KARACHI. Muhammad Aslam, a bookseller at the old books market in Karachi’s Gulshan Iqbal neighborhood, concurs with Virginia Woolf that “Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.” He only has something to add to this adage.
“It is not just about words; reading also enlightens the minds, it helps in understanding values, norms, culture and civilizations, history and geography and poetry and much more,” he said while eating daal mash and naan at his stall.
Aslam said he takes pride in his profession which has earned him the friendship of educated people. “Since I have been selling books for the last 20 years, I have many friends who are poets and writers. These people have enriched my life,” he said.
According to Aslam, the first things that meet his eyes when he wakes up are old books stacked in every corner of his small house in the old neighborhood of Jutline. “It is the labor of love,” he added.
The bookseller believes that the habit of reading books is on the decline. What is even more concerning for him, however, is the fact that even the people who read are reading popular and substandard books and not the classics.
“The irony is that now people are reading Nimra Ahmed and Umaira Ahmed type of writers. Most readers don’t even know the name of Banu Qudsia, Ashfaq Ahmed, Shaukat Siddiqui, Razia Butt, Salma Mughal, AR Khatoon, Shehnaz Chudhry, Farhat Ishtiaq, Wajida Tabbsum, Josh Malih Abadi and others.
“Can I ask you who is Colonel Muhammad Khan?” he said.
Aslam said once people from every walk of life including political activists, researchers, literati, rightests, nationalists and communists used to read books and enlightened their minds. “But this is not the case now. What we are witnessing now is chaos in every sphere of life,” he added.
Iqbal Khursheed, a writer and blogger, agreed with Aslam that people read less today but attributed this change to digitalization, an age in which people have found other activities to engage themselves in.
“Just 10 years ago, our opinion makers were writers and people would listen or watch Mustansar Hussain Tarrar, Faiza Ahmed and Zia Mohiuddin on the PTI and radio.”
Iqbal said now many people have shifted to other activities. He, however, added that many readers have also developed the habit of reading digital books over the internet.
“In Europe, people are still habitual of reading. The libraries in western countries are still full of readers. There are readers’ clubs and debating societies.”
He said the situation can be changed by governmental intervention.
“There is a need to develop a political will to bring about a positive cultural change. The government must direct TV channels to start debating on literary issues and form reading clubs so that we can develop our aesthetic sense again,” he suggested.
Scholar and author Akhtar Baloch has worked hard to trace the history of old book bazaars in Karachi. “Once the book bazaars of Karachi were a reflection of the citizens’ love of knowledge and culture. But now these bazaars are vanishing,” he said.
Reminiscing about the city’s culture in a research article, Akhtar writes how people participated in literary activities despite financial hardships.
“In 1964, monthly Afkaar — an Urdu periodical — announced an edition on Faiz Ahmed Faiz. For this special edition, students from all over Pakistan were invited to participate.
“I also submitted my poem ‘Madeer’ to Afkaar. I received a letter from the judges, telling me that my work had been rated the best. The prize comprised some books to be awarded by Faiz Sahib.
“I cannot forget that day. Starvation had weakened me so much that even walking was hard labour for me. On top of that, I had the books to carry. I went straight from the prize distribution ceremony to the old book bazaar at Regal Chowk in Karachi and I sold every one of them.
“The shopkeeper was overjoyed to see books with signatures of Faiz Sahib. He gave me Rs30 for them. I rushed to the nearest coffee house and had a decent meal after months. I will never forget the joy of that luxurious day,” he said.
Baloch said Karachi’s oldest bazaar of second hand books was Regal chowk bazar. “This bazaar is still functioning and every Sunday morning hundreds of people visit it to buy books at very cheap rates. However there were several other book bazaars as well which have vanished with the passage of time,” he added.