After nine long years, the book fair at Frere Hall returned on Sunday - ironically the same week that Osama bin Laden was killed. The book fair was wound up and access to the Frere Hall environs was limited in 2002 after a truck was blown up outside the US consulate across the road. But as the Americans have recently moved to shiny new digs on Mai Kolachi road, the security stress for Abdullah Haroon Road and the Frere Hall gardens has eased up.
“Our customers will come here for sure once they know that the book fair at Frere Hall has reopened,” said Umer Farooq. With a young boy in tow, Farooq wiped the covers of the books at his stall.
Even though the fair on Sunday failed to attract a large number of booksellers, the few who set up their stalls were displaying an exceptional variety of books — from fiction to literature, to cookbooks and mystery novels.
Most stalls carried books by both Urdu and English writers. It is not every day that you see an Urdu translation of the Ramayan propped up next to the memoirs of Che Guevara. Urdu translations of international bestsellers, such as Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth were also on display.
“It’s just a start,” said Shahid Javed, a shopkeeper from Urdu Bazaar. “This is not even one-third of what we used to sell here.”
Pointing towards the road at the back of Frere Hall which was also blocked after the attack, Javed said that the authorities should reopen it as well. “That way people can park their cars nearby and look at the books too,” he suggested. This is not likely to happen because of the high-security risk residences located along that strip.
The authorities tried to compensate stall owners a year after Frere Hall’s zone shut down by relocating the book fair outside the Arts Council. At this Koocha-e-Saqafat, the books were displayed “along with a huge display of clothes and handicrafts, but it didn’t work,” said Javed. “This place has its own relevance.”
During the next couple of years, book lovers had to trek all the way to Sunday Bazaar in DHA if they wanted a deal. “If you ask me, most of the books that are sold there are leftovers from Khori Garden,” Javed whispered.
There are other book fairs in the city, such as the one at Karachi University and another one near Regal Cinema. The university holds a three-day event in February every year in which, according to Javed, book sellers earn as much as Rs20,000 per day.
“However, in comparison the books sold at Frere Hall are better in quality and content because it is for the ‘gentry’,” said Usman Habib, a bookseller who sets up stalls in several neighbourhoods.
Visitor Mrs Agha agreed that it was comparatively easier to come to Frere Hall. “Sunday Bazaar is too far away and it is getting pricier by the day. A cookbook is sold for Rs250 [at Sunday Bazaar] and here I found it for only Rs80.”
Unlike Sunday Bazaar, at Frere Hall customers can also buy brand new books at cheaper prices. The magazines are, however, secondhand.
At one of the stalls, a teacher was hunting for school library additions. “This place has a cheaper variety and is easy to reach,” said Abida Khan, who works at Meritorious School.
She was given a list of books that had to be bought urgently. “Thank God, the book fair opened. Otherwise I would have had to go all the way to Sunday Bazaar. I, personally, prefer this place for the crowd it attracts and, of course, the books.”
Visitor Fakir Mohammed also claimed that he had been a regular customer long before the hall closed down. A lawyer by profession, he said that, “this place always had the best collection of books”.
The sweltering heat kept most of the people away during the day but as the evening set in, several people had gathered. Many of them also decided to sit around the lawns with the books they had just bought.
“We are now hoping to have a display every Sunday so that people know that Frere Hall is once again open,” promised Javed.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2011.
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