“Look! This book was gifted to Anwar Maqsood sahib,” says 53-year-old Khubaib Hayat excitedly, showing off the inscription in a book. Hayat, along with two of his best friends, Professor Rafiq Ahmed and Akhtar Baloch, are regulars at the Frere Hall book fair held every Sunday.
They begin their day at 10 am, hitting book fairs around the city until they get to Frere Hall where they spend a good six hours rummaging through books and stocking up for their private collections. Rafiq Ahmed, an Urdu professor at Bahria City College is a connoisseur of Urdu literature. He expertly sifts through books, handing them out to friends. “Every book-seller here knows Rafiq sahib,” Hayat says proudly. “He has over 13,000 books in his collection.”
Every week the Frere Hall transforms into a hub for the literati. The book fair resumed just a little over a year ago. It stopped in 2003 because of security reasons. With the relocation of the US Consulate to Mai Kolachi, Frere Hall has reopened its gates to Karachi’ites. There are eight bookstalls under a marquee, and those rummaging include women hunting for the perfect recipe book or teenagers trying to get the latest bestsellers.
Muneeza Rehman, a 21-year-old student from Dubai, was overwhelmed at the selection. “I’ve bought nine books already,” she says, holding up her bag. “They have all sorts of books here and they are cheap!”
Vakil Ahmed has worked as a bookseller for the last 18 years, and operates out of Urdu Bazaar during the week. “When the book fair shut down, my books gathered dust in my house. When I heard it was reopening I was very glad.”
Madhu Vastvani, a student from Mirpurkhas, carefully ran her fingers along a book titled ‘The Little Book of Great Ideas.’
“This is the first book I’m buying that is not in my school syllabus,” the smiling 15-year-old said.
Muhammad Ali has had a stall at the book fair since 1997. He used to run the Boat Basin branch of Mr Old Books, which recently closed down. He now brings books from his store in Khadda Market to Frere Hall. According to Ali, sales are higher at the fair.
Hamida Abbas, a regular visitor to the event, sifted through books with her daughter. “We are all readers,” she explains. “This is a clean environment, the prices are reasonable and you are free to look at the books with ease.”
With Frere Hall reopening, it has turned into a public space, the likes of which are becoming increasingly rare in Karachi. Children play football and cricket and families sit together enjoying ice-lollies.
Among those at the garden are a group of painters, who sit under the shade. The 72-year-old Dr Sayeed Manzur Hussain is part of the group, which has been coming to paint the Frere Hall every Sunday for the last six months. Dr Hussain practices at a clinic in Ancholi and always looks forward to his Sunday evening painting session. “It has become difficult for us outdoor painters to find good spots to paint. This is a secure environment,” he said.
Afshan Hasnain’s daughters tug at her kameez to drag her towards the books. “This is a great public space, open to all. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you do, or where you come from.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2012.