As gateways to knowledge and culture, libraries play a fundamental role in society. But barring a few token book houses devoid of reading culture, Kashmir has nothing substantial to offer to readers.
When Salik Pervaiz, a Ph.D scholar from Central University, visited the SPS Library last year, he found himself in a cold and confused space bereft of support system and catalogue.
The condition of the books was extremely bad, Pervaiz recalls. “I had applied for the membership but I was so disappointed that I still haven’t collected the card.”
However, the unwelcoming library couldn’t prevent him from becoming a bibliophile and build his own personal library.
“But you can’t afford all the books and other material required for your research,” he says.
“It’s a library that makes your hunt easy. You can’t buy all the research papers you need from JSTOR, Academia, Sage, etc. But if you access them through a library you can get most of the material from these sources for free. But, to access such websites on 2G is frustrating and public libraries here are no help either.”
The resources and services offered by libraries are known to create opportunities for learning, support literacy, and education, and help shape the new ideas and perspectives that are central to a creative and innovative society.
In a world without libraries, bibliophiles believe, it would be difficult to advance research and human knowledge or preserve the literary heritage for future generations.
But what can a reader do when he can’t afford a book and can’t find it in the library either?
However, it’s not like there aren’t books available in the public libraries of the valley.
“I was in dire need of few books on Philosophy and the French Revolution,” says Peerzada Muzammil, a Srinagar-based scribe.
“And to my surprise, I found them in the public library. It’s impossible to imagine the availability of all books in any library of the world, let alone in the libraries of the third world.”
Other than housing some rare books, these public libraries are majorly known for the reference section — catering to the competitive exam aspirants.
But one hardly finds Fiction and Poetry books on the dusty shelves of the public libraries, says Faizan Mir, a Literature student.
“You at least expect any library to have books by Nobel laureates, Booker winners, a wide range of world literature but these sections are scarcely filled,” he says.
For many readers, Fiction is a gateway drug to reading—the drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going...
“And it’s a very real drive,” Mir says. “It forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything.”
But the issue with the public libraries remains that it doesn’t keep the tab on what youth is inclined to read these days, reckons Waseem Habib, an English Literature lecturer.
“Muslim youth all around the world have developed a great taste for Halal Literature,” Habib says. “It’s a growing genre of Fiction, mostly written by Muslim writers, where they tell you the great stories while abstaining from what might be morally insensitive for some Muslim readers, especially children.”
Many of such books written by Muslim writers have won reputed international literary awards.
In 2019, the International Man Booker Prize was given to Jokha Alharthi for her book Celestial Bodies. The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf was chosen as a 2020 Kirkus Prize Finalist for Young Readers’ Literature. There’re so many other books that have won worldwide recognition.
“But I could not find a single book by such authors available in the public libraries here,” Waseem adds.
The unavailability of Fiction and other important books disappoints readers who can’t afford expensive books.
To fill the gap, while some download the digital format book illegally from torrents or other websites which provide millions of books for free, others give up disheartened.
Among other government-run book houses, the prominent and heritage library of the valley—the 110-year-old SPS Library of Srinagar—is being denounced for not encouraging the reading culture in the valley.
In its pre-90 avatar, the library used to be packed with voracious readers who wouldn’t miss a day. It was then a hub of intellectually-stimulating environment where young boys and girls would read all day long.
However, there was a severe change of events after the 90s when the library reading culture came to a standstill. The subsequent government policies, many say, never helped to structuralize the library systems.
But the watch and warden of the public libraries beg to differ.
“Such used to be a rush of readers before the Covid that people had to wait for seats,” says Shazia, Chief Librarian, SPS Library. “School and college students visit the library more. But most students that visit are those preparing for competitive exams.”
But the same “packed house” now barely witnesses a daily footfall of 70 readers.
And there’s a reason for this shrinking readership in the public libraries of Kashmir, says a senior library official.
Most of these libraries are now flooded with books that sit on the shelves for decades without anyone reading them, he says.
“There’re publishers and librarians who are in there for business only,” the official alleges. “These publishers will publish trashy books no one will ever read.”
Let’s suppose, he explains, they will publish 1000 hardbound copies of a title.
“One copy of the printed book will cost them no more than Rs 100 and the MRP will be Rs 2500. Then they will approach library officials and make a deal that if they will accept 5 or so copies of each title, they will get a certain percentage of commission.”
These private publishers, he informs, publish hundreds of titles a year and distribute thousands of copies to each library they’re partners with.
“As the Govt. is going to pay for them, they don’t even provide any discount. If for one such trashy title, the library pays Rs 2500 and thousands of such prints are bought by it, you can imagine how much the commission will be even if it is just 10% per book.”
In the backdrop of this blatant book business, some bibliophiles say, Kashmir’s reading culture is both falling and fading. And to their chagrin, new reading spaces aren’t emerging either.
Barring some 100-plus college and university campus libraries stuffed with specific subject textbooks, there’re only 81 public libraries in Kashmir. Among them, only eight exists in the capital Srinagar, including the SPS Library, Oriental Research Library and others.
However, most of them are stationed in a single area with a geographic disadvantage and limited readership.
“There’s a need to design ideas that match contemporary demands,” believes Sheikh Zahoor Ul Haq, the Deputy Director, Libraries.
“If students are provided a hospitable ambience in the libraries, I’m sure there’ll be an improved readership.”
Today, the likes of Haq are hopeful to execute new plans including the idea of a Model Library to attract readers of all ages and backgrounds.
“But when it comes to public libraries, the public reading taste should be considered,” he says. “We should not be forcing our personal reading choices on the public.”
Till such initiatives won’t see the light of the day, scholars like Salik Pervaiz are likely to stay away from the unwelcoming public libraries.
(Mehak Ayaz contributed to this story.)
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Muhammad Nadeem is a reader and writes about what he reads. Among his writings are reviews, poetry, and short stories. He also works with translation and criticism, and has previously been published in Prachya Review, Cafe Dissensus Magazine, Kashmir Lit, Sheeraza, Inverse Journal, AGNI, Poet Lore, 32 Poems, Jaggery Lit among other literary magazines and journals. His poems have been translated and published in several anthologies. His reading interests are diverse, and he has reviewed hundreds of books for literary publications. He is also a former editor of the Mountain Ink.