KARACHI: Askari Hussain goes to an English-language teaching institute on Fatima Jinnah Road every day. A commerce student, Hussain wishes to improve his English before he enters the job market. His teachers at the language institute also recommend that he read an English-language newspaper daily. They also tell him to get into the habit of reading English books, particularly literature, to become acquainted with the various nuances of the language.
After his language class, Hussain goes to the Liaquat Hall library in the 19th century Frere Hall across the street. There, he reads an English newspaper and his favourite weekly magazine. He, however, regrets that he can no longer borrow books from the library. According to an announcement pinned on the library’s notice board, books cannot be issued because of ongoing maintenance work.
“I borrowed the works of Jane Austen from this library. I particularly enjoyed reading Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility at home. It is a great pity that the library is not issuing books these days. I have to go to a public library a long way off my locality to procure books of English literature,” he says.
Named after the first prime minister of Pakistan, the Liaquat Hall library used to have a large number of members. (Membership was free.) Previously, a member could borrow two books at a time on submitting his original identity card. The library has more than 50,000 books, including 1,500 rare books and 50 manuscripts. Visitors are given access to 10 Urdu newspapers, six English newspapers and 18 magazines in the reading hall of the library.
A gazetteer of the province of Sindh, Karachi District, compiled by J.W. Smyth and first published in 1919, contains a description of the Frere Hall and the library in it. The gazetteer writes: “The Frere Hall is by its situation and character the most notable building in Karachi and would be beautiful but for its incongruous excrescences, an octagonal tower crowned with an iron cage, and an acute roof spirelet, coated with Muntz’s metal. The inception of this Hall was a meeting held to devise means of commemorating the long and brilliant administration of Sir Bartle Frere when he was called to the Viceroy’s Council in 1859. A sum of Rs22,500 was raised by subscription and designs for a public hall were invited. Out of twelve sent in, one by Lieutenant-Colonel St Clair Wilson was chosen, and the building was commenced in 1863. It was opened in 1865, though not then quite complete, by Mr Mansfield, the Commissioner of the day. The total cost of it came to about Rs180,000, of which Government contributed Rs10,000 and the Municipality paid the balance.
“The Hall is in the Venetian Gothic style and is built of the familiar yellowish Karachi limestone, relieved very effectively by white oolite quarried near Bholari south of Kotri and red and grey sandstones from Jungshahi... On the ground floor there is a main hall equal to the one above. The room at the end, corresponding to the second room above, accommodates the Frere Hall Library.”
The British colonizers who fondly designed and built the building would have a rude shock if they could see the Frere Hall today. Visitors are not allowed to go into the Liaquat Hall library. They can read the dailies and magazines in the reading room.
Despite having being briefed about the dilapidated condition of the Liaquat Hall library in the Frere Hall, this reporter was surprised to see the extent to which the building has fallen into disrepair. A flight of pigeons wheeled over the wooden bookshelves where books have been gathering dust for months if not years. It looked as though the rare books on the mezzanine floor had not been touched and dusted for years.
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.
“The process of obtaining funds for the purchase and preservation of books is riddled with bureaucratic obstacles. After the grant of administrative approval, the finance department is asked to release the funds required to buy books or preserve the old ones. Sometimes, this tedious process takes up a year,” he said.