Sunday, July 10, 2011

Room to Read

The summer often takes me back to my annual ritual of raiding all the bookshops down Lahore’s Mall Road. It meant many things to my child’s heart — quality time spent with my father, going home in our Beetle instead of the school van, a couple of hours in the cool confines of imposing colonial buildings and the promised indulgence of all my escapist instincts within the pages of the next ‘Malory Towers’.
My favourite amongst these bookshops — Kingson — a small treasury of Enid Blytons stashed from ceiling to floor, has long closed shop while Ferozsons has succumbed fully to the air of decay that had begun to creep into it even then.
It is not often that I find myself on that side of Lahore now, so the other day on my way to Oriental College, I scrambled out of my car for a quick shot of the Ferozsons store front, something I have now been meaning to do for years. I am not sure when it was that I first noticed the windows had something written on them, but I have been grateful for that discovery ever since.
The words, painted in both English and Urdu, inform all who enter that a printing and publishing house is more than just a business concern. It is a bastion of freedom of speech, the upholder of truth, a sanctuary of the arts and a symbol of national pride, even its commercial aspect — a means to benefiting society as a whole (sanat-o-tijaarit ki taraqqi ka zaamin).
Its Urdu version is spine-tingling in a way only earnest passion can be. ‘Azaadi-e-fiqr ka muhaafiz’ (guardian of freedom of thought) — the irony of these words still standing not too far from the Governor’s House is searing.
Reflect on the passion in these windows alone and the factory-churned Ferozsons in Defence and Gulberg paint a mournful contrast.
However, one cannot dismiss Lahore’s more newly sprung but well-stocked bookshops. Thanks to those the city still has a handful of good book-buying options but there is an increasing dearth of places like the old Ferozsons, where salespeople didn’t just act as mere cash collectors but also informed and interested guides.
What Lahore has never had, though, is a bookshop that would double as a reading space. I was so used to being frowned upon at attempting to surreptitiously thumb through a book before buying it, that US bookshops came as quite a culture shock to me; nobody stopped me from going through books for hours at the Barnes & Noble neighbouring my brother’s apartment yet I would sheepishly stash away my book each time a salesperson would walk by, just in case. Many people would pick up a book and read it in the coffee shop inside the store and never be harassed or guilted into buying anything. I hadn’t ever even been to a library that relaxed and comfortable in Pakistan.
The library scene in Pakistan is, in fact, even more abysmal than the bookshop one. The better libraries belong to private institutions or public universities where the unconnected person cannot just walk in and partake of the resources available. Imagine a readily accessible space with requisite tools (books, wi-fi, comfortable seating and lighting) to get on with some work and you will likely draw a blank.
The red-tapism around getting a membership card for government libraries, like the Quaid-e-Azam Library, ensures that most people feel too fazed by the process to even try. The Punjab University library (off-limits to non-students to begin with) has a stale physical ambience in step with its refusal to house more contemporary authors. The dust-covered environs of our government libraries seem to have relegated books to a pre-historic past already and there is nothing to suggest there are any plans to incorporate reading’s new digital frontiers.
There aren’t any private libraries or collections filling this vacuum either. Nairang Art Gallery is an attempt, but one that is marred by its shady overtones. Couples crouching in dark corners, with red lighting right out of the villain’s den of a ‘70s Amitabh starrer, does not a conducive library environment make.
And so Lahore plods on. It’s crumbling edifice propped by restaurants and malls alone and its people satisfied with platitudes like ‘Lahore Lahore ae’ to lull themselves into the illusion that this city still has the grand cultural sweep it once did.

Published in Dawn Blogs