The Flowers’ Stalks: selling books on Lahore’s streets


By Behzad Taimur

The Sun is mellow and the early Sunday morning birdsong comes drifting down slowing through the air, and settles softly on a small street just off of Lahore’s famous Anarkali bazaar, like dust settles down once a gust of wind has blown past. The street is littered with small stalls of old books – each stall is a sheet of paper or a clump of rags with innumerable books lying on top. This, here, is Lahore’s famous Sunday book bazaar.

The Sunday book bazaar started sometime in the 1960s by a certain Sheikh Abdul Haq. The bazaar has vendors setting shop on Lahore’s pavements, who sell a mind-boggling array of old and used books at cheap rates. The bazaar has books of every hue and color on offer – ranging from medical and engineering course books to literature and poetry to philosophy and history to self-help books. It is often said that more books are sold at Lahore’s pavements than at all book stores in the city put together. And if you are a book enthusiast and are searching for some especially rare books which you have absolutely no hope of finding anywhere else, or just generally like yourself to be surprised by the things a Lahore street can offer, head out to the bazaar one Sunday and sift through heaps of thousands of books just lying on a dusty street, waiting for a beholding eye to find them, and recognize their worth.

Most of the people running this business are high school or college drop outs. A street vendor by the name of Muhammad Afnan dropped out from college in the first year of his intermediate. Another, called Muhammad Waqar matriculated before joining the business, and Faisal Haseeb never made it past middle school.

When asked about how the street vendors acquire the books they are going to sell, most seem to babble for the most part and only reveal sketchy details, something this scribe found odd. An important source for old books seems to be old personal libraries and personal collections which the owners decide to sell off – or, as in some cases, which the surviving progeny of a dead owner are bent on selling away. Muhammad Afnan, interestingly claims he gets some of his books from local libraries. He does not say which libraries he is referring to, and leaves questions about why libraries – public ones? – would be selling their collections open to my own interpretations. The sort of books available in the Sunday bazaar does seem to suggest some “library-hand” – where else could an under-educated street vendor have gotten a 1909 print of “Book of Operas”? In case of other books the references to “library-hands” is much more obvious – a book on classical musical traditions of Pakistan actually bore a library card announcing it was formerly a part of the library for F. G. College, Sargodha.

However Faisal Haseeb makes an interesting revelation which helps explain to a large part a lot of the books on sale – Haseeb says he gets his books from Karachi. When asked to elucidate on it, he reveals that there are “containers of books” coming in from “abroad” which are sold off to local book vendors like him. He seems to believe the “containers” are intended for NATO forces in Afghanistan. However, it is likely that these books might be being shipped to Pakistan as scrap. It was not possible for the scribe to verify these details.

When I picked up a few old books to buy, and asked the vendor how much he would charge, the vendor took the books from me, weighed them his hands, looked at the quality of paper and the sort of binding, opened the book to see if there were any pictures in it, then made a rough calculation of the number of pages there might be in it, and then based on his observations and guesswork he quotes a meager sum for the books – the vendor has no idea what he is selling, and that seems to be the story for most.

When asked how they determined which book to sell at what price, each of the vendor interviewed claimed he had been in the trade for several years and knew exactly the worth of each and every book available in his stall. The vendors seemed to take pride in their “knowledge of books” and Muhammad Afnan even had a very interesting nugget of wisdom to offer. He said: “I am this tall (raises his hand to a certain height), and you are this tall (raises his hand again), but both of us have our own worth. It is the same with books. They have their own sizes, but they have their own worth!”

However, quite a large number of vendors seem to have a vague idea about what they are selling; for example, they know that a certain author is “a something” and therefore his books should be worth more; or they have people sitting around who have some vague notion of the worth of books. The vendors invariably tend to consult these more experienced, and often elder, persons before quoting a price for books. A one-armed old man with a street stall and an Old Book shop at the New and Old Anarkali intersection seems to be the most experienced. When a book by S. M. Krishnan is shown to him, he immediately recognizes its worth and quotes a price inconsistent with those being quoted for most books. When I try to haggle with him, he refuses to partake in any such exercise and takes the book from me to put it back. Later, when I show him a collection of Lord Byron’s poetry and an English-translation of some of Rabrindranath Tagore’s works, he tells me I seem to have a good taste for books, and then quotes even higher a price. To test him, I try to convince him that the books are not worth much. He scoffs at me and mockingly asks if he should sell me all his books for a rupee, if he was to go by the line of thinking I was trying to sell him – I laugh. He later tells me to come around “the next time” so that he can show me some “other good books by Tagore saab”. I promise to come before I leave him – and honestly, now I do seem to have a mind for going to him again.

The people who run these stalls on Sunday claim it’s their mainstream business, they refuse to take it as a “side-business”, when a suggestion to the effect is made. However, when they are pressed to reveal more by raising questions on their ability to raise enough money to run a household based merely on second-hand books’ sales on a Sunday, they begin talking of their real businesses – almost every single one of the street vendors works in the more formal old books trade, and invariably every one of them either owns an Old Books shop somewhere in the Anarkali-Neela-Gumbad-MAO-College area or works, often as a partner, or as in some cases as small scale employee (“helper boys”), in some Old Books shop or, occasionally, in some shop dealing in stationary or course books for colleges, a lot of which are nearby, and, in most cases, these shops that these vendors work in are owned by a close relative.

In fact, the entire street trade itself seems linked with ties of blood. Faisal Haseeb points to a blind old man sitting on a footpath near another string of street stalls; the old man speaking candidly to the owners of the stalls next to him; Haseeb says the old man is his father, and then points to the middle-aged man sitting on the ground putting together a book stall of his own right next to Haseeb’s stall and says that is his maternal uncle, and also his father-in-law. He goes on to reveal that some two dozen of his immediate relatives – brothers, cousins, uncles, et al – are involved in the Old Books trade. A young boy walks up to him timidly and asks for some change he needs for a customer who is waiting – Haseeb gives him the money he needs, pats him on the back and tells me the young boy is his cousin.

In 1997, the second Nawaz Sharif government made plans to establish a “book street” – an entire street dedicated to books. They proposed to turn Thornton Road into one. However, when I ask Muhammad Waqar if he has heard anything about it, he looks blank and shrugs his shoulder: he has not even heard about it. “That is an old story,” laughs Muhammad Afnan when I mention the “book street” to him, “nothing ever came off of it. ”

The idea for the said book street was revived in 2004 and then again in 2005 by the then director of Lahore Development Authority, Mr. Kamran Lashari, a revered figure in the old books trade for his work for the benefit of these street vendors, not least of which was establishment of “book fairs” in a number of places all over Lahore. However that came to naught as well. Another attempt to create a “book street” was made in 2009 by the new Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz government in Punjab. A private firm was contracted, and it approached the street vendors. The vendors claim the firm promised them “book huts” and other benefits, but asked for money from them so that they could build the “book huts”. “But we had no money,” says Faisal Haseeb, “and we could give them nothing. So the idea just fell through.”

Haseeb says the idea for a “book street” is a bad one. He says with street sales they can set up shop wherever they can, and do not need to invest much, but in case they were to get “book huts” it would mean hiring of extra help (“because you can run a street stall alone, but you need several helpers to run a shop!”) and payment of the inevitable electricity bills and rent for the “book huts”. “We live hand-to-mouth. In the twelve years I have been in the trade, I have not been able to save even a thousand rupees,” says Haseeb, “whatever I earn I used to sustain my household, or invest in more books just to keep the business going. We don’t have the kind of money to pay for huts.”

So, what can be done to help them and their trade instead? “Legalize us,” says Haseeb “and legalize our trade. Turn this very street (he points to the street we are standing in) into a ‘book street’. Install gates at its two ends, cordon it off for vehicular traffic and allow us to run our business. We can work better this way.”

Haseeb, then, launches into an extemporaneous exposition of the idea of social welfare. “I thank God for whatever He has given me. At least I can sustain my household and I am happy. However, there are other people in this trade whom I know who don’t even get to afford three meals a day. They live in such a horrible condition. Think about them, bhai jaan! Think about the poor, wretched souls. Do something for them. Go out into the world, contact the men in power and tell them our story. Tell them to do something for us. It’s not me I speak for – I am well and content. I speak for the abjectly poor. They have a right to live, help them live. Please, when you leave here, remember to do something for them.”

Haseeb looks away. Each crease of his skin, each line on his face speaks of an age of hardship and struggle, inner turmoil and struggle, and there is great pain in his eyes. He has, now, donned a shroud of deep melancholy and his eyes have welled up.

I take my leave and make to go before the tears roll, and I walk away.

I do not think those tears ever rolled. Haseeb was a strong, resilient man, like every other person manning a stall on that dusty, Sun-beaten street by the Anarkali bazaar.

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