Childhood memories of a bookshop now in ashes

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Jun 5 , 2012


For a whole week the fire that has ravaged the famous Lahore bookshop, Ferozsons, refuses to die out. From the basement billows smoke. Firemen from five major fire stations sit tired on the pavement outside.

The blaze that has completely destroyed the largest and best-known Lahore bookshop has taken with it the memories of hundreds of thousands of book readers over several generations, all of whom grew up searching for books along its numerous aisles. This institution in the famous Ghulam Rasool Building, a colonial-era masterpiece, is a far greater dent to Lahore’s psyche than most are willing to accept. On Monday afternoon, eight days after the fire started, smoke still billows forth from numerous holes made in the cellars roof. Above the entire building has collapsed. All around are charred remains of what was once, to us, ‘nirvana’.

Let us take a look at three aspects of this great loss to Lahore. One, the building and its history. Second, the bookshop and its history. Thirdly, the circumstances surrounding the biggest fire to hit Lahore after the terrible events of 1947. In the end we can muse about the future.

The Ghulam Rasool Building was completed in 1916 and was the property of one of the richest tycoons of the city. His full name was Haji Chaudhary Ghulam Rasool Tarar. He belonged to the village of Koulo Tarar in Hafizabad district. In the events of 1857 he played a major role in assisting the British overcome his own countrymen. In return he was amply rewarded. He acquired a major landholding in his village, and to Lahore he came with a mission, to rebuild the mausoleum of Shah Meran Zanjani. On his way to the city he lost the four lakh rupees he had brought along. He went to the shrine of Ali Hajweri, known as Data Sahib and prayed for forgiveness, and, so it is claimed, he found his lost treasure.

With this treasure he built the five-domed mosque of Data Darbar, as well as the main green dome over the saint’s grave, the one that still stands. In return he had a dream that he would be rewarded in this world as well as the next, and would be allowed to be buried on the right side of the saint himself. When Ghulam Rasool Tarar died in 1925, he was buried to the west of the ‘chilla’ of Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti next to the grave of Ali Hajweri.

In life he acquired great wealth and was the major donor to building the pavilion and statue of Queen Victoria at the Assembly Square. He also, from his own money, built the building on Queen’s Road – Fatima Jinnah Road – donated to St.

John’s Ambulance, which became the Red Cross and is now known as the Red Crescent Building. It was decreed to remain in perpetuity ‘rent-free’. He acquired a major portion of The Mall and owned 50 kanals of Victoria Park. But his masterpiece was the building named after him. The architect remains unknown, though it is classified as a ‘protected’ monument and a classic colonial-era building.

The design is unique in that it has five modules, each with a 36 inch wall separating them. This makes each module fire-proof in case one does occur in any of the five modules. The central module holds the staircase. Ferozsons is located in the fourth to the right module. Today it is completely burned down, its wood beam roof in ashes, the ground floor destroyed and the strong cellar still not being penetrated even by experienced firemen. The millions of rupees of books still burn away.

Now about Ferozsons. This family of booksellers started business in 1894. The origins of Maulvi Ferozuddin are a wee bit obscure. It is said that he worked in the Royal Mint as a printer. Another version says he managed to acquire a sack full of fake banknotes during the revolutionary era that preceded the events in which Bhagat Singh was hanged. Fake money was seen as a means of destroying the local economy. But then each story is juicier than the last.

What we do know is that they started work in Kashmiri Bazaar in a small shop that specialised in handcrafted and leather-bound book produced in the Mosque of Wazir Khan. It must go to the credit of Maulvi Ferozuddin that he and his sons managed to set up a book shop that today has five branches in Lahore, one in Karachi and yet another one in Rawalpindi. Their main one on The Mall was the largest in the country, a place where every student just had to visit once to find their favourite books.

The circumstances surrounding the fire have given rise to wild theories. The rescue men at the site claim that a generator placed on the roof exploded and its oil trickled down to the ground floor getting into the cellar, which is a massive three kanal hall full of hundreds of thousands of books. Another theory is that the generator was in the cellar, and given the heat it exploded. The starting point is the generator. If it was on the weak tin roof, or in the cellar, in both cases it was a very irresponsible act and an awkward place to keep it.

Then we know that given so much paper and glue, and given the bone-dry conditions, and given the dark inaccessible cellar, it was the ideal conditions for a fire to keep blazing for weeks on end. That is exactly what has happened.

Now comes the ‘mystery fire’ theory. Most people think the fire was deliberately started. I immediately contacted to top insurance friend from my school and college days, and he informed me, much to his satisfaction, that his company had not insured Ferozsons. It was insured with Jubilee to the tune of Rs50 million. I immediately contacted an employee of Ferozsons, who informed me in confidence that books well over Rs250 million were stored there.

But this was not enough. I contacted a printer friend who analysed the loss and said that the cost price of the probable store, which he has seen for himself, and mind you he is an expert in book costing, and his view was that the entire loss in book alone was well over Rs170 million. But then he says that the collection of classic pens alone must be over Rs20 million. So here we have a confirmed insurance of Rs50 million, and a probable loss of well over Rs150 million. My insurance expert says the owners will have to take a loss of well over Rs120 million. So the ‘mystery fire’ theory is absolute bunk.

Given all this information I went to meet Mr Akram Chowdhry on Monday afternoon. He has an amazing resemblance to his two famous brothers, the actor Aslam Pervez and the famous painter Moin Najmi, all grandsons of Haji Chowdhry Ghulam Rasool Tarar of Koulo Tarar, Hafizabad, and one of the richest men of his times. The properties of Ghulam Rasool are all locked in a ‘Waqf-ul-Aulad’ and cannot be sold. The entire family of this famous property owner enjoys the rent of the property.

How will the post-blaze era play out for Ferozsons? Will they compensate the building owners for the immense loss to a ‘protected’ property? Will the damage be conserved? Will Ferozsons continue to pay a mere Rs45,000 per month in rent (so claims the owner) against a reasonable market value of at least Rs500,000 a month? Will this blaze lead to litigation? The future promises to be murky, of this there is no doubt. But Lahore has lost an institution of considerable merit. It makes sense for the authorities to sit down with all the parties to avoid lengthy litigation and restore the bookshop to its old glory.




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