Pakistan’s charming bookseller.
[By Mayank Austen Soofi]
The bookstore was in Saddar, across the street from De Paris, my 273-rupees-a-day hotel in Karachi.
This was my first journey to Pakistan. I had no camera then.
Despite its American-style fast food outlets, the central Karachi neighbourhood of Saddar was a typical South Asian bazaar. All the jewelry stores were lined on one street, the garment shops were bunched together in another, and a separate lane was dedicated to photography studios. The pavements were home to refugees from Afghanistan.
I chanced upon the shop while searching for a cheap eatery during the afternoon heat of Karachi. The book-lined room was situated beside an Iranian café. Inside, an elderly man in a dark-brown suit was enthroned on a chair. He was alone, smoking. Dozens of books were piled up carelessly on his desk. Several books were lying on the floor.
A single bulb glowed weakly from the ceiling.
I stepped in.
The damp air was heavy with the musty smell of books, dust and dead insects. Most second-hand bookshops have books whose existence a compulsive book-buyer is not aware of but which are the very books that he desires. Sadly this was not that kind of place. The suitably torn books were not very old. Most disappointingly, there were thick stacks of Danielle Steels and Robert Ludlums.
Pakistan was disappointing. It was my fifth day in the country and I failed to find even a single decent bookshop.
“What you looking for?” The man said as I turned to leave.
“Some nice old books… have you any old edition of Jane Austen?” I asked with no hope.
He shook his head.
Suddenly I spotted an antique-looking hardbound with a green cover. It was Wuthering Heights. I took it out and flipped through the soft pages. They smelled of another time.
But the book was published in 1964.
“Actually Sir, I need to go home with a souvenir from Pakistan. I wish to buy a nice book before I leave.”
“Are you from India?”
“Are you a student?”
“I have a job.”
A silence followed in which I tried to look for a potential purchase.
“Sir, don’t you have any old Shakespeare? Or a cookbook? Can there be any old Pride and Prejudice? Perhaps something on Afghanistan or Khyber Pass?”
The man said, “Nobody reads any more. Karachi has changed. There were eight excellent bookshops in this circle of Saddar itself but they have shut down one by one.”
If his shop had a window, it is certain that at this point the bookseller would have longingly stared out into the street. But there was no window so we kept looking at each other. I took out an 1899 edition of Mansfield Park from my shoulder bag.
“See, this is the kind of book I’m looking for. I had got it from Delhi’s Sunday Book Bazaar for just 20 rupees.”
“Really! But why are you carrying it here?”
“Mansfield is my most beloved Jane Austen and this is my most cherished copy and… and I do not feel secure without it.”
The man leafed through the book.
“There was a boy like you who used to come here almost every other evening. He would buy all the Enid Blytons from me… but the visits stopped… he had gone to America… some years ago he appeared with his mother. He had a beard. He teased me that I had grown bald. The mother gave me his wedding card. They remembered me…”
The bookseller soon recollected himself into the present and said, “What do you want to have? Tea? Yes, I will order tea.” He barked into a phone, “Bhenchod, chai la. Jaldi. Haan, adrak wali, bhenchod!” (Sisterfucker, bring the tea. Quick. Yes, the ginger-flavored. Sisterfucker!)
Resting his head on the chair, the man said, “You would have been dazzled by Karachi if you had come 30 years ago. It was better than your Delhi and Bombay. But now… ”
A few minutes later a boy entered carrying two cups of tea.
This place had no good books, and yet I wanted to sit down on the floor and sleep. But it was time to leave.
“Sir, if you happen to visit Delhi, I will show you my private library,” I said. “I have more than five thousand books.”
“I can take you to people whose libraries are probably larger than your entire house.”
The man looked irritated.
While leaving, I noticed a red-colored book on the floor. Titled The Dog Annual, it was printed in 1937 by The Church Army Press in Cowley, Oxford, England. The front piece had a black and white picture of Princess Elizabeth with her corgi. The bookseller asked for 40 rupees.
“I like you boy,” he said as I shook his hand.
“If I were a Karachiwalla, I would have visited you daily” — these were my final words.
Emerging into the city’s blinding white light, I turned to have a last look at the bookseller. He was talking on his black landline phone. A board outside read: The Tid Bit Book Shop.
Many years have passed since this encounter. Pakistan has reduced itself to a beast that is eating its own children. I try to believe in a more optimistic idea of that country, the one that lives in the person of that charmingly eccentric bookseller. Not even aware of his name, I would occasionally Google his shop’s name but could not find anything on him. And then one day I came across an article in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. Profiled by journalist Akhtar Balouch, the bookseller of this piece — I discovered — is the same bookseller I had met(!) So now I leave you, dear reader, in the company of our Pakistani writer who will carry you to the second part of the bookseller’s story. You may read Mr Balouch’s delightful piece here, or below:
IT IS RARELY seen that a shopkeeper would splash ink on the name of the shop on the signboard, while leaving the details of the products sold there intact. It sounds strange but believe it or not it is true.
This shop is located in the Urdu Bazar of Karachi. The shop is more known by shopkeeper’s nickname instead of his real name that has been given to him by his fellow shopkeepers. “Abba,” they call him. Who is this witty Abba of the Urdu Bazar?
His name is S. M. Aqeel. He migrated from the Indian area Karnaal to Karachi in 1944. Sometime later he opened up a shack near the Parsi centre where he sold books. He says the shack became a shop when in the days of Ayub Khan his shack was termed an encroachment along with the politics in the country and was demolished. After that, Abba rented a small portion of the Persian restaurant called Jehangir Restaurant, which was affiliated with the Parsi community centre. Abba made a shop out of it, calling it the Tid Bit. He began selling books in Urdu Bazaar in 1985.
I had been thinking of writing on the history of Urdu Bazaar for a while now. I began my research from the Saddar Town Office. It did not prove to be very helpful as the people there had little to share. They suggested I go to Urdu Bazaar and find an old shopkeeper, someone who had been working there for a long time.
I was already a frequent visitor of Fareed Publishers in Urdu Bazaar, the people at the shop and I go way back. And so, I decided to ask around there first. When I visited the shop, I was told that Farid sahib had gone out to a colleague’s funeral and would take a while in returning. His son politely asked if he could be of any help. I shared the purpose of my visit with him. His reply was quite spontaneous. “Meet the Amreekan Waley Abba ji,” he said, giving me the address of Abba’s shop.
When I went to Abba’s shop, he was not there. I asked around and got a mobile phone number. Sitting in the Press Club later that evening, I dialled Abba’s mobile and got a hold of him. We were set to meet the next day at noon.
Making a conscious effort to maintain punctuality, I reached his shop at the decided time. He was not there. I started digging around for books to kill time. A while later, there Abba was standing right in front of me. I introduced myself. He did not say much, and only pointed to the stool he wanted me to be seated on. I silently sat down.
I was still thinking about what my first question should be about when he, in his delicate voice, offered me tea in a manner in which I had never been offered tea my whole life. Instead of asking if I would like to have tea or not the way it is usually asked in urban society, he asked, “Would you take tea with sugar or without?” I told him I do not take tea. His face could be seen turning pale, with expressions arriving and departing rapidly. I could tell he was amazed.
He opened a drawer of his table and took out a pack of smokes, offering me one. I told him I had my own smokes on me. I noticed he was again disappointed. I quickly took the cigarette he held out for me. He lit both our cigarettes and then spoke: “Yes, so tell me now…” I told him about my desire to write on the history of Urdu Bazaar and that I sought his guidance in this regard. He told me the bazaar was initially located near the civil hospital building, whence it was later moved to its current location.
“What was the first name of the bazaar?” I inquired. After a moment of silence, he replied, “I am not aware of that. However, I can try and get it for you.” He then showed me a book about Karachi. A survey of the book let me know it had a lot of information about present-day Karachi. However, it did not touch the pre-partition details of the city.
I was almost disappointed that I would not be able to know much from Abba about Urdu Bazaar. The need to still to carry on with the conversation prompted me to ask him who was responsible for the signboard of the shop on which the name was hidden under ink. He told me he did it himself. “Why?” I asked. “The situation is not good,” was the only reply he gave. I continued: “The situation is not good in the whole of Karachi. Does hiding names under ink make things better?” “It helps avoid trouble,” he replied.
He continued, telling me that he has remained chairman of the Sindh-Balochistan Publishers’ Association for a long time. He said that it was in his days as chairman that many renowned authors and poets were given free tours of India and many other countries on the association’s expense.
He also told me he had participated in book fairs in Saudi Arabia and many other countries. He said it was him who had provided tables for the stalls at the old book bazaar at Regal Chowk. He was also talking about many other achievements. However, my mind was still stuck on how he thought hiding the name of the shop could save the shop from trouble.
As soon as I got the chance I inquired of it again, “All else is fine, sir, but how can a name hidden with ink save the shop?” He then told me that Karachi has a lot of problems; there’s extortionists, then there are terrorists, among other problems.”
He was skipping the real reason. By now I had gotten a little restless, so I asked bluntly: “What is the name of your shop?” He was silent for a few moments. And then said: “American Book Centre.”
I was about to throw the next question when he signalled me to wait. He then continued in heavily Karachi-accented Urdu, “You see, my friend, whenever there is a problem in the city, any turmoil, any protest, whatsoever, they attack McDonald’s or KFC in the first instance. It has happened with my shop many a time. That is why I keep the name of the shop hidden when necessary.”
I asked how many times has he had to hide the name of the shop. “Many a time,” he replied. I asked why did he choose to keep the name in the first place. On this, I could see clearly seen the sarcasm on his face. The smile too was self-explanatory. “Back then, it was alright. Everything was America! Times have changed now.” I suggested to him that he should change the name of the shop once and for all. He agreed, telling me that he was already thinking of it. I asked what name he will choose this time, to which he replied, “A-B-C.”
“I cannot let anyone rob me off my name!” his face now visibly angry. I could feel a smile creeping up somewhere in my thoughts. I was amused at how contradictory this gentleman’s personal dilemma appeared to be.
He was going to change the name of his shop, and yet angry at the thought of being forced to do it. Suddenly, he was aware of my concealed opinion.
For after another repetition of momentary silence, he said: “A-B-C: American Book Centre, my friend!”
The bookseller of Karachi (photos by Akhtar Balouch)