What does literature do in the times of terror? The answer to this query would be that it does a lot. It offers hope, nurtures love, heals wounds and above all it turns itself into a metaphor of defiance and stares terror in the face, as poet Paash said: Asee ladhange saathi udaas mausam naal (We will fight the season of sorrow).
Such was the mood of the recent Lahore Literary festival. Indian authors played a key role in the literary festivity at the Alhamra cultural complex.
Noted Indian historian Romila Thapar delivered the keynote address against the history of hatred that flourished in the two countries post-Partition, the first session of the festival was dedicated to remembering veteran writer-journalist Khushwant Singh, who had a large fan following across the border too. The session was named ‘Politics, pluralism and Khushwant Singh’s Punjab’. The panelists included his journalist son Rahul Singh, novelist Shobhaa De, Paksitani lawyer Bahsarat Pir and senior Pakistan Peoples Party politician, Aitzaz Ahsan.
Rahul, after his return from festival, said, “The festival was a very moving experience for me because there were so many people there who have such rich memories of my father. There were many more who knew him for his writings. This made one feel happy that literature cannot be put into borders and boundaries.”
He was accompanied to Lahore by his sister Mala Dayal and partner Niloufer Bilimoria, who is also the director of the Khushwant Singh Literature festival at Kasauli.
Rahul held the audience in rapt attention as he recounted jokes, anecdotes and expounded on serious issues that Khushwant addressed in his lifetime. “My father had a zest for life… and he was completely devoid of hubris. He always spoke his mind without fear of consequences,” he said.
Khushwant’s friend Shobhaa added: “He had a knack for holding a mirror to the society’s follies and still be loved and admired”.
One sad moment for Rahul, Mala and Niloufer was that they were not allowed to visit Khushwant Singh’s native village of Hadali due to security threat.
“We tried very hard and made many connections but this was not to be. We had kept a day extra only for this purpose. My sister Mala was particularly sad that she could not visit the village where our father’s ashes were scattered,” Rahul said.
At the peculiar fact of the writer’s ashes being immersed in Hadali, someone said that ‘ashes do not need visas.”
The striking of Lahore city by a suicide bomber had created an awful scare and many authors were brought under tight security to the festival. This did not dampen the enthusiasm of the literati and intellectuals of Lahore which was the cultural capital of the united Punjab before August 15, 1947. More than 75, 000 people visited the third edition of the Lahore Literature festival.
Peter Oborne, correspondent of the NewStatesman, wrote thus on the session on Khuswant Singh that got a standing ovation: “My favourite session was a celebration of the life of Punjabi journalist Khushwant Singh, who died last year at the age of 99. He enjoyed a career as a lawyer in Lahore before fleeing Pakistan during the 1947 participation.
Thereafter he became a writer. A study of his column in the Hindustan Times, which appeared under the banner “With malice towards one and all”, should be made compulsory for Britain’s frightened generation of client journalists. In the aftermath of the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, Khushwant pleaded with Mrs Gandhi for the release of Pakistan prisoners.
“Are you trying to teach me morality?” demanded the Indian prime minister.
“You must learn it from whomsoever you need to learn it,” replied the sage. firstname.lastname@example.org
(The writer is a prominent art and culture critic.)