A childhood spent in the libraries of Quetta
Stories from an attic: A childhood
spent in the libraries of Quetta
‘Imran’ series by Ibn-e-Safi.
The writer who came a distant second was a gentleman Akram Allahabadi with his Superintendent Khan and Inspector Balay series. Some connoisseurs of detective fiction, fearful of the Ibn-e-Safi supporters, would whisper in my ears that Akram Allahabadi was actually better than Ibn-e-Safi.
The muaashrati (social) and romaani (romantic) books were the other most popular class. Actually, the line between the social and the romantic books was often blurry. The delicious mixture of soft romance, celebration of lofty traditional values, and attempts at moral reform was easy to digest and the works of writers like A.R. Khatoon and Razia Butt were read in most the middle class homes. These books specially found their way into the hearts of housewives. Much later, some books by A. R. Khatoon, like Shama, became very popular TV serials.
For a small town, Quetta had a good share of bookshops and lending libraries. The ‘Tawakkul Library’, located at the border between the city and the cantonment was the primary source of book rentals for all age groups.
Lending libraries were known in those days as “Anna libraries”, since the standard daily rental for a book was one Anna or one-16th of a Rupee.
Flanked by ‘Banday Khan Ladies Hair Dresser’ and some other shop, the library was a simple one-room shop with an attic. The attic was covered with a curtain and there was no visible access to it. The books were lined up in the shelves with some order that could not be fathomed. All records pertaining to the issue and return of a book were entered in a large-size register.
Musa, the owner of Tawakkul Library, was a man of about 30 years of age. He had a very pleasant countenance and made everyone entering the library comfortable, with his cheerful banter. Rounds of strong sweet tea were served endlessly.
Musa’s main love in life, though, was neither books nor business but watching English movies. Turning up for the first show of a new movie was like a religion for him. He would fight like a lion at the ticket window to get a ticket for the first show or, in the event of a failure, buy it from a black marketer at an exorbitant price – particularly if it was a blockbuster like Samson and Delilah or Ben Hur.
Such was Musa’s grasp of English movies that even though he did not know the language, library members would come to him, even if they had a Masters in English, to discuss any complex parts of a movie that they had not understood. Musa explained it to them with good humour and cheer and they all went back edified.
I was 10 years old when I became a member of this elite library of Quetta, and remained a loyal customer until I left Quetta, at the age of 15. Musa always greeted me with, “Welcome, chottay mian!” in line with my tender age. Looking back, I realise the important formative influence that the books of Tawakkul Library had on my intellectual and personal development.
In those days, books were written for either children or for adults. There was nothing specifically for a teenager or a young adult. Tawakkul Library introduced me to full-fledged adult books. I am not sure whether it was a good or bad thing, but it was both exciting and confusing at the same time.
I was most fascinated by the attic in the shop. One day, after much pleading, I got the permission from Musa to venture into the attic. It was then that I found out that the access was by means of a bamboo ladder. The rather rickety ladder was placed and I climbed up with some trepidation, parted the curtains gingerly and stepped into a dark space.
I found the light switch and flipped it. A single naked bulb shone. The attic was full of books and magazines, some of the mildly adult variety. This was a brave new world for a 12-year-old kid. It was there that I discovered the first (and the last) Urdu magazine on sex education. It was called Khizr-e-Rah (Guide to the Path).
The magazine was an interesting mix of the profane and the profound. There were some serious articles on human sexuality mixed with some interesting images. I remember well, that I stayed up there in the attic for so long that Musa got concerned and called me to come down. I complied and came down, but unknown to him, there was a copy of the magazine tucked under my shirt.
I not only borrowed books for myself but also for my mother. It was detective novels for me and romantic / social / reform mélange novels for my mother. Since the guiding principle in our house was to utilise the full value of the rental money, I read my story books, as well as the books meant for my mother and she helped herself to my detective novels.
While Tawakkul remained the largest lending library in Quetta, a much smaller library opened up in our neighbourhood. There was a small cardboard sign on the entrance of a small and humble house that said “Naeem Library: House of quality books”.
It was, as the name claimed, located in a small house. I was one of its first and most likely the youngest member. The small living room doubled up as the library. There were three bookshelves lined with Urdu novels and magazines.
The owner of the library was a Mr Naeem, who held some junior administrative position in a government office. Mr Naeem was a reader-owner and had decided to put out his vast collection of literature towards the cause of public learning and private profits.
He had clearly read every book in his library. I would often find him eagerly discussing some book or the other with a friend with great animation. My introduction to raunchy Urdu literature owes to these conversations. Books of such nature were delicately categorised as “jazbaati”, which translates as “emotional”, though the main thrust of such books was of course, physical.
Naeem Library was a homely place. Sometimes, when Mr Naeem was not around, Mrs Naeem would conduct business from behind a curtain that divided the library from the kitchen. Since I was just a kid, sometimes Mrs Naeem would feel free to come out from behind the curtain to chat with me or give me a sweet or two.
Tawakkul and Naeem libraries were owned by book lovers and were thus spaces where book lovers could relax while browsing books, or gettin involved in conversations with the owner or other customers. For a kid, these were perfect places for eavesdropping on adult conversations. I would often see unusual characters and hear conversations that I would not, at home.
The adults never noticed the kid and talked freely, unaware that their conversation was being mentally recorded to be played back at home to my siblings with great hilarity!
The procedure for becoming a member was nothing more than providing an address and paying Rs5 refundable deposit for Tawakkul, and just Rs2 for the humbler Naeem library
This traditional atmosphere of congeniality and learning was severely disturbed when a new kid on the block appeared by way of Jaffer Library. The eponymous owner Mr Jaffer was a grouchy and money-minded man who had no interest in books and learning, and showed no respect to the members.
He was also rather unreasonably proud of his meager collection of books. When I inquired what kind of books his library carried, he seemed quite annoyed at my impertinence and reeled off in anger, “Romani hai, jassosi hai, tareekhi hai, maasrahti hai, jazbati hai, sub kuch hai!” He was referring to the collection of the romantic, detective, historical, social and emotional books he carried.
He then went on to inform me that there was Rs25 deposit required for membership. This was a large chunk of money back then. I went home glumly and told my mother who was livid and flatly refused to comply with such an outrageous demand. She was convinced that Mr Jaffer would abscond with the money. Mr Jaffer thus lost a valuable customer due to his intransigence and greed.
Two genres of books were the staple of the lending libraries. The most popular among men and boys were the detective stories. The most famous writer in those days was the redoubtable Ibn-e-Safi. He typically managed to write a book a month. His detectives Col. Afridi and Capt. Hameed were truly cosmopolitan characters who were as well-versed in the art of crime detection as they were in partying with beautiful Eurasian girls. A few sips of whiskey or some beer imbibed at Hotel d’ France were par for the course in these novels.
His other famous creation was the ace detective Ali Imran, M.A., PhD (Oxon). Imran’s signature method was to act like an idiot thus fooling the criminals (somehow they were all Chinese) who let down their guard only to be captured in a swift action by the Oxford-educated hero.
‘Qaatil Jazeera’ by Ibn-e-Safi.
Historical fiction got the bronze in popularity with bloodcurdling tales of the rise and decline of the Muslim Empires. Here, Naseem Hijazi ruled the roost. His books, like Akhri Chattaan, describing the ruination of the Abbasid Caliphate at the hand of the Mongols, and Khaak aur Khoon, a novel on the partition of India, were often on the waiting list at Tawakkul Library. Musa would sometimes fiddle with the waiting list in order to accommodate his more loyal customers.
‘Akhri Chattaan’ by Naseem Hijazi.
The ‘jazbaati‘ titles – like Hong Kong by the veritable M.A. Zahid – were usually hidden away in the attic of the Tawwakul Library, and in the upper shelves of the Naeem collection, and were provided to the readers who had developed a relationship of trust with the guardians of the library.
It was most unfortunate though, that some of the works by Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chugtai were also catalogued under jazbaati and were out of bounds for younger readers like myself. Of course, that did not prevent me from quietly putting such sinful books under my shirt, and religiously placing them back in the shelves after two days.
For me, going to a library and browsing through, what seemed at that time, a million books was one of the most thrilling experiences of my youth. These libraries were more than just a repository of books; they were also places to hear and learn from, courtesy interesting characters like the erudite Musa and the friendly Naeem family, and their friends and fellow book lovers, who would turn up to discuss everything under the sun from politics to movies to the latest oeuvre by Ibn-e-Safi or M.A. Zahid, unaware that a young boy was listening to them and collecting material to write all about it one day.