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Our melancholy booksellers

August 07, 2012


A man on a motorbike drives past what used to be Peshawar's best-known bookstore "Saeed Book Bank" which has now been operating in Islamabad for a few years. – File photo courtesy Creative Commons
A man on a motorbike drives past what used to be Peshawar's best-known bookstore "Saeed Book Bank" which has now been operating in Islamabad for a few years. – File photo courtesy Creative Commons

Blasé, borrowed from French, refers to the deadening of sensibilities or a state of tiredness induced by too much exposure to enjoyment or pleasure. A good example of blasé is the over prevalence of the modern and varied means of entertainment and their facile accessibility, which has rather than curbing boredom accentuated it.

Reading, howsoever showy it may sound, is one eternally charming activity that is entertaining its pursuers for eons without enervating their senses in any manner whatsoever. The solidity of this argument could be judged from the fact that centuries old tomes like ‘War and Peace,’ ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Les Miserables,’ ‘Vanity Fair,’ ‘David Copperfield’ so on and so forth are still being printed with an increased frequency and read with an astonishing appetite in this fast-paced world.

If one were asked for a fair opinion, there is an added pleasure in reading the timeless classics in their oldest editions. Dipped in the essence and fragrance of times, these books could be found at the oddest places. During a reading session at the residence of a respectable lady in Peshawar one had the good luck of seeing one of the oldest editions of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ adorning the shelf conspicuously like a trophy, and an even more fruitful encounter with luck by reading Leo Tolstoy’s 1936 edition of ‘Anna Karenina’ found in a library in the murky alleys of Balamari in the old city of Peshawar.

Peshawar now looks to be coming out of the shock forced by the closure of one of its biggest bookshops, and the owners shifting to Islamabad, lock, stock and barrel. One recently spotted one of the owners, not far from his sprawling shop, coming out of a mosque in the Jinnah Super Market. He looked to be more lost, and indeed more forlorn than what he used to be in his previous quarters of Peshawar.

‘Why did you betray Peshawar?’ one just couldn’t help stop asking the bookseller bluntly after an exchange of pleasantries. ‘Our sales had gone down below the level of sustaining them any longer,’ he came up with the not quite unexpected reply.

There was little fun in taking the issue beyond that point despite the existence of sufficient grounds to do so. The wherewithal for the huge books empire in Islamabad was all garnered from Peshawar. The bookseller is just one more addition to the list of scores of politicians and bureaucrats who have over the years used Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for the furtherance of their materialistic designs and ambitions and left it in the lurch for the fashionable addresses of Islamabad as their ultimate goals.

There are still some booksellers who are resolutely clinging on to their avocation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. One could literally bump into one’s favourite and much sought titles at nearly half a dozen bookshops, or their charitable replications, in Peshawar and Abbottabad. One was recently looking for Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go,’ and one was about to make a request to a friend in England after a fruitless search in Islamabad.

Lo and behold! Ishiguro’s latest title was lying there on a long log panel, peering at its pursuer from under heaps of books at a roadside bookstall in Abbottabad, for just one hundred and twenty five rupees, and an original paperback. The bookseller, dim and withdrawn, accepted the cash from his rickety chair, without being wary of the value of his ware he was Our melancholy booksellers dispensing for a paltry sum.

One wonders if old or secondhand bookshop is not a misnomer or at least not relevant anymore for quite a few of these shops have been found out to be selling out brand new paperbacks and indeed even hardbacks for unimaginably low prices. One literally pounced on a wonderful foursome in one such bookshop at a backstreet in the Peshawar Cantonment. The catch included two books ‘The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto’ and ‘The New Life’ by the two Nobel laureates Mario Vargas Llosa and Orhan Pamuk respectively and ‘The Bone People’ by the Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme in addition to Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth;’ the first and the third mentioned in hard covers and in immaculate condition, all for rupees eight hundred only.

One couldn’t have hoped for a better deal on a dull and listless day and with a dealer whose growing business from the buyer of old newspapers to being a veritable bookseller has done stupendous harm to his manners and temperament. A short and dark complexioned man, perhaps in his early thirties, this bookseller does not like repeating the price scribbled in pencil on each book by him in his own handwriting. He keeps glancing furtively at his customers rummaging through his stocks with visible scowls on his sharp featured face. He seems to have gained a fair amount of knowledge about what sells, and in no case would sell a Gabriel Garcia title for a song. It is good that the poor chap has not been caught singing high praises of Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Midnight Children,’ which he proudly claims to have got hold of and sold to an unsuspecting reader, and thus missing an edict for his scalp by the breadth of a hair.

One found and bought several titles of Booker Prize winner Ian McEvan, Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, Roald Dahl and two of the Raj Quartets by Paul Scott at a discount book point located in a basement in the Supply Bazaar Abbottabad. One’s heart really goes out to those great authors buying their great works for sums as little as rupees fifty. But even sadder is the specter of nearly all famous works produced by the pirates and splashed on the tables in this basement shop. All original copies have been consigned to the ground shelves where it is quite an arduous job to search while squatting on the haunches.

The owner is rarely if ever seen in the shop to be requested for the better placement of the valued books leaving the job to his assistant who is almost always, as if of a habit or some compulsion, found gloomy and reflecting perhaps on his poor circumstances. It was in this particular shop where one excitedly put into the bucket ‘My Uncle Oswald’ by Roald Dahl, for consumption by the children craving for reading in the summer vacation.

Dahl is a celebrated children’s writer, and one had mistakenly thought him to be restricted to that field. ‘My Uncle Oswald’ is strictly for adults as one discovered upon reading the back cover and the kind of work that allows no two moments of sobriety to the readers leaving them in splits after the nearly three hour long irresistible nonstop reading. Dahl’s naughtiest work was recently spotted at Kamran’s secondhand bookstore in Jinnah Super Market Islamabad, brandished prominently as a weapon of mass laughter perhaps to provide much needed relief to the people in these sad days of their life.

Despite his perennially sad disposition, Kamran is one fine bookseller who sells his great collection of books virtually for any price indicated by his customers. He seems to be groomed in the mood of Milan Kundera whose works he flaunts as his most prized assets. It was here where one found Doris Lessing’s ‘The Good Terrorist’ and so many other of the octogenarian Nobel winner’s great works for pitifully low prices.

Peshawar may have lost its biggest bookshop, the British and the US library services, but there is no stopping the earnest booklovers find the books of their choices, courtesy their considerate and sad-looking booksellers.