I am a journalist, I suppose
So, recently I have been telling people I am a journalist. I have sort of been forced to. I have started working for a newspaper, mostly because it is the only job that I could get in Lahore. Perhaps that is just an excuse I use to justify it, perhaps I am secretly grateful for this job, the routine of it, hectic as it may be. I have always known I wanted to be a writer, but a creative one, one who writes fiction, poetry and literary non-fiction. As such, I have pretty much defined my aesthetic as apolitical. So, this job, which requires me to write a news editorial every day, has had to entail a massive paradigm shift. When my boss sent me to cover the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), I had to consciously and relentlessly assert my status as a member of the media. Although there is great ambiguity as to what it means to cover a literary festival, there are a few things I am clear about: I have to manage the team of people sent to cover the festival and make sure no one ends up writing about the same session, thatall the important ones are covered and that we write about as much as humanly possible. A task that seems quite impossible because they all seem to end up in the same hall at once even though I spend quite a few hours in the evenings refereeing meetings to decide who covers what.
So, I am standing in line at security and I am late for the first panel. I tell the security guard at the gate that I need to get through, that I am a journalist and am covering this festival.Besides, I have already been thoroughly checked twice. “Not like this, you have not,” she says grinning. “Oh do not be so modest, it is easier that way,” she adds as she frisks me. I must admit, entering Alhamra through a curious mixture of rain, sun and wind, with a man singing Heer in the main ground, is somewhat invigorating. The first session I attend is a book launch by Mohsin Hamid. He has written a series of dispatches from New York, London and Lahore, questioning the modern idea of ‘civilisation’ and the way that society tends to pigeonhole people based on their race, religion and political beliefs. At the end, I realise that the book is inspired by the fact that he does not seem to belong in any of the cities he has lived in. The idea amuses me: join the club Hamid, I think to myself.
After this, it is just three hazy days of making sure everyone is in the right hall at the right time, attending the sessions and reading the news on my phone in the mornings, then writing an editorial in the evenings and rallying the troops for the next day. At the end of it, I am exhausted — I have not eaten, slept or bathed enough and (of course) I have not written anything about the event that I am supposed to be covering. There is also a wild goose chase for Joe Sacco, aUS cartoonist I promised to interview for a popular fashion/lifestyle magazine to get my name out there as a writer. When I finally catch him he says he would love to be interviewed and that I should speak to the organisers of LLF since they are handling his schedule. Everyone I talk to tells me they are on it and proceed to walk away with no means of contacting me and without giving me their phone numbers. I pull strings and talk to people I know because everyone at the festival is someone I know from a pretentious, elitist academic institution or family. So, the interview does not happen and I also have not written anything about LLF for the paper. It seems as though, no matter how hard I work, I always fail and I am perpetually disappointing someone, whether it is my boss, my parents or myself.
What could I possibly write about? The only real opinion I have about the festival anymore is that it is a platform exclusively for the who’s who of Lahore. I see these people everywhere and they are always telling me what a small town Lahore is, which I suppose it can be if you are always interacting with the same people. And all the generic, generalised things I have been saying in my editorials are sitting there in the back of my mind: this festival is remarkable, it promotes the art and culture of Pakistan, the ubiquitous threat of terrorism has shrunk the public spaces for such events. The repetitive, meaningless banality of my own words is killing me. Because words are never enough, especially when they are too much. In that case, they almost always mean nothing. So, I try to tell myself that I am not an artist here; my job is to tell the truth, not a subjective version of it filtered through my own perspective. It is a job that seems impossible.I do not even know whether any of the facts I have been writing are true. It does not really seem to matter anyway. It is never the actual truth that registers; it is always a sign of the truth, an emblem of a possible, imagined reality that might unfold itself over the blinding darkness.
I suppose LLF is a rare opportunity to experience the artistic and intellectual life of Pakistan and the world. Perhaps, it is just I who cannot handle it. Life resonates too loudly in a place where it is always threatened, when it manages to creep out of the frightful shadows. And the only thing that I can find to dull the confusion of the crowds and security around me is horrid, free instant coffee and perhaps a crass, nauseating local cigarette. The cigarette burns the hair of the girl standing in front of me in line to hear Nasiruddin Shah talk about his memoirs, a session that all the people in the queue know they are not going to get to attend. Her hair catches fire and I pat it, achieving a precarious balance, not so softly that her dry curly tumbleweed burns clean off and not so hard that she notices. It is a balance that can be tipped at any moment and almost feels like the balance the security here has achieved. If it is too intense it would scare off the audience but if there is a minor lapse then I’m writing an editorial on the suicide blast at LLF instead of whatever this is.This is life in a comic strip, unbearably heightened to the point of ridiculousness.
So,the festival is over now and it is back to business as usual. I am still not sure how I feel about my life right now.Perhaps it is just the despair that inevitably follows once you realise that you have gotten everything you have been striving for and hoping for lately, or perhaps it is forever. It is my own fault that this is my reality now. I wished for it too hard.