More of a sanctuary

February 2, 2020

An ode to a certain bookshop in the city that protects, lifts, and makes us feel better — by just being there

Rain can be really depressing, especially when nothing else in the world seems right. It was one such evening a few days ago. The rain had stopped but the clouds, thick and black, stayed on, portending to pour more sadness into the city.

A crowd gathered at a certain roundabout at the decided hour, in response to a call for protest. Once there, the crowd appeared unsure who to blame for its damp spirits. The rain, perhaps. Or, the crackdown and arrests in another city. Yet, it stayed put for a couple of hours, raising slogans that were meant to hurt, hearing a few speeches, singing some revolutionary songs, and then dispersing peacefully.

I walked back to a bookshop close by where my car was parked. This isn’t just a bookshop; it’s more of a sanctuary. At that point, its well-lit interior was an invitation. A contrast to the dark, damp roundabout. A place where you could hide from rain, and all that pain.

I decided to go in. Inside, I immediately spotted two friends, exchanged pleasantries, and sat in the familiar comfort of the adjoining coffee shop. A hot cup of tea and biscuits in the company of people I knew and cared for. The spirits were lifted in no time. What a comfortable space we have right in the centre of the city, carrying a collective nostalgia of many such mornings, afternoons and evenings spent here; of the so many friends I’ve made and met here.

It’s a big deal — this bookshop. I have known this as does everyone who comes here. But that evening reinforced the sense. This heightened contrast it offers to the chaotic, un-right world outside. The amount of assimilation within the shop is telling. I am talking of people who sell, who buy, and who just come there to sit and talk. Interests converge, and the conversation can’t move much beyond books. It’s all one big happy family.

I haven’t seen another bookshop where the salesmen haven’t changed in decades. Because the proprietor has found booklovers in the form of salesmen.

Back to the evening where the friends I met included a photographer couple, who sat at the corner table with a few friends. Knowing my own connection, I was introduced to their two friends who hailed from South Punjab. One was a photographer whose interests went beyond shooting his subjects. The gentleman started showing me his work because I asked. These were mind-boggling pictures of boathouses in River Indus not too far from where he lived, but he kept talking to me about how their rights were being violated as fisherfolk.

Their other friend from South Punjab was a urologist in this city, and a sculptor who works in stone, I was told. Not only this, he was a calligraphist and a miniaturist. His name and face sounded familiar. I asked him where he practised in Lahore, and knew that I had been his patient once. Seeing one of the city’s top doctors in another setting, in a bookshop, more as an artist, was such a happy moment.

But this place is known to create happy moments and memories on a daily basis. I recently met a psychologist couple on the day after Eid because they couldn’t take any more of the spirit of sacrifice displayed in abundance around them. Here was a sanctuary for them.

Thankfully, the bookshop is open on most holidays, when others aren’t. Students, teachers, and poets who may have left poetry eons ago; writers, artistes, lawyers, lovers, all have this as a hangout. And I am sure they keep thanking their stars for this.

Two days later, the rain gave way to a reluctant sun. It was as if the sun too was ashamed at the depressing news that morning — the attempt to silence a young voice, taken away from his home. I was to travel for work on the day, and felt equally guilty for pretending that news like these are now commonplace and life moves on.

By evening, when I had reached another city, the sadness grew on me. So I started thinking and writing about a certain bookshop in my city that protects, lifts and makes us feel better by just being there. These lines are just an expression of gratitude for these no small mercies.

A bookshop in Lahore which is more of a sanctuary