City Landmark – Maktaba Jamia Limited, Urdu Bazar
The book house.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Amid shelves packed tight with books, two men in white kurta-pajama are browsing intently, their bodies barely moving. In a darkened book-lined chamber within, a ladder is going up to an attic. The utmost silence is broken as a woman enters, enquiring for Jaun Eliya’s ghazal collection. Lifting his eyes, the shop’s longtime face instantly nods. He is the venerable Ali Khusro Zaidi. An A4 print of his beloved Faiz poem is neatly spread out along his desk, as it always has.
Maktaba Jamia Limited is alive. A primary destination for Urdu books, the Book House (literal translation!) is teeming with customers this October afternoon. Weeks ago, news of its closure set off a wave of chest beating among the literary-minded citizens. Miscellaneous factors did in fact force the Walled City icon to roll down its shutters, briefly. Whatever, the longevity of a revived Maktaba, founded in 1949, remains as flickery as a candle in the wind. After all it sits in Urdu Bazar, a graveyard of India’s very many pioneering Urdu language bookstores and publishers—such as Azad Kitab Ghar, Central Book Depot, Chaman Book Depot, Deeni Book Depot, Ilmi Kitab Ghar, Kutub Khana Hamidia, Kutub Khana Nazirya, Kutub Khana Rashidia, Lajpat Rai and Sons, Maktaba Akhlaqia, Maktaba Burhan, Maktaba Ishat ul Quran, Maktaba Shah Rah, New Taj Company, Saji Book Depot, and Sangam Kitab Ghar.
Continuing to elude the fate of these vanished landmarks, Maktaba Jamia overlooks a panoramic view of the Jama Masjid. “Sometimes many people visit us in a day, sometimes hardly anybody appears,” says bookseller Zaidi. Administering the shop for 40 years and counting, he identifies poets Iqbal, Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi and Parveen Shakir as the perennial bestsellers. There was a time when the bookstore had its own publishing arm called Liberty Art Press, in nearby Pataudi House. It closed more than 15 years back, says the soft-spoken gent. He soon gets busy with an academic from Bihar who regularly visits to buy a handful of magazines—Aaj Kal, Aiwan-e-Urdu and Naya Warak, the new issue of which has writer Sagar Sarhadi on the cover. Settling down on a chair, the academic wistfully gazes at a facing shelf in which one of the bulkier spines shows the familiar profile of poet-emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Governed by a board, the shop has three more branches: at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in the south of the city (the university’s vice-chancellor is the board’s chairperson), at Shamshad Market in Aligarh, and near JJ Hospital in Mumbai. The Urdu Bazar’s Maktaba without doubt ought to be the most poignant of them all—it is next to Maktaba Akhlaqia bookstore, which today happens to be Tasty Chicken Corner.