Karachi and books

karachimadrassa 026One of the best things about Pakistan is the book shops. I spend hours rummaging through the jumbled piles of books in dusty second-hand stores, pulling out Flashman novels, turgid tomes about Pakistani politics or yellowing travel guides extolling the beauty of Waziristan.

There’s no apparent system – alphabetical or otherwise – but almost anything can be found lurking among the stacks. (My Osama bin Laden jokes always go down well, even if they are a little out of date.)

I had always assumed the books were thrown into piles at random. The shop assistants seemed to have a rudimentary grasp of English and I figured they could only guess at the treasure buried around them. How wrong could I be? I’d been searching in vain for a copy of VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River for a couple of weeks when I finally gave in and asked for help. The assistant beavered off among the stacks for a few seconds before returning with A House for Mr Biswas and The Enigma of Arrival. OK, it wasn’t what I was looking for, but it seemed that somehow he knew where everything was. Those two Naipaul books were not stored under N or, as far as I could tell, in the fiction section. They were in different corners of the shop, yet he’d pinpointed them with some kind of logic that had passed me by – or through an utterly extraordinary feat of memory.

I’ve now seen the same trick performed in four of the shops near my house in Islamabad, but have yet to find A Bend in the River. Anyway, the hunt is half the fun.

The second-hand places are my favourites. But all the bookshops are fantastic. This weekend is the Karachi Literary Festival and the city is also home to a shop that is something of an institution: Thomas & Thomas. It’s tucked away in what was once a rather grand address but is now an unprepossessing area, flanked – if memory serves – by fridge shops, samosa stalls and suchlike. It was here that I found John Brunton’s excellent account of building the Sindh railway.

HM Naqvi, author of Homeboy, is another fan of the place and today I reread his rather nice piece of fiction based on the shop, In This Time, In This Country to get me in the mood for Karachi…

I WAS ensconced at Thomas & Thomas one afternoon, inhaling the balm of damp pages, when a lean, elderly gentleman strode in, dressed in a woollen three-piece suit, and demanded a copy of Robinson Crusoe at the register. Although he wore a knit skullcap, his wan complexion — like the delicate flesh of our bekti — and orotund pronunciation suggested he was an Englishman…

One thought on “Karachi and books

  1. Reminds me of visiting the post restante in Afganistan and Pakistan many years ago and looking the M section for any letters for me and finding letters for Smiths and Abbotts etc.

    Enjoy the Naipaul it was the first book of his I read

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