Cross post: http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2014/11/24/comment/the-reading-culture/
A bygone era
Reading and being members of libraries, spending time in those quiet halls and getting books issued for reading at homes has become a part of a culture unknown to the present generation. I share an excerpt of a mail sent to me by Khalid Aziz sahib, the younger brother of famed Qutub-ud-din Aziz sahib, that beautifully reflects the spirit of those days:
“When I was in Grade 9, I had become a member of the American Library which was on MA Jinnah Road, where the Prince Cinema stands today. I continued visiting the library with my elder brother late Masood Bhai till I left DJ College and joined MSc classes at University of Karachi which was pretty far from our house at that time, Aziz Lodge in Nazimabad No 4. So I used to return home around 7pm and library timings were 8:30am to 5:30pm so I could not continue my visits there. However, trust me, it was the golden period of my life. I learnt so much from the books .The collection was huge and covered many subjects. I did well when I went for studies overseas under a government technical exchange program. I frankly feel I owed all this to the extra knowledge I gathered through the books at the US Library.”
Quaid-e-Azam Library, a beautiful white building placed in the lush green lawns of Jinnah Gardens, originally known as the Old Gymkhana, boasts of roughly 125,000 books on a wide spectrum of subjects. The auditorium often hosts seminars and exhibitions. The library is heaven for those who hanker for good research books. Unfortunately, most other libraries are neglected and desperately need attention by the authorities. This includes the Punjab Public Library set up in 1884. The Frere Hall Library, named Liaquat Hall Library after our first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, is crying for attention. According to a report published in a leading daily: ‘An official of the city government’s culture and sports department said that for the past four years no book had been purchased for the Liaquat Hall library. Every year the city government allocates Rs300,000 for the purchase of books, Rs50,000 for binding of old books and Rs225,000 for newspapers and magazines. According to Mr Grami, hardly 20 per cent of the allocated amount is spent by the city government. ” (Nov 19, 2003)
Then there was the Ghulam Hussain Khaliqdina Hall Library, built in 1906 with a grand donation by Ghulam Hussain Khaliqdina. Karachi Municipal Corporation footed the remaining bill. It is famed that Allama Rasheed Turabi would, for the 10 days of Muharram, address the majalis assembled there. The library is well known also in the context of being the trial ground of Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, who led the Khilafat Movement.
The Max Denso Hall and Library was constructed in 1886. Jamil Khan, a journalist, writing for his blog says, “Another simple but attractive Gothic style building on MA Jinnah Road, the Denso Hall was built in 1886. This two-storey building earlier provided the facility of a public hall, reading room and library for the residents of the area built in the memory of Max Denso, a prominent citizen and six-time President of Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The building also had a clock on its east side but now only the structure is visible. Presently, the water and sewerage complaint centre of Sadar Town is situated in this building.”
One can go on reminiscing about the culture of yesteryear.
A deeper reflection is: What has changed over the years that has taken us away from books, newspapers and libraries? How can one enjoy reading a newspaper without getting the black smudges on one’s fingers and enjoying the smell of freshly printed newspaper? I remember as a young kid, my pocket money was spent exclusively on buying Enid Blyton books (some spent on Paxy chocolate to gratify the sweet tooth). For many days till the book remained ‘new’, I would bring my nose as close to it as possible and holding the binding would allow the pages to whiff past my nose, sending off the beautiful scent of freshly printed virgin pages.
My maternal grandmother, Waheed-un-Nisa Begum who lost much of her eyesight in her old age was very fond of reading novels by Razia Butt and Fatima Mobeen. She would have the novels issued from a library in Nursery Commercial Area Roundabout that was close by to her residence in Block 6, PECHS. One of her daughters-in-law would be entrusted with the task to issue the novel. A register would be maintained to note what she had read, or more precisely heard. It became more and more difficult over time to locate a novel she had not yet heard. When in town, I was the preferred choice to read it out to her. Something we both enjoyed very much. I would take on the voice and expression of the characters as I read along, imbibing the feeling of a live drama that Nanni loved.
Is it the rising use of computers that allows the geographical barriers to go down, making access to international newspapers easier that has caused the decline of libraries and the culture of reading books? Or is it the rise of the new phenomenon of e-books and/or a plethora of reading material available online?
Whatever the reason may be, it has taken away a beautiful leisure from our younger generation. The popularity of books by Harry Potter, even in Pakistan, was a joy to witness though. Maybe taking a cue from this popularity and realising that reading days are not really over and need a gentle push, Pakistan saw its first mobile library ‘Alif Laila Books Bus’ come to life. Books on shelves, vibrant colored rugs, and stuffed toys welcome the young readers. The staircase leading to the upper storey of the bus offers a comfortable reading space offering stacks of reading material to choose from for youngsters ranging from 5 to 15 years of age.
‘Readings’ on Main Gulberg Road, Lahore, opened a few years ago and is a readers’ delight. Besides offering its customers new books it has a huge reservoir of old books that are available at half or less than half the original prices. Fully carpeted, floor cushions thrown in-between the aisle of book shelves, small chairs placed strategically, water dispensers and paper cups available for those visiting, the air conditioned environment offers reading space for the in-comers even if they do not end up purchasing the books. Readings offers a wide variety of old novels and children’s reading material but needs a greater focus on increasing books on related subjects.
Two other bookstores that are heaven for avid readers are the Variety Books at Liberty, Gulberg, Lahore, and Sang-e-Meel, Multan Road, Lahore.
Frank Zappa was right in saying, “So many books, so little time.”
The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @yasmeen_9.