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A treasure trove

June 26, 2016
Ziaullah Khokhar.  -Photo by the writer
Ziaullah Khokhar. -Photo by the writer

The first Urdu printing press in Lahore, Matba’-i Koh-i Nur, was established in 1849, the year the city was fully brought under the authority of the East India Company. Printing presses were an essential need of the new political system — it needed rulebooks to train and guide its indigenous staff in the mechanics of the new administration as well as printed registers and forms for use in the new sarrishtas or government departments. Consequently, one finds a progress of printing presses across North India in the wake of the progress of the Colonial rule. The introduction of litho printing a couple of decades earlier also helped a great deal, for the imported technology was perfect for Persian and Urdu, the two languages that the new rulers preferred in their North Indian possessions outside of Bengal.

The pioneering press was set up by Munshi Harsukh Rai, who had earlier worked in a press at Meerut. Not surprisingly, his first publications were revenue manuals. But the following year Munshi sahib also started publishing a weekly named Koh-i Nur. In doing so he had again followed the pattern set by earlier presses. According to Muhammad Atiq Siddiqui (Hindustani Akhbarnavisi, Kampani ke Ahd Mein, 1957), by 1857 there had come up 167 Urdu presses in the Urdu region of North India, and of them 103 had also published a newspaper of their own. Most, however, did not last very long. Koh-i Nur was a major exception; it lasted 54 years. And in many of those years it appeared twice, even thrice, per week. And yet, such has been the fate of Urdu newspapers that one would be hard put now to find even 54 individual issues of that paper.

It is little recognised that in the matter of publishing reading material for the benefit of Urdu-speaking women Lahore has precedence over both Delhi and Lucknow. It was here in 1887 that Munshi Mahbub Alam began publishing his famous ‘penny journal,’ Paisa Akhbar, and then in 1893 launched a monthly journal, Sharif Bibi, that reached a readership beyond Lahore. Five years later, Munshi Mumtaz Ali launched his history-making weekly, Tehzeeb-i Nisvan, that was edited by his wife, Muhammadi Begum — probably the first or second Indian woman to hold such a responsibility. The latter journal lasted much longer than the former, and also gained a much wider circulation across the subcontinent. More significantly, it could boast a remarkable roster of women writers as contributors, and even editors. A few years later, both Munshi Mahbub Alam and Munshi Mumtaz Ali launched special journals aimed at children readers — another first for Lahore. And yet again, not only in Lahore but in no place on earth can one find complete files of the early years of these invaluable journals. Sadly, public libraries, government archives, and educational institutions in South Asia have mostly neglected to preserve Urdu periodicals and newspapers, not only in Urdu but also in most Indian languages.


The Abdul Majeed Khokhar Memorial Library in Gujranwala contains an invaluable collection of historical Urdu books and journals


It is in this context that the quiet diligence of one Pakistani deserves grateful recognition: Ziaullah Khokhar of Gujranwala. During a recent trip to Pakistan I had the good fortune to meet him and get a glimpse of his invaluable collection of Urdu books and journals.

Khokhar sahib, who must be in his seventies now, seems to have lived most of his life in Gujranwala, where his father, Abdul Majeed Khokhar, had a manufacturing business. The father was fond of reading, and besides books also used to subscribe to several newspapers and magazines. Unlike most people, however, he never discarded any of them. Every book was saved, as was every single issue of the journals that were bought. Here is how Khokhar sahib has described his father:

I was at the seventh or eighth stage in the progress of my life, when my revered father made me fond of reading children’s magazines. From my earliest schooldays it was my habit to go from school straight to Bazar Almariyan, to my father’s factory, and give him a helping hand till dusk. Our society was then firm in traditional ways and values, and times were very peaceful and harmonious, shops would close very early. On many days, my father would place me on his bicycle and take me to the Basheer Sahrai Akhbar Ghar in the nearby Rail Bazaar, where he would get me a few such magazines.

That habit of reading and preserving became ingrained in the young Ziaullah, who studied science and engineering, but apparently never fully joined the family business. Instead he devoted himself more strenuously to expanding the collection initiated by his father. Towards that end he even travelled to other cities on a regular basis. That has particularly enhanced the value of his collection, since we know how not all books published in Karachi — not to mention Sialkot or Peshawar — always reach bookshops in Lahore.


It is little recognised that in the matter of publishing reading matter for the benefit of Urdu-speaking women Lahore has precedence over both Delhi and Lucknow. It was here in 1887 that Munshi Mahbub Alam began publishing his famous ‘penny journal,’ Paisa Akhbar, and then in 1893 launched a monthly journal, Sharif Bibi, that reached a readership beyond Lahore. Five years later, Munshi Mumtaz Ali launched his history-making weekly, Tehzeeb-i Nisvan, that was edited by his wife, Muhammadi Begum — probably the first or second Indian woman to hold such a responsibility. The latter journal lasted much longer than the former, and also gained a much wider circulation across the subcontinent. More significantly, it could boast a remarkable roster of women writers as contributors, and even editors.


The result of that true labour of love is now called the Abdul Majeed Khokhar Memorial Library, lovingly set up in Khokhar sahib’s house in a modest neighbourhood of Gujranwala. Only a small plaque on the gate announces it to the world. Presently it contains some 200,000 individual issues of newspapers and periodicals — literary, religious, popular, political — and some 35,000 books, including 700 autobiographies, 1300 travelogues, 200 collections of letters, and 400 volumes of biographical sketches. There are 800 titles devoted to Ghalib, and 1800 to Iqbal. There are also more than a thousand books of various kinds in Punjabi.

C.M. Naim is Professor Emeritus of South Asian Languages & Civilizations at the University of Chicago. His most recent publication, The Hijab and I, was published last year by the City Press, Karachi.
C.M. Naim is Professor Emeritus of South Asian Languages & Civilizations at the University of Chicago. His most recent publication, The Hijab and I, was published last year by the City Press, Karachi.

Khokhar sahib’s diligence is evident not only in the size of his collection but also in the manner he has single-handedly preserved it. Most of the space in his substantial house is now full of shelves, on which sit books and bundles of periodicals carefully wrapped in cellophane to protect them from dust and the insecticide he uses. And yet so much more needs to be done. The day I went to the library I could see books and newspapers and periodicals lying in small stacks on the floor of a couple of rooms, not neglected but waiting to be lovingly wrapped and preserved by Khokhar sahib and his young assistant.

Khokhar sahib is not ungenerous towards sincere readers and scholars. He responds to people’s requests, providing information, even photocopies if at all possible. Uniquely, however, he has been doing what only a few major institutions have done in the past. He has been preparing and publishing topical catalogues of what he has saved, thus enabling historians of Urdu language and literature to gain a fuller sense of Urdu’s printed heritage.

Not surprisingly one of the four catalogues so far published is devoted to the kind of periodicals he discovered as a child. Issued in 2004, it is titled Bachchon ki Sahafat ke Sau Saal (One Hundred Years of Children’s Journals). It lists over two hundred titles, giving as much bibliographical detail as possible, such as the place and date of the journal’s first publication, and the names of the editors. Additionally it gives details of the journal’s special issues in the library. Like many I had always assumed that Munshi Mumtaz Ali’s Phool was Urdu’s first journal for children. Now I know that while Phool came out in 1909 under the editorship of Nazr-e Sajjad Hyder, it was preceded by Munshi Mahbub Alam’s Bachchon ka Akhbar, which started in 1902. The former, a weekly, lasted a few decades, whereas the latter, a monthly, survived for only ten years. Fortunately for us, the Khokhar library contains 12 issues of that pioneering journal, as well as 400 issues of Phool.

An equally unique catalogue is devoted to travelogues. Titled Faharisul Asfar (Catalogue of Travels), it lists the 1300 travelogues the library has, first by their titles and next by their authors. Of them, 18 were published before 1900, 124 between 1901 and 1947, and the rest are more recent, making evident that there has been an explosion of travel writing in Urdu, almost exclusively in Pakistan, since 1947. I was surprised to discover that the largest number were authored by the late Hakim Muhammad Saeed (55), followed by Qamar Ali Abbasi (20) and Mustansar Husain Tarar (17). Also noteworthy is that the Khokhar collection contains at least 115 travelogues written by women.

Another catalogue is titled Ta’limgahon ke Rasa’il va Jara’id (Journals and Periodicals Published by Educational Institutions). This was printed in 2007, and was freely distributed in honour of his late father. It lists more than 450 titles of a wide range of regular or occasional journals published by colleges, universities, and learned societies across the subcontinent. The oldest dates back to 1894. Though most come from Pakistani institutions, quite a few Indian institutions also find representation. In addition to giving the usual information about the periodical and the number of the copies preserved at the library, Khokhar sahib has also taken the trouble to indicate what special issues were published, and under whose editorship.

The fourth catalogue is another invaluable resource for research in Urdu studies. And again a first on its subject: the special issues that various Urdu monthlies brought out devoted to a single topic or author. Titled Mahana Rasa’il ke Khususi Shumare (Special Issues of Monthly Journals), it runs to over 400 pages, and makes apparent Khokhar sahib’s unusual curiosity about Urdu periodicals, and his rare awareness of the wealth of knowledge that lies buried in them.

By remarkable coincidence, a similarly invaluable collection of Urdu periodicals was put together in India by an individual of modest means — a car mechanic by profession — totally removed from educational institutions: Abdus Samad Khan sahib’s collection in India was lovingly described by Raza Ali Abidi on BBC, but was already well-known to scholars in India and abroad. It was eventually purchased by a consortium of American universities and then established as Urdu Research Centre at the Sundarayya Vignana Kendram, Hyderabad, where it is now secure and will eventually be made available to worldwide readership via digitisation.

The achievements of Ziaullah Khokhar, this unassuming and wise man of Gujranwala, also deserve genuine recognition and solid support. He has done the hard work of collection, preservation, and cataloguing; now it is for the people of Pakistan — indeed for all lovers of Urdu language — to undertake the easier task of making sure his collection remains secure and available to future generations. It is a national treasure and should be treated in that manner by the state and private institutions that champion the cause of learning and education in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 26th, 2016