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The ‘very tragic’ story of the bookshops at a patiently waiting Urdu Bazaar


Since the Sindh government has eased off the preventive lockdown against local transmission of the novel coronavirus, the Urdu Bazaar in the Saddar area does not appear to have been that deserted after Eidul Fitr. A majority of the shops are open and a few of them are also lucky enough to get a few potential customers asking for books.

While some keepers had reopened their book and stationery shops immediately after the government’s announcement of resuming business activities at markets before Eid, others waited until after the holidays in connection with the religious festival ended.

However, there seems to be an air of disappointment all over the Urdu Bazaar, which becomes evident as you talk to owners and workers of bookshops who, after having suffered heavy financial losses during the strict lockdown, are still not finding many customers willing to buy books from them after the government has reduced the restrictions.

We visited the bazaar with the optimistic feeling that after people were forced by the government to stay at home in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least some of them would have started or returned to reading books as a pastime, which must be reflected in the somewhat increased sale of books.

However, it all turned out to be a pipe dream. “Miyan, aap kis khaamkhayaali mein hain? [My dear, what kind of reverie are you in?]” was the reply when we asked an elderly shopkeeper, Muhammad Anwar, if his sales had increased recently.

Firstly, he said, they were not allowed to open their shops when the lockdown was strict. And when they reopened their shops after the lockdown was eased off, the government had not allowed public transport to resume their operations. How could people come to the bazaar even if they wanted to buy books, he asked.

“Books are mostly purchased by children from the middle class,” the shopkeeper remarked. He said that when many middle-class people found it difficult to make both ends meet during the lockdown, how could they even think of buying books, which were a luxury.

When asked if shopkeepers had thought of taking orders online for home delivery, he said the situation was too uncertain for them to plan anything. According to Anwar, the shopkeepers could not predict what would happen the next day, if the government would again tighten the lockdown, so in such a situation, they could not think of any innovative business plan.

Quoting Sindh Education Minister Saeed Ghani as saying that the government was willing to keep educational institutions closed for five years if needed, Anwar said what could the shopkeepers do after such a remark coming from the education minister himself.

Anwar said that a large number of books at the Urdu Bazaar were purchased by students after their teachers’ recommendations, so if there was a possibility of educational institutions remaining closed for five years, the shopkeepers could do nothing but submit to their fate.

Unprecedented losses

Commenting about bookshops during the lockdown, another shopkeeper, Muhammad Ilyas, said: “Yeh badi dardnaak kahaani hai [This is a very tragic story].”

When asked if people had started buying books to read at home during the lockdown, he replied that people preferred ludo over books, and they also had the Turkish TV series Ertugrul to watch as a pastime. He said that even a year would not be enough to cover the losses the bookshops had incurred in the two-month lockdown.

When asked if the government was taking any measures to boost the publishing industry, he responded with a satirical laugh, saying that the Tabdeeli Sarkaar (the government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) had tried its best to ensure that there was no annual book expo last year at the Expo Centre as the relevant federal ministry wanted to impose heavy taxes on the event, but it was the booksellers’ association that fought them and was able to hold the event.

Endorsement needed

Abdul Hameed, a man selling notebooks under the sun, lamented that with the closure of educational institutions, he had no customers. He said he lived in a rented house and had not paid the rent for two months because he was not allowed to run his business during the lockdown.

Sajid Ali, an employee at Fazlee Sons, a prestigious bookshop at the Urdu Bazaar, said that there had been a record sale of ludo during the two months of lockdown. He claimed that the number of ludo boards sold in a month during the lockdown had surpassed their total annual sale in a normal year.

According to Ali, the government should have exempted bookshops from the lockdown restrictions from the start. “Even if all the markets in Karachi are closed and only the Urdu Bazaar is open, we will still not have enough people here that can result in a social distancing concern.”

He also lamented that government dignitaries did not appeal to the people to read books during the lockdown, saying that such an appeal made by the influential segment would have definitely made some difference.

To prove his point, Ali said that Prime Minister Imran Khan in a recent interview had asked people to read ‘Lost Islamic History’ by Firas Alkhateeb, following which the sale of that book rose drastically.

He added that with the popularity of Ertugrul, the sale of a book on the history of the Ottoman Empire, ‘Tareekh Saltanat-e-Usmania’ by Dr Ali Muhammad Al Salabi, had also increased. Meanwhile, some shop owners and employees seemed optimistic about their sales in the coming days because some private educational institutes had decided to hold online classes.

A shop employee, who requested anonymity, said his daughter studied at the Army Public School, which had started online classes on June 1. He said that as other institutions follow suit, they might have students coming to them for academic books.

Preparing for school

We saw a few groups of students and parents at the Urdu Bazaar. They were buying new books for the new academic year and stationery. Some of them were also asking for solved papers, guides and short notes for their relevant courses.

Though they were unsure when their institutes will be conducting regular classes, a few students said they were asked by the administrators of their schools to buy textbooks and stationery.

According to them, schools would be holding online classes until the government’s formal announcement of reopening the educational institutions. The students who shared their views with us were studying at private schools and colleges. We found no pupil from a public institution.

A long, unending wait

Stationery sellers said that had they opened their stalls last week. They said they had been expecting a large number of students to visit their stalls to buy notebooks and other essentials because the government had promoted them to the next grades. However, due to the closure of educational institutions, very few students visited their stalls.

“Schools and colleges are closed, and there is no clear information available about their reopening, which is why students rarely visit the Urdu Bazaar to buy stationery, notebooks and other essentials such as school bags and practice tests,” said a stall owner. He said that a majority of the booksellers, especially those who sell textbooks and stationery, had been waiting for customers, but they could hardly find anyone to buy books from them.

Desire to read persists

Aziz Khalid, chairman of the Pakistan Publishers & Booksellers Association, which organises the Karachi International Book Fair (KIBF) every year, said the government had earlier allowed booksellers to open their shops from 9am to 5pm.

However, he said, by this week the bookshops would remain open from 9am to 7pm in accordance with the government’s orders as part of the easing off of the lockdown. But, he added, keeping bookshops open would not solve anything because booksellers cannot sell books due to the closure of schools, colleges and universities, as most of the buyers are students and the academia.

Likewise, he said, the book publication industry is closely related to colleges and universities. At present, however, all the libraries are closed and books are not in demand, which is why the book-selling business is almost zero these days, he added.

Khalid said the lockdown had badly affected the sale of books, while publishers were still unable to call their employees back to work. If the government allows reopening educational institutions with strict implementation of the standard operating procedures, bookshops will be able to sell books and stationery, he added.

He said that in a country like Pakistan, it was almost impossible to digitise all textbooks, courses and reference books for students and general readers. He claimed that the importance and desire of book reading still persists.

During the KIBF last year, some of the publishers and booksellers sold all their books. One of the examples of this was the University of Peshawar-based Pashto Academy that also sold all of its books. This means that people still want to read books.

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