IN MEMORIAM: THE BOOKMAN FROM BALOCHISTAN

Published July 12, 2020
Mansoor Bukhari in his bookshop in Quetta |  Courtesy Zaeem Bukhari
Mansoor Bukhari in his bookshop in Quetta | Courtesy Zaeem Bukhari

When I became a journalist, I only seemed to know journalism for all the wrong reasons. My first misconception was that journalists didn’t get paid much and that without a decent salary, no one would give his or her daughter’s hand in marriage to a journalist. Secondly, I thought journalists only indulged in flattery of the powerful and thirdly that they were vulnerable. The fourth misconception was that they need not always read books. Despite misunderstanding all of this, it was my extraordinary interest in the field that led me to become a journalist.

Gradually and slowly, my misconceptions changed. I found out that journalists do get paid, although I figured that before that they must do a lot of freelance work, which I thought meant writing for free. Although I had started contributing to English dailies and periodicals, my knowledge about journalism was still quite limited.

Among the periodicals I contributed to was The Friday Times (TFT), which publishes from Lahore. It used to be available only at Sales and Services, a bookshop owned by one Mansoor Bukhari. Bukhari sahib unfortunately fell prey to Covid-19 in the second week of June. Because of the lack of medical facilities in Quetta, his son Zaeem Bukhari had taken him to Lahore for treatment, where he passed away.    

In early 2015, TFT cost only 75 rupees. At the end of month, since I was a student and a journalist at the same time, sometimes I could not afford to buy a copy of the weekly. So, one day after reading my story in TFT, I kept it back on the shelf. But Bukhari sahib noticed that.

Just the way he did for his regular customers, Bukhari sahib gave me a book as a gift during one of my first interactions with him. Since he knew I could not afford to buy the expensive books in his shop, Bukhari sahib continued giving me books on deferred payment and would not even remember when I had to pay him back the accumulating amount for several books. His son Zaeem Bukhari is even more generous than his father. Even though I have now joined Dawn, Zaeem continues to give me books on credit or for half price.  Actually, I love to be in debt to them.

Mansoor Bukhari who dedicated his life to books and reading culture in Quetta, and who died in June, was much more than a bookstore owner

Courtesy these visits, I got to know Mansoor Bukhari when he was in his seventies. He would be seated on a chair behind the counter, dressed in a shalwar-kameez with a flat, cotton-corduroy cap on his head. He wore his spectacles round his neck on a cord but they would usually be perched on his nose. His head would always be down as he either pored over some papers or stared at the computer screen. As he chatted with his customers, his spectacles would still be on his nose, but he would look at them directly above his glasses and smile.

He would often not pay heed to the customers that came inside the shop because he knew they were just dropping by to browse and would put the books back on their shelves. One day I noticed he was typing very slowly with only his index finger. When I commented on his slow typing, he smiled and said, “My typing is not weak, it is very weak!”

Bukhari sahib was a true book junkie, to say the least. At a young age, I had heard my teachers and friends say how ‘junkies’ could make drug addicts out of you. First, they give you drugs for free, then they give them to you on credit, and when you are completely hooked, they start charging you for the drugs. Though I have never done drugs, with Bukhari sahib, my addiction to books followed a similar path. As I mentioned above, at first he gifted a book to me, then he started giving me books on credit. Now, if I visit Kabir Building on Jinnah Road in Quetta, I go to his shop to actually purchase them. 

Bukhari sahib was born in Quetta in the late 1940s. His business-oriented family hailed originally from Kashmir but had chosen to settle in Quetta. Family members and close friends of Bukhari sahib suggest they may have been business-minded but also had an avid interest in literature. That is the reason they focused on launching bookshops in the city. Abid Bukhari, Bukhari sahib’s uncle, was a drama and theatre writer. When Bukhari sahib became an orphan at the age of 16, he joined his uncle Abid at the bookstore. Over the years, Bukhari sahib inherited the book business from his uncle.

Like his uncle, Bukhari sahib loved to socialise. He had large gatherings in the evening where Baloch and Pashtun nationalists, writers, journalists, senior bureaucrats and literary figures would sit in his shop to discuss books, politics and the current issues of the province and the country. “Even if you look at the book business now from a business angle, there is still business coming in,” the late Bukhari sahib once commented to me, not long ago, on the dying culture of book reading in Quetta. He also disagreed that the book reading culture was dying; he said that people came to him regularly to buy books.

Gosha-i-Adab, as the Bukhari bookstore is named, currently has two branches on Jinnah Road. The first branch opened in 1962, when the bookshop business was thriving. The second branch was where Bukhari sahib would sit. His bookshop is still the most famous bookshop in Quetta.

Bukhari sahib used to narrate stories of nationalist figures of the province and other well-known leftists and literary figures, such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who visited his shops on their trips to Quetta. The shop still has a wonderful collection of books on the history of Balochistan, particularly on the colonial era, as well as leftist literature, along with a great collection of novels and non-fiction books on Pakistan. Zaeem remembers that once Bukhari sahib approached Faiz Ahmed Faiz as a publisher, to publish one of his books. Hesitating in front him, Bukhari sahib said he would pay whatever little royalty he would get from his book. Instead, Faiz had told him to pay the amount of his royalty to a hospital in Quetta. But unfortunately, because of unknown reasons, the publication could not materialise.

As a publisher, according to Zaeem, Bukhari sahib published around 400 books that were either unavailable in the market or had gone out of print. As many readers cannot read in English, he also got books translated into Urdu and published these for Urdu readers of Balochistan. Bukhari sahib was known as ‘the bookman’ for having dedicated his entire life to the book business.

In the past, there had been raids on bookshops in other parts of the province. Bukhari sahib, too, faced restrictions on selling books that were considered ‘objectionable’ by officials, but he never complained about the restrictions he confronted to anyone, including those in his close circle.    

Balochistan’s dilemma is that there is a lack of institutes to train students so that they may have an opportunity to excel in their fields. In the few institutes that are present, critical thinking is not encouraged. In such a situation, students are often self-taught, thanks to books. And the Gosha-i-Adab has taken the place of an institute. This was possible only because of a bookman such as Bukhari sahib.

Bukhari sahib’s bookshop became a refuge for those who with an interest in literature and book-reading. Bukhari sahib’s knowledge of Quetta and Balochistan was also something we would always be awed by. But my discussions with him were always incomplete because of one busy schedule or another. A few months ago, he had telephoned me to give me feedback on one of my stories. At the time I was in a rural part of Balochistan and the network signals were weak. So once again, our discussion had remained incomplete.      

As I wrote this story, I was once again in the same place. This time on a weak network signal, I spoke to Zaeem to gather details on Bukhari sahib’s life. Just like his father, Zaeem, too, complained to me about my barely audible voice. But I gathered that, because of his status as a Covid-19 patient, Bukhari sahib’s body could not be brought back to his hometown Quetta and had to be buried in Lahore. 

I also recalled that one day, during a discussion, Zaeem had said to me that there were still some ‘mad men’ who continue to buy books, even while the rest of the city seems no longer interested in doing so. While writing this tribute to his father, I have come to a one-line conclusion: the biggest mad man was his own father, who did his best to promote a book-reading culture in a society such as ours, where ignorance is a blessing.

The writer is a member of staff He tweets @akbar_notezai

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 12th, 2020

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