Are we still interested in reading?

By Altaf Hussain Asad

Niaz Ahmad founded Sang-e-Meel Publications in 1962. Since 1982, Afzaal Ahmad has been taking care of Sang-e-Meel. He is of the opinion that the number of readers has increased over the years. “The number of readers has increased. I think people like to read books on history, fiction and travelogues. People from remote towns visit our bookshop in large numbers. They read more books than the readers of urban areas. Die-hard readers buy books whether the price is high or low. I think those people bemoan the rising prices of books who don’t want to read at all.”

 Nearly five thousand titles are available at Sang-e-Meel.  Their bestseller is Shahab Nama while the books of Ashfaq Ahmad, Intizar Husain, Abdullah Hussain, Enver Sajjad and Mustansar Tarar also sell like hot cakes.

Ahmad does not buy the idea that religious books are being published in great numbers. “The interest in libraries should be revived which are scattered through the length and breadth of Pakistan.”

Liaqat Ali started Takhleeqat in 1992 and so far he has published nearly six hundred titles. Initially, he published literary books and translations but now he publishes books on health, food etc. “Yes there are more readers now but their ratio is as high if you compare it with rising population. I think literary books sell slowly these days. Books on health, food and self-help are much more in demand. We also publish books on computers, which sell briskly. The prices of food and eatables have also risen and people still throng hotels and restaurants. So the price of a book is also risen just like other items.”

Ali does not believe that books on religious topics are selling well. Only those religious books sell well which are included in the syllabus of religious seminaries.  Takhleeqat’s bestseller is the Urdu translation of Michael Hart’s Hundred Great People, which has sold nearly sixty thousand copies so far. Muhammad Asim Butt has translated it into Urdu.

Amjad Saleem owns Sanjh Publications.  He started Sanjh a few years ago and has published nearly two hundred books so far. He has published about a hundred books in Punjabi and he firmly believes that Punjabi poetry has a great market in small towns and villages. “Readers have not increased as we still publish books in a very small quantity. Our population has increased but we still publish an edition of usually five hundred books. People read books on fiction and criticism more avidly. I firmly believe that books on rationality have great demand. I published Tehzibi Nargasiat and now Mubalghay Mughaltay by Mobarak Haider. In just one month, nearly six hundred copies have been sold. People from far flung areas such as Zhob, Loralai, Sibbi, are contacting me to buy Mubalghay Mughaltay.”

Unlike Afzaal Ahmad and Liaqat Ali, Saleem thinks that 98 percent books are being published on the religious topics to cater to the millions of students of religious seminaries. As regards the prices of the books, he concedes that prices are quite high as the publishers usually target the elite, which is only two percent of all readers. “We need to focus on the 98 percent and use newsprint to lower the cost. Tehzibi Nargasait, Ghulam Bagh, and the stories of Amrita Pritam have been the bestsellers of Sanjh Publications so far.

 Readings, which is a bookstore, has recently started its publishing house and is headed by Aamir Riaz. He also believes the number of readers has increased. “There are more readers now and we need to adopt a reader friendly approach while publishing books. We should publish paperback editions of the book for the benefit of common readers. We should not publish books for libraries only. There is no data which says that more religious books are being published these days. People are interested in reading books on fiction and biographies these days.” Riaz says there are ten more books in the pipeline and they want to publish more books on children in the coming days.

The stories of Asad Muhammad Khan sold very well according to him. “The government should also play its due role to lower the prices of book by importing cheap paper.”


Twists and turns

Coffee House is a collection of twenty short stories concerning bureaucrats, prostitutes, office workers, beggars, drunkards, the pious, the partition and twists and turns.

The author Isaac Bashevis Singer once described literature as something that simultaneously “shocks, entertains and instructs” and Coffee House, with some of its poignant stories, entertains with unexpected endings, obliquely instructs and leads the reader to at times ponder and at other times wonder.

Apparently, Irfan Javed has selected the title of his book owing to the historical tradition of story telling and poetry recital at various coffee houses ranging from ancient Iraq to modern France. Coffee houses of Lahore and Karachi of the 1960s and 1970s were known for the literati they attracted.

Coffee House is a treasure trove of some little gems of Urdu short fiction. As Pakistan never ceases to enthrall and entertain a social scientist, so this mosaic of society reflects in the form of these colorful stories that throb with life. The most conspicuous feature of this book is the bold topics selected by Irfan Javed that hang on the body of society like live wires but no one dares to touch them. Javed, however, has handled these topics with a mature hand and without losing the flavor of fiction.

There are seven stories that stand out of the selection due to their bold subjects.  Munnay nay Pakai Khichri is apparently a very touching story of love between a grandfather and his grandson. In fact, it has a delicately obscure reference to the unexpected circumstances that lead a staunch believer to question his long established beliefs. Similarly, post-partition short stories are rich with tales that compel readers to sympathise with the Muslim victims of that bloody saga. Contrarily, Kamni is a daring story of a Hindu girl who is victimised by a Muslim. Still the astonishing aspect of the story is the subtlety with which Javed has handled its climax. It is certainly not a typical partition story.

 Jo Jagay Hein is a story of an apparently sensual interaction between a first time client and a prostitute. The sublime message of the story is the sanctity of humanity itself.  In a society where even animals have rights (though only in books), prostitutes are generally ruthlessly treated at sub-human level. They do exist in the society and this reality is swelling with the growing economic deprivation and wide scale poverty. Abortion, an unholy word in social discourses is very much a reality in urban ghettos as well as posh clinics. It is the subject of Shikast. However the hand of the fiction writer comes to life and successfully carves out a pointed and sharp story.

Chacha Izzat is the depiction of hatred that various ethnic groups in Pakistan harbour. Javed has amalgamated ethnic hatred, religious extremism and the love of sports in the form of a story, which irritates with its crude language but at the same time entertains with keen observation and a finesse with which tells the last part of the story.

 Mera Dost Sam is more of a play than a story and is also the longest.  It is a dialogue between a Pakistani and his American friend.  The situation is set in Lahore. It reminds one of the time when European and American tourists roamed the streets of Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar without fear and Pakistanis were welcomed all across Europe without contempt. It contains reflections on global peace (which seems more of a day-dream). Jungle Kahani is a fable in which a jungle symbolises a society.  It is the story of the destruction and reconstruction of a society. It tells the tale of a seed that grows to become a gigantic tree, ultimately to be destroyed under its own weight.  It obliquely refers to certain institutions and persons that overstep their mandate and also hints at the foreign forces that can never hold ground forever on invaded lands.

Manto immortalised his classic short story Khol Du by masterly crafting the story around a blunt single phrase. Later on some other writers also tried this technique. There are three stories in this collection that are woven around a single phase or a word. Both Soday Ki Botal and Aik Lafz carry a serious tone but let the reader guessing till the unexpected ending startles him, however, Aur Jab Babloo Ghar Wapis Nah Aya is written more in a lighter tone.

Olga is the only truly romantic love story set in Turkey that drips with emotions and burns on the tender fire of love. Bhonchal reverberates with nostalgia and resounds with the eternal dialogue among humans on the relative distinction between good and evil.

There are other stories that have entertainment value due to twists and turns in the tales, depiction of varied characters and popular appeal. Chadrein, Aik Nafsiati Masala, Apna Ghar Afsar-e-Aala, Boss Aur Mirza are among them. Apnay Hisay Ki Roshni has a very effective social message.  Whereas Intizar loses its razor edge due to the real blood shed in crime infested Karachi.

Irfan Javed has cleverly selected Samjhota to be the first story of the book as it is one of the best.  The story revolves around a couple, Mr and Mrs Jami who are under great psychological tension arising out of an unintentional crime committed by the protagonist. It ends with the most effective yet colourful line of the story, which lingers on the mind of the reader and compels him to ponder. Shart is the weakest story of the book, as it seems to recapture an oft-repeated situation in typical Bollywood flicks in the form of a short story.  It would have been better if the story was left out of the book.

Coffee House proves the point that the Urdu short story is thriving and has writers with impressive talent; keen observation and an effective command over language. It is certainly heartening to observe that these writers will carry the torch of the quality Urdu short story.


The polymath, Daud Rahbar, (poet, essayist, musician and musicologist) tells me that he has, at last, finished the two-volume biography of his father, Dr Mohammad Iqbal, a work that took him almost ten years to complete. Penguin will be publishing it later this year.

Daud Rahbar’s father, my uncle, Shaikh Mohammad Iqbal, was twenty years younger than his more illustrious namesake, Shaikh Mohammad Iqbal, the revered poet. Both studied for a doctorate in Cambridge under the famous Oriental Professor Brown. Both held, at different times, the same professorship (of Persian) at Punjab University and both worked for the Academy of Islamic learning (Idara-e-Ma’arif-e- Islamia) in an honorary capacity. It is a remarkable coincidence that the two Shaikhs were very good friends as well. The great poet died in 1938 and my uncle died in 1948.

The junior Iqbal addressed the senior Iqbal as Pirjee (respected mentor). The great poet had a vast circle of friends and admirers who gathered every evening round his bed to derive the benefit of his wit and wisdom. The senior Iqbal was loquacious; my uncle Iqbal became uncomfortable in the presence of those he did not know. He often sat quietly next to one of the poet’s cronies without offering any comment or making any contribution to the conversation.

Uncle Iqbal was reticent not so much by nature as by a methodical cultivation of self-restraint. In the company of like-minded souls he would become less silent. He spoke in measured tones and his sentences were interspersed with what I can only term as Macready pauses. Surrounded by uncongenial people there was only an unending pause. He was not given to showing emotion. The only time he did, publicly, was on the day his Pirjee, the great Iqbal died. He was one of the first to arrive at the poet’s house to pay him last respects. He stood by the corpse for nearly an hour, his son has written, and shed tears.

I often found my uncle sitting cross-legged on his bed; his half moon glasses perched delicately close to the top of his nose, peering at the tome that rested on his lap. As a child I was often warned never to raise my voice when going past his bedroom-cum- sitting room. His countenance was stern and he disapproved of boisterousness. When I offered my salaam, he would nod, perfunctorily, and go back to his study. But there were times when he would raise his head and looking above the rim of his glasses, produce a smile so warm that his face lost all traces of sternness. Perhaps he had just read something that had filled his soul with tenderness.

My uncle’s wife died when he was thirty- five and he remained a bereaved survivor for the rest of his short life. He knew only one way to reduce his sorrow: scholarly absorption and he devoted his life, assiduously, towards that end. He was, forever, engaged in annotating obscure Persian texts. If he wasn’t in his bedroom-cum-sitting room he was in his library browsing through the history of the Suljuks, or unravelling the mysteries of rare manuscripts. His sons walked on tiptoe and spoke to each other in hushed tones.

My uncle’s youngest son was my special chum. When I went over to his house he would often receive me outside the front gate. He didn’t have to say one word. The look on his face would convey to me that my uncle was in and up. We spent our afternoons lolling about on the spacious lawn or sitting under one of the many shady trees, eating the forbidden aam-papar (dried spicy mango pulp). Only a dire necessity would make us go inside the house.

When my uncle was out we had the run of his big, rambling house except for the two rooms, which were known as the “office” and the library. These were the two front rooms, one a small study with glassed shelves that contained manuscripts and first editions, and the other, a much larger square room with an enormous desk in the centre. There were numerous bookshelves and revolving bookcases (crammed with books) occupying every bit of space. Apart from a revolving desk chair there was no other furniture in the room.

There was time when my uncle did not lead an austere life. He was once a jovial host who held weekly musical soirées. He had a circle of intimate friends. His closest mate was Sirajuddin Azar, a lecturer of English literature at a local college. Both of them loved playing the tabla. On weekends my uncle invited some singer or instrumentalist to entertain them. The maestro, Shamsuddin, a renowned classical singer, was a regular visitor.

After his wife dies my uncle went into permanent mourning. He got rid of all his musical instruments. A lone Taoos(peacock), a beautifully shaped string instrument, stood against the wall in his dressing room like an abandoned relative.

Uncle Iqbal owned a rich library of well over four thousand books. He was known for possessing the works of all the major British, German, French and Italian, Islamicists. Dr. Daud Rahbar, the eminent writer and thinker, inherited his library. When Rahbar went to Cambridge (for his doctorate), soon after his father’s death, he took the entire collection with him. With thousands of books it was impossible for him to live in digs so he bought a house. In 1950, he was probably the first Pakistani to buy a house in Cambridge.



A few years ago, looking through some second-hand books, stacked on a trolley in Karachi, I came across a weather-beaten volume which had a faded golden seal of “Trubner’s Oriental Series,” embossed on the cover. I opened the book and found my uncle’s name written in his own beautiful handwriting. On the opposite page he had written, in pencil, “Cambridge” with the date 11/12/18 underneath. The title of the book was Quatrains of Omar Khayyam translated by E.M. Whinefield M.A (late of Bengal Civil Service).

Fitzgerald’s translations — adaptations, I should say — of Khayyam’s quatrains appealed to the temperament of the Edwardian age. Whinefield’s translations are more literal. Uncle Iqbal’s library contained many books related to Omar Khayyam, his most favoured poet. Dr Daud Rahbar reveals that his eye would become moist when he read out Khayyam aloud. He did not need to read him in translation — he knew Persian better than his mother tongue. The thrust of Rahbar’s thesis is that the other Iqbal (like Khayyam) did not believe that every particular event and phenomenon was the result of divine intervention. His strict observation of religious rituals was a habit he could not shed:

“Hum ko maloom hai jannat kee haqeeqat lekin…”

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