Book bazaar a security risk?

One is certain that with the popular Clifton beach closed to the public on account of the oil spill, there is a certain dampening effect of it all on the Karachiite.

Now there is even more dampening the effect from the fact that the Frere Hall book bazaar has been closed down, taking away the small incentive it was to booksellers, and the opportunity it was for families and individuals to spend time on a leisurely Sunday, in the exciting world of books.

Where the book bazaar has gone is not yet known, as one writes, but let’s focus on the fact that the reason for the closure is the reported “request of the US consul general”, says Dawn on 25 August. It is said that the Sindh Home Minister informed Dawn that the “decision to close down the weekly book bazaar had been taken to provide maximum security to the US consulate on Abdullah Haroon Road, and the residence of the US consul general on Fatima Jinnah Road”. Keep in mind that a road connecting these two roads, which also houses the Japanese consulate general, and its cultural centre is also closed to the public. Also keep in mind that while the centre remains functional, most people don’t visit it due to the security measures that are in effect there.

Nothing wrong with any security, seriously speaking. But there seems to be something seriously wrong when you realise that Karachi’s losing out in terms of education, learning, and the reading habit due to the kind of security concerns mentioned above. One letter to the editor of this Daily has an indignant citizen saying asks: “why can’t the government understand the simple fact that it is the US consulate which is a security threat to the people of Karachi, and decide to move it to an appropriate place?” Obviously there is much room to think about and contemplate here.

The US consulate and residence are reasons that render the bazaar as being closed at this popular, comfortable, centrally located, and lovely place. One Karachiite, who was a frequent visitor to this bazaar with his family, said that there cannot be a better place than Frere Hall. But who cares?

It is relevant to mention here that a book bazaar was also held in Saddar, once, on the pavements, on Sundays and public holidays and book lovers (a diminishing number anyway) would visit it, and it was a good thought that books were being bought and sold, in a city that places very little premium on being well read. They called it an encroachment and removed it. Strange.

See the way libraries have suffered in Karachi, see the way in which book shops have disappeared, making way for banks, garment stores and foreign fast food franchises. See the way in which we are without the British Council Library, the American Centre Library and the Goethe Institute Library (fortunately the library of the Alliance Francaise de Karachi reopens after a long closure next week, one learns).

Small cheer really, in a larger climate described so disturbingly as “anti-learning culture”. There is depressing news that a large plot of land has been lying unutilised for more than a decade, and a library was supposed to have been built there. One is compelled to remark that had it been a commercial plot for a multi-storeyed plaza it would have been up and ready by now. That’s the sort of people we have been turned into.

It is truly reason to lament here that in the last two decades or so one doesn’t hear with any pride or otherwise, the mention of a library having come up, or grown in stature. What has happened is the emergence of places like the Rainbow Centre, in Saddar or shopping centres on Tariq Road, Clifton and Bahadurabad.

An Urdu daily has reported on Friday 29 August that the Karachi University library has not been able to buy a single book in the last two years, and that the 3000 plus students who come to it daily for reference and research, have to suffer. This is a library named after the noted historian, Dr Mahmud Hussain, and there are details of how the place is being neglected, and the students have appealed to the authorities to take notice of this state of affairs, which also includes the closure of the internet service in the computer lab.

How does it feel to read this kind of a news story? What kind of a reflection is it on the state of our education, the resource allocation and utilisation? Come to think of it, let us take into account what the students who topped in the Inter science examination had to say on topping the list of successful candidates. It is not very cheerful what they said, nor very flattering. In fact it is bitter truth, that they say this: “we were never asked or reminded by any of our teachers or even principal to ensure a minimum of 75 per cent attendance, we lacked good teachers and the overall environment was not satisfactory from the examinations point of view”. The education managers who were present when the students expressed their views with candour, shifted responsibility on others and other factors and what they described as “pressure groups”. One would like to point out here that over the years not just the average students, but the brighter students, too, including those who have topped the lists, have expressed their deepest disappointment with the prevailing education system, and the textbooks, and the examination. And the fact that the quality of the student has also gone down is another deplorable dimension of the story of education in this materialistic society.

But let us return to theme of book bazaars. Contrast this with the shopping centres and the groceries bazaars that are held in town. Think of the days when there were regular decent book fairs and melas, and book weeks so to say. Now there are held these book fairs by some of the publishers who are struggling to keep going it seems. They are discount sales, in a sort of desperation at times and the turnout of people never exciting or inspiring. One somehow expects a degree of inspiration, and optimism when it comes to books.

One is saying nothing new, but books are a man’s best friend in certain cases, and they are sources of knowledge and wisdom, and comfort and consolation. They shape personalities and they determine the course of events, explained one person, who has been educated and inspired by books all his life. His personal emphasis is poetry.

Where are those book fairs gone? Alas. It is anybody’s guess that a terrible change in our values has brought an end to that culture, that book the world of books created. One can’t help but recall the late Hameed Kashmiri’s book-shop on the former Elphinstone street. But nostalgia doesn’t bring comfort at times, it brings a sadness here. We have become so insecure a society that to have a book bazaar is a security risk for us ... the United States consulate this time.

It would not be asking for too much to suggest that the book fair must have a place convenient for people; and that there should be a string of book bazaars for a city as large as ours. One in each district, says a citizen and suggests that the city government should give it a quick thought, and quick action.

Rattan Chand and his Shivala

THE Lahore Durbar of Maharajah Ranjit Singh had an array of very talented men from all over the Punjab-men of letters, of arms, of commerce, and then there were scholars and analysts. He would consult at least three to four persons on any matter of importance before making up his mind.

The maharajah liked to ask young and old, and often he would pose the most vexing questions to the numerous young children of courtiers that were present. His view was that the innocent often solved the most difficult problems. “Simplicity is not the virtue of those in intrigue”, he would often comment. One of his favourite young children at court was a boy by the name of Rattan Chand, and the Maharajah called him Rattan Chand ‘dhariwala’ to distinguish him from a namesake. When he came of age, he was known as a wise young man, and was greatly respected for his views. He was officially called Lala Rattan Chand Dhariwala. He was appointed to various positions, all of which he served with distinction. After the death of the Maharajah in 1839, he continued to serve the Lahore Durbar and in 1846 was the postmaster-general of the Punjab in the dying days of Sikh rule. When the British took over in 1849, he worked for them and became the honorary magistrate of Lahore in 1862. He then went on to become a member of the Municipal Committee and was made a Dewan in 1865, where after he was described as Dewan Lala Rattan Chand Dhariwala.

During the reign preceding Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the area outside the Shahalami Gate had been laid wasted by conflict. The various Sikh chiefs, who began constructing huge ‘havelis’ inside the walled city, plundered the bricks from vacant houses. Very soon the area was a huge empty ground, and it was at that time that Lala Rattan Chand wanted to purchase it. He was opposed by Sikh chiefs who felt that too large and important a track of land was being given to a mere boy. The maharajah decided not to allot it to anyone. One version has it that the maharajah promised that if it was allotted in his lifetime, it would be to him. As a special gesture, he allotted him a smaller piece to build a temple as a first step.

So Lala Rattan Chand set about levelling the wasteland and then he built a wall around his possession. On the four corners of the walls he built four structures with Sikh-style domes. In the middle he built a temple perched on a platform raised above the ground. The temple dome was raised to a considerable height, making it among the finest in Lahore. Outside, he built a series of houses and shops, and even before the British arrived, the road was being called Rattan Chand di Sarak.

The ten years after the death of the maharajah saw considerable fighting within the Lahore Durbar. In this period, Lala Rattan Chand consolidated his position and kept the status quo, thanks to his connections with the ‘patwaris’ of those days, all of whom feared him. When the British took over, he immediately switched sides, put in an application that the late Maharajah had promised him this additional land. The British immediately allotted him his “promised” land.

The British were short of residential accommodation, and Lala Rattan Chand provided them with ample housing, “at very reasonable rates”. Within a few months, he had managed to get allotted the entire gardens that were to make the garden, tank and temple of Rattan Chand a major feature of Lahore. Lala Rattan Chand was among the very first Punjabi bureaucrats to join the British administration of the East India Company.

The water tank was made in such a way that it surrounded the temple. The water for the Shivala was brought through an ingenious system of very small canals. The gardens laid out were well watered and green all the year round. Its fruit trees were well-known in the city and a nursery of sorts developed at this point, where today exists the dusty Bansaanwala Bazaar. Lala Rattan Chand died in 1872 and the road right up to the Mayo Hospital crossing was named after him. Once the Mayo Hospital was built, a major portion of the road was named Hospital Road.

After his death, his son Lala Bhagvandas took over and he soon fell victim to commercial pressures to part with some of the residential houses and shops. With time this Shivala was seen to be a major obstruction to the expansion of commercial activities, and it were the Hindu traders of Shahalami who began to pressure the administration to take over the Shivala. But then came the partition of the Punjab and in the bloody riots, just like in the days preceding the Sikhs, the entire temple, Shivala and gardens were reduced to bricks and the “claim brigade” took over. Today, there lie hundreds of small high houses, the dusty Bansaanwala Bazaar and the road now has three names, just one of the is Rattan Chand Road. — Majid Sheikh

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