while a patriot couldn’t control his emotions when a Bangladeshi writer mentioned sexual crimes committed by our Army in 1971.

The best part of the festival was the atmosphere outside the halls, with freelance musicians playing cheerful tunes, Heer being sung by a traditional singer and television reporters chasing people off, looking for quotes for their hourly ‘packages’. The festival didn’t actually prove anything other than the fact that such events should be held more regularly and the people of this city deserve more of such avenues of literature and having a good day in the outdoors.