The Blow and Pratfall of the Paperback?
13 - 19 June, 2015
The Blow and Pratfall of the Paperback?

Who knew that the works of one of the finest Urdu poets would be trashed in a stack of paper-born bindings? This poet also happened to be the last Mughal emperor and a particular piece of work, penned by him, is the last surviving copy, making it a rare collectible. But the owner is indifferent, far from knowing its worth, which if given into the custody of a British or American library can get him an astronomical $5,000.
Bashir Ahmed Abro, the director of Liaquat Memorial Library in Karachi, narrates the tale of a 25-year-old guy who randomly showed up with a duffel of books and threw them outside his office.
“I tried stopping the man to have a word with me, but he simply retorted saying ‘this is my grandfather’s collection. But my wife doesn’t want to keep these so we decided to donate’.”
While reminiscing the incident, Abro, who has been heading the city’s largest book athenaeum since 2007, had a dispirited tone. “The minute I looked into the bag, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s handwritten Bayad-e-Zafar was peeking at me. That young man had no idea what a treasure trove he had left with me, after all it is the goldsmith alone who knows the worth of gold,” a sudden exciting pitch emerges in the director’s tone.
He thinks the culprit behind the plummeting reading culture is not the commonly mistaken electronic brain or the internet.
“Are we the only ones who have experienced the world of computers and internet? Where has the idea evolved from? In the West, people haven’t given up the concept of reading, instead, they can be found engrossed in the activity be it at train stations, bus stands or roadside cafes,” the man dressed in a grey safari suit, seemed highly irked by the idea of the majority blaming the realm of these neoteric advancements. Abro is not the only one amongst the lot who pities the failing culture of reading.
The vibrant metropolis once boasted of its book bazaars that were packed shrouded, amassed by bibliophiles from all over the city and beyond. Be it the oldest Sunday novella market at Regal in Saddar or the mini library-kiosks in Gulshan-e-Iqbal or an assortment of potboilers in front of a remnant of British architecture, the Frere Hall, the city had and still houses a collection for each type of a reader – except that there are hardly any book aficionados left in this over populous urban centre.
A web of book stalls welcomes a book lover in Gulshan-e-Iqbal. Mohammad Saleem, a book peddler whose passion for reading made him opt for this metier has a lightless account to share.
“Hum phasay huay hain, na nikal saktey hain, na chal saktey hain.”
The man has spent the last 29 years of his life trying to help people live worlds other than their own.
Saleem, donning a sky blue kameez shalwar was having his afternoon meal when he retorted ruefully about the state of affairs of the reading scene.
“People don’t have time to read because they have mobile phones and internet; why would they make the effort of buying books when they can read content online?”
With about 20 stalls set up every day of the working week, Saleem Book Stall has been in place since the last 15 years.
“Earlier, 100 customers would show up every day and now hardly 20 turn up and out of them not everyone ends up buying.”
However, Saleem comparatively has healthy sales during the two summer months when kids show up to buy.
“These two months are comparatively better than the remaining 10,” he opines.
Ten kilometres away from the dusky abode of Saleem Book Stall, every Sunday, one of the oldest book markets of the city is set up. It’s hard to fathom that this very deserted street of Regal Electronics Market in Saddar is the same one on which it is difficult to set foot during weekdays. As the clock strikes 8am, tables emerge and ruffled up pieces of cloth are spread out as preparations for the week’s book fair roll.
Nadeem, a retailer, has been setting up his stall since the past three decades.
“About 25-30 stalls are set up each Sunday with the widest range of books for people of all ages. The number of visitors have remained the same,” Nadeem tells me.
“What varies and is of relevance is the idea that from that figure very few actually end up buying even though the books we offer are priced minimally; the range being as low as Rs. 20,” he said.
The oldest supplier of books to the residents of the metropolis which has been standing tall since independence is hard to locate now for it is enveloped between outlets dealing in electronic goods. Finding a needle in a haystack made sense to me while I was on my quest. “Why are you even looking for Thomas & Thomas? Hardly anyone visits it now,” an eatery seller mocks at my pursuit. With pupils enlarged even in broad daylight – and after multiple stops – a hardback of Dalai Lama peeks at me followed by rows of other titles. Muhammad Qayuum, a salesman working since over a decade, unlocked the off-white lacquered creaky wooden door for me to experience the world beyond. Stepping foot inside, history felt tangible. Owned by two Hindu brothers before partition, Thomas and Thomas was taken over by a Christian gentleman, later bought by K.R. Nazir Ahmed, the grandfather of its present owner, Muhammad Younus.The shop was bought in 1948 and the uniqueness of it is that it had owners of different faiths, yet the name stayed the same. With a collection of 6,000 books, Thomas & Thomas is known for its rare collection which outshines at the annual book fair at Beach Luxury Hotel every February, according to Qayuum, who points out a copy of the Great Mughal with square shoulders as ‘not everyone has it’.
A decade earlier stacks of books were piled each day ready to be dispatched to libraries along with readers lining up the outlet to get their read. But today hardly 10-12 people show up in a day out of which only a single purchase is made.
Despite the book reading culture nose diving into a pit, there are book retailers such as Liberty Books for whom business is lucrative. They offer customers convenient home deliveries with prompt services from a huge collection to choose from, but that is targeted to a niche population who can afford the cost. With basement reading sessions and activities for kids held on a regular scale followed by frequent book fares, these leading chains are trying to uplift the failing trends. Pakistan’s largest chandler of books, Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad claims that the reading practice has improved keeping in mind the snowballing population, along with improved literacy rates.
Once an enthralling hub of arts and literature, would any of the Mughals have imagined the state of this place to be so off track from pieces that mould, reshape and help fertile minds? With ones marbles stuck in a narrow ramshackle, it’s going to take years to rebuild the lost essence of a society that once brewed intellectuals like Manto and Faiz.•

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