IN the midst of a general sense of insecurity spawned by terrorist attacks and the gloom spurred by spiralling inflation, something rejuvenating happened in Karachi last week.
The Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association held its Fourth Karachi International Book Fair much to the delight of bibliophiles.
What is more, its success was beyond popular expectations. According to the convener of the managing committee, Iqbal Saleh Mohammad, a veteran of the book trade, the five-day fair attracted about 200,000 people. The estimated turnover? Rs100m.
Now that is something to talk about in a society that is notorious for its aversion to reading. The organisers had booked three pavilions at the Expo Centre to accommodate the 100 or so participants. The number fell when 25 from India pulled out at the eleventh hour. Yet five ventured to cross into Pakistan — one being from the University of Srinagar — to signal their confidence in people-to-people diplomacy, which, it is now felt, should determine the state of peace in South Asia and not the politics of leaders.
Another gesture of friendship came from the Kashmiris who promised to leave their unsold stock as a gift to an educational institution in Karachi.
The book fair also gave the lie to the claim made by the purveyors of gloom that people have lost their zest for life. The fair provided a rare five-day outlet for recreation for the educated of Karachi. Some believe that we have to thank the KESC for giving a boost to the reading habit. With long hours of power outages, people have to forego television viewing. Books are handy as they can be read even in the light of emergency lamps. Be that as it may, Karachiites voted squarely for books when they flocked with their families to the Expo Centre to browse through publications of all hues — and buy them too.
There was also a message for the terrorists who love to blow themselves up in the name of religion in crowded places along with hapless innocent victims. People refused to be deterred by them. Many have also had their fill of religion, it appears. Nuzhat Rehman, who retired recently as LOC's head of acquisitions in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, tells me that Islamic books that had topped the list of the most purchased titles in Pakistan for several years have now slipped to second position with politics, especially memoirs of public figures, moving to the top.
The electronic media has certainly created public awareness. Rehman has been observing the trends for several years and is knowledgeable about what people love to read.
Even in the heartland of terrorism, books continue to inspire people. There was the brave woman from the Peshawar Textbook Board who pointed out that while girls' schools were being torched in Swat, there were many more that were still functioning and people like her were hard at work developing new textbooks. For projecting this message of hope we have to be thankful to Mujahid Barelvi, one of the few TV anchors who brings cheer to our lives by choosing to step out of the studio to focus on the positive, such as the book fair, in his programme Doosra Pehlu.
Does the success of the book fair predict the birth of the book culture in Pakistan? One would like to believe that. But one swallow doesn't make a summer. Two hundred thousand in a population of 16 million constitutes a minuscule fraction of 1.25 per cent. Most observers believe that the growing population has made even a small percentage of the total pretty visible in absolute numbers. Therefore the crowds at the book fair were bigger than what one used to see a decade or so ago when Shams Quraeshi, the doyen of booksellers in the metropolis, would grumble to me that people spend money on adorning their bodies but not their minds.
The absence of a tradition of reading books can be traced back directly to our socio-cultural and political trait of encouraging conformism and fearing intellectual curiosity and pluralism. The less the exposure of people to a diversity of ideas, the fewer will be the questions asked and minimal the level of dissent that challenges prevailing norms. No wonder our society has never been too enthused by books and education.
In that context, a good omen was the presence of children in large numbers at the book fair. In fact children's literature was the success story of the day. With parents encouraging children to read, there is hope for the future.
If the reading habit is to be consciously cultivated attention will have to be paid to making books accessible and affordable. Whether a book is expensive or cheap depends on the pocket of the buyer. While one reader wants books to cost no more than Rs300, another considers Rs700 to be reasonable. Iqbal Mohammad was spot on when he said, “Those who want to read cannot afford books. Those who can afford them do not want to read.”
Publishers are all too willing to lower prices only if the government plays its role. At the moment all printing material
and paper are imported and there is a heavy duty on it — that cumulatively works out to 40 to 50 per cent. With their small turnover, booksellers can survive only with heavy discounts from publishers (40 per cent). This adds to the cost and reduces sales, trapping the book trade in a vicious cycle. This cycle can be broken by promoting libraries that would increase sales and make books accessible to people. But libraries by themselves are not enough — though one cannot forgive Karachi's city government for converting the site of the city library into a trauma centre.
Every province must have a library law that should make it mandatory for all local bodies to ensure the establishment of a mohallah library in their jurisdiction and earmark at least two per cent of their budget for the purchase of books. Sindh should become a pioneer in this field.