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The book that exists yet is non-existent

November 22, 2012

-Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro

There was a time when books were cheap, as was everything else. The only expensive thing was the living being. But now life is cheap and books are expensive. At first, the paper, Chittagong and the Karnaphuli Paper Mills were all our own. Books were being written, bought and read. There was no custom of distributing books yet. Books were published more than newspapers and were read in every household. If one couldn’t afford to buy books, then they needn’t worry as there were libraries in every street and neighbourhood. People would rent a book and then return for another the very next day.

Children’s literature, detective literature, poetry, novels and even  digests were graced with the sweetness of literature. If someone was going to the library in the evening, then he would have catered to requests from the young ones, the elders, from one’s sister and mother. Everyone used to read and writers would only write. Positions, seats and life’s countless luxuries in exchange for writing had not become writers’ aim in life yet.

Then the minority turned themselves into the majority by separating the original majority. We lost much due to the majority’s departure. Most importantly, the loss of Karnaphuli Paper Mills affected our books the most. Our arts, film, music, dance and literature were all left incomplete. When the books became more expensive, the custom of reading and writing began to die out too. That is when our journey backwards began and still continues today.

The elder brother’s younger brother never considered his brother as the elder one. The latter became the elder one himself and took all the advantages that came with it. The one who was actually older wasn’t there anymore. How to tread upon the young ones and keep them there is a skill that the new elder brother knows very well as his feet are always in military boots. The maulvi has always been his childhood buddy anyway, without whom the brother is incomplete. Both friends teamed up to destroy the elder brother.

Our journey backwards began in the 70s and was sped up in the 80s. The Kaaba and Qibla of the country were corrected. The days of teaching and learning ended, while fasting and praying became compulsory. Bars and clubs where eminent personalities of literature, art, music, film and theater used to meet and discuss books and give birth to new ideas, had been shut down.

Slowly, libraries and coffee houses started to decrease in number. Instead, karahi and balti-ghosht shops sprouted up. Madrassas also started to increase. Publication of religious books increased because the funds obtained from Saudi Arabia were specifically for this purpose. Therefore, those books were published and sold for bureaucratic formalities. Then the new uniformed people appeared, wearing the badge of enlightenment, and started to follow in Mard-e-Momin’s footsteps, yielding more darkness. 9/11 made it better since they started to gather money in the name of both, the fight against terror and enlightenment.

-Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro

The class divisions in our society increased while more money was generated. The poor got poorer, the rich got richer. But the middle one was neither here nor there. He was merely worried about living. The progress made until now is limited to the food industry only. There are all sorts of food outlets opening up everywhere. The rich and poor both frequent these. The middle class is also found at the dinner table. The dinner table conversations are either limited to food or about people not present at the gathering. Alternatively, they lament the country’s situation, which we have been doing our entire lives. New ideology and ideas have become limited to a handful of nutcases. Even they are dividing into separate sections comprising their entire social interactions. However, they are not prepared to think outside their respective boxes.

Books are still being published. Bookshops continue to open up but mainly in large shopping centres. The class division in society has limited the accessibility of literature, art, theater and music to only those who can afford it. The habit of reading is inculcated in English-medium schools. However, it is considered enough to pass exams in government schools. So the inclination to read and write is only found in the children educated in English-medium schools but not their government school-educated peers. To top it all, books has been replaced with Kalashnikovs in accordance to the Quaid’s words.

Books in English are being written, as well as published. Its greatest proof is the Oxford University Press (OUP) and its Managing Director, Ameena Saiyid who took books, reading and learning to great heights. Then there are the ever-increasing bookshops that open up in every new shopping centres. Book lovers are buying books, as well as those who buy books to show themselves off as being educated to others. For example, when an artist is ‘in’, his/her paintings must be hung in the living room of this person at all costs. Similarly, the books by the writer who is ‘in’ these days are also a must-have on the bookshelf for such people.

-Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro

A literary book in Urdu being published in thousands is sufficient. Whether it is published in Lahore or Karachi, Sindh is where the book will be bought and read the most as there is still some inclination towards reading and writing in existence there. But in the rest of the country, the religious books are being published in large amounts that we cannot even fathom. These books are cheap and reading them will get you more blessings. Now you can see bookshops adjacent to the mosque. Forget that, even the shops selling religious audio cassettes also started appearing in the shadow of the mosque. We enjoy listening to these cassettes and they also relive our faith. But if you go to a shrine in Sindh, you will find a bookshop inside where you can buy contemporary literary books. It makes me proud to note that the buyers are buying books in those shops by taking the name of the author.

Forget Urdu, there are so many languages spoken and written in Pakistan. Numerous books are being published and sold in these languages. But no one is ready to accept all these languages as national languages. Urdu, the language that has been given the status of our national language, remains mostly ignored. Nowadays, the IDEAS 2012 is happening, which had begun as the IDEAS 2000. “Arms for Peace” is its slogan. Would it not have been better if the exhibition had been for books instead of weapons and its slogan would have been “Books for Peace”? The new generations could have thus been given books, education, health and enlightenment instead of weapons.

The book has been placed on the shelf, where it watches us, yearning for our attention. If the new generation could spare a few moments from reading their instant messages, they could read a book instead. The readers can also read on the internet today because books can be found online too. Some people say that it is the age of technology and computers and that internet and Facebook have gobbled up the book. But be it on paper or screen, the readers are reading. The ones who don’t want to read will never read despite the internet or Facebook, as they are busy trying to earn blessings or playing hide-and-seek on the internet.

A few days ago, I read a saying “Don’t be scared of the one who has read many books and owns a library. But definitely be scared of the one who has read just one book and considers it sacred.”



The author has dabbled in every form of the visual arts. An activist to the core, Abro’s work deals with social themes and issues ranging from human rights to dictatorial regimes. He is currently working for DAWN as an illustrator.