It came as no surprise that the Lahore Literary Festival’s “Lahore in Literature” session was a love fest, given the Lahoris’ obvious affection for their city. The entire Lahore, it seemed, was in attendance and the doors to Alhamra Arts Council’s largest hall had to be locked as it was filled to the brim.
What was surprising, and quite disappointing, was the absolute lack of direction of the session which could have been one of the more interesting ones had it been conducted better.
Moderator Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist, began the session with Pran Nevile, the author of Lahore – A sentimental journey, who called Lahore an “eternal city, which can only be felt and experienced.”
“I have travelled all over the world but Lahore is Lahore,” he declared. “I have carried Lahore in my heart. It has been with me since childhood.” At this point, members of the audience were beside themselves with joy at this affirmation of their city’s superiority from a foreigner’s mouth.
Talking about his emotional connection with Lahore, Nevile said that the first time he had visited the city after partition, it was like a pilgrimage for him. “I visited Lahore for the first time in 1997, 50 years after I had left it. I did not want to visit Lahore before finishing my book on Lahore [which was published in 1992]. By the time I visited, two editions of the book had come out,” he said.
Alam then switched the conversation over to architectural historian Ebba Koch, asking her if she felt there was a misappreciation of the many monuments in the city. Koch disagreed. “As soon as I crossed the border into Lahore, I was impressed by the warmth, the openness and the culture of this city,” she said, delving deep into how Shalimar Gardens is an architectural phenomenon because of its design. By now, the audience was struggling to understand both her accent and her technical appraisal of the gardens.
He then asked celebrated novelist Bapsi Sidhwa, a number of whose novels have been based in Lahore, if she felt that Lahore was a violent city as comes across from tales of the 1947 partition or is it a city of courtesans, high art and culture. “It is certainly not a violent city,” said Sidhwa, with an obligatory reference to Karachi’s violent crime situation. She then made another trite statement about Lahore’s food. “It is just a city where people indulge their appetites. I don’t think there is any city that has more eating places than Lahore.”
Speaking about her book Beloved City: Writings on Lahore, known as Lahore: City of Sin and Splendour in Delhi, she said that it is really a labor of love for her. “It took me three years to develop this book and go around collecting stories for it. I owed it to my city. It is a city that I know best and I want to write about. It is the city that has nurtured me as a writer,” she said, leading to another round of applause by Lahoris for Lahore.
When Alam asked her to read something from the book, she refused to do so saying that the publisher had printed it in too tiny a font which was difficult for her to read. She chose, instead, to read from her new book The Language of Love. After she had been reading for 15 minutes, the crowd began thinning out.
Alam then shifted the conversation over to author Intizar Hussain, who was undoubtedly the highlight of the entire session, asking him what it was about Lahore that it had been the subject of many a literary works.
Hussain was in full form as he spoke about the city that he clearly feels very passionately about and has observed over many, many years. “In 1947, so many writers migrated to Lahore and so many migrated from Lahore,” he said.
He then moved on to relating several entertaining personal stories where Lahore had featured prominently. “Once, a long time ago, I wrote a story on Krishen Nagar to which a woman from India wrote a rebuttal titled ‘Intizar Hussain ruko’ [wait, Intizar Hussain]. In her story, she laid out an entire map of Krishen Nagar as it was before the partition,” he said.
In the second story, he narrated how he was travelling from India to Pakistan by train, with his wife and a couple of other Pakistani poets, when they got held up at the railway station in Amritsar and had to go through questioning. “When I said I am from Lahore, he [the person questioning them] asked after a short pause ‘How is FC College?’. I said it’s good. He said ‘And Gawalmandi?’, that’s also fine, I responded. As I had made inroads into his heart because of my association with Lahore, I told him if I miss the train, I will live with you because I am now your guest. Due to our camaraderie, he immediately put us one of the cabins on the train that were reserved for some dignitary!”
He was so involved in the third story that he completely dismissed Alam’s efforts at concluding the session that had reached its end. While he was describing the Mall Road of his times, he had to be cut short a little more forcefully. Nevertheless, he managed to make his disappointment heard. “This is not the Mall Road that I saw. It’s completely commercialized now.”
This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: http://www.dawn.com/news/789965/lahore-literary-festival-lahore-applauds-lahore