FORTY-FOUR years is a long period. Abdul Khaliq recalls the names of several cities where he has sold books loaded on a van. He has now landed in Quetta’s posh Jinnah town. “I sit where there is a shade,” the greying, old man says, standing under a leafless tree.
“Last year, I had my bookshop in Quetta’s Millennium Mall,” he recalls, removing dust from a book cover. “To my dismay, there were hardly any people interested in buying books.”
Abdul Khaliq has been in the book-selling business since his matriculation. At the time, he goes on to add, he had just 450 books he had bought out of his pocket money. He started out in Karachi, his native city.
“I did it in several parts of Karachi for 38 years. But one day it occurred to me there is no dearth of good bookshops in that city. So I decided to move to a city where there are very few bookshops. I opted for Quetta six years ago, even though my family is still in Karachi.
“In Quetta, as well as in the rest of Balochistan, there is a dearth of book shops. But there’s no dearth of book lovers. People from outside Quetta outnumber those from the metropolis itself among my customers,” observes Abdul Khaliq.
He set up his stall on a footpath in Jinnah Town a few weeks ago.
Although he speaks Urdu fluently, he began his conversation with two English quotes. But he left them in the middle after forgetting the exact words. He answered all my questions carefully and in a concise language.
He is popularly known in Quetta as “the bookman” after setting up shop in Millennium Mall.
No money for books
He speaks disdainfully about the moneyed shoppers visiting the Mall.
“They have loads of money for everything but books. In front of my tiny bookshop, there was an outlet for mobile phones.
“An affluent man bought expensive mobiles and selfie-sticks for his children. But he flew into a rage when one of the children put his hands on an Urdu book worth merely Rs150.
“He pulled up the child, saying ‘what are you going to do with it’. Such is the mindset in our society when it comes to buying and reading books.”
He moved out of the shopping mall and started doing business first in Quetta cantonment. But at present he is mostly seen on pavements.
“If books are out of reach, these cannot make a difference,” he says while throwing light on the importance of book-reading. The idea behind setting up the business was that it should be within the reach of readers, no matter where you have to be. It will either be a footpath or a well-furnished bookshop in a glitzy shopping mall.”
Abdul Khaliq philosophises on the reasons behind Pakistan’s backwardness. “I went to New Delhi 30 years ago. While staring at the stairs of Badshahi mosque, I saw that sweepers had small books tucked inside their pockets. Even they knew the importance of reading and that it is the key to a bright future.”
After selling a book to a student, he speaks to me with a touch of sarcasm: “To my astonishment, people ask me ‘are you selling books? Isn’t it strange?’
“I ask them whether you have ever asked a tea shop owner why he is selling tea. They speak about books in a such a way as people talk about relics.”
In the evening, the weather turns colder. Abdul Khaliq starts putting his books into cartons after removing dust.
Mehboob Ilahi, a school van driver, is his friend. Ever since the closure of schools due to Covid, Mr Ilahi has been transporting Abdul Khaliq and his books to his place.
As Mr Ilahi is short of time today, he asks Abdul Khaliq to hurry up. I ask Abdul Khaliq about how he makes payment to his friend for his services.
Mr Ilahi interjects, mocking his friend. “His father cannot make the payment,” he shouts. “He only pays for the petrol in case he succeeds in selling some books on a given day.”
As Mehboob Ilahi starts the van, he answers one last question from me about his favourite book.
“It is Gadhey ki Wapsi (Return of the donkey) by Shaukat Thanvi.”
“Why?” I ask him, having never heard of the book.
“Because the donkey returns to its master,” he quips, laughing to his heart’s content.
Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2020