Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:26 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 12:26 | SYDNEY

From Jaipur to Karachi: Two literature festivals

20 February 2012 15:10

Alicia Mollaun, a PhD candidate at the Crawford School at ANU, is based in Islamabad.

When one talks about India and Pakistan, comparisons are inevitable: of nuclear arsenals, development indicators, political systems, cricket teams. But what about the arts? 

In January I hopped across the border to see what all the hype was about at the Jaipur Literature Festival and last weekend I traveled to Pakistan's 'badlands' of Karachi to attend the Karachi Literature Festival. Both were excellent, but for very different reason.

Firstly, traveling from Pakistan to India requires planning, determination and a good book. As a result of historical tensions between the two countries, there are no direct flights between capital cities. To get from Islamabad to New Delhi is a feat of patience. One must fly to Lahore, wait for six hours, and then connect with a flight to New Delhi. Only on Wednesdays and Saturdays though. What in theory should be an hour-long hop across the border turns into an arduous 8.5-hour journey.

No wonder economic integration is stalling between the two neighbours; it is just too complicated to get to the other side.

But back to the arts. The Jaipur festival lived up to the hype and suffered from the major problem one would expect in a country of over one billion people – overcrowding. Oprah came, and so did the crowds. Eighteen thousand attended on the day Oprah spoke, about 12,000 more than at any point the previous year, which meant it was of paramount importance to strategically plan bathroom and food breaks and to carry a large bag to protect your hard-won seat from the masses. 

But it was worth it for many reasons. To see superstars like Oprah, Deepak Chopra, Tom Stoppard, Richard Dawkins and Lionel Shriver, to name just a few, was excellent. And of course, the massive hoo-hah over Salman Rushdie not attending completely took over the festival (and India, it seemed). There were writers reading out Rushdie's work in solidarity, writers talking about the injustice of Rushdie not attending, and of course, the threat of protesters storming the festival if a video link with Rushdie went ahead. It all kept the festival abuzz with tension.

One of the most striking elements of the entire festival was the number of atheism supporters in the audience. A talk by Richard Dawkins, who argues stridently that God doesn't exist, received some of the loudest cheers of the festival from the majority-Indian audience, particularly when he said that believing in God was 'pathetic'. 

The final session of the festival was a debate on the argument that 'man has replaced God', which also included Dawkins. There were two proponents for God (a Hindu and a Muslim) and four against religion entirely. The side arguing against God's existence received resounding applause and cheers and was declared the victor of the debate.

In a follow-up post, I'll juxtapose that moment with the literature festival held in Pakistan.

Photo by Flickr user SJ Photography.