Daily Times: Sunday, December 03, 2006

Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore’s Old Bookshops

By A Hamid

Lahore is a city of bookshops. If you are looking for a book, no matter what the subject, you will find it here. You want to read books on Islam, history, sex, psychology, romance or crime, you will not be disappointed if you are prepared to look around. The rarest book that none of the grand bookshops will have, you will find on one of the city’s footpaths. In Lahore, more books are sold on the footpath than in bookshops. Some vendors hawk their books on wheel barrows. You can even hire books, or buy them on an instalment plan.

I know of a publisher who has no fixed place of business but who is in the trade. I know because he published two of my books. One contract we signed as we sat on a bench next to a cigarette and betel leaf stand. Another was signed bang in front of the Lahore zoo on the Mall. He would pay me my royalties piecemeal, but these were not regular payments on a set or given date. The way it worked was quite amusing. I would run into him in a restaurant, a park or somewhere else and he would pull out some money from his pocket and slip it into mine. “This is the third instalment,” he would say. Once I was watching a movie in a darkened cinema house when someone crawled up to my seat and put money in my pocket. “This is the sixth instalment,” he whispered and walked away on tiptoe, keeping his head down. How he found me, remains a mystery. But nothing beats what happened next. I was walking in the funeral procession of a relation of mine when making his way through the bereaved party, he put a fistful of banknotes in my pocket with the announcement that it was the last instalment. The he stepped forward to relieve one of the pall-bearers.

People not only read books in Lahore, they also hear them. In the city’s Hazoori Bagh and the grassy plots in front of Lohari and Mochi Gates, you can get your head massaged, the wax in your ear removed or have a book read. You will find the storyteller or dastaan-go sitting in a chair and reading an Islamic historical novel in a highly dramatic manner. The listeners sit around in a circle and are utterly absorbed in the heroic deeds of the warrior prince who is riding a white charger, a sword in one hand and a copy of the Quran in the other. In front of the Lahore Railway Station, there are two roads, both of which take you to Landa Bazar, the used clothes’ market. One road goes past Masjid Shaheed Ganj and is broad compared with the other which is quite narrow. On this road, there used to be a sign over a bookshop saying: Seth Adamjee and Sons, Publishers and Booksellers. Seth Adamjee and Sons published books with such titles as Behram the Dacoit, The Wily Spy and Feroz the Brigand. Books published by this house were sent to other cities by the sackful, especially to small towns where there was always a flourishing market for such stuff. I recall my friend Qamar Taskeen and I once being offered tea at this bookshop. Seth Adamjee was a slim, middle-aged man who always had jaunty Turkish cap on his head.

Just inside Lohari Gate, there used to be a small shop in a basement that housed a small publishing operation specialising in fairy tales for children. The average book was 40 to 50 pages long and the titles invariably showed blood-curdling images of ghosts or witches. My younger brother, who was an artist, designed some of the covers, for each of which he was paid five rupees. One day, he went to the publisher with four cover designs of a particularly lurid kind. Just around this time, the flagship Urdu literary journa, Naqoosh, had produced a number whose cover was a fine example of abstract art. The publisher took one look at my brother’s designs and said, “I am told the recent issue of Naqoosh bears a most chilling cover. Take a look at it and see what you can come up with.”

In those days, Lahore’s old bookshops also served as gathering places for intellectuals and writers. While publishers of classic works were to be found inside Delhi Gate, in Dabbi Bazar and Kashmiri Bazar there was a string of less specialised bookshops that have since disappeared. Outside Lohari Gate, there were a number of Hindu-owned shops, including Messers Babu Ram Datta Mal & Sons, the publisher of the popular detective novels of Teerath Ram Ferozpuri, much of whose work was made up of translations from English originals. He had rendered several volumes of The Mysteries of London in Urdu, and all of them had appeared under the imprint of Messers Babu Ram Datta Mal & Sons. These books were bestsellers but I doubt if you would find even a single copy of any of them anywhere today.

In Dabbi Bazar there was a bookshop that sold both Urdu and Punjabi books. Its owner was a very dignified-looking gentleman whose full name I can no longer remember, except that he was called Malik sahib . He was blind but he only had to touch a book on his shelves and tell you what it was. A customer would come and say, “I want Shah Hashim’s poetry, his dohas.” Malik sahib would get up from his cushion, move to a shelf and pull out the required volume. It was said – though I cannot authenticate the story - that in the old days, Allama Muhammad Iqbal would sometimes visit the place and sit on one of the cane settees that had been thoughtfully placed in front of the bookshop for just such distinguished gentlemen.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan came to Lahore to collect donations for the Aligarh college, During a conversation with a group of people that had come to see him, one person rose and asked Sir Sayed in a most reverential tone, “Maulana, we hear you are going to go to the Shahi Mohalla, the singing women’s bazar, to collect funds for your college. You shouldn’t do that because what you are engaged in is a sacred mission.” Sir Syed is said to have replied, “Dear brother, the college for which I am collecting funds will also need to build bathrooms, so don’t you worry; the money I collect from that bazar, I will ensure is spent on the construction of those bathrooms.”

A. Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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