From left, CM Naim, historian Saleem Kidwai (standing), Ram Advani and book collector Aslam Mahmud. Photo: Unknown waiter at Lucknow golf course, February 2015, via CM Naim.

(CM Naim,  Saleem Kidwai (standing), Ram Advani and  Aslam Mahmud).

 

When I first visited it in the final months of 1949, the shop that would go on to become an iconic landmark occupied a small area within the vast and mostly empty Gandhi Bhandar in the heart of Lucknow’s Hazratgunj. And the sign proudly said “Ram Advani Bookseller”. The use of the singular made it clear, I suppose, that besides the wares on display you were also going to encounter an individual. I had gone there with a relative, and I doubt if I exchanged more than a formal greeting on that occasion with its handsome and urbane owner.

With time, I became more familiar with the wares of the shop – by then it had moved into the Mayfair Building and acquired two signs, the old red one outside the building and a new “wrong” sign, “Ram Advani Booksellers” above its doors – but I don’t think I bought a single book there during those four years. So in those years too, Mr Advani remained a distant figure, from whom one received a nod of recognition but whose eyes one tried to avoid – needlessly, it must be added – as one stepped out without making any purchase. My meagre pocket money was better spent on a movie at the Mayfair Theatre next door.

I mention all this to underscore what made that shop so unique – it allowed cash-starved booklovers like me to browse. And to enjoy the almost erotic frisson of having access to so many temptations. To pick up a book, flip its pages, admire the cover and illustrations, read the blurb, then move on to the next alluring title. One might not have the money to buy even one book, but so what, one at least knew that they were there for the taking some other time.

Before this man, who himself loved books and knew how booklovers feel – even the cash-starved kind – opened his doors, the practice among the booksellers in Lucknow was as follows. The books were put on high shelves, with a number of counters before them. You went and scoured the shelves and then asked the man at the counter to show you the book you wanted. You had then a few minutes to examine it, with the counter-man watching and judging if you were a likely customer. You could then ask for a couple of more books but if by then you had not decided to buy something, you received a subtle hint to not waste their time any further. The counter man would take away all the books and go to some other customer or start doing something else.

Incidentally, the situation at Urdu bookstores was much worse. There, you had to tell the owner what you wanted – a particular book; the works by a particular author; books in some specific genre – who then asked certain numbered bundles to be brought. He would pull out the specific items and show them to you. A transaction had to be made within 10 minutes or so, otherwise the bundles would again disappear in the loft above. There was no way to know what was available for sale, except by flipping the pages of a published catalogue.

Interestingly, just as Ram Advani changed all that with his browse-able shop for the Anglophone readers, around the same time the late Nasim Ahmad made all Urduwalas happy with his famous “Danish Mahal” in Aminabad, where one could browse without fear. I don’t know if the two ever met but I do know they held each other in much respect.

I’m quite sure I never bought a book from Ram Bhai’s shop until 1966, when I spent a year away from Chicago in Barabanki, my hometown. My relationship with him in the beginning was formal – he was a pretty formal person in most ways, and may have even appeared as somewhat severe to some people. The big difference in age – he was 14 years senior to me – made me feel diffident while talking to him. But over the years, like for so many others before me and after, our relationship turned into a friendship that I cherished then and will always cherish. He became Ram Bhai to me, and I became Naim to him – in his letters he would now use “My dear Naim” instead of “Dear Mr Naim.” Then, some 10 or so years back, he took to calling me “Naim Bhai”. I protested, but he did not stop. I finally explained it to myself as a curious expression of his misplaced sense of propriety in view of my shiny pate and white beard.

As Lucknow changed, it became a place less and less familiar or comfortable for me. Besides depressing physical changes, people’s behaviour in public spaces became radically different. One could not walk safely where once it was possible to stroll. By 1990, Ram Bhai’s shop became an oasis in what had become, for an old fogey like me, a desert, a place with no civility though displaying much opulence. With Ram Bhai I knew where I stood and could never be disappointed in my expectations. With him I could also share memories of an earlier, more civil Lucknow. His shop became the place where I could ask people to come and meet me, and if they were of the “right” kind I would take them upstairs to Ram Bhai’s cool dark mezzanine floor office. We would then have a cup of tea with him – it was always rather weak to my taste though plentiful. Inevitably, the visitors would soon join the ranks of Ram Bhai’s countless admirers across the world.

Buying books at Ram Bhai’s shop was always a problem for me. Too many interesting books on display, too many equally interesting books that he knew would interest me and he could obtain in a few days from the publishers. The most fabulous thing for me and for any visitor from abroad was the fact that the books one bought could be made into perfect parcels and sent homeward abroad through postal service by Ram Bhai’s most capable staff. And for a nominal charge one could even have one’s own other acquisitions mailed similarly. The other thing that made him special for so many was his ability to remember what one liked or was interested in. Every few months, it was normal to receive from him a note, first by postal service then by email, describing the new acquisitions of the shop that should be of interest to the particular recipient.

The same happened when you visited the shop, coming from abroad. After a few minutes of personal chitchat, he immediately started informing you of the new books that should interest you, often giving his own brief but candid view of some particular book. Often there would be several visitors in the shop at the same time, and more than one conversation would be going on as dear old Raju would make more tea and offer biscuits or go out to get samosas for the few who shamelessly asked for them. Ram Bhai would sit and listen and add his two bits once in a while. But he never gossiped. Many of us did, but he would only listen, and only with a look of tired indulgence on his face.

Though he spoke Sindhi and Hindi-Urdu – I doubt if he read them too – Ram Bhai was basically an Anglophone. Nevertheless, in social discourse and manners, he was a quintessential old-time “Lakhnavi”. (That reminds me of the beautifully embroidered chikan kurtas bought for him by Darshi Bhabhi, an epitome of ageless beauty and elegance herself, that he wore with great aplomb – I longed to don the same but knew how false they would look on me.) Whatever he had seen and heard and read about Lucknow was safe and ready in his memory to share with others. And in the limited confines of his shop he had created the aura of courtesy and civility that he believed he had experienced once in Lucknow’s public spaces, as if to impress upon his younger visitors: Yes, this is how it used to be once and could be again if you only tried.

Rest in peace, Ram Bhai, you were a dear and cherished friend to countless people and also a forlorn reminder of a Lucknow that is now gone forever.

 

First published in Scroll.in on March 14, 2016.

 

When I was growing up in the small town of Barabanki in the 1940s, the mosques had no loudspeakers. Those abominations would appear at the political rallies, and then disappear. Even in our Eidgah, where hundreds of people came from all parts of the town to pray together on the two Eid festivals, no loudspeakers were used to summon them. Not only that, even during the prayers, no microphone was used by the imam. In fact, when the idea was suggested by some individuals, it was quickly rejected by most of the so-called notables, who organised the special prayers, as well as the clergy. The imams of the neighborhood mosques, at the time, would proclaim the azaan themselves, or had some young man with a loud voice do the honors from the roof of the mosque. The human sound, often quite melodic, that emerged from his throat had enough reach to bring the nearby faithful to the mosque. And it did so no less efficiently than the electronically engorged aberration that now resounds over Barabanki. Actually, I should use the plural, for what we now have are scores of aberrations.

Last year, when I made a determined effort over several days, I discovered that the fajr or dawn prayer azaan came barging into my room in Barabanki from eight different mosques – mind you, only one of them was within walking distance from my home – and the whole thing, the calls from those eight different mosques, lasted nearly 30 minutes, as each mosque made its separate contribution. At moments, what one heard was an ugly cacophony. Far from providing the aesthetic pleasure that a single human voice produced for most listeners in my boyhood days, the effect of what came over the air now was intolerable even to my deeply devout sisters.

Undistorted and un-amplified, an ordinary human’s voice was perfectly able to do the task in the days when few people had alarm clocks or, for that matter, even a wristwatch. But now, even the tiny mosque in my neighborhood that can accommodate no more than 50 or 60 people has two loudspeakers tied to its minaret, and a sound system that sends its call out to a body of people 50 times larger than its capacity. But one cannot suggest a change. Apparently, the people who attend the neighborhood mosque can do perfectly well without an amplified alarm in all aspects of their daily lives except when it comes to reaching the mosque to form a congregation. Their grandfathers could do without loudspeakers but not these stalwarts of the 21st century.

Given the recent controversy over Sonu Nigam, I totally believe that no use of inappropriate amplification should be allowed in open spaces. Period. Not at akhand paths, not at jagrans, not at wedding celebrations, not at political meetings, not at anything. Not within a mile of any hospital. Not close to any school. And most definitely not during the hours of 10 pm and 7 am. Needless to say, the required laws are there on the books, what does not exist is the will to enforce them.

There are, however, a couple of things that Indian Muslims should themselves be concerned about that are related to the matter of electronically amplified sounds emerging from mosques. The idea of praying together in a congregation is quite important in Islam, hence the need to construct mosques. And that leads to the immediately relevant question: how far away should one mosque be from another? The rule is clear: mosques should be so built that the call from one must not reach another. The worshippers should not be confused, nor should there be an appearance of discord or disunity. If you don’t believe me, ask the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. They will confirm the above, even if reluctantly. For the size and numbers of mosques has now become a matter of honor.

Then there is the second, perhaps even more critical, issue. Everyone is aware of the quantum increase in sectarian thought and practice among the Muslims of South Asia. The evil that started in Pakistan, particularly during the Zia-ul-Haq regime, has now well established itself in India too. Thankfully, the murder and mayhem that are now routine in Pakistan have not yet happened in India. Indian Sunnis are not killing Indian Shi’ahs, nor have the Indian Barelavis gone gunning after Indian Wahhabis. But anyone who reads Urdu journals knows that sectarian intolerance has increased, and no effort to curb it is in sight.

I first visited Pakistan in 1980, and well recall what some friends in Lahore told me was happening in the Old City. After the ‘isha (late evening) prayers, they said, the Barelavis and the Deobandis regularly engaged in denouncing each other, using their azaan amplification systems, and filling the air with choice imprecations. My friend had said that with a smile. Now, of course, that smile is long gone. In fact, when I was in Lahore last year, and staying with a friend in an affluent neighborhood, I heard an azaan that I had never heard before. Later I found out that the Barelavis in Pakistan now have their own special azaan, and the additional material was put in basically to annoy the Deobandis. Probably the same is now happening in Bareli and Mumbai, too, but until last year it had not reached Barabanki.

Public display of religiosity is now common place. Piety that used to be expressed privately or through public humanitarian acts has now been replaced by a religiosity that is much more about pomp and glory, about self-exaltation, than humility and service. The cry one hears is of shaukat-e Islam (Glory of Islam). Anything that detracts from that presumed glory becomes “intolerable”. Sonu Nigam’s complaint against the use of loudspeakers was turned into an attack on Islam’s “honor”, and had to be retaliated against by demanding that he should be denuded of his “honor”. “Shave his head off,” brayed one savior of Islam. “Put a garland of shoes around his neck.” Now I only wish Sonu Nigam had saved the hair clippings and mailed them to his detractor.

More seriously, it is about time administrators across the country began to enforce the existing laws. Put strict limits on amplification. Enforce hours. Punish those who break the laws. And the so-called leaders – political and religious – should also make sure that the presumed piety of one party does not put undue burden on the rest of the citizens of the country.

 

First published at Scroll.in on April 21, 2017.

02. October 2016 · Comments Off on Publish and Perish · Categories: Archive, Tilting at Windmills · Tags: ,

I have long been familiar with the adage that governs so much in American academia—Publish or perish—but now I have learned a new truth: publish and perish.

It began some weeks back when I got a pleasant surprise from Professor Narayani Gupta of Delhi. She informed me that an enterprising young scholar named Rana Safavi had translated into English both editions—essentially two separate books—of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Asar-al-Sanadid, and the translation was soon to be published by the Tulika Books, Delhi. Would I be willing, she then asked, to have my long essay on the book reprinted in it as an Afterword sort of thing?

My essay, “Syed Ahmad and His Two Books Called ‘Asar-al-Sanadid’,” appeared in the May 2011 issue of Modern Asian Studies (45:3, 669–708). That was ten years after I had retired. So its publication was not for the purpose of saving me from perishing. The books had become available in facsimile editions in 2005, and it had taken me close to five years to finally finish a project that I had long aspired to do. In fact, the seed for it was planted a few decades back by Professor Gupta when I had met her at the Jami’a Millia. My essay was a labor of love, and much work and reading had gone into it as can been seen in its 100 footnotes.

Naturally, therefore, when I got Professor Gupta’s note, I was doubly gratified, and only too glad to give my full consent. What could be a better new life for my article, I thought, than for it to be included in the first full/joint translation of the two books it discussed?

Alas, I had forgotten the PUBLISHER. Modern Asian Studies is published by the Cambridge University Press; in fact it is just one of a whole gaggle of journals that they publish. Tulika Books contacted them, informing them of my full consent. I too wrote them. What was the end result? Here is the relevant portion from the note I received from the editor at Tulika:

“I’m afraid what I had feared has come to be. I just received an email from CUP granting us permission to include your article in our translation of Asar — but at a fee of GBP 480, which works out to over Rs 40,000 given the skewed currency exchange rate! I am sorry if this is disappointing to you, as indeed it is to us, but I hope you will understand that we just cannot afford to pay out such a high amount for reproducing your article. It would upset the entire ‘economics’ of the publication’s production cost. I haven’t yet replied to CUP but will be sending them a ‘no, thank you’ email by tomorrow. I thought I should inform you first. I thank you very much for your generosity and for taking time out to pursue this on our behalf.”

Four hundred and eighty pounds, i.e. six hundred and twenty-one dollars! For the right to reprint a forty page article on an obscure subject in a book that is not likely to sell more than six hundred copies! I’m fairly confident that the CUP makes enough from the sale of the MAS, in print and on line, not so much from individual subscribers as from the special rates that institutions pay. (In 2011, any American institution desirous of subscribing to the MAS had to pay $574.00.) University presses also get grants and subsidies, particularly when they publish something rare and special. So it is not as if they cannot afford to be less ruthless. Mind you, I, the author, did not get a penny in 2011, and would not have received a penny now either from Tulika or the CUP. And so, from the perspective of my essay, it lost a lovely and unusual opportunity to reach a new and wider audience in India. It was published in 2011; it perished in 2016. RIP.

20. August 2016 · Comments Off on India’s National Library Goes Digital – Sort of · Categories: Tilting at Windmills · Tags: , ,

In April 2014, The Guardian published a longish piece by Samuel Gibbs entitled, “The most powerful Indian technologists in Silicon Valley.” It opened: “Ever since waves of Indian graduates poured into Silicon Valley in Northern California in the 1970s and 1980s, talented Indians have made breakthroughs, pushed boundaries and held positions of power in the world of technology and media.” Gibbs then went on to give brief but substantial accounts of the achievements of eleven such Indians, nine men and two women. Included were such luminaries as Ajay Bhatt—“credited as being the father of the USB standard”—and Vinod Dham—“The father of the famous Intel Pentium processor.” What is also striking about these men and women is the fact that almost all of them received their foundational education in India, in some of its most prestigious institutions. One may then rightly assume that those institutions, and others like them, must have by now produced a very large number of well-trained and talented people. Too numerous, perhaps, even to imagine. So why is it that not one of them apparently found his or her way to be on the staff of the National Library at Kolkota? For as anyone who visited it knows that the National Library’s website is nothing short of a disgrace to such a prestigious institution.

Click on the above link and you will see the following:

Picture1

Note the invitation—“User can register from this website free of cost”— on the left, spilling out of its box. Ignore the amateurish effect, and instead try to register. You will be immediately forced to make an arbitrary choice. There is on the right of the screen a tempting box titled “New User?” with a winking sign saying “Register Now!” But there is also smack in the middle of the screen a box marked “User registration.” Most likely, you will do what I did and click on the “New User” box, to be greeted only with the following bracing message: “This facility will be made available soon.” Now try the box in the middle. It works. You can register – but only if you are an Indian citizen. It does not say that in so many words. However, I as an American citizen was in no position to answer all the “mandatory” questions, even if I chose to ignore their highly obtrusive nature. I gave up and consoled myself by concluding that “User Registration” was perhaps not meant for those who only wished to use the website and the NL’s online information resources.

I next tried the button saying “View Recently Digital Books” (sic), assuming that they actually meant “Recently Digitized.” What did I find? Just one title, as can be seen below.

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Ignore your disappointment, ignore the incongruity of “1 Records Found.” But do consider the details of the one “recently digital” book. The author is given as “Ober, Fredwick Alboin.” His parents, however, had named him: Fredrick Albion Ober. Now look at the title of the book as offered by the National Library of India: “Comps in Carbbees; the adventures of a naturalists in the Lesser Antilles.” The book when it came out in 1880 was actually titled: “Camps in the Caribbees: the adventures of a naturalist in the Lesser Antilles.” Four serious typos in a context where not one should have happened.

I next tried the box in the middle of the page titled, “Digitised Book (sic),” expecting to find some description of the nature and number of the books, with perhaps an alphabetical list of the most prominent authors so far included. Instead I found I had to blindly try, and if I were lucky I could find something. As fate would have it, almost all the times I was only told: “No records found.” It soon became obvious that no browsing was possible. One could only make a specific request and then pray for good luck.

Finally, I decided to search the library’s online catalog as offered on the home page. My recent research interest has been popular fiction in Urdu at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20 centuries, in particular what was translated from the English. Two authors, George W.M. Reynolds and Marie Corelli, had been particular favorites in Urdu, as in fact they had been in several other Indian languages. I thought the National Library should have a good record of the titles by these authors that had been available in India as well as the translations that appeared in Indian languages. I was not disappointed. A substantial number of the two authors’ early editions are preserved. I also found titles of some translations in Bengali and Malayalam. But very few. Far fewer than were actually done in those two languages. And no mention of any translation in Urdu, though at least 34 novels of Reynolds and 5 of Corelli were to my knowledge translated and avidly read in Urdu in the 1920s.

I also found that there was no easy way for me to check Urdu titles. As shown below, the page invites readers to use regional languages but where is the “Control Panel” that it asks them to use?

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I had to resort to Romanized forms of Urdu words. It worked – mostly. But it would have more helped if they had offered a guide to their Romanizations. It turns out that there is no fixed system. Different people on the staff have differently Romanized Urdu titles and authors’ names. I wonder if that has happened with other languages too or was that some special treatment meted out to Urdu? Surely, it is not fair to change Urdu ‘z’ to Hindi ‘j’ even in Romanization. Not in Kolkota, where people lustily pronounce ‘z’ and ‘f’ even where they are not required to.

Why should this be the case? A friend suggested the practice of “tendering out” such jobs could be to blame. The library wished to have a website; it asked for tenders from different IT firms; then chose the least costly, hence the least efficient. The usual bureaucratic fiasco. There is also that attitude so prevalent among Indian librarians. Very few of them think of themselves as providers of an essential service to the general public. Most of them view themselves simply as custodians of the contents of their institutions—contents that they preserve and protect but do not, in the same measure, also make available to rightful users. After visiting the National Library’s website it was obvious to me that no one had bothered to try it out and see if it actually worked. They can now claim, like everyone else, to have a website, that it worked or not was of little importance.