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Those Street Libraries

7 min read

By  Waseem Altaf

Street libraries or “aana libraries” existed till the 70s but gradually vanished in the 80s. Presently, these are almost non-existent. These street libraries were housed in small shops in bazaars and mohallas and would cater to the needs of the local readers. Usually, novels, digests, magazines and storybooks were available which could be borrowed for a day for a small amount. To become a member, somebody known to the owner or an existing member had to make a recommendation. There were different categories of readers: The children would borrow children’s magazines and novels while young girls and ladies would opt for novels by Razia Butt, Salma Kanwal, Dutt Bharti and the like. The youth loved Ibn-e-Safi and his clones while others would go in for Krishan Chandra, Manto and other writers of note. Other than that there were digests like, Sabrang, Aalmi, Jasoosi and Suspense which were in high demand. In addition, pornographic novels were also available for some select readers with much higher charges.

In addition to cinema, during those days, these aana libraries were a great source of entertainment. We had one “Rafeeq Library” and the first book I borrowed as a student of class 3 in 1967 was “Shikar ki Kahaniyan” by “Maqbool Jahangir.” After that, there was no looking back. I read almost all novels published by Feroze Sons and magazines “Taleem-o-Tarbiat”, Bachon ki Duniya”, “Naunehal” and other magazines meant for children. By class 8, I had read almost all novels by Naseem Hejazi, Salma Kanwal, Razia Butt, Riaz Arshad, Krishna Chandra, and even the pornographic Wahi Wahanvi.

I was too young to ask for pornographic material in Urdu from the owner of the library. However, once I accumulated all my courage and asked for “Kok Shastra.” The bewildered librarian started looking towards me mouth open. I never requested for such material again. However, I had a friend who used to run a fruit shop and was also a member of Rafeeq Library. He was much older in age so I would give him the money and he would borrow those pornographic novels for me. I would hide them and would read them when it was safe.

The books I used to borrow were generally read in the afternoons or at night. I read some of the books in our common bathroom or sitting inside a big wardrobe which we had on the first floor of our house. Since my father did not have a very favourable attitude towards books other than the school books, sometimes I would hide a novel inside a school book for reading. My father felt good that the son was so much engrossed in for example “Islamiat” or “General Science.”

One day my father caught me red handed while reading a Salma Kanwal novel while my final exams were due to begin the following day. I got a lot of flak and the following day he went to Rafeeq Library and asked the owner not to issue any book to me. It was after the result was out and I somehow managed to get through that I requested him to lift the embargo that he wrote a letter for the librarian allowing him to lend me books. The letter stated that only those books be lent to me which was “Islamic”, “contained a moral lesson” and would contribute to my “character building.” Once the ban was over, within days I was reading every kind of stuff.

Yesterday, while passing by, where once there was “Rafeeq Library” I saw a meat shop. A butcher was sitting on a platform while goat meat was hanging over hooks. It was a sad sight for me as that was the most cherished place for me in the entire locality.
“Once books filled the void in our society. Perhaps, today, it is meat which fills the void!” I thought.

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