COLONEL Muhammad Khan, one of Urdu’s celebrated 20th century humorists, once wrote that when a librarian complained that the number of visitors to the library was dismal and rarely did a book get issued, he suggested that to lure the readers a rasgulla (sweetmeat ball) be “issued” with every book. As Colonel Sahib was a humorist, he mentioned in a lighter way what our preference as a nation was: food — or in other words, stomach over brain — matter over mind. The number of visitors to the public libraries in the West is also dwindling but they have not yet planned “issuing” any eatables with the books because the reason for diminishing numbers of visitors to their libraries is quite different.
Before we compare our national pastime (read: eating) with our reading habits, let’s have a look at how the west’s public libraries are doing: San Francisco’s main public library has pasted 50,000 index cards on its walls as decoration because they had become useless, reported The Economist, London, a few months ago. The report further said that “the tomes they refer to may be becoming decorative, too. Not only can library patrons now search the collection online, they may also check out electronic books without visiting the library. For librarians, “e-lending” is a natural offer in the digital age. Publishers and booksellers fear it could unbind their business.”
So, the publishers and booksellers in the West feel their bread and butter is in danger because of e-books. But Pakistani publishers and booksellers must be thanking their stars that the number of people with access to the internet in Pakistan is just around 15pc and all we know about digital age reaching the libraries is that now some university libraries issue books with the help of computers. On the other hand, the owners of Karachi restaurants can rest assured that we will continue to indulge in our national pastime and there is no threat to their business, at least in the foreseeable future: go to a good restaurant on weekends in Karachi and most probably you will be asked to wait before you are allowed to dine — not wait on customers but wait for your turn — which may take half an hour or even more. You can actually see perfectly respectable families standing on walkways in some posh Karachi localities outside swanky-looking restaurants and waiting to get in to dine. I personally do not have anything against the restaurants making people wait to get in or against the people waiting outside the restaurants to dine (after all they want to eat ‘out’) but, as the writer of a self-help book has put it, it makes you realise that some people are willing to accept the bad service even before they enter the restaurant. The very same people who might get impatient if they are asked to wait at a doctor’s office or become nasty when caught in a traffic jam for a few minutes, smilingly stand and patiently wait outside eateries. And mind you, it’s not for free, they actually pay for being kept waiting. This can be interesting for those specialising in behavioural psychology!
Maybe, the reason is that there are no decent places in Karachi to go to and the best activity or entertainment is eating out. Well, people have all sorts of excuses for eating what they want to eat. But when it comes to buying and reading books, people have all sorts of excuses for not reading. A pizza costing around Rs1,000 does not cause to raise any hackle but a book priced at Rs500 can cause long faces. In the West, people line up with their families outside bookshops to get a copy of their favourite book being released. People standing outside bookshops with their children dressed up as Harry Potter characters and waiting for the official release of a Harry Potter book is not too distant a memory.
We cannot imagine such scenes outside our bookshops in our wildest of dreams. And our public libraries? They are increasingly becoming less crowded. Most of the public libraries in Karachi are frequented mostly by students and many of them bring in their own books — textbooks. Go to any large public library in Karachi with good seating and lighting arrangements — Taimuriya Library in North Nazimabad for instance — and you would find scores of students, both girls and boys, poring over their textbooks. Their sole purpose of going to the library is to find some respite from home environment, which is probably crowded or disturbing or both. The quiet and peaceful atmosphere is all they want from the library and most of them have got nothing to do with the reading material the library offers. In other words, the common reader or a visitor to a library who is not reading for his exams is rare to find in Karachi libraries these days.
Of course there are a few exceptions, as Karachi’s Bedil Library, Ghalib Library or Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu Library, but these are not lending libraries and cater mostly to students and scholars of Urdu literature and language. Even students of Urdu literature visit these libraries to find reading material that may help with their studies and exams.
While the West is grappling with the issues related to copyrights, royalties and sales revenues as a result of e-books and e-lending becoming popular, our vacant public libraries are staring us in the face. How about taking seriously the “rasgulla scheme”?