I entered through the metal gates into a small garage area as my little cousin opened the door and spirited away, chattering. The table in the garage was unusually piled with old books. The reason I came to visit at all.
There’s something serene and magical about old books—from their yellowed pages, annotated corners, letter-riddled first pages to that ‘old’ smell. The smell and texture that transports you to the previous century.
For as far as I could remember, one trunk in our house has always filled with my aunts’ old books; the family treasure and the family inheritance. Unlike the iron safe that oxidized over decades of living through monsoons, one after the other, and was finally sold off—the trunk made it through time and space.
Time — till we grew up and became old and sensible enough to read Urdu & Punjabi poetry. The eternal and everlasting words of Waris Shah, Saadi, Bulleh Shah, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Wasif Ali Wasif, Habib Jalib, Ahmed Faraz & many more names yet unknown to me. Only being exposed to the ‘popular’ and a narrow collection of Urdu poetry in school syllabus, the joy of reading a hundred poems on love, longing and lamentations was still unknown to my heart.
Space — the many walls and storerooms of the many houses we moved in to and out ever since I came into this world. Some rooms were spacious so the books could breathe easily, while some were not. They had to be squeezed among the other belongings. They even survived the accidental fire I started in one storeroom where the brown door transformed into a coal-black one.
Somehow, the books survived the trials of time & space and came into my wanting hands where I longed to read them and imagined the joy of reading them. It takes you some time to select a title; so promising and instigative. Will this one also have handwritten notes on the pages from the people and emotions unknown to me in this dystopian future?
The Urdu books were golden, but the Punjabi books made me realise, and finally accept some harsh realities and truths; I can’t read Punjabi either scribbled in Shahmukhi or Gurmukhi script. It wasn’t that easy to speak either; the tongue always gets stuck in the middle of a sentence. But it is easier to listen and comprehend—even the varieties of dialect and accents coming together to narrate varieties of fables and tales.
I opened the words of Waris Shah—the eternal love story of Heer Ranja, or as I’d like to think; the epitome of bad luck and family feuds. Is the story even about love, or did Waris Shah was screaming something else under the pretence of flowery words; I’ve always wondered, ever since I first heard my friend narrating the story in the eighth grade.
She knew which parts to drag out, and which to speed up; and most importantly, where to take a break to create the suspense in the air. She’d stop; her hands spreading out to add weight to the words and storyline, and look around, and seeing our emersed faces and nervousness; she’d continue with a satisfied and proud look on her face. There were cries of protest in the room when the story seemed to end abruptly.
I always wanted to read it myself, just so I could proudly narrate it to others too. The last year when we opened the trunk, my eyes landed on that title. It was the time; the time to read Waris Shah’s narration of a masterpiece.
I took the book out and tried for half an hour, but I barely made it past two pages.
The book still sticks out on my shelf, among the other love folk titles scribbled in Punjabi; as if, almost taunting me. They want me to put in the work and sweat; learn to read the language I call mine, and only then it’ll deem me worthy enough to unfold its secrets.
The Urdu books and poets open their hearts before me; it makes me wonder if the problems in one language remain the same. Why are the couplets that were written decades ago still resonate with the fabrics of time? It feels like we’re going around in circles. Faraz’s commentary on politics is still relevant today, and so are his couplets that mysteriously seem to whisper about Karachi rains.
In Urdu poetics, the world revolves around love—a dream, a person or an idea—mixed with politics. The words whisper the injustices being done to them and hide their blood and tears among the sophisticated strokes of the alphabets. They are afraid to say things out loud (with exceptions, of course).
And we carry that fear on our sleeves as we tread through our daily lives. Urdu reveals its secret only if you’re willing to listen. If you’re paying attention.
Reading books that once belonged to someone else feels like peeking into the previous century—into the author’s point of view, but the reader’s; the underlined couplets, the annotations, the long letters and who knows what else.
Another surprising aspect of reading these old books is noticing their price tag and getting excited—the one currently in my hands, Janan Janan by Ahmed Faraz, only cost thirty rupees in September 1986. I could buy almost thirty books back then at the price of one book today—the price I can’t afford to spend on one book today.
Books are too expensive, or maybe we’re too poor. I’m envious of my e-library and the empty shelves of my room. So, when my aunt called me to come and browser through her collection as she was cleaning up her shelves, I rushed excitedly over. The unorganised books on the garage table were mine to take, and I grabbed as many as I could.