Free Reference Library, Rawalpindi

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Free Reference Library, Rawalpindi


A library that Islamabad lost

By A. Rahim Khan

Often if a passion finds no appreciation, it atrophies. It is a relief to know that indifference and lack of appreciation have both failed to dampen his love for books. Mr Fazli-i-Nabi, a retired civil servant from the Frontier, has been collecting books for the past 40 years.

A common enough past time, one would say, until one entered his house. Once inside the doorway one can’t help but feel dwarfed by a collection of that size. Besides libraries or book stores, it is very rare to come across so many books. And just how many is ‘many’? Twenty thousand or thereabouts. And that is now. The number was originally far higher; the fiction books alone filled 50 cartons but due to lack of space those had to be given away.

The present collection boasts 2,000 biographies/autobiographies; 3,000 books on literary criticism; 5,000 books on history, religion, politics and philosophy, 2,000 Urdu books, 300 dictionaries and countless volumes of encyclopaedias. One can find just about anything, from the ‘Fine Art of Mixing Drinks’ (if only for its ‘ornamental’ appeal) to the Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft & Demonology; from ‘20,000 Quips & Quotes’ to Newton’s Principia, the collection has it all.

Mr Nabi himself bears all the hallmarks of a librarian: thin, bespeckled, articulate and seemingly out of character (for a librarian), a genuine bon homie. How or why he came to be so obsessed, even he can’t say. It is just one of those things, it seems, but he has done so doggedly.

He jokingly recounts how he once sold a car and spent all the proceeds on books. It has been a lifelong fixation but one that would have been useless if not put to some use, after all how many books can one man read? (And he confesses he hasn’t read all of them).

This is where our little story begins. What to do with so many books? One could either sell them or one could be philanthropic about it. One could start a library. Mr Nabi had been thinking along those lines for quite a while and galvanized by this thought, he decided to approach the government to see what they would make of his idea. A letter dated the 15th of September 2007, proposing that Mr Nabi’s then residence, an official house in G-6 along with its backyard be converted into a library, was sent to both the CDA as well as the President’s office.

This was for the sake of convenience as the books were already there. A request was also made to hire a helping hand to manage the library. This proposal was simple enough; it required no major funding save for the house to be redone and for staff to be hired, other than that, it was practically ready.

The CDA responded with genuine interest; the chairman himself paid Mr Nabi a visit and was noted to have remarked that ‘the books were mouth-watering’. Much was discussed and even more hoo-ha was created. A gaggle of officials came and went, architects were dispatched and contractors invited. The tired wheels of the bureaucracy were in motion.

In subsequent meetings, the CDA’s willingness did not seem to have lessened, Mr Nabi himself felt that there was no doubt as to their intentions; it felt like a done deal. But as always there were snags. The intended site was an official house, which came under the Ministry of Housing and Works; the venture itself was a CDA initiative. In order to make this library, the CDA would have to appropriate the house from the housing ministry. It was this point that proved to be the veritable spanner in the works.

The authorities wrangled over this issue with eventual deadlock. It seemed that to the ministry, this project was just not important enough. The house, in the meanwhile, was allocated to another government officer. This was the end of it. The library never went further than an interest and for Mr Nabi’s sake, could not be sustained on goodwill alone. He left the house and shifted to Rawalpindi.

So what became of the library? After truckload upon truckload of delivery at his new residence, the books finally found their ‘library’.

Mr Nabi decided that his home was the best place for them and that he was going to open his library there. After three months of unpacking and cleaning all those books, he finally set them up in shelves (that now occupy the bottom floor of his house) and arranged the library as best as possible. Though small, the library is snug with a reading area in the centre. The books have been meticulously arranged into separate sections but due to sheer lack of space have been doubly lined within the shelves. For practical reasons, Mr Nabi has decided that it be a reference library; that is all he can do.

At present, the library is still in need of a little work but is likely to be opened to public in the next couple of weeks. Shouldering this himself has been quite a challenge but Mr Nabi is intent on seeing it through.

As a citizen’s lament, it is a shame that Islamabad was denied this privilege of this library. As a culture we have never really encouraged learning; those that read books appear to even the educated as people with too much time on their hands. Reading, if noted as a hobby, is often derided. The government was required to do something in this case; libraries are some of the most basic features of a city but as Mr Nabi, himself puts so wistfully, ‘who cares?’

(The address for the ‘Free Reference Library’ -- as it will be called -- is Lane 7, House # 400/9A, Peshawar Road, Rawalpindi).

The writer is a freelance contributor

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