Yoginder Sikand trawls Lahore’s bookshops and comes back disappointed:
Lahore’s famed Urdu Bazaar, located in a chaotic, run-down part of the old town, consists of several narrow lanes lined with filth-clogged drains.
I spent two days in the bazaar and visited each of the dozens of small bookshops it boasts of. On the look-out for literature on the lived social realities in Pakistan, I was sorely disappointed.
In a feel-good story that’s been doing the rounds on the Net, Sheikh Mushtaq reports that bookshops have been reopening in Kashmir:
Shops selling Islamic tracts or tuition books stayed open amid the violence that has killed tens of thousands of people, but Asian or Western classics and new blockbusters were scarce.
Now, the works of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy jostle for space with Salman Rushdie and Dan Brown bestsellers in Srinagar’s few bookshops.
But Daniel Lepeska has a different take, in his story on Kashmir’s neglected libraries:
In the age of bottomless broadband Internet and 2000-channel satellite television reading may be on the wane across the globe, but in Kashmir the problem is especially acute, and the stakes particularly high. From Mughals to Dogras and so on, Kashmiris have for centuries been under one or another oppressive yoke; an unwillingness to read could fate them to remain there.
“Without a library there’s no university, there’s no thought, there’s no progress,” Agha added. “Libraries and universities, these things are on the frontier of thought, where you can move forward and ask inconvenient questions; this is an absolutely dead society, afraid of asking questions.”
There are places in the world where running a bookshop is much stranger than in Lahore or Srinagar, though, as this 2004 Economist story on Sudan’s only bookshop testifies:
IF JEROME K. JEROME were alive today, he would be proud. Over a century after he wrote it, “Three Men in a Boat”, his quintessentially English comic novel about accident-prone Victorian gentlemen paddling down the River Thames, is a bestseller in southern Sudan.
This may seem unlikely. Southern Sudan is the scene of Africa’s longest-burning civil war. Its people have for decades lived in fear of death or enslavement at the hands of mounted militiamen. How could they relate to a comedy about chaps in red-and-orange blazers sculling to Hampton Court and getting lost in the hedge maze there?