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DAWN The Review, December 25-31, 1999

"Wisdom Begins at Home

The problem with the local book market is its high instability. This line will best be appreciated by those readers who have gone through the frustration of finding out at any particular time that the one title of their favorite author that is out of print is exactly the one that they needed just at that significant moment. Or, still more frustrating, that the one author that the booksellers have never heard of is the one who was recommended by a learned friend as "the most important author our times." Where to go, whom to ask? In most other countries the answer would be easy: your nearest library. No such luck in Pakistan, where libraries are dying out and even the so-called "National Library" in Karachi seems to be losing more material every day than acquiring. (The present author observed on his last visit that several annual folders of old newspapers had gone missing from the reference shelf in the reading room.)

Here are a few "tricks of the trade" that might help you discover what you want in the local book market. The first is, no matter which city of Pakistan you live in, it is always better to go find out who are the few major dealers in local books. (Yes, there aren't likely to be many large dealers per city, and whether that is a blessing or a curse is something we leave entirely upon your judgement.) In the case of Karachi, these saviours are all to be found in Urdu Bazar. In Lahore, the three shops on the Mall near Charing Cross are the most convenient ones. And, of course, you know where to go in Islamabad. (Who was it that said the capital was shifted from Karachi so that people could do shopping from Jinnah Super?)

One thing to remember is that most big dealers of local books offer generous discounts even on retail purchase. The going rate with most dealers starts from 15% but it is always worth a try to ask for more. In any case, these are the places to begin your book hunt if you are interested in Urdu books. Rule of the game: if one dealer tells you the book is out of print, it is no reason to believe that it actually is. You need to know the secret language of Pakistani booksellers. "It is out of print" means they don’t have the time to look for it. "It hasn’t been published yet" means it is all over the market except in that very shop, and they will fetch it from the shop next door as soon as you turn 0your back. "This book doesn’t exist" means the publisher refused to sell it on their terms and they aren't going to name the stall where you could actually get it. Message of the day: keep searching. Additional tip: If you are looking for a very old book, or something that is really out of print, and can't find it with the major dealers, then it is almost certainly lying there on the shelves of some very small bookstall round any corner in the city. (You know books don’t sell in this country, don’t you?). Only if you have the time to go on the spree… 

So much about how to find a book when you know you want to find it. The more question is, how to find out what you should be looking for. Ridiculous as it may sound, the question becomes worth a million dollars (well, not exactly, maybe) when you consider that the sources of publicity available to the local book market are so horribly limited. You can't get information form the television, and the coverage of books in many Urdu newspapers doesn’t go a long way towards information. The booksellers are not the kind of professionals who might be expected to take an active interest in your education, in fact you would be lucky if you didn’t find several of them to have positively misinformed you.

Well, here is a golden rule: just remember that most old authors are being published again these days, including some whose revival was seen as a total impossibility until a few years ago. No matter how much long-forgotten your author may sound to you, it is still worth asking about his works, and ask several people.

Just as an example of what you might have missed on your last visit to your favourite bookstore, here is a list of a few publications that you might have been curious about but didn’t know were available so easily.

Urdu Ki Behtreen Shaeri is by far probably the most refreshing anthology of Urdu Poetry. Compiled by Prakash Pandit around mid 1970's, it covers prominent poets from Nazeer Akbarabadi to that age, and even though the book is wrought with some minor typos, the range of selection just remains unmatched. The price is still as unbelievably low as twenty five rupees and it is sheer pity that this book is not as widely available as it deserves to be. Ask for it if you have wondered if you could be introduced to all the major poets of the language, and to the very representative of their verse in just one handy volume.

Many book readers remember Ibn-e-Safi from their childhood, when they had to read his mystery novels hiding them between their textbooks. Alas, when they grew up to freedom, the novels were gone. Not exactly, the novels have never been out of print for a day, only conspicuously less easily available. The complete set of more than 230 books, including all titles of Imran Series, Jasoosi Duniya and a few posthumous collections of miscellany are available all over the country, you just have to insist on having them. (Interestingly this most popular bestseller of our country has a rich website dedicated to him, just type in your browser, and get all the information you require plus voice files of the late Ibne Safi.)

Less popular than Ibne Safi, even though his predecessor in a certain manner was Zafar Umar, with his adaptations of French mysteries as Neeli Chhatri, Lal Katthor, Choron Ki Club, etc. These books, which had no popular market beyond their earliest editions, are back again and can be collected for pure nostalgia.

Saadat Hasan Manto is of course another all time favourite. The complete works of Manto have been published by Sang-e-Meel, Lahore, in several hardbound volumes. They are excellent for their laser composed typeset even though not free from errors of typo. Alternatively, you can still ask for the old-fashioned single editions, compiled and edited by the author himself. Most of them are still reprinted quite regularly and the handy paperbacks are a lot more cheaper than the expensive hardbound collections.

A very fortunate trend prevailing the Urdu market for almost a decade now is the "Complete Works" of classical and modern classical authors. Whether it is a poet or a prose writer, it is still a good try to ask if her or his complete works are available. Many complete work volumes are worth their price. It is not possible to name all such authors here, but the range expands from Mirza Rafi Sauda to Miraji and N.M.Rashid in poetry and from Deputy Nazeer Ahmed to Ismat Chughtai and Rajendar Singh Bedi in prose.

Here are a few "tricks of the trade" that might help you discover what you want in the local book market...

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