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Inside Hyderabad's hub of rare books

Hyderabad’s Chowk, known as a market for poultry and metal, is also a treasure trove of rare Urdu literature

The Charminar area is home to bookstores which deal in Urdu literature and books on history and religion.
The Charminar area is home to bookstores which deal in Urdu literature and books on history and religion. (Alamy)

Two blocks before the Charminar—the majestic symbol of Hyderabad and its founding Qutub Shahi dynasty—lies the Patel Market kamaan (arch). Shops dealing in textiles cascade from both sides of this entry to the marketplace. As soon you enter the market and take the first left, you reach Urdu Galli. Ironically, the only trace of Urdu here is the nasq/nastaleeq script on the signboards of some fabric stores and a Sufi shrine.

A little further, in the inner lanes, you will come across a newly restored relic of the Asaf Jahi dynasty’s reign: Named after the sixth nizam, the Mehboob Chowk clock tower was built by the erstwhile princely state’s vizier, Asman Jah, in 1892. This heritage structure, designated as such, is home to bookshops that almost reek of neglect. Most of them emerged after 1948, when English supplanted Urdu as the government language. This is one of the many reasons they mainly stock religious material in Arabic or educational books in English. Delve a little deeper, though, and you will find the Chowk area, a market for poultry and metals, is also a treasure trove of rare literature in Urdu, a language that seems to be dying out.

“Most aristocratic households had big libraries,” says city historian Sajjad Shahid. “But after the abolition of feudalism, many nobles who fell on tough times had to sell their palatial abodes.” Books from those homes made their way to many of these stores.

Deep within a stall that seems to keep only pious content for instance, are short story collections by the late Wajida Tabassum—a Shobhaa Dé-esque chronicler of feudal debauchery. Opened in 1952 by the late Abdul Hafiz, the Islamic Book Center sells the salacious alongside the religious and educational. A few months before his death last year, the store owner told me, “Chilkan and Wahi Wahanvi are pen-names of local wordsmiths who published obscene poetry and crass prose, respectively. I have read and sold them here.” It was in mid-2019 that I stumbled on Wajida Tabassum’s books here.

In late December, lawyer and Urdu enthusiast Asif Ali Zaidi managed to lay his hands on the Intekhaab-e-Qasaaid-e-Urdu, a compilation of qaseedas (panegyric poetry) by poets such as Wali Deccani and Mohammed Ibrahim Zauq. Like an archaeologist digging through ancient ruins, he also unearthed Diwan-e-Zafar, a collection of ghazals of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, and the complete works of the Persian poet Saadi. A medical anatomy textbook in Farsi took Zaidi back to a time when the language was a part of Hyderabad’s literary and educational milieu.

Unfortunately, even fewer people today inquire about Persian texts than they do about Wajida Tabassum. In contrast, there is a demand among elderly folk for Amjad Hyderabadi, whose verses featured in the music programme Coke Studio’s rock-qawwali rendition of Allama Iqbal’s poems Shikwa and Jawaab-e-Shikwa.

Lawyer and Urdu enthusiast Asif Ali Zaidi at the Islamic Book Center.
Lawyer and Urdu enthusiast Asif Ali Zaidi at the Islamic Book Center. (Daneesh Majid)

For decades, the books would be stacked in haphazard fashion. Last October’s deluge, however, changed that. It claimed 25-30 books, forcing Hafiz’s grandson to organise the space better. Today, it looks more like a baithak space, with books neatly categorised on shelves.

A stone’s throw from the Islamic Book Center is Haziq and Mohi, where the more expensive, original works of Amjad Hyderabadi are available. Here, the floods damaged 150 books. “During Nizam VII’s reign, the two famous book stores were Haziq and Mohi and Saduddin Book Depot,” recalls Anand Raj Verma, author of 28 Urdu textbooks and Hyderabad: Mohalle, Gali Aur Kooche. In the 1950s, Haziq and Mohi used to allow people to rent the books. “Academic and literary books used to cost 200, which is equivalent to today’s  20,000. I would rent those books for two or three rupees a day after depositing the full amount of that price,” says Verma.

More recently, William Dalrymple’s White Mughals and John Zubrzycki’s The Last Nizam mention Haziq and Mohi’s legacy as a hub for information on Deccani history. Given the sheer volume of English and Urdu material, though, it can take hours to find a certain novel. The only ones interested enough, says Ibrahim Bafana, nephew of the store’s founder Ahmed Bafana, are “scholars, connoisseurs, foreigners and elderly NRIs”. Sadly, there seem to be few takers for valuable works like the thick volume of Daagh Dehlvi’s poetry or histories of the Qutub Shahi dynasty.

“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” says Oudesh Bava Rani, vice-president of Hyderabad’s Hindi-Urdu Progressive Writers’ Association. “Readership is so limited. Therefore, demand is too.”

At the Deccan Book Stall, located in the same line as the Islamic Book Center, Zaidi has come across more jewels, such as the Telangana communist poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin’s collection Bisaat-e-Raqs, costing a paltry 100. Right behind this store is the Maqbool Book Depot, frequented by the late Delhi poet Gulzar Dehlvi whenever he visited Hyderabad.

The store, which lost 10,000 books in the floods, might seem more ramshackle than others in the area. But owner Ghouse Pasha is adept at navigating through moth-eaten stocks that include famous detective novels by suspense writer Ibn-e-Safi and biographies of statesmen like the second nizam, or Nizam VII—Mir Osman Ali Khan’s Hyderabadi vizier, Maharaja Kishen Pershad. Connoisseurs searching for Nizam VII’s compilation of selected Urdu and Farsi poems, as well as their English translations, have found them here. “If you are after something, sooner or later you will find it,” says Shahid.

 Certainly, the long, seemingly futile search for rare Urdu literature in its original script does, more often than not, end at Chowk.

Daneesh Majid is a Hyderabad-based writer on South Asian culture and security.

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