The Bookseller in Karachi

This is a wonderful article i came across today, and it goes with the recent discussion on books we’ve been having her and here.

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, Pakistan, 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.

[This article was originally published in the website Pakistan Paindabad]

14 Comments so far

  1. Adnan Siddiqi (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 3:34 pm

    Mansoor’s attempt to make readers[and his friends] of this blog to forget his ignorant anti-Mullah side [a failed attempt]. His two[intresting] posts within 24 hours of his anti-Mullah post is the example that how desperate he is to make readers to move on and forget his dark side :-)

    Good post Mansoor. I[anyone] will always appreciate anything which is sensible and mature.

  2. mansoor (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 3:40 pm

    adnan: lol! as always, no hard feelings :)

  3. Adnan Siddiqi (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 3:44 pm

    as always, no hard feelings

    yeah as always ,you made another attempt to talk lie :-)

  4. Mayank Austen Soofi (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 3:52 pm

    Hello Readers,
    It is good to see my articles being read in Karachi. I wonder if people will like to share their views and articles on Pakistan Paindabad.
    Thank-you Mansoor!
    Mayank Austen Soofi

  5. Mayank Austen Soofi (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 3:53 pm

    Hello Readers,
    It is good to see my articles being read in Karachi. I wonder if people will like to share their views and articles on Pakistan Paindabad.
    Thank-you Mansoor!
    Mayank Austen Soofi

  6. mansoor (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 3:57 pm

    mayank: you are welcome. Your blog is on blogger beta, and that prohibits a lot of us from commenting directly there (blogger beta IP being banned in pakistan and all)

  7. MB (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 5:14 pm

    Alas, that’s why i had said in that post. Book reading culture is towards its death. This man just proved it to all. And it’s not the matter of just one incident. Every person who reads books comes up arguing that with old stupid logic “if you don’t read it doesn’t mean others don’t as well”. There are many things one can observe standing out as well. The death of book reading being one.

  8. fAr stAr (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 5:42 pm

    the book reading worms can only be implanted in early age i.e. during the school life. but the way of education don’t assist one bit in creating the book reading habit. Students hardly read the textbooks, forget any other type. Even the parents r reluctant to give money to their children for buying books, instead they buy them a playstation CD or anything else but not a book.
    the lower class; they don’t have enough resources and to make reading a habit or hobby.
    the middle class; they r so much involve in earning better lives that they can’t find any time to read anything except newspapers.
    the upper class; they do buy books and most of them might have quite a good collection of books, but its only to showcase their scholarly and artistic image.

  9. Arsalaan Haleem (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 5:55 pm

    Quite an interesting read…….alas, the book reading culture is DEAD among us…..lets all recite fateha for it.

  10. wasiq (unregistered) on January 20th, 2007 @ 3:24 am


  11. anon_again (unregistered) on January 20th, 2007 @ 3:24 am

    still remember tid bits… used to be a favorite with our family dating back to the eighties and even before… as well as some places in bahadurabad…

  12. turab (unregistered) on January 20th, 2007 @ 1:17 pm

    great post mayank, and it really saddens me to see the demise of reading culture in our society where the emphasis is on high grades thru ratafication or any other means…. reading anything can enlighten a person even if it has to be rushdie’s books…

  13. tooba (unregistered) on January 21st, 2007 @ 6:46 pm

    i have never been to khori garden myself but ive heard k its one place for classic second hand books, and u might even chance upon a rare piece on a lucky day…
    …but its just too sad to see such a thing dying in our city and then the govt doesnt even help, instead of facilitating the Frere Hall book bazaar, wo american counslate ki security ki nazar hoagaya!!

  14. ash (unregistered) on January 22nd, 2007 @ 9:20 am

    “Mansoor’s attempt to make readers[and his friends] of this blog to forget his ignorant anti-Mullah side [a failed attempt]. His two[intresting] posts within 24 hours of his anti-Mullah post is the example that how desperate he is to make readers to move on and forget his dark side :-)
    [/kidding]” by adnan
    its one thing to be wrong or to have a different opinion, but your level of childishness is ridiculous. Have the dignity to be embarrassed of yourself.

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