The fickle switch

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - F.S. Ai­jazud­din

THE La­hore Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val has be­come a light-switch in the hands of the Pun­jab ad­min­is­tra­tion, to be flicked on and off at a whim. In case par­tic­i­pants at last year's LLF had for­got­ten how of­fi­cial per­mis­sion to hold the event had been with­held un­til the night be­fore the fes­ti­val was due to com­mence, this year they were re­minded that such per­mis­sions, like the sup­ply of elec­tric­ity in our coun­try, should not be taken for granted.

One would have thought that the suc­cess of pre­vi­ous LLFs, re­in­forced by the equally happy ex­pe­ri­ence of sis­ter fes­ti­vals in Karachi and in Is­lam­abad, would have re­as­sured of­fi­cial­dom by now that, while the con­cept of a lit­er­ary fi­esta was revo­lu­tion­ary, its con­duct is not. In­ter­na­tional and lo­cal schol­ars, writ­ers, po­ets, artists, and crit­ics gather for a few days to talk to au­di­ences about their craft, to pose oblig­ingly with read­ers for self­ies, give in­ter­views, pro­mote and au­to­graph their books, and then re­turn home laden with pub­li­ca­tions ex­changed with fel­low au­thors. There is noth­ing sub­ver­sive in their as­sem­bly. They leave no gun­pow­der be­hind.

Per­haps it is this very in­nocu­ous­ness that dis­turbs the equa­nim­ity of glassy-eyed ad­min­is­tra­tors. They won­der how such in­no­cent plea­sures can­not be sin­ful, why such con­gre­ga­tions can be any­thing but sedi­tious.

Plan­ning for LLF 2016 be­gan last Fe­bru­ary, the mo­ment LLF 2015 ended. Ex­pe­ri­ence of the last be­came the tem­plate for the next. Dur­ing the in­ter­ven­ing year, of­fi­cial NOCs were ob­tained, book­ings made at the Al­hamra Arts Com­plex, del­e­gates sourced and in­vited, a matrix de­signed of 91 choice ses­sions spread over three days at six sep­a­rate ac­ces­si­ble venues. Ev­ery­thing was in place for LLF 2016 to com­mence on Feb 19.

Sud­denly, on the 18th night, ru­mours be­gan to per­me­ate, like the nox­ious ethers in Bhopal, threat­en­ing the very life of the LLF. First, that the LLF had been can­celled; then, that per­mis­sion would be granted but only for two days; later, that the trun­cated LLF could be held, but at an­other lo­ca­tion. Some or­gan­is­ers were led to be­lieve that no In­dian in­vi­tee would be per­mit­ted to speak, ex­cept for Ms Sharmila Tagore at the in­au­gu­ral ses­sion and the art his­to­rian Dr B.N. Goswamy at the con­clud­ing one. The LLF team was told to re­lo­cate, overnight.

In a trice, they set up camp across the road, in the Avari Ho­tel. It must have been a lo­gis­ti­cal night­mare, not un­like the tent camp move­ments en­dured in 1837 by Miss Emily Eden, the sis­ter of Lord Auck­land, the gov­er­nor-gen­eral: "It seems some­how wicked to move 12,000 peo­ple with their tents, ele­phants, camels, horses, trunks, etc., for so lit­tle, but there is no help for it." Or­ders have to be car­ried out. Of­fi­cial­dom never sup­plies the means; it merely de­mands the ends.

This is not the first time such whimsy has been flaunted. Who can for­get the oc­ca­sion when, in 1996, a day be­fore the Cricket World Cup was due to be played in La­hore's Gaddafi Sta­dium, the then chief min­is­ter Pun­jab Sar­dar Nakai threat­ened to can­cel the match? His pout was that no chief min­is­ter's en­clo­sure had been cre­ated to ac­com­mo­date his friends and con- stituents. No amount of per­sua­sion could di­lute his petu­lance. In the end, he got his seats, and the World Cup or­gan­is­ers their fix­ture.

Twenty years later, the LLF 2016 - com­pressed, op­pressed, but never de­pressed - fought valiantly to sur­vive. De­flect­ing ev­ery chal­lenge, dis­lodg­ing ev­ery ob­sta­cle, it brought bright­ness and light into the pub­lic re­cesses of a dark­en­ing La­hore.

Such a Promethean vic­tory, how­ever, does not go un­no­ticed, or un­pun­ished. The cook­book and travel writer Mad­hur Jaf­fery was in­car­cer­ated in a club and forced to taste of­fer­ings stewed by its unimag­i­na­tive chef. Hosts liv­ing in La­hore's sacro­sanct Can­ton­ment were 'ad­vised' to rear­range their din­ner for LLF del­e­gates to a less sen­si­tive area, like Scotch Cor­ner. The ac­tress Sharmila Tagore - an age­less diva - was in­vited to meet our prime min­is­ter and his fam­ily at Raiwind. Young when she was, he found it im­pos­si­ble to re­sist a long dor­mant im­pulse to meet his screen hero­ine in per­son. If only his un­der­lings had shared his in­fat­u­a­tion. The very next day, Ms Tagore was turned back from Wa­gah bor­der for fail­ing to re­port to the po­lice be­fore de­part­ing for In­dia.

The LLF is the mod­ern Prometheus. Shack­led, it has its liver eaten away re­peat­edly by the ea­gle of bu­reau­cracy. Yet, it sur­vives. Shel­ley's lines from Prometheus Un­bound are a pre­scient ode to LLF's spirit: "To suf­fer woes which Hope thinks in­fi­nite,/To for­give wrongs darker than death or night;/ To defy Power which seems om­nipo­tent,/to love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates/From its own wreck the thing it con­tem­plates."

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