NOT many readers would have visited Juna Market, the commercial hub of Karachi where hardware and spices compete with halwa puri to find buyers.
In the ocean of commodities catering to hedonistic pleasures stands a lone modest-looking bookshop that seeks to nourish the mind. It has been doing that for 102 years, an anomaly among its worldly surroundings.
More fascinating than the Abbasi Kutubkhana is the man who sits behind the counter, Habib Husain Abbasi, whose maternal grandfather founded this shop in 1910.
When he died in 1941, his son-in-law Abdul Rasool, who had been his apprentice for over two decades, took charge. His son, the present owner, took over in 1988 when his father passed away suddenly. He had just started writing his memoirs. Habib’s training was his 28-year apprenticeship with his father. He, however, managed to find time to carry on his studies at the Sindh Madressah and the S.M. College from where he graduated.
He is a bookseller in the true meaning the word. In his book Sketches of Some Booksellers of the Times of Dr Samuel Johnson, E. Marston writes of one of the ilk: “He was not a bookseller, but a gentleman who dealt in books.”
It clearly emerges from the sketches of the 10 or so individuals belonging to the 17th-18th century British book trade that being in the company of books and reading them avidly left a stamp on the men of the trade. Erudition, scholarship and eloquence became second nature to them. Intellectual discourse about men of learning was their favourite pastime.
If you read about Sultan Khan, the key figure in The Bookseller of Kabul by award-winning journalist Asne Seierstad, you will find similar attributes in him. In Seierstad’s words, the bookseller of Kabul felt let down by his country, time and again. After spending hours listening to his stories, she felt that “he was himself a living piece of Afghan cultural history, a living book on two feet”.
Habib Abbasi fits these descriptions aptly. Bookselling is a phenomenon which allows books to subsume the seller so totally that he becomes a part of them. Habib doesn’t see his work as a commercial activity. For him his vocation is an act of promoting education and knowledge — khidmat-i-khalq (service to humanity) he calls it.
By the time he was old enough to be browsing among the books his father stocked his shelves with so lovingly, the bookshop had already acquired a name. It became a focal point for scholars, publishers and other booksellers in the quest of knowledge. They came from as far-off places as Iran, Afghanistan and all over India. They still do — the latest visitor being Patrick Laude, professor of theology from Georgetown University and currently based in Doha.
Habib grew up in the company of books and scholars. He recalls the great names from the literary world who would visit the kutubkhana and fraternise with his father such as Allama Abdul Aziz Memon, the vice chancellor of Damascus university, Sindh’s Shamsul Ulema Dr Daudpota, lawyer Khalid Ishaq, well-known writer Pir Hisamuddin Rashidi, Sindh’s renowned scholars Mirza Kalich Beg and Pir Aga Jan Sirhindi, historian Rais Ahmed Jafri and many others. He is a living encyclopaedia on these legendary men of learning.
When I visited his shop on a public holiday — on a working day it is a challenge even for a pedestrian to negotiate his way through the entangled traffic — there was a constant flow of friends and visitors who knew that the Abbasi Kutubkhana was the place to go to for rest and recreation of the intellectual kind. Hence I found myself in pleasant company.
A bookshop is known by the books it keeps. There were no volumes of flashy pulp fiction adorning its shelves. There was a wealth of scholarship crowding the place from encyclopaedias of all variety in Urdu, Arabic and Persian to dictionaries of different languages. Fiction is of the classical variety such as Tilism-i-Hoshruba and Alif Laila which have resurfaced in popular interest.
How does Habib see the future prospects of the book industry in Pakistan? He is reticent and as a matter of principle keeps a low profile. He says he lacks the four key qualities for successful bookselling, namely Qaroon ka khazana (wealth), umr-i-Nooh (long life), sabr-i-Ayub (patience) and Ibn-i-Sina ka ilm (knowledge). He, however, suggests that big literary institutions and publishers — the Iqbal Academy, OUP, Institute of Islamic Culture, he names a few — should start a new tradition of working jointly in the field of book publishing. He feels that they have the resources, the know-how, manpower and networking capacity to produce researched books as agents of learning and scholarship. He feels that thus alone can they counter the challenges posed by piracy and junk publishing that have proliferated in the market. He also stresses the need to broaden our translation base which he feels is not sufficiently developed in Pakistan.
His suggestion reminds me of the two booksellers’ clubs that Marston writes about in his book cited above. One was the Friends of Literature comprising a group of London booksellers who met once a month to discuss literary affairs and also take business decisions on joint publications. The jointly published works were then divided among the booksellers to sell. Paradise Lost, Robinson Crusoe and Goldsmith’s Essays were some outstanding products of this club. There is no denying that we need more researched publications.