THE sky over the Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi was a cerulean blue, empty, silent. Crows cawed as they scavenged deserted dining tables for scraps of food. White gulls with markings perched immobile in a row, grounded, as grounded and immobile as PIA’s aircraft at Karachi’s Quaid-i-Azam International Airport.
The strike by our national airline could not have come at a worse time for the organisers of the Karachi Literature Festival 2016. Their carefully made plans to ensure that their participants for the three-day festival would reach Karachi in time and leave without delay were suddenly thrown in limbo. A carefully structured showcase of Pakistan’s literary and cultural diversity stood in danger of becoming a national confessional, an admission to habitués of such annual gatherings at Jaipur, Kolkata, Kasauli, and Kumaon, that visiting Pakistan is still a daunting dangerous challenge, a modern 13th Labour of Hercules.
That the Karachi LitFest 2016 could be begun on time, each of its sessions conducted within time, and could end on time would have inspired even Stephen Hawkings. Their productive combustion allowed new stars of talent to emerge, planets of intellect to rotate in their familiar orbit, and a constellation of Pakistan’s creative minds float towards each other, connect and continue, without colliding.
Whoever attended the Karachi LitFest 2016 — and there must have been over 100,000 this year — took away with them a moon-rock of memory, the precious recollection of an event they cherished above all. For some it must have been a book launch, for others the panel discussions, for many the opportunity to accompany practitioners backstage while they explained their craft, for a few the opportunity to meet Pakistan’s Galileos, Shakespeares, Byrons, George Eliots, Jane Austens, Voltaires, Marco Polos, and Machiavellis all under the same awning.
The PIA strike could not have come at a worse time.
If one was forced to choose the best of the best of the Karachi LitFest, it would have to be the session when the poetess Zehra Nigah permitted the audience to meander with her as a guide through the chambers of her mind. She would pause to recite one of her compositions. It might be something reflective, on the loneliness of being in company, on the unkindness of old age, or about the savage assault on a village housewife — itself, a brutal haiku on rape.
Her stature deserves a discussant of proportionate skill, and she found one in Saif Mahmood, an Indian. Neither of them needed to remind their audience that while Urdu may be our official language and spoken with varying accuracy here, it is truly valued and preserved across the border, in India.
Inevitably, the Indian participants at the LitFest attracted inordinate attention. Former minister of external affairs Salman Khurshid demonstrated that while manners may be inherited (he is the grandson of India’s first Muslim president Dr Zakir Hussain), discretion is a lesson self-taught. He avoided making any statements or observations that could be converted into bullets by the BJP and used against him in the rifle range of domestic politics.
His compatriot Barkha Dutt — the redoubtable Medea of the Indian media — was introduced as enjoying an access to prime ministers that even their wives might envy. She then proved the point by flying suddenly to Islamabad for an unscheduled interview with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Airline strikes are intended to discomfit commoners, not prime ministers. He has behaved towards the PIA strike with the same regal disdain that the French Louis XVI exhibited when disaffected Parisians in 1789 stormed the overcrowded Bastille. “Is it a revolt?” he asked. “No, Your Majesty,” the courtier replied. “It is a revolution.”
To spite Nawaz Sharif, his nemesis Imran Khan joined the PIA strikers in Karachi in an act of assurance. Astute as this move may be politically, the PTI leader may find himself in the same hot water one day. Revolutions have insatiable appetites. The French Revolution devoured both Louis XVI and his critic Jean-Paul Marat.
There must be some who wonder at the sudden, eruptive emergence of the PIA Joint Action Committee, a body that has exercised the disruptive power that the Karachi Shipyard Union did during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s prime ministership. Those strikers were led by the firebrand Kaneez Fatima — the Helen of Keamari who could stall a thousand ships in Karachi port. Her exhortations today drive the windmills of trade union seminars.
This action by PIA’s JAC must come as a surprise to a young generation of Pakistanis who have never experienced the paralysis a nationwide strike can cause. It certainly came as a shock to the participants of the Karachi LitFest 2016, as Pakistani delegates struggled to find seats on alternative airlines, and foreigners ricocheted home via Dubai. Each wondered whether Pakistan, like the grounded PIA and the immobile Karachi seagulls, would ever be airborne.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2016