Tapestry

Books don’t grow on trees

Published 27 Mar, 2015 01:35pm

Next time you log on to the internet, type in www.bookshelfporn.com What will appear on your screen is certain to leave you breathless. A stunning collection of images, hundreds of them from all over the world, with the most creatively designed bookshelves stacked with books. The sight could leave bibliophiles among us salivating. Seeing such collections, in person, is certainly even more mesmerising. Once past the anxiety of being surrounded by thousands of books that one never made time for, the distinct, musty scent of old books, their soft pages and blunt edges that guarantee a paper-cut-free experience, clothed in faded covers, evoke a sense of nostalgia.

Booksellers line a footpath with books at Regal Chowk, Karachi. Photos by Tahir Jamal / White Star
Booksellers line a footpath with books at Regal Chowk, Karachi. Photos by Tahir Jamal / White Star

Personal libraries are extraordinary things. Bibliophiles, however, are a dying breed. An even rarer sight would be their lifelong collections surviving them — a task near impossible in the world of Kindle and e-books, the ever-expanding social media and, last but certainly not the least, inflation. Books, after all, do not grow on trees. All these factors are blamed as the harbingers of doom for books, bookshelves and bibliophiles.

The impact of inflation on book buying habits is nowhere more apparent than in Urdu Bazaar in downtown Karachi. A walk through its narrow lanes reveals a distinct lack of buyers in the market, with just a few browsing books here and there. “People don’t read books anymore,” says Muhammad Yasin, a man in his 60s, who runs a bookshop in Urdu Bazaar. “Inflation has increased so much that people can either afford to buy books or have meals,” he says.

In such inflationary times, the cost of maintaining personal libraries has also escalated — in many cases having become too steep to be borne. So, once the original collectors are not around anymore, their families feel compelled to sell those books, mostly to the vendors of old books and, in worse instances, as trash.

Fearing that his collection may meet a similar fate, Shahab Jamaluddin Nizami is doing something unusual. “I am selling my own books,” he tells the Herald at his bookstall at Karachi’s Frere Hall Sunday book bazaar. He says he put together a collection of 4,000 books, buying them from warehouses or stumbling upon them at shops selling old books. His books are in tatters; most of them faded, some temporarily bound with paper and staples, but they include a few gems like a copy of Deewan-e-Ghalib printed in 1930s by the Lahore-based publishing house Taj Company, otherwise known for publishing copies of the Quran. He believes selling his collection is the best possible way of passing his books on to enthusiasts like him at reasonable prices — and to also earn some extra cash in the bargain.

The Sunday book bazaar at Frere Hall
The Sunday book bazaar at Frere Hall

Dr Altaf, a regular visitor at the Frere Hall book bazaar, similarly sold 20,000 books he had collected in an earlier part of his life before leaving for the United States many years ago. “I knew my wife and children have no interest [in books], so what could I have done?” he says. Others either donate their collections to established institutes, such as libraries, or are fortunate to have children who continue to look after them. Dr Kaleemur Rehman’s personal collection of 2,000 books falls under the first category. Rusted chains keep these books gathering dust locked inside cabinets at the English Department library of the University of Karachi. The librarian, Sayeda Saira, chuckles sheepishly as she runs off to look for a dust-cloth. “We do not have enough funds to maintain the collection to the extent that we’d like to,” she says.

Rehman once taught at the same department of the university. It was after his death, in 2004, that his family donated his books to the library. With his children all settled overseas, this seemed like the most practical option, and one that could be helpful for students at the university. The collection, which includes encyclopedias, fiction, non-fiction as well as books on religion, philosophy, and travel, however, rests at the back of the library virtually unused. The last time one of these books was issued to someone was in 2006. Saira explains that the reason why students are not getting books from the collection to read is that she has disallowed taking them out of the library so that they are not mishandled.

Shelves stacked with books at the Liaquat Memorial Library in Karachi
Shelves stacked with books at the Liaquat Memorial Library in Karachi

Regardless of what happens to the books in a library, such donations are quite in vogue. At Liaquat Memorial Library (LML), the biggest public library in Karachi, more people are giving away books than reading them. “We have had people coming in and donating books in various quantities. Sometimes they have hundreds of books, and sometimes just a few,” says Bashir Ahmed Abro, the director of the library.

Dr Muhammad Ramzan, director of the library at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), says donations have been a major source of procuring books for the LUMS library. “Out of a total of 240,000 printed books and documents available at the library, we have received 170,000 books as donations,” he tells the Herald. “One of the biggest donations came from late [jurist] Khalid Ishaque’s family, of more than 100,000 books,” he says. The university has also received books from industrialist and LUMS founder Syed Babar Ali, Justice (retd) Zaki ud Din Pal, Professor Linda Walbridge and Barrister Ijaz Batalvi, among others.

With a capacity to accommodate 500 readers a day, and over 200,000 books in its stock, the LML could easily serve as a great research facility with its massive collection of reference books and journals. But Abro says there are virtually no readers around to benefit from what the library can offer. “People come here to prepare for examinations or read newspapers. They don’t borrow books anymore or do research work.” Similarly, according to a researcher working at LUMS, “There are very few in Lahore who are book readers, and even at LUMS, I hardly see students around the campus reading anything that is not prescribed in their courses.”

Ramzan, however, insists that the demand for books is not declining because there are fewer readers around. “The format of reading is changing as the medium of capturing and transmission of knowledge is changing, and this has been happening since the early ages of writing and reading,” he says.

Zaheer Kidvai displaying his copy of ‘Sangit of India’, a book written by Atiya Begum
Zaheer Kidvai displaying his copy of ‘Sangit of India’, a book written by Atiya Begum

Zaheer Alam Kidvai, who advises universities on curriculum and methods of instruction, explains this evolution further when he says writing – as well as reading – have moved over the millennia from tablets to manuscripts to printed books to e-books and audiobooks. “Books will continue to evolve in shape, size and medium, and publishers, writers and readers will adopt these changes as time progresses.”

What about billions of printed books still found across the world? Does evolution mean that they be destroyed? This brings into picture those who would preserve books merely for the love of books, which is what Shahida Daultana and her husband, Mahmood Khuhro, are doing. Against many odds, they are determined to keep alive the personal collection of books left behind by their fathers and forefathers. Daultana’s father, late Mian Mumtaz Daultana, the former chief minister of Punjab, left his collection of 7,251 books to his grandson.

Shahida Daultana and Mahmood Khuhro are determined to keep alive the personal collection of books left behind by their fathers and forefathers
Shahida Daultana and Mahmood Khuhro are determined to keep alive the personal collection of books left behind by their fathers and forefathers

The entire collection was shifted to Karachi from Lahore. It was much sought after both by collectors and institutions, recalls Daultana, but her son insisted on keeping it and preserving it in their house, where most of it is still in a mountain of cartons. Some of the books have been taken out and arranged in shelves. “It is a marathon task,” says Daultana, talking about the need to have shelves in place for stacking all the books in them. A fan of Rumi, she also has her own collection of books on Sufism in a small study upstairs. Khuhro, also an avid reader, started collecting books during his days at Oxford, and shifted them to Pakistan from London in 10 cartons. His collection is stacked comfortably in a cosy library on the ground floor of their house. Among his prized possessions is a rare collector’s item titled A View of India, a collection of sketches of historical sites in the Subcontinent, which is in pristine condition, as are all the other books in his collection.

For now, there is no question about donating their collections or selling them off. They hope to keep these books in the family, which does not seem to be too much of a trouble for them, considering how well they have preserved their ancestors’ other possessions. Khuhro points at a framed sword hanging above a bookshelf. “That belonged to my great-great grandfather. It was given to him by [Mughal emperor] Akbar,” he says.

For most others with similar inheritance, pulling such a feat off would be a Herculean task. “Some people say they love the feel of books and paper. Well, others love the feel of money,” explains Kidvai, who at 72 years of age spends most of his time looking after his own collection of 5,000 books. “My daughter doesn’t want me to give away any of my books but, frankly, it is impractical not to. I asked her to pick up what she wants and take it with her,” he tells the Herald, sitting in his library, lined with books, music albums, and photographs. The rest he plans to donate to T2F (The second floor), a non-profit institution promoting artistic, literary, and cultural activities, which he co-founded and helps run in Karachi. Of course, there is no guarantee if anyone will read them there — thanks to what he calls the “evolution of books”.