Old Lahore, old books

Posted by Raza Rumi


I grew up in Androon Shehr (old city) of Lahore in the 1980s.

Most of my childhood and teenage years were spent in my Nana Jan’s house located at Lodge Road in Old Anarkali. It was an old but large house, left by a Hindu migrant family, located inside a narrow street of hundreds of years old neighborhood with Jain Mandir (when it existed) just two blocks away and Mall Road merely a ten minutes walk.

Nana used to tell us that Gayan Chand, the head of that Hindu family, spent three long years building this house and it was a strange twist of fate that finally when it got completed in 1947 and he was just about to move in, partition took place. Not only did he lose his newly built house but he also had to flee the city where his forefathers had lived for centuries. Just like Nana Jan had to leave everything behind when he migrated from Amritsar, a high price that millions of people paid in 1947.

Two years later in 1949, when situation improved, Gayan Chand came to Lahore to see his house only to find strangers living there. As Nana used to tell us, he stayed with him for a day and then left with eyes full of tears.

So anyways, Nana’s house at Lodge Road where I grew up was located in a typical androon shehr mohalla where everyone knew and respected everyone else. I think the gap between rich and the poor was not that wide in 80s as it is today. We were considered rich but our next door neighbor was Master Sahab (teacher) whom I always saw wearing Sherwani and Qula, going to school on his bicycle. The house in front of ours belonged to a family who owned cement factories and traveled abroad every summer. Next to that was the house of Mota Hakeem Sahab who treated entire Mohalla (neighborhood) with his multi-color syrups and also sold that yummy Khamira Gaozaban. Hakeems were still quite popular (and cheaper too) in those days and many people preferred them over doctors. Then at the corner of the street lived Pehalwan sahab who, apart from being an instructor at Pehlwani Ukharas near Badshahi Mosque, was also a master of treating fractures and dislocated joints. It was very much of a mixed community.

Most of the houses in our Mohalla were more than 100 years old with amazing wood work on windows, doors and some having Hindi scripts written on the walls. Our own house had Ishwar Bhawan written in Hindi just above the front gate. We never thought of erasing it or changing. Almost every house was painted in yellow with green colored doors and windows. I have never been able to figure out the reason for this yellow-green color scheme, still evident in many parts of Androon Shehr. I stayed with my Nana at Lodge Road house till I was sixteen. Since then I have been to many places but the peaceful joy and sheer happiness that I felt walking down the old narrow streets, with half demolished centuries old houses and looking at always smiling and satisfied faces of people, can never to be found anywhere else.

Old Anarkali, Nisbat Road, Mall Road etc used to be the hub of small bookshops selling new and old (used) books in those days. People used to read a lot more than they do today (at least I feel that way). In Old Anarkali where I lived, one could see people everywhere who would sell old books from defunct British collections, on a rug in the mud. My cousin once forced me to buy George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying for Rs. 4 which he then took with him to England.

On Sundays we (entire family) used to go to Lawrence Garden for early morning walks. The Mall Road had very little traffic in those days and Lawrence Garden was cleaner and peaceful place. After the morning walk we used to have a delicious Puri Halwa, Nan Chana and Lassi breakfast from nearby Gawalmandi which was great fun. My afternoon activity used to be walking down the Mall Road or the Bible Society in Anarkali (new) with my father, browsing through all kinds of books.

These bookshops, mainly selling used and old books at affordable prices, served the needs of thousands of book lovers like me with always a meager budget. I remember buying my first ever children’s books (Umroo Ayaar, Tarzan, Bagla Aur Loomrhi, Bolti Billi, Tilismi Dayo and other great stories) from a very small shop in Anarkali, right next to Singhar House. I don’t know about Singhar House but that bookshop, which sold old books and rejects from Ferozsons for one or two rupees, no longer sells books. Sometimes I didn’t buy a thing but just browsing through books was very much like finding a hidden treasure. Books on almost every topic, from children’s literature to grownup books, everything was available.

The book sellers of those old shabby books were also amazing people and they knew everything about the authors and their anthologies. Those book sellers even recommended books for reading and if they did not have what you wanted, they would know who had it or when/how to get it.

It was one such book seller of a small shop at Mall Road who introduced me to the best of the bests of Urdu literature. In those days, Lahore’s old bookshops also served as gathering places for intellectuals and writers. It was not an unusual thing to find your favorite writers or poets browsing through the catalogues of books in one of those shops at Mall Road or sitting on a rug in the mud, bargaining prices with footpath book sellers in Old Anarkali.

From one such footpath bookseller, I once bought an October 1949 version of Allama Iqbal’s Bang-e-Dara for Rs. 8, printed by Sheikh Mubarik Ali Publishers of Androon Lohari Darwaza. I often saw late Ashfaq Ahmad (who also visited Punjab Library frequently), Qasmi Sahab and even Mustansar Hussain Tarar buying books there.

There were some excellent bookshops on the Mall Road during those days but only a few remain today. I remember there used to be one small bookshop near Regal Cinema gate inside the small lane (I forgot its name), where there are two flower vendors now. Also there was the Imperial Book Depot (still exists but doesn’t have any real books and gives a deserted look) and across from Regal used to be the Classic Book House. Then across from Cathedral and High court was Russian Book House (one of my favorite but they closed the puppy down very quick).

Another one of my favorites was a small bookshop at the Regal Chowk, just on the left of Shireen Mehal (no longer exists). I think its name was Mirza Book Agency. They had Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, The Hardy Boys and also the entire collection of Ishtiaq Ahmad’s Inspector Jamshed and Ibn-e-Safi’s Imran series (hugely popular fiction characters of 80s). They even had pocket sized editions of English literature classics and I still remember my father got me Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities from there.

Yes, Ferozsons was there too but they were never in my good book at least. The only good part about Ferozsons was that your parents had also gone there as children and so it was like entering a wonderland. But other than that, I always found it cold and forbidding. It seemed to be a bookstore for the rich and I never had much money to spend when I was a kid. Besides, Ferozsons only sold new books and I loved old books because they always gave me a sense of carrying previous reader’s energy within their pages. Sometimes those books were inscribed with a name and date or a message of well wishes was written on them. I guess old books smelled different too. So anyways, there was another large bookshop, Maqbool Academy in Dayal Singh Mansion, owned by a medical doctor. It was the only shop at Mall Road which offered 50% discount for members of National Book Foundation’s scheme for promoting reading in Pakistan. Maqbool Academy now mainly keeps medical and engineering text books imported from USA and Europe.

Renting books was also common and a number of small home libraries existed in our neighborhood. I warmly remember a small Bakery shop who sold some of the yummiest cream rolls and Namak Paras (we kids called it Poppats, I don’t know if there is an English word for it) inside Krishna Gali in nearby Gawalmandi. The owner of the Bakery, who always wore Sherwani and Jinnah cap, was my Nana Jan’s friend and we called him Bakery Wala Uncle. He had this huge collection of books including children’s literature and often gave us books for reading. I don’t know why everyone called it a Bakery because it had only few bakery items and the books were in thousands occupying two large rooms. He used to lend us books for free but with a promise that we will not tear apart anything, not write anything and return them within 2 weeks. For rest of the neighborhood kids, the books were available for 10 Paisa a day. It was a time when even 5 Paisa coins existed and you could actually buy a candy for that. Once my cousin wrote his name on one of his book’s front page (as kids often do) and after that, there was no lending of books for any of us.

Although Lahore lost it’s multi-faith and multi-ethnic identity soon after the partition but its unique architectural identity (Muslim, Hindu, Sikhs, Buddhist etc) remained intact till late 80s. Much has changed in 90s and particularly during last decade or so. Now each time I visit any part of old city, I see more and more hundreds of years old historical houses either been demolished or additions made to them without any architectural sense or planning, turning them into ugly structures. For whatever reasons, people have stopped reading books over the years too and angry violent behaviors and attitudes have taken over its place. Most of the bookstores I mentioned above have either been closed or changed their line of business to survive and the ones that remain seem deserted with expansive and out of date stocks. The store owners of yesterdays used to know about the authors and their anthologies; now it’s like a bunch of Afghans selling books like tandoori rotis. As a friend once explained to me, it is not just that there are fewer people who care about reading books; it is also that the general deterioration of intellectual life in the last few decades is now evident in the number of quality books written, translated, read or debated. The creeping religious intolerance and fundamentalism has played a significant role but deterioration of esteemed educational institutions is also a major cause. Of course, the economic turmoil, the always increasing prices of books and always shrinking budgets of ordinary people have played their part too. Having said all that, reading habits shouldn’t have to be taught or installed in a society. It is essential for a society’s intellectual survival and growth. I don’t know if I am quoting right or not but I think it was in To Kill A Mockingbird that someone said in some connection with reading, “One doesn’t learn how to breathe”.

A version of this article appeared in The Friday Times and Pakistaniat. Photo Credits (Top-Bottom and L-R): Sepoy, John Milton, Naeem Rashid, Qualitee, PakPositive

27 responses to “Old Lahore, old books

  1. What a lovely piece! Alas. The consumerist world has taken over — where billboards rule the streets, and old bulding being abolished for skyscrapers. I miss those days terribly, for I cannot keep pace (perhaps I do not wish to) with the advancing globalisation. Music shall always sound better on a grammophone, then it can on IPOD. How can one listen to a beautiful raag on IPOD? Am sure people do — but, no one can convince me enough to convert my love for yester-years. Books can never be traded for internet-online reading of an entire novel. I still use a rose petal or a leaf as bookmark for my books — i really do not mind the rose stain!

    Thanks for publishing!

  2. wonderful article with wonderful memories. We have opened a small Islamic Arts & Books store in Mian Mir Pind. Do visit it sometime. Infact goshaenur is also on youtube! Virtual visit is possible too! regards

  3. Fine article Raza Sahib.Great memories you invoke. Just a sad note from Ghulam Ali’s song springs to mind ” ISS DUSHT MAIN IK SHEHR THAA, WOW KYAA HUAA AWAARGI”. Through out the millenia Lahore has seen it’s ups and downs. May be this is just one of those unfortunate phases, too bad it had to happen during my lifetime.
    You are one of a kind, keep the flame burning through the night, dawn is about to break.

  4. Wah Raza Sahab, you reminded me the good old days. In 70’s and 80’s, even first five years on 90’s, I used to visit footpaths of Anarkali, The Mall, and Regal chowk, to find old books. In those days, Friday was off day, and I used to spend my morning there. I have bought lots of valuable books from there. Thanx for writting such a nice piece. Now that trend is totally changed, no more love for books, no more enthusismto meet local people of our mohallas, every body in confined to one’s house. That old Lahore is no more.

  5. This makes me feel so much better!

  6. Darwaish,

    I read this wonderful article in Friday Times and it brought back so many childhood memories. I lived at Nisbat Road near Qauid-e-Azam musafer khana and frequented may of the places you mention. Its been long time. Now when I visit Lahore I have discovered that three of the better current bookstores are Kim’s (at the entrance of the Lahore Museum across from Kim’s Gun), Sang-e-Meel Publications (on Lower Mall near Government College Lahore) and Oxford University Press store (on the intersection of Jail road & Main Boulevard).

    But I completely on what you on general deterioration of intellectual life in Lahore. It is really not the city it once was. The way Lahore is being destroyed, in 10-15 years, we may not find anything we call ‘Old Lahore’.

    Thank you once again for such a refreshing piece of literature.

  7. It is a nice peice of litratur i realy like it…… such type of writings should be written so that the young reader get know about their old things so keep it up and give us more things like that best wishes for your great courage……

  8. It is a nice peice of litratur i realy like it…… such type of writings should be written so that the young readers get to know about their old things! so keep it up and give us more things like that best wishes for your great courage……

  9. wah…wah…..lahore lahore ay……..jinon lahore nahen wekhya o jamya ee naheen…..sachee

  10. History of Old lahore is very interesting regarding sincerity, sympathy and land-loving nature of LAHORIANS.
    It is very much interesting to read the history of LAHORE in the era of RANJEET SINGH


  11. Just by chance, I came across this fine article which has grasped my full attetnion. I may say “I am lost in it”. What a lively writing. The author was just right with me taking me at all these places where I always feel a sense of belonging. It was 1986, when my family shifted to suberbs of Lahore leaving Bilal Gung and now just memories left.

  12. Damn man ! put my piece to shame. so much richer. lively writing indeed. i will shut up now 😦

    jokes aside, i was brought up on pretty much the same stuff from the same places. but now that we are older and wiser, weren’t them book facking outdated and limited? they stock still the same old stuff. betrand russel and no witgenstein ? commentaries and no original texts ? we really need to read up and a lot methinks.

  13. i typed lahore bookshops on google and accidently discovered this wonderfully written piece!!! i think this is one of the best piece on old Lahore i have read on this forum. simply put and gives a nostalgic feeling.

    thanks for posting this darwaish or raza rumi?

  14. what a beautifully written piece. easily one of the best i have read on lahorenama. thanks for taking me back in time.

  15. Ayesha Shakeel

    Ode to The City of Gardens! I felt as if I am walking in the streets of Lahore with writer. Thank you and please write more!

  16. Very beutiful, informative piece of article, nicely crafted.
    Congrats to writer.

  17. Beautiful set of memories. thanks for sharing this.

  18. what a wonderful piece of writing. lively and refreshing indeed!!!

  19. Bravo ! Wonderful piece.

    Though I grew up in Islamabad (also in the 80’s) and so didn’t have the historical surroundings of Lahore, going to the Old Book Shop (there were a few in Islamabad back then) was a big part of my life.

    Later, while studying at UET Lahore, trips to Anarkali’s footpath bookshops were also a ritual.

    Happily the Old Book Shops are still around in Islamabad, and in fact have increased in numbers. So I have to say that at least in Islamabad the reading habit seems to be still there. In fact, visit Saeed Book Bank at Jinnah Super any day of the week and you will always find customers buying books. Admittedly this shop sells new and therefore expensive books, but still the fact that it is thriving gives me hope that people do like to read and are ready to spend money on books.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

  20. Lovely! I have spent 1o years in Gari Shahu.I am a writer and I love reading books. Was a regular visiter of old book shops in Anarkali.I also use to visit Pak Tea House with Younas Hasrat,editor of monthly AMBERBAIL Digest.We use to eat Jattay dee daal (located on Mazang Ada),Phajjay ke Paey, nihari,machli etc.We were oftenly found in Lakshami Chowk or newly established food street . Basant was an event we would never miss.Old lahore has unmatchable beauty and attraction.Presently I am doing job in Islamabad but my soul still wanders on roads and streets of Lahore.I will soon return but (unfortunately) live in Defence, not Gari Shahu.

  21. I was born and raised within the walled city of Lahore in the 40’s a year after partition. My dad and his kins were also born in Lahore at Haveli Mian Khan. My mom was born at Kucha Qazi Khana in Mochi Darwaza and was raised in a house next to Masjid Wazir Khan. I have vivid memories of old Lahore so neat and clean. Do remember being frequent visitor to the bookstore on the brick road behind Regal Cinema between Haji Karim Baksh and a car store the owner of which used to have big moustach. I used to buy new DELL comics for 14 anas and used one for 4 anas which I could return for 2 anas after reading it or get another used one by paying 2 anas. British Council ,Punjab Public library and USIS were the places where I frequented after college hours. Do remember all the used book stores beside Bharat Building and Anarkali foot path stores. Used to walk to school from Sheranwala to Said Mehta through Chuna Mandi and Barood Khana to City Muslim League High School where Mualana Kusar Naizi used to give a 5 minute Islamic sermon to our school assembly in the morning. This was one school where most of the students were committed not to learn anything including me.
    If it was not my forceful dad I would still be a Metric fail. God bless his soul he was a wonderful dad.
    Its been four decades now that I had left Pakistan but Lahore and Pakistan have never left me.

    • i also lived near wazir khan masjid and would like to share my past activities. That was really not a good think but in my childhood I alongwith my many friends used to play cricket in front of the masjid, space between it and Sakhi Saf Soof mazar. Our ball hit many time to the mosque walls and minarets and to the tomb too. Runs calculation was agreed something like if ball hit minarets it would be 2 runs, walls 1 run, tomb 4 runs and 6 at the roof of masjid and tomb, whereas OUT is ball is landed at some house balcony or roof. That was something like it. That were great days of childhood. Still I visit often there as forefather’s house is still exist there. I something stand in the middle and went back to past nearly 35 years back and feel myself batting and hitting ball to both sides. But Childhood is over, the golden time is over, story is closed, chapter is finished, happiness in life is transformed into other shape, satisfaction is vanished that we felt hitting the old walls. The walls that have seen billion of person doing different kind of deeds, that will remain, not us.

  22. I can smell those books! Your article was very good. Thanks for sharing

  23. An original lahori can smell better the soil, soul, smell, fragrance, traditions, trademark people and other delicate issue of Lahore. Infact an inhabitant can better feel the sorrows and touchy feelings of his residing area. This literature is really written by a wounded soul and it will touch every person having pain for Lahore. Love it man. I am a typical lahori and have experienced all of it. But you got marks after sharing it thoroughly. Salute to you.

  24. another thing i would like to share as I am totally idle today, nothing to do, boss is away and we are enjoying. I still remember the girls of late 80s and 90s of my childhood and early youth age. Amazing love stories, starting with a smile ending at least at an exchange of some little love letters. No outside date, the maximum you can do that you can see her some time in 24 hours. but must have to station beneath her balcony for long hours or be placed at “Mundair” or “Banna” (edge of roof) for very very long hours in chilling nights and crushing noon just to get sight of her for a couple of time and you are lucky if she could be able to stay in front of you for a few while and deliver a smile. That’s all. That were the total love stories at that time in Inside Lahore, no idea of more liberate and ;posh areas. I must say that girls are no where now they all are dead and buried under heavy tons contaminated heap of cable, mobile, media and internet. Often i come across of those girls some of which are now definitely grandmothers now and how i explain their expressions. That are amazing. Some got ashamed watching me, some got very very angered, some show their renouncement, I provide me lot of romance even that I am in mid 40s. There is nothing likewise now in older and newer Inside Lahore, but still you can smell the innocent fragrance of past if you had been there. Sorry for taking lot of time.

  25. do you have books old or new on mosaic art and fabric painting

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s