By Zubeida Mustafa
ON the weekend of Feb 11-12, the Karachi Literature Festival unveiled a treasure of intellectual delights for the third consecutive year to those who attended.
Graced by eminent writers from Pakistan and abroad with whom one doesn’t always get the opportunity to interact, the event allowed one the luxury of disconnecting oneself — though momentarily — from the brutal realities of life in Karachi.
At the time when Vikram Seth, the author of A Suitable Boy, was engaged in a one-on-one conversation with Prof Shaista Sirajuddin, a few kilometres away, the Defence of Pakistan Council was indulging in India-bashing at its rally near the Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum. An umbrella organisation of 40 reactionary parties, including some banned ones, its message was quite the opposite of the themes the KLF was expounding.
The gist of the speeches was: confront the US, do not submit to Indian ‘hegemony’, support the freedom fighters in Kashmir, and defend the country’s ‘ideological’ frontiers.
Prof Pervez Hoodbhoy, the inveterate champion of sanity in our defence and foreign policies, and an advocate of rational thinking and peace and tolerance, noted this contradiction in the soul of the largest city of Pakistan. Hoodbhoy specially spoke of the fact that while tens of thousands would register their presence at the DPC rally, only a few thousands were attending the Literature Festival.
This highlighted a sad characteristic of our society because this is generally interpreted — and Hoodbhoy is not the only one to feel that way — as the radicalisation of the masses, especially the youth of Pakistan. But I feel we ourselves are partly to blame for this phenomenon.
While the bearded gentlemen made extraordinary efforts to reach out to as many people as they could and make their rallies inclusive, we at the KLF had tended to make our events exclusive. Of course, no notices are put up saying who is allowed and who is not. But the location of such events and the language spoken send a very clear message about who is welcome. Away from the madding crowd in a hotel set in a serene spot near the Arabian Sea, and most proceedings in English the KLF is inaccessible to the common man who travels by bus and speaks the local language.
It is not only the KLF. We tend to make all the good things in life, including intellectual, cultural and educational activities that mellow a person and broaden his outlook on life, beyond the reach of the masses.
This approach is hurting us because in the race to win the hearts and minds of the common people, the conservatives and religious groups are gaining the upper hand simply by proactively opening their doors to all and sundry. Of course their motives are political — to seize power — but their methods are social. Their strategy is designed to interact with people on the personal level on popular terms and they succeed.
We would do well to remember Unesco’s charter that says that since wars begin in the minds of men it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. By not providing the children of the masses good education that would teach them about love and peace, we are failing to build the defences of peace that are so badly needed.
Aren’t the children of the poor entitled to the enjoyment that the KLF brought to those who are affluent? To say that they are not interested in such intellectual activities is the unkindest thing to say. Provide them the opportunity and make such enjoyments accessible to them. Then only can their interest or lack of it be gauged.
To test this hypothesis, I decided to introduce the KLF to Nadia (12), who lives in a katchi abadi called Shireen Jinnah Colony and is one of the 60 per cent of our population who live on less than two dollars a day. Together we attended the storytelling session by Fauzia Minallah, an artist and writer, who works with children.
Being sensitised to the needs of underprivileged children, Fauzia knows the secret of connecting with them. Nadia had read Fauzia’s book on Amai, the peace dove that I had given her. But hearing the author in person was a new experience for her. The message of peace and tolerance in the book came out stronger when Fauzia demonstrated it by interacting with the children.
For Nadia, the KLF was an event to remember when Fauzia asked her questions about the book and then hugged her. One can be sure that this little girl from Shireen Jinnah Colony will cherish for life her autographed copy in which Fauzia asks her to carry for ever “the light of hope in her heart and mind”. In the span of less than an hour the KLF had inspired Nadia as I am sure the DPC could not have in its rally of thousands.
What made Nadia comfortable was also the language factor. Fauzia narrated Amai’s story in Urdu. If Fauzia had spoken in English Nadia said she might have understood her but not fully. “I couldn’t have answered her questions in the way I did in Urdu,” Nadia commented.
There are individuals and small groups trying to reach out to the people and create an impact on them as Fauzia had on Nadia. But these are drops in the ocean. It is time the big organisations and groupings, such as the KLF, whose reach is more expansive followed suit.