Sajid Baloch, 22, is holding on to two books: In the Shadow of History, a compilation of scholar Dr Mubarak Ali’s articles, and In Search of Solutions: An Autobiography of Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo. Hailing from the Kech district of Balochistan, Sajid is studying history at the University of Balochistan in Quetta. He has come to Book Point, a bookstore located on campus, hoping to cajole its owner Mohammad Essa to give him a discount.
Essa, a pleasant-natured 35-year-old who wears a cap to hide his bald spots, agrees to give Sajid a 25 per cent discount. The bookstore’s owner says he has a special affinity for students hailing from Makran division, of which Kech is also a part. A large number of his customers come from there and he often gives them special concessions. Though he doesn’t say it, he seems grateful to students like Sajid who have kept him in business.
Many bookshops in the city, such as Newsweek Time Bookland on the affluent Jinnah Road locality, haven’t been as fortunate.
At the age of 72, Sohail Ahmed has a childlike smile. He owns one of the oldest bookshops in Quetta: New Quetta Bookstall, established in 1936. Banks have offered him as much as half a million rupees a month in rent for the premises, but he refuses to shut his store. "Saleem Bukhari, the owner of Newsweek Time Bookland, used to tell me not to close my bookshop at any cost,” he recalls. “But he himself gave up and now wants to sell his shop!”
Ahmed then adds as an afterthought, “What else could he (Bukhari) do? He had become senile, one of his sons settled in England and the other in Lahore, his wife also passed away." But more importantly, there was no money to be made.
These days, Ahmed says, hardly any customers come to his bookshop despite the fact it is situated on Quetta's main Jinnah Road which is in the center of city.
Ahmed, however, has persisted for a number of reasons. New Quetta Bookstall was founded by his father, Mohammad Ayub, before Partition. And with Ahmed’s son now taking over, the bookstore is part of their family legacy. The bookstore is also a place for Ahmed’s friends and old colleagues to socialise. Even then, the temptation to give in to offers from banks is never too far. “Had it not been my own shop, I would not have been able to run it. I would have shut it down a long time ago."
Ahmed's son Ali and two other employees are having a discussion in one corner of the single-storey bookstore. No customers walk into the store during the hour that I spend there on a bright June afternoon. "Students from different parts of Balochistan would regularly visit my shop," explains Ahmed. "Now they hardly come. Rather, they do not come at all."
The shrinking clientele of bookstores is attributed to the supposed decline in the culture of reading in Balochistan, which in turn is attributed to the lack of libraries in the province.
There are only two functional libraries in the provincial capital: Quaid-e-Azam Library on Adalat Road in central Quetta and Umeed Public Library in Marriabad in the city's east. Shamim, a bachelor’s student at Government Degree College on Sariab Road in southern Quetta, says he studies in the lawn of Children Hospital Quetta, but is often asked to leave by the hospital’s employees.
But, Imran Jattak, the senior librarian of Quaid-e-Azam Library, which opened earlier this year on Jinnah Road, does not agree with the assertion that people have stopped reading books. He says there are several libraries outside of Quetta and there is still great interest in books, particularly among students. He claims 500 to 600 students visit Quaid-e-Azam Library each day.
Ghulam Ali Baloch, the provincial secretary for culture, tourism and archives, admits the Quaid-e-Azam Library is so crowded that many cannot find a place to sit. He, however, insists the government is making an effort: “There are 16 functional libraries in the province, with 34 others under construction.”
Sajjad Hussain Changezi, 31, a columnist from the Hazara community of Quetta, says the younger members of the Hazara community are avid readers. The community is also running the Umeed Public Library. Changezi, however, feels people now prefer to read books on current affairs and politics as opposed to classic literature.
Dr Shah Mohammad Marri, the author of several books in Urdu, also feels the way people read has changed. "I don’t agree with the hypothesis of the death of reading culture," says the 64-year-old who has around 4,000 books in his personal library. “Maybe you can change the format, like the internet and social media, which have now become the source of books, essays and newspapers. But it’s not that [the practice of] book reading has disappeared in Balochistan."
How can Dr Marri be so confident of books being read in the province? He knows because he gets feedback on his own work. "People do read my books. They appreciate and criticize my books. They respond to me when they go through my books," he says.
Still, he admits bookstores are having a difficult time surviving. He sees three reasons for their decline: deteriorating law and order, alternative sources for reading such as the internet, and the increasing price of books.
The writer is a staffer at daily Dawn