The Bookseller: Shopping in Urdu Bazaar, Lahore

Urdu Bazaar

A labyrinth of narrow winding streets just outside the old walled city of Lahore. Horns blaring, cars squeeze past donkey and camel carts loaded with printed material. Books spill out of overstocked stores onto barely visible sidewalks. University students hunt for required reading material – or for used copies of Sidney Sheldon novels and Playboy magazines. Children clutch onto newly purchased textbooks just as firmly as their mothers hold on to them. A moment of distraction in this crowded bazaar and one’s prized possessions could disappear forever.

The Bookseller

We step inside a bookstore. The bookseller, an elderly gentleman with a white beard, sits cross-legged on a wooden platform reading one of his own books. He looks up at us over his reading glasses.

Welcome. Welcome, he says in English, not taking his eyes off Mummy. Tea or a soft drink?

No, thank you. I reply for both of us. We’ve just had lunch.

The truth is we would both love a cup of tea, but there are no public washrooms in this part of town, and we might be here for a while. It’s safer to keep our liquid consumption to a minimum.

What can I show you? he asks, still looking at Mummy.

I can’t read Urdu or Punjabi, so… Mummy says in Urdu and looks at me.

He holds out the book he was reading. Short stories by Saadat Hasan Manto, with English transliteration. I’ve read them many times. He was born in British India, he says, glancing at Mummy again, and was totally opposed to the Partition. Very bold man. The British had him arrested three times — for obscenity.

Mummy opens her purse and clicks it shut again. I sense she wants to leave. Is she bothered by the reference to colonial rule, or obscenity? I’m not quite sure. She always feels out of place here, the only white woman in the whole bazaar.

Manto started his writing career with a translation of a short story by Victor Hugo: The Last Day of a Condemned Man. He is trying so hard to engage Mummy in a conversation. You know Mr Hugo, Madam?

Yes, I do, she tells him. We read his stories at school – but in French. Then feeling more at ease goes on in great detail all about how she studied French when she was a school girl in London.

-اور اب آپ انہیں اردو میں بھی پڑھ سکتی ہیں / And now you can read them in Urdu too, he says smiling from ear to ear. Finally, he has the response he was hoping for.

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