A SMALL PURCHASE was made not long ago by a curmudgeonly bookworm in the Saddar neighbourhood of Karachi. Nobody expected it to connect disparate people on four continents. But it did, and it was a small act of revenge which brought it all about.
The secondhand bookseller Habib bhai had finally had it with Mahmood sahab. The old book collector’s reduced circumstances had not diminished his desire for fine editions. Habib had done good business with Mahmood sahab before his retirement from the Ministry of Transport, but years later, and with a six thousand rupee debt for 15 months, Mahmood sahab still acted as if he had the right of first choice from Habib’s latest stock.
Mahmood sahab lived near Regal Chowk, not far from the lane where the secondhand booksellers hold their weekly Sunday bazaar. From early morning, he kept a watch on the road and rushed down as soon as he saw the bookseller arrive in the rickshaw. He pulled out books from the bundles and pawed them before Habib had finished unloading them. And for someone who bought books on credit, he haggled like a fiend. Habib bhai had put up with all that, but Mahmood sahab had now become unreasonable and it interfered with his opportunities of making a profit.
Earlier, Habib had sold him for the small sum of six hundred rupees the 1970 Limited Edition of Sadequain’s self-published Rubaiyat. Now a collector in Lahore was offering Habib bhai up to ten thousand rupees for the same book. In the secondhand book trade, it often happened that the right buyer arrived after the goods had been sold.
After the bazaar on the following Sunday, Habib took Mahmood sahab to the nearby Cafe Grand and offered him a fair deal: he would take back the Sadequain book and write off the entire amount Mahmood sahab owed him. After paying himself the balance it would have netted Habib bhai a tidy four thousand rupees. Being a sensible man himself, he was sure that Mahmood sahab would see it as a fine opportunity to clear his debt, but Mahmood sahab shook his head in refusal and quickly left after only paying for his own tea at the counter.
Habib bhai was shocked. He was also enraged. He promised to make Mahmood sahab pay for his effrontery. Within a few days Providence supplied him the tool to fulfill his vow.
Habib bhai bought his books from two sources. His agents in the book trade kept him informed about people who had private collections and libraries for sale. The kabaris who bought old newspapers, plastic, metal and glass regularly supplied him with small quantities of books. When visiting houses, the kabaris weighed the newspapers and other junk, and then looked around and asked: “Are there any other books?”
Unemployed books languished in almost every house. They were either bought and never read, gifted and found unsatisfactory, or left behind by deceased family members. The greatest number of books in any house invariably belonged to this last category because the desire to get rid of them often interfered with thoughts about the propriety of the deed, complicating the decision for the sentimental and weak-of-will. The closer the relation with the deceased, the longer the decision was held in abeyance. In the meanwhile, the stacked books occupied useful space, gathered dust, and beckoned to termites, wood worms and weevils. The books’ situation in the house became untenable.
The kabari’s question eased the family members’ consciences. Finally, someone in need of those books had arrived looking for them! There were always books for the kabari.
A few days after his meeting with Mahmood sahab, Habib was working at his storage house when a kabari brought him a stock of books. Habib cursorily checked them. Most of them were in bad condition, some lacked bindings. There was an out-of-print recipe book for which Habib had a ready buyer and an old file which contained loose papers and first-day covers. Later, as Habib was sorting this file, a small packet wrapped carefully in plastic sheet slipped out. Habib recognised the red binding at one glance. He carefully unwrapped it. It was, as he had thought, the extremely rare, leather-bound pocket edition of Ghalib’s Divan published in 1923 by Kaviani Press, Berlin. Habib had last seen one 10 years ago.