SOCIETY: READING QUETTA

February 23, 2020

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Even today Gosha-i-Adab has a rich collection of books on various subjects | Mazhar Chandio
Even today Gosha-i-Adab has a rich collection of books on various subjects | Mazhar Chandio

I met retired Major Nadir on a Monday evening, last December, in Marriabad at the library he had established. Marriabad is a congested town, situated on the eastern side of Quetta. It is home to the city’s educated Hazara community. On the jam-packed Alamdar Road, which houses the bulk of Marriabad’s Hazara population, stands the extensive Major Nadir Ali Library.

Previously, the dark brown building, which houses the library, was known as the Major Nadir Ali Institute of Management Sciences. Built by the provincial government of Balochistan some seven years ago, the institute remained non-functional as the provincial government showed scant interest in running it. Finally, the major thought of converting the institute into a library. And in 2017, he invited the then Balochistan governor to inaugurate it.

Clean-shaven and balding from the top, with some white hair, the retired major wears a black coat over brown shalwar kameez, and holds a walking stick. During his postgraduate studies at the University of Birmingham, the major (now retired) fell in love with its educational environment and library culture. Since then, he had wished to open a library in his hometown of Marriabad.

Eager to discuss the importance of libraries for communities, he begins before I can put a question forward. “In the West, there are four things that are taken into serious consideration when building a town,” he says. “First, there is a municipal hospital, second, there is a municipal hall, third, there is a municipal school, and fourth, there is a municipal library.”

Marriabad did not have a well-equipped library. Although, in recent times, a few libraries have sprung up in the town they are merely structures. To stock the shelves of his library, the major visited the United States to bring back books he received as donations. “During my visit, lots of books were donated, and I had to bring them by ship via Port Qasim to Quetta,” he says.

A Hazara girl studies for her exams at the Major Nadir Ali Library | Mazhar Chandio
A Hazara girl studies for her exams at the Major Nadir Ali Library | Mazhar Chandio

Despite the odd entrepreneur or social activist establishing a bookshop or library, the culture of reading is dying in Balochistan’s capital

A regular patron of the library who benefits from these donations is young Syed Amanullah. He is an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction since he was of schoolgoing age.

Every day, Amanullah passes the Hazara graveyard on his motorbike on the way to the library. “The cream of my community is buried there, those who were educated,” he says, sitting at a desk in the library. It is a Saturday, and men and women sit together in the library hall. But because of students’ December examinations, there are no more than 10 people in the hall. Amanullah and his colleague have come to read general-interest books today, while the visitors at the library are students immersed in studying coursebooks.

Major Nazar runs the Kalat Publisher, Bookseller and Press | Banaras Khan
Major Nazar runs the Kalat Publisher, Bookseller and Press | Banaras Khan

Amanullah is painfully aware that the very future of the Hazaras is at stake. “Reading books broadens one’s horizons,” he thinks out loud. “Similarly, if it broadens mine and increases my social mobility, I step out of my community to socially interact with people belonging to other communities,” he says. “But a Hazara cannot step out of their community due to security reasons.”

What is the point then of going to a library to read books? He often mulls over this thorny question.

Amanullah got admission to the English literature department in the MPhil program at University of Balochistan but his parents did not permit him to attend university out of fear. Although his parents are uneducated, he agreed with them.

After reading a recently published book, Qissa Hahey Natamam, by Hazara Urdu writer Hasan Riza Changezi, on the persecution of Hazaras, Amanullah’s anxiety about the vulnerability of his community has grown. In the middle of the book, he stopped reading.

“Like the community, our minds have also increasingly become ghettoised,” he tells Eos, taking a sip of tea. “Due to this reason, our youth, like myself, is losing interest in book reading, too.”

I am headed to the QC Book Café, opposite the main entrance of Gulistan town, on Major Mohammad Ali Road. It was opened last year by two young Hazaras, Ali Waqar and Ali Zaidi. Waqar, 31, and Zaidi, 34, studied in Karachi. Returning to Quetta, they opened the bookshop along with other like-minded friends from a volunteer group called HYPO (Hazara Youth Perspective Organisation).

Bookshops are almost non-existent in Marriabad and elsewhere in the city. The few remaining stores are also closing down due to the financial crunch. Responding to this scenario, Waqar and Zaidi opened their bookshop for the sake of promoting reading, despite the unprofitability of the business.

The QC Book Café draws only selective customers, but it is encouraging to see girls and women visit the store as well.

Occasionally, there will be some new faces. “Our customers, especially youngsters, have been buying the latest books,” he says, sitting in his tiny shop. “We have sold several copies of Mark Manson’s Everything is F*cked, among other books,” he says, pointing to new arrivals on the shelves. He tells me he has to encourage people to read to make more customers. A young boy pays him for a book. Waqar says of him: “Zeeshan is a new face, and he now regularly buys books. That is what we want to do for our youth.”

Waqar is still confident in the duo’s plan to expand their café. “In the near future, we plan to open a coffee shop in the next room,” he says.

Struggle for survival

Founded by Mansoor Bukhari, Gosha-i-Adab currently has two branches on Jinnah Road. The first branch opened in 1962, when the bookshop business was thriving. It is interesting to note that in Balochistan, from the 1960s onward, books were read voraciously. Whether the literature was leftist or right-wing, book sales were high when political activities in the province were on the rise.

In the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto visited Quetta when he was prime minister. Being a reader himself, he wanted to visit Gosha-i-Adab during his stay. One night, without protocol, he slipped away from the Governor House where he was staying and, much to Bukhari’s surprise, showed up at the bookshop. He bought books and appreciated the collection in the shop. According to Bukhari, soon law enforcers arrived to escort him out into the winter night, as they had not found him in his room.

To this day, Gosha-i-Adab possesses a rich collection of books on Baloch history and nationalism, Pashtun history and nationalism, as well as Russian and French and classic literature, etc.

Bukhari rarely sits in the once-famous shop these days. His tall, bespectacled son, Zaheem, looks after the bookshops.

Zaheem looks busy all the time and there always is a fleeting smile on his face whenever he speaks. When I enter the bookstore, he is sitting in front of the computer screen absorbed in whatever he is reading. He notices my presence only after a few minutes. He stops working upon being asked about the kind of customers who come to his bookshop. Looking into my eyes, with a smile, he tells me there are “kuchh pagal log” [some mad people] who still read books in Quetta, they are the ones who come to buy books.

In the past, Quetta’s elite habitually read books. But, he now complains, neither upper class nor the middle class shows much interest in buying books anymore. “In the past, reading for pleasure used to be a hobby for people belonging to different fields of life,” he says. “This is no more the case,” he concludes, while listing the names of bookstores that have closed over the years, including Quetta Bookland, Hashmi Brothers, Jinnah Bookstall and Ghaznavi Bookshop.

For Zaheem, the use and spread of social media and the internet revolution is just an excuse for the waning of reading culture. Take the example of developed countries, he says. Despite the rise of the internet, interestingly, the reading culture there has grown. Book culture is promoted there by opening more and more libraries and reading centres. Unless the government supports reading here, the habit is not going to catch on, he cautions.

One of the key reasons behind the declining reading habits is the government’s complete inattention and concern, he feels. A senior government official of the education department found the suggestion of government spending on books for general-interest reading laughable, he tells me. He further adds, there are no plans whatsoever to spend on general books despite the existence of libraries all over Balochistan. The library buildings stand abandoned — of readers and books alike.

Neither the government nor citizens give due importance to libraries as institutions that can help improve society, laments Major Nadir. For instance, he says, in Quetta there is the Sandeman hall, school and hospital which are all functional but the Sandeman library stands deserted.

Kalat Publisher, Bookseller and Press, is another old bookshop which wears an empty look. Established by Zamarrud Hussain, a senator, in 1952 in the neighbouring Mastung district. It was shifted to Quetta city in 1965. The publishing house is said to have published hundreds of books. At present, besides selling, it also publishes books, particularly by local writers and intellectuals in their regional languages.

Now, black moustachioed retired Major Nazar runs Kalat Publisher, Bookseller and Press. Nazar himself is fond of reading books and, during his discussions, he often gives references of books on the province, country, and region. While speaking to Eos, Nazar says, “To tell the truth, people have almost stopped coming to bookshops. Since 2008, our business has diminished. Until 2008, this place used to be crowded.”

Echoing Zaheem’s lament, Major Nazar says, “In Quetta, the upper class neither reads nor buys books, while the lower class cannot afford to buy books. Only, the middle and lower-middle classes, to an extent, read.

“On the other hand, the government of Balochistan does not support publishing houses and shops. Firstly, there are hardly one or two good libraries, while the rest exist in dilapidated conditions. There is very little awareness among people about reading and its significance, even in the provincial capital of Quetta.”

He further contends, “Unfortunately, and alarmingly, authors in Balochistan do not get royalties on their books.” With book sales on the decline, publishing is considered too expensive a cost to bear for publishers as well.

On a calm Sunday, Jalal Hussain Hazara, is standing alone in the bookstore which he founded 30 years ago in Hazara Town on the western side of Quetta. Jalal is in his late 70s and has a grumpy face which softens when he speaks.

I meet him in the bookstore, now converted in to a stationery store. There are still old books in Urdu, Farsi and English in the corners of the shelves of the store. He laughs when I ask him whether or not books are still sold here. “Why would anyone buy books now?” he asks with a sarcastic smile. “These days nobody has the least interest in books, which is why I have converted my bookstore into a stationery store.”

Jalal’s decision is understandable. He has to pay Rs5,000 in monthly rent for the shop, so he needs a steady source of income.

When leaving the town, I see four Hazara boys sitting together, each holding a smartphone in their hands. All of them are busy playing a game. A resident tells me that this is what the four friends are usually seen doing when they get together. One of them shouts, in Hazargi, “Got the player gun! I am now going to get the sniper guns!”

“Looks like smartphones have replaced books for all the bad reasons,” their neighbour says to me. “And for good.”

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 23rd, 2020