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The lone literary soldier

Like most young people in this country, reading for me used to be purely functional – something one did in order to ace exams.

It was only in my late teens that I discovered the joys of pleasure reading. This is also when I first came across the three bookshops of Quetta that sold books other than those prescribed by the syllabi of various schools and colleges.

Strolling the footpaths of the famous Jinnah Road as a teenager, I always felt that it embodied the true spirit of Quetta. This road, which once used to be the haunt of the literati of the city, who used to gather for hours in the numerous tea stalls, or chainaki, to discuss politics, philosophy and literature, is like just any commercial street now – apart from one minor exception, Mansoor Ahmed Bukhari’s bookshop, Sales and Services.

With bookshops gradually replaced by either shoe stores or gun shops, the bibliophiles of the city are on the losing side of the battle for urban space. As a teenager, I can recall that there used to be only three bookstores where one could find whatever book they would be looking for or stumble across an undiscovered gem. Over the course of a few years, it was Mansoor Bukhari who was the lone soldier fighting for the literary spaces that once used to be the trademark of Jinnah Road, for one bookstores has closed permanently and the other has shrunk its general reading section to nothing, leaving Bukhari saab’s Sales and Services the only decent bookstore on the road.

Upon entering his store, which was literally stacked from floor to ceiling with books, you would encounter an old graceful man wearing a cotton corduroy flat cap sitting behind a counter surrounded by books with his head buried in the pages of one of these books. On seeing his regular customers, after greeting them with a smile, he would always complain about why they had not been making frequent visits. He never thought of his bookshop as a business. Mr Bukhari seemed to get his energy from having a shop full of people, scanning the book spines scattered around his bookstore.

He was more than just the owner of a bookstore. Far before the concept of ‘networking’ became popular, Bukhari saab would connect indigenous writers and poets with various publishers; he would happily host book launches in his store and would eagerly provide book reviews to his customers.

Upon asking the price of any book, his reply would always be, ‘just decide which book you want to buy; the price is not a problem’. Not only this, while bargaining over the price of any book, he would always say, ‘Just give me whatever amount of money you can manage,’ something one could hardly imagine a shop owner saying to his customers nowadays. Bukhari saab was the kind of man who would never want his customers to leave his store without a book just because they were short of money or had forgotten their wallets at home.

A couple of days ago, a friend informed me about the sad demise of Bukhari saab. This once again had me thinking about the diminishing intellectual spaces in Quetta and of the dying culture of reading amongst the city dwellers that has led to almost all bookshops getting converted into arms and ammunition shops or footwear outlets.

It reminded me of how much, perhaps now more than ever, this city is in need of the healing power of generous souls like Bukhari saab, who had, in his own quiet way, profoundly influenced so many people in this city.

Yasir Khan, "The lone literary soldier," The News. 2020-06-25.
Keywords: Education , Social impact , Philosophy , Politics , Literature , Mansoor Ahmad , Bukhari saab , Lahore