(The following appeared as the ‘Preface’ in a book in Urdu—Fihrist-e Kutub,Siddīq Bukdepo, Lakhna’u (Delhi: Dilli Kitab Ghar, 2016)—that I jointly put together with Dr. Abdur Rasheed of Jami’a Millia University, New Delhi.)

 

Though Urdu books had started to appear in printed form much earlier book printing in Urdu properly took off in the early 1840s when lithography reached India. Invented in 1796 by Johann Alois Senefelder (1771–1834), a German actor and playwright who needed to produce his own writings in an easier and cheaper manner than was allowed by conventional printing, the process turned out to be ideal for Urdu once it reached India. The technology was simple, and the required equipment—some limestone slabs, a hand press—was not prohibitive in cost. Most importantly, the technique perfectly accommodated the skills of the existing population of traditional scribes who had calligraphed Urdu and Persian books for generations. By 1850 there were any number of litho presses across North India, in big towns and small, that were soon steadily producing Urdu books on assorted subjects for general consumption. A few also published weekly or biweekly newspapers that also served to draw attention to their books. The most prominent Urdu press of the 19th century, the press of Munshi Newal Kishore of Lucknow—it had branches in several cities—could have been the first such establishment to publish an independent catalog of its publications, which it then made available to booksellers and individual buyers alike. Its earlier known catalog is dated 1874, and a properly edited reprint of the 1896 edition was recently made available.

It is safe to assume that by the first decade of the new century the practice had been taken up by other large publishers too, in particular the two major ones at Lahore: the Dar-al-Isha’at Punjab of Munshi Mumtaz Ali and the Matba’ Khadim-al-Ta’lim of Munshi Mahbub Alam. These catalogs, made available gratis or at a nominal cost recoverable when an order was placed, were godsend to the booklovers who lived in places where there were no bookstores but who could take advantage of the new, increasingly expanding and efficient postal service. Soon a few other people in the book trade, those who themselves published only a few books but stocked and sold hundreds more of other publishers—e.g. the Nizami Book Depot of Budaun, and the Siddiq Book Depot and Al-Nazir Book Depot of Lucknow—were also issuing general catalogs that catered to an enthusiastic clientele not restricted to any region or topic.

The book at hand is a consolidated/amalgamated reprint of two catalogs published by the Siddiq Book Depot separated by 14 years. We don’t know the history of the establishment. It was most likely named after the owner, and though it published quite a few books under its own imprint over the years its main business was stocking and selling Urdu books from all over India. I recall visiting it often in the 1950s. It existed in a corner of Aminabad, Lucknow’s main shopping area in those days. No browsing was available. One sat on a chair in the verandah in front of the shop and asked for a book or a particular author’s publications. The owner sat at the mouth of the long narrow interior of the shop and called out to his assistants. If the book was well-known or sold well for some other reason it was brought out right away from one of the shelves, but in all other cases the owner would call out a number and a small bundle containing a dozen or so books wrapped in cloth would come down from an unseen space above. The owner would then unwrap the bundle and present you with the book to inspect or call out for some other bundle if the requested book was not found in it. One could of course browse through the other books in the bundle, but asking for too many books without quickly setting aside a few for actual purchase was definitely not encouraged. If one bought enough books one could ask for and obtain a complimentary copy of their printed catalog, other wise one had to buy it like any other book. One of the catalogs that we used contains numbers in the description column that most likely referred to the serial number of the bundles kept in the attic above the shop.

Why publish an old book catalog, and that too of a bookshop long finished and gone? After all, the catalog of a functioning library or bookshop comes with promises of discovery and reading pleasure at least to some of its readers. You can actually gain access to the enticing discoveries if you have the necessary money and other resources. The book in hand no doubt contains listings that would both surprise and delight any reader it however comes with no promise of access.

As we well know at least since the recovery of the great Arabic tome of the tenth century, Kitab-al-Fihrist of Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim—a bookseller and a calligrapher, in addition to be a scholar and bibliophile—all catalogs are extremely useful. Each is preeminently a snapshot, a vivid image of a people’s or a language’s literary/intellectual wealth. The published catalog of a library displays for our benefit what the library had available for its readers/borrowers at a particular time in history. It also informs us—if we are curious in that regard—that the listed books had been published before that date. It does not, however, tell what books were actually read, or which of them were more popular than others. Similarly the catalog of a bookseller, if dated, tells us what books were available to any buyer in that year. And again, it helps us roughly date a book if listed in it. The important difference between a library catalog and that of a bookseller’s is that while the former shows what books were available at a particular place and under other restricting conditions the latter tells us what was available for common purchase to any booklover across the country or even beyond. The former reflects the preferences of a particular collector or institution, the latter makes us aware of the choices that were available to a much larger cohort that was not restricted to a particular city or region.

Academic Urdu scholarship over the years has produced several valuable literary histories, implicitly also narrating a history of the language. But even the most comprehensive does not tell the entire story; all of them place almost exclusive emphasis on what they consider ‘classics’ or ‘canonical.’ These literary histories overlook books that would otherwise be considered foundational for producing an intellectual history of Urdu speakers, nor do they pay much attention to what they only infrequently, and almost grudgingly, subsume under the rubric of ‘popular literature.’ Additionally, Urdu literary historians pay scant attention to translations and the significant role they played in the formation and cultivation of literary taste and talent in Urdu during the final decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. Given the large scale closure of public libraries in North India since 1947 and the destruction, through deliberate neglect as much as natural causes, of Urdu collections in those that still survive it is only through the recovery of old booksellers’ catalogs that we might hope to establish some sense of what was at a particular time published and read in Urdu. Some examples should help.

The name ‘Bahram’ or ‘Bahram Daku’ was not too long ago synonymous with exciting reading for Urdu readers of mystery fiction. The character first appeared in 1916, in the novel Nili Chhatri by Zafar Omar. (It was an Indianized version of Maurice Leblanc’s The Hollow Needle.) I knew about the wide popularity of Omar’s book but the full sense of its influence came to me only after went through the 1936 catalog and found that even twenty years after its publication the book was not only still in print it had in fact generated over forty other novels about ‘Bahram.’ Also such titles as Pili ChhatriLal Chhatri, and Jadid Nili Chhatri!

Further, the same catalog made me aware of the fact that just as Hindi popular fiction included a genre described as ‘tilismi or tilismati’ novels so did also Urdu, at least so far as the clients of Siddiq Book Depot in 1936 were concerned. The same catalog lists ten or so novels described as ‘tilismi,’ out of which four are also described as jasusi. That the cataloguer had some clear sense of genres and the books’ contents is suggested by the fact that he described Mirza Ruswa’s Khuni ‘Ashiq (‘The Murdering Lover’)—a translation of Wormwood, A Drama of Paris by Marie Corelli (1855–1924), who was once described as Queen Victoria’s ‘favorite’ novelist—as a ‘philosophical’ novel and not as a thriller, contrary to the practice of most literary historians.

It is little known that between 1890 and 1920, two of the most read and admired novelists in Urdu were George W. M. Reynolds and Marie Corelli thanks to the translations of their novels—over thirty in the case of the former and nearly a dozen in the case of the latter. A few of Reynolds’ novels were translated more than once, and some ran to more than a thousand pages. Among their translators were such notables as Mirza Ruswa, Zafar Ali Khan, and Tirath Ram Firozepuri, and their avowed admirers included Premchand and Manto. The popularity and range of these and other translations can be best traced now only with the help of old catalogs.

Similarly, it is a sad fact that despite incessant claims of Urdu being a language common to Muslims and non-Muslims alike—a claim that actually makes no sense, since all major languages of India are common to all religious groups—histories of Urdu literature have constantly failed to give full consideration to the writings that are of greater social and intellectual relevance to non-Muslim speakers of Urdu. No history of Urdu novel to my knowledge, for example, mentions Shiv Barat Lal Verman (1861–1939), whose copious output I became aware of only through the same catalog. It listed 23 novels by him, all described as ‘philosophical.’ On further research I discovered that he had published perhaps a dozen more novels and a total of over three hundred books, most of which went through more than two printings during his life. His influence on later ‘literary’ novelists could be negligible but his importance in the intellectual life of a large portion of Urdu speakers cannot be denied. The same can be said with regard to Mahashai Sudarshan, another fiction writer of the same period whose popularity at one time matched that of Premchand, and whose works can be discovered again with the help of these catalogs.

Then there is a more mundane concern regarding Urdu printed books. While the earliest publications invariably mentioned the year of publication, the practice, inexplicably, slowly disappeared. Particularly in the case of popular fiction and poetry. Here again, old catalogs—they seem to have been always carefully dated— come handy, and make it possible for us to make reasonable approximations. Likewise, a comparison of prices listed in two catalogs separated by, say, ten years should be helpful too. Popular books tend to get pricier, while those not selling well remain at the same price or are discounted. And a reprint is almost always more costly than the earlier edition.

Finally, in the contemporary educational system in India schools provide instruction in Urdu language while colleges and universities teach Urdu literature. There is, however, no institution in either India or Pakistan where instruction or research is pursued in what could be called ‘Urdu Studies’—i.e. a ‘holistic’ study of all those many movements, publications, trends and conventions that, over the past two hundred years, played major roles in fashioning the intellectual life of Urdu speakers and effecting their private and public behavior. It is a major lacuna, but whenever in the future an attempt is made to produce an intellectual history of Urdu speakers, Muslims and Non-Muslims, these old book catalogs will be an invaluable source of information.