Saturday, December 23, 2006

Adventures in Pakistan: The Book Seller of Karachi

Sparks fly as a young book lover from India meets a moody Pakistani bookseller
[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

The author had made a trip to Karachi in April, 2006.

A small, dark, moldy shop, it was in Saddar - across the street from De Paris, my 273-rupees-a-day hotel in Karachi.

Despite its KFC, Pizza Hut and Atrium Mall, Saddar had the appearance of an oriental bazaar where all the jewelry stores were lined on one street; garment shops in the other and photo studios in yet another. The pavements were taken over by handsome Afghani beggars in greasy black shalwar-kameeze. A busy avenue choked with colorful buses — so unique of Pakistan -- sliced through the heart of the bazaar dividing it into two neat halves.

The Discovery

I had chanced upon it while searching for an inexpensive eatery in the merciless afternoon heat of Karachi. An old man, in a dark-brown formal suit, without a tie, was sitting in a wooden chair. Several stacks of old books were piled up carelessly on his desk, in the book shelves that hid the walls, and on the floor.

It was inviting and the gentleman nodded at me to step in. The eyes blinked as they adjusted to the gloominess of a sole electric bulb glowing faintly from the ceiling. The air, wet with the musty smell of books, dust and dead insects, was cool. I was pleased. Second hand bookshops are forever pregnant with the joyful expectation of spotting books whose existence one was never aware of but which happened to be exactly the very books that one had wanted all his life.

But alas, this was not that kind of establishment. The seemingly old books, suitably torn, were not very old. Most disappointingly, there were thick stacks of Danielle Steels and Robert Ludlums toppling over one another.

The Dejection

Pakistan was disappointing. It was my fifth day in the country and I failed to find even a single decent bookshop. A well-meaning acquaintance had suggested visiting Urdu Bazaar but that was cluttered with unhappy rubbles of pirated Sidney Sheldons and John Grishams, apart from xeroxed school books!

Nobody reads in Pakistan, or so it seemed. Even the newspapers were not easily accessible and if one did manage to spot them in the stalls, they were so expensively priced that it was better to read on internet.

The Dialogue

"What you looking for?" The old man said as I turned to leave.

"Ummm... some nice old book... umm... have you any old edition of Jane Austen?" I asked with no hope.

He shook his head.

Suddenly, on my right, I spotted an antique-looking hardbound with a dirt-green cloth cover. It was Wuthering Heights! I took it out and flipped through the yellowed pages. Yes, it smelled nice and looked romantic. Blood rushed into my head. Heart started palpitating, hands shivered, eyes twitched and cheeks reddened. I attempted to conceal my excitement from the gentleman. These booksellers are shrewd people. What if he sensed my excitement and hiked up the price.

But oh! The book was published in 1964. It was not old.

"Actually Sir, I need to take a memento from Pakistan. I wish to buy some good book before leaving."

"Are you from India?" He lifted his eyes.

"Yes, from Delhi."

Straightening up, he said, “Well, well, please look around. I'm sure you will find some book. You a student?”

"No." This was embarrassing. "I work. I have a job."

A silence followed in which I tried to find some worthwhile volume, but in vain.

"But Sir, do not you have any old Shakespeare? Or a cookbook? Some handsome copy of Pride and Prejudice hidden somewhere? Perhaps some thing on Afghanistan or Khyber Pass?” I was hungry for a book.

The man looked sad. "Nobody read anymore. Karachi has changed. Your country is growing fast while we are going down." He clicked his tongue.

I smiled. "Sir, if reading is the criteria then even my country is under-developed."

"No, it is not that.” He shot back. “Hindustan has big publishing companies of world standard. Bookshops are thriving. We are no competition. 'Til the '90s, there were eight excellent book shops in this circle of Saddar itself but they shut down one by one. Nothing’s left now."

The Intimacy

If there would have been a window around, it is certain that at this point the despairing 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 classic I'm looking for. I had got it from Delhi's Sunday Book bazaar for just 20 rupees."

"Really? You are fortunate.” He was amused. “But why you carrying it here?"

"Well… uhh... actually Mansfield is my most beloved Jane Austen and this is my most cherished copy and well... uhhh... I do not feel secure without it." I mumbled.

The gentleman leafed through the pages. Suddenly standing up and hunching forward on the desk, he said, "I want to embrace you son. After a long time I have met someone so passionate about books. You have no idea how happy I am.” His eyes were moist and I was taken aback by the unexpected informality.

The gentleman appeared to be lost in memories. "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 Amrika..." There was a pause before he resumed. "...Some years back he suddenly 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..."

I was uncomfortable and did not know what to say. The bookseller soon recollected himself 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. Fuck you.)

The Awkwardness

The gentleman settled back. Resting his head against the chair, he said, "You would have been dazzled by Karachi 30 years back. It was better then your Delhi and Bombay. But now… so many problems." He spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders.

"It is not that bad, sir. Karachi is an interesting city. I really liked the Clifton beach." Reeling under the spell of his kind compliments, I tried to utter all the polite things.

No response issued.

"But there is much poverty around," I said, and immediately wished to take my words back.

"Uh? You really think so?" The old man moved his head down, rolled his big round eyes, and stared at me. "You don’t know anything. Karachi has lots of money. We have people whose wealth is greater than your country's total GDP. But bastards have ruined this city. My Karachi..." He sighed.

I was intimidated. Just then a boy entered and the tea was served.

The Unease

The milky brew made me feel at home. This place had no good books, yet it was enchanting. I wanted to lay 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 5,000 books."

He was not impressed. "I can take you to people whose libraries are larger than your entire house!"

Misinterpreting his words as playful banter, I challenged, "Oh, is it so? Then take me there."

He remained quiet and looked irritated.

The Farewell

While leaving, I noticed a red-colored book dumped 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 & white picture of a young Princess Elizabeth with her corgi. The bookseller asked for 40 rupees. I didn't engage in any bargaining.

"I like you boy," he said as I shook his hands.

"If I were staying for a longer period I would have visited you everyday." These were my final words.

Emerging into the blinding white light of Karachi, I looked back to have a last look at the bookseller. He was on phone. I think he had already dismissed me from his memory.

A board outside read: The Tid Bits Book Shop.


Anonymous said...

As with any large city with a myriad of problems, book sellers are forgotten but not non-existent. You just need to know where to look.

The shop you mentioned isn't "Tid Bits" but rather "Tit Bits". I used to visit it quite regularly when I was younger but now, there are so many more (better) options available. Did you go to the Rex Cinema and Hassan Square book sellers? They always seem to have the oldest books. And how about the Weekly Sunday Book Bazaar at the Arts Center?

If you had, I'm sure you wouldn't have been disappointed. Perhaps on your next trip :)

alizaki (at)

Mayank Austen Soofi said... it was “Tit Bits” and not “Tid Bits”? Thanks for correcting me, Zaki. But it won’t be wise to make the correction in the original piece. Please understand that “The Book Seller of Karachi” was not a report but a travel account – based on a recollection.

No one, neither residents nor travelers, can accurately define a place, or draw the perfect sketch of a city, society, or country. Profiles and portraits are more often the creations of the imagination, prejudices and ignorance of the profiler. The above reflection is my interpretation and if it’s false or unfair, let it be. That was what I saw, thought, and felt at that time.

In the next trip to Karachi, I hope to visit all the bookshops you have mentioned.

Perhaps even those you don't know of!