Tehelka.comtehelkahindi.com criticalfutures.org

Search for archived stories here...

    SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 01, Dated 07 Jan 2012

    Lost & Found


    Illustration: Naorem Ashish

    A SMALL PURCHASE was made not long ago by a curmudgeonly bookworm in the Saddar neighbourhood of Karachi. Nobody expected it to connect disparate people on four continents. But it did, and it was a small act of revenge which brought it all about.


    The secondhand bookseller Habib bhai had finally had it with Mahmood sahab. The old book collector’s reduced circumstances had not diminished his desire for fine editions. Habib had done good business with Mahmood sahab before his retirement from the Ministry of Transport, but years later, and with a six thousand rupee debt for 15 months, Mahmood sahab still acted as if he had the right of first choice from Habib’s latest stock.

    Mahmood sahab lived near Regal Chowk, not far from the lane where the secondhand booksellers hold their weekly Sunday bazaar. From early morning, he kept a watch on the road and rushed down as soon as he saw the bookseller arrive in the rickshaw. He pulled out books from the bundles and pawed them before Habib had finished unloading them. And for someone who bought books on credit, he haggled like a fiend. Habib bhai had put up with all that, but Mahmood sahab had now become unreasonable and it interfered with his opportunities of making a profit.

    Earlier, Habib had sold him for the small sum of six hundred rupees the 1970 Limited Edition of Sadequain’s self-published Rubaiyat. Now a collector in Lahore was offering Habib bhai up to ten thousand rupees for the same book. In the secondhand book trade, it often happened that the right buyer arrived after the goods had been sold.

    After the bazaar on the following Sunday, Habib took Mahmood sahab to the nearby Cafe Grand and offered him a fair deal: he would take back the Sadequain book and write off the entire amount Mahmood sahab owed him. After paying himself the balance it would have netted Habib bhai a tidy four thousand rupees. Being a sensible man himself, he was sure that Mahmood sahab would see it as a fine opportunity to clear his debt, but Mahmood sahab shook his head in refusal and quickly left after only paying for his own tea at the counter.

    Habib bhai was shocked. He was also enraged. He promised to make Mahmood sahab pay for his effrontery. Within a few days Providence supplied him the tool to fulfill his vow.


    Habib bhai bought his books from two sources. His agents in the book trade kept him informed about people who had private collections and libraries for sale. The kabaris who bought old newspapers, plastic, metal and glass regularly supplied him with small quantities of books. When visiting houses, the kabaris weighed the newspapers and other junk, and then looked around and asked: “Are there any other books?”

    Unemployed books languished in almost every house. They were either bought and never read, gifted and found unsatisfactory, or left behind by deceased family members. The greatest number of books in any house invariably belonged to this last category because the desire to get rid of them often interfered with thoughts about the propriety of the deed, complicating the decision for the sentimental and weak-of-will. The closer the relation with the deceased, the longer the decision was held in abeyance. In the meanwhile, the stacked books occupied useful space, gathered dust, and beckoned to termites, wood worms and weevils. The books’ situation in the house became untenable.

    The kabari’s question eased the family members’ consciences. Finally, someone in need of those books had arrived looking for them! There were always books for the kabari.

    Illustration: Naorem Ashish

    A few days after his meeting with Mahmood sahab, Habib was working at his storage house when a kabari brought him a stock of books. Habib cursorily checked them. Most of them were in bad condition, some lacked bindings. There was an out-of-print recipe book for which Habib had a ready buyer and an old file which contained loose papers and first-day covers. Later, as Habib was sorting this file, a small packet wrapped carefully in plastic sheet slipped out. Habib recognised the red binding at one glance. He carefully unwrapped it. It was, as he had thought, the extremely rare, leather-bound pocket edition of Ghalib’s Divan published in 1923 by Kaviani Press, Berlin. Habib had last seen one 10 years ago.

    Habib smiled faintly. Rare and exceptional books and manuscripts passed daily through his hands without eliciting smiles from him, but this book was special because Mahmood sahab had sought this edition for many years.


    The following week at the Sunday bazaar, Habib noticed that Mahmood sahab avoided eye contact with him. As he started going through the books, the bookseller busied himself with making a list. He waited for another book collector, Usman, and hoped that Mahmood sahab would not move away. He needed him there to witness a scene. Finally, Habib saw Usman approach his stall. Usman greeted Mahmood sahab and turned to Habib.

    “I got your phone message. What is it that you have found?”

    Mahmood sahab stopped and looked up. Habib stepped closer to Usman, then reached into his waistcoat pocket and after looking around conspiratorially, brought out the Divan.

    “As I had told your son over the phone, it’s special...”

    Mahmood sahab saw the book and moved closer for a better look. Usman had the book in his hands now and was looking at it closely from above his spectacles.

    Mahmood sahab gave a start. He had recognised the edition. He darted a quick glance at Habib. The bookseller curled his lips without looking at him.

    “Can I...” Mahmood sahab tried to move between Usman and Habib. But the latter blocked him by pulling Usman away by his shoulder.

    “Let’s go and talk at the cafe, Usman sahab. You can take a good look at it there.”

    Leaving his assistant to mind the stall, Habib left with Usman.

    Mahmood sahab watched them until they turned out of the alley.

    After concluding his business with Usman, Habib returned to his stall where two customers stood. Mahmood sahab was still going through the bundle and did not look up when he heard Habib greet the customers.

    Mahmood sahab had recognised the edition. He darted a quick glance at Habib

    Habib saw Mahmood sahab pull a book out from the bundle. One of the customers asked Habib a question and he turned to answer. When he turned back, Mahmood sahab was standing close to him. Habib was pleased to see the look of agitation on his face.

    “What is the price of this book? Mahmood sahab asked. He held one of the books with the missing bindings bought earlier with the Divan. Ordinarily, Habib would have charged fifty rupees for it, but to irk Mahmood sahab he quoted a hundred because he still felt vengeful towards him for the lost business.

    “A hundred rupees for this book?” Mahmood sahab asked loudly.

    “Yes,” Habib said and looked away, waiting for Mahmood sahab to protest or ask for credit. Habib wanted to say something cutting to humiliate him. The other customers, who saw the battered condition of the book, smiled at Mahmood sahab to show sympathy.

    But Mahmood sahab said nothing. Instead, he handed Habib a hundred rupee bill and walked away with quick steps before the bookseller had time to react. Habib saw that by the time he reached the end of the alley, Mahmood sahab was almost running towards his building. His heart sank with foreboding.

    It did not help matters that one of the customers who had witnessed the scene commented, “It seems that he found some treasure.”

    Habib tried to remember the title of the book. He realised that he hadn’t looked at it. A cardinal mistake! All his attention had been taken up with Ghalib’s Divan and plotting revenge. Habib tried to comfort himself that the book could not be all that rare. The paper did not look old, but he knew that this line of reasoning was erroneous. It did not console him. Even the thought of the profit he had made on the Divan did not bring him any cheer.

    For the next few days Habib incessantly thought about the book Mahmood sahab had bought from him. Countless times in his mind he approximated the proportions of the book he had seen in Mahmood sahab’s hands and matched it against the sizes of rare editions he could recall. Many terrible possibilities occurred to him. In the end, Habib fell sick and ran up a high fever. It took him a week to recover.

    (Extracted from Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s forthcoming novel A Heroine of Our Time)


    MUSHARRAF ALI FAROOQI’s new novel Between Clay and Dust will be published in April 2012 by the Aleph Book Company. He is the author of the novel The Story of a Widow (Picador India).

    Original Fictions 1

    Original Fictions 2

    Original Fictions 3

    SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 01, Dated 07 Jan 2012



  About Us | Advertise With Us | Print Subscriptions | Syndication | Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | Feedback | Contact Us | Bouquets & Brickbats