Amidst Saddar’s ramshackle colonial-era structures, past the haphazard Jama Cloth market and just beside the putrid fumes and snaking traffic of Bunder Road, lies Pioneer Book House.
In 2016, word got around through articles and news reports that the bookshop was closing down. Neglect and disuse had driven the owner, Zafar Sahib, to nearly sell the shop, which had been passed down from generation to generation, since pre-partition times.
As I walk into the shop, Zafar Sahib is sitting in a chair at the front. It’s his habitual seat, from where he watches the usual happenings of the day through the doorway. The place is lined with bookshelves, and hardly any space is free from books. Tables and chairs, all have books piled on them. I look at the book titles, and realize that new English books have been added to the collection, from genres of literary fiction, pop fiction and non-fiction. But that isn’t what the shop is renowned for. It’s the law books which have popularized the shop, and they are still available in abundance.
Pioneer Book House was established in 1945, by Zafar Feroze Hussain Dalal’s grandfather, Inayat Hussain Dalal. He opened an agency, on behest of Faber-Castell, by the name of Pioneer Book House. They sold stationary, law books, directories, periodicals, government publications, industrial formulations and government forms. Since they were ideally located among law offices, law colleges and government administrative offices, business flourished. At some point, they stopped being the agents of Faber-Castell, due to issues with the British publishing house, who demanded under the table commissions. From thereon, they completely moved towards maintaining their own publishing house, from 1958 to 2004.
By talking to Zafar Sahib, I discover how it began declining in 2001. The crowd grew thinner when government forms were digitized and made available online, because the book house used to sell these previously. Due to fewer interactions with customers, the book sales went down. Zafar Sahib’s uncle, who was the owner after his father, had started compiling and selling solved papers for LLB students as well. But this trend grew so much that soon every private law college had its own notes.
I had been sitting there for quite a while, conversing with Zafar Sahib as he told me a great deal about the law degree situation in Karachi, when I realized that no customer had dropped by. Upon inquiring about this, I learnt that these days mainly law students visit the bookshop, and that too only at the time of their exams.
So what happened to the closing down of the shop? Towards the end of the shop, I can see a woman fretting about, cleaning the shelves and arranging the books. Her own books are piled in a corner, with names like Mass Transit, Sarajevo Saturdays, Stay With Me and A Matter of Detail among many others. This is the writer, Maniza Naqvi, saviour of the book house. When she learnt that the book shop closing down, she decided to provide voluntary help to prevent this. She cleaned the place up, sorted it out, organized the old books, brought in new ones, and put delightful little notebooks near the entrance, to be bought for donation purposes. She actively campaigned, gathered funds and was eventually able to save the shop.
She tells me about the refurbishments that have been done. The upper portion has been turned into a simple reading room and a gallery for art has been created by the name of Oopperwallee Gallery. The place is open for discussions and displays and just recently, a panel discussion was held in collaboration with Karachi Biennale. Pioneer Book House, which was granted heritage status in 1997, was one out of the twelve city landmarks chosen for Karachi Biennale. Huma Mulji’s installation, which was presented here, consisted of a light pole driven through the entire structure. The installation has created considerable controversy about the damage caused to this heritage site.
Too tempted to ignore the books, I head downstairs and buy a few. I am already paying when my eyes land on a book which is lying a little separately. It’s hard to miss the premium priced, limited edition, leather-bound and golden-paged copy of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. While it would be a prized possession for a collector, I don’t have the money to pay for it! I say my goodbyes with a heavy heart and promise to come back again.
All in all, Pioneer Book House’s story of re-emergence is a heart-warming one. One hopes things will not falter again, but instead a path will be paved for the improvement of other neglected landmarks of the city.
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