With a rich canvas that has won praise in Milton’s Paradise Lost, found mention in the accounts of Mughal emperors,and later in the writings of postcolonial Pakistani writers such as Sara Suleri and Bapsi Sidhwa, Lahore has a vast literary heritage which deserves a platform to celebrate it. In spite of a near-decade of General Zia’s reign, the city has a history of resistance and resilience and has produced some of modern Pakistan’s boldest social and political voices.

Whether through the radical short stories of Manto, the rallying of poet-provocateurs Ustaad Daman and Habib Jalib, or Iqbal Bano’s evocative songs of dissent, postcolonial Lahore has led the way in Pakistan in challenging the grip of authoritarians and dictators.

The recent coronavirus pandemic has thrown the world into total disarray. With festivals and cultural events around the world cancelled, the foreign editions of the Lahore Literary Festival in New York and London, scheduled for 2020, had to be put on hold. Fortunately, we were able to host our home edition in February before the global lockdowns earlier this year. But, around the world, the literary community is navigating uncharted territories to make sense of our disorienting new reality.

How the festival was born

The idea of the Lahore Literary Festival came about at a difficult time, in 2011, when public festivals such as Lahore’s fabled annual kite-flying event, Basant, and the Rafi Peer sufi music festivals in the city had been discontinued as a result of the blowback from Pakistan’s frontline role in the second Afghan war. There was nowhere to turn to for a community-led initiative.

On the other hand, literature and art from Lahore, and from the country at large, were gaining widespread international recognition: from Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Pakistan’s contemporary art exhibition, Hanging Fire, which was showcased at the Asia Society, to the hypnotic beats of “Jugni” by Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi on Coke Studio Pakistan.

To bring back in our public consciousness the literary spark that Lahore was synonymous with, and to have a homegrown platform that underscored the same, the Lahore Literary Festival, or the LLF,was born. A free and open-to-the-public event, it symbolised a community that would marshal itself around literature and would renew Lahore’s place in the global bazaar of ideas. For me, it reaffirmed faith in the city that I had moved back to after college.

At its first edition in 2013, we invited authors like Tariq Ali and Hamid, who connected with their home-turf audiences. The publishers of the rising stars of Pakistan’s English fiction, who had hitherto seen latent demand for their books, found great success. In doing so, the festival foregrounded the past glories of Lahore with contemporary voices, a process that has engendered a cache of public conversations to mitigate our collective biases, understand the modern state, discover Pakistan’s diversity of thought, and explore the threads of humanism across the blurring binaries of the East and the West. These are the goals that drive us even during the ongoing pandemic.

Some of the most memorable talks at the LLF have explored Lahore’s syncretic past: Basant, for example, is a session that celebrates the coming together of the Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim communities before 1947. Bringing the “past as present” is a recurring theme: previous sessions have explored the cosmopolitan personality of renowned painter Amrita Sher-Gil, the philanthropy of Ganga Ram, who has been hailed as the “father of modern Lahore”, and such others. In 2015, acclaimed historian Romila Thapar gave a riveting address, “The Past as Present”, on the Mughals’ assimilative reign and the subsequent divide-and-rule stratagem by the colonialist powers.

But literary festivals in our parts of the world lack patronage of the state governments. In fact, the government of Punjab has twice cancelled and then begrudgingly restored the permission to host the festival but with strings attached – like truncated hours and having to relocate from a public venue to a cloistered hotel (where we had to fend for ourselves entirely, including the financial component of renting a private property).

All these unilateral decisions in 2016 and 2017 were attempts to derail the momentum of the festival. No cogent reason was ever presented to us, for instance, when the government first withdrew its No-Objection Certificate and then gave permission in the wee hours of the inaugural day of the festival. Far from championing or providing patronage, as is the case in literary festivals like Berlin, Edinburgh, and Dubai, authorities here have not even provided a level-playing field for events.

In instances, where festivals have entertained government mouthpieces on panels, the facilitation is swift. Regardless, as long as a rule-bound, fair system of holding festivals is ensured, the LLF will thrive in its autonomy to govern and program without favour or fear.

Bringing diverse voices to the fore

Every year, the LLF programming features strands of Pakistan’s multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious communities. Our session at the LLF in 2014, “Citizen Cowasjee”, celebrated the life and times of the Parsi columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee, who railed against the land-grabbing mafias in Karachi.

In 2018, the LLF posthumously awarded the human-rights icon Asma Jahangir for her indefatigable, lifelong work for the marginalised and dispossessed in our society. Prominent Pakistani women such as the poet Zehra Nigah and historian Ayesha Jalal have inspired many young Pakistanis, especially girls, by their keynote addresses at the festival.

In Pakistan, the low national literacy rate often makes it tempting to term lit fests as “elitist” in a bid to downplay the contributions of a literary festival to confront state-failure. On a broader front, there are earnest efforts underway to address the imbalance between English, Urdu, and the regional languages. Independent publishing houses, translating from English to Urdu, are plugging the knowledge gaps in society. Literary festivals too are embracing more voices from smaller towns and the middle class to widen the scope for dialogues in a safe space. The LLF has been accused of being English-centric, but that’s not true as we curate a wide net of Urdu and Punjabi sessions every year. At the 2020 edition, Heer, a Punjabi play, drew an enthusiastic audience of over 600 people.

Cultural exchange within South Asia

In the past few years, Indian writers like Vikram Seth and Pankaj Mishra, who have a huge readership in Pakistan, have had to go through long-drawn-out visa procedures to attend the LLF. Cumbersome as they always were, these procedures have become much worse as the relations between the two countries deteriorate wherein cultural exchanges are completely suspended, despite the media hullaballoo around the recent opening of the Kartarpur religious corridor for the Sikh community.

Literary festivals, thus, have played a critical role in advancing the dialogue between the two countries in spite of festering post-Partition political issues.

These dialogues, events, and discussions between Indian and Pakistani writers and artists have shown the possibilities of the dividends of lasting peace from storytelling, whether it is the pull of Seth’s A Suitable Boy, or Mishra’s searing exposition of modern capitalism and its discontents in The Age of Anger, or the vintage films of Sharmila Tagore and Naseeruddin Shah.

Within South Asia, another cultural window that the festival has opened up is literature from Sri Lanka. Books by Romesh Gunesekera, for instance, after his talks at the LLF in 2015 and 2020, drew keen interest here. As the world explores the meaning of isolation induced by the pandemic, books by fellow South Asians sensitise us to our immediate neighbours grappling with urban warfare in cities like Karachi and Mumbai, climate crises reflected in the torrential rains to Himalayan glacier-melt, displaced populations and more.

Owing to the curb on non-essential trade with India, even before the pandemic, no books are being imported directly from India. This means that the books are brought into Pakistan through Dubai and elsewhere, leading to higher duties and prices for the importers and readers.If visa restrictions were eased and more direct flights between South Asian neighbours initiated, we would all benefit, economically and culturally.

Going global

One of the aims of the festival has been to situate Pakistan’s place in the world, to bring the best of the global thought to Pakistan but also, as part of forging these cultural associations, make the LLF an institution that bolsters Pakistan’s identity, going as far back as Mehrgarh and Mohenjodaro civilisations, as a place of multiplicity of literary and cultural expressions. The pandemic has thrown a spanner in our plans for the overseas editions, in New York and London, this year.

Both these events feed critical communication between writers from Pakistan and their readers from the mix of Pakistani communities living abroad. These foreign editions help cement Lahore’s tangible and intangible heritage, from music to literature to food and architecture, that, inspite of the pandemic, will remain a central building-block as we combat the challenges induced by Covid-19.

Post-Covid-19: the new era of digital festivals

As we are still in the midst of the pandemic, it is difficult to gauge as yet how social distancing will work in a physical festival setting next year. One option is to host sessions without an audience, but at present it’s hard to crystal-gaze the actual dynamics of next year’s edition.

In June, we initiated the LLF Online series, which has hosted over 30 sessions since. The format entails short conversations with authors who have been to Lahore and taken part in the festival, and, in some cases, authors whose new books were caught in the maelstrom of the pandemic, and are launching their books digitally.

These reinforcement strategies have kept the spirit of LLF alive among our fans as they see familiar authors speak about their works and the challenges of the pandemic. Given that these sessions are not paywalled, the authors have also been able to engage with new readers.

However, a digital footprint is by no means a suitable substitute for the physical space of the LLF. Even some authors are reluctant to launch their books online as the whole ecosystem fostered by a physical festival, including debates and book signings, is missing in an online event. But for now, the digital sessions are a stop-gap arrangement and a stepping stone to a digital festival next year in case the virus and its effects persist.

Growing need for more local publishing houses in Pakistan

There is another matter at hand. Despite two major literary festivals (Karachi Literature Festival and LLF) and a growing list of Pakistani writers achieving global recognition, Pakistan doesn’t have a single mainstream publishing press focusing on fiction. Oxford University Press in Karachi mostly publishes non-fiction. Lahore-based Readings translates fiction from English to Urdu, and publishes relatively affordable English fiction classics and contemporary works by Pakistani writers.

The Urdu translation of Orhan Pamuk’s bestselling novel, My Name is Red, published recently by Jamoori Publications, sold like hot cakes at the LLF this year alongside Pamuk’s popular session. But these fledgling initiatives are far and few in-between. More local publishing houses need to explore Pakistan’s potential for more homegrown fiction, which has had resounding success internationally.

Like in India, fiction-focused publishing houses can instil a strong federal identity of Pakistan through more translations from Balochi and Pashto to English and Urdu. Without the weight of import tariffs, locally published fiction, while eschewing inwardness and welcoming voices from all parts of the world, will help bring more fair prices for the authors and readers so that a balance is struck for more ordinary Pakistanis to benefit from books.

Apart from college and British Council libraries, there aren’t many open libraries in Lahore for citizens to enjoy free and digital reading. The lit fests and the Sunday book bazaar in Anarkali are the only makeshift spaces for students to buy subsidised books and find a wider array of authors and fiction other than the typical offering at bookshops here, where contemporary works and regional authors, especially from West Asia and Africa, are under-represented.

Pakistan’s relatively lower incidence of coronavirus cases has given a fillip to booksellers in the Anarkali bazaar as they’re open once more, but this may well prove to be temporary, just as virus cases have started to resurface across Europe.

Literary festivals like the LLF provide a space for aspiring writers to meet world-renowned authors and publishers. In 2019, we conducted free creative-writing workshops with the director of the Iowa Writing Program, Christopher Merrill, and with Fatima Bhutto, this year. Both workshops were oversubscribed with students from across the country. Notwithstanding our language and internal cultural differences in Pakistan, I strongly feel these are steps in the right direction.

With no end in sight for the pandemic, the online series currently brings a much-needed joyful vibe in these despairing times, especially for those advised to strictly remain at home owing to more vulnerability to the pandemic. The digital talks have spanned discourses on Mughal emperors Babar and Jahangir, connected Pakistani and other South Asian writers, explored the effect of the pandemic on our dense cities, and served insightful nuggets on food and spices. The digital series has also reinforced my belief that the LLF and other such community initiatives are critical in a society to nurture free and critical thinking and creative expressions that will outlive the rot in our social and political systems.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.