If you want to see what a diverse Karachi has in common, it is their love for books and the 16th Karachi International Book Fair only seems to prove it.
An eight-year-old was restlessly hopping about a rack full of titles by popular British novelists Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett, with a stack of books already in one hand and the other skimming through the gleaming covers neatly piled up to the towering shelves around him inside the stall.
"No, dad, there must be some good ones down there," he whispered excitedly as he ducked under one of the tables, where cartons full of fantasy and horror winked gold and silver through the elaborate lettering on their impressive front covers.
The boy’s father standing outside the stall became restive and gave his son a pointed look. The child’s face dropped as he hastily, and a bit unwillingly, decided on George’s Marvellous Medicine and hurried over to the counter. The only thing the boy wanted, it appeared as the two exited the stall, was to be able to browse through the bookshelves without his father breathing down his neck. But when he was spotted flitting in and out of Halls 2 and 3, he was completely immersed in the new addition to his bookshelf.
Three stalls down the aisle, a man placed a large carton on a wooden stool, produced a bunch of keys from the side pocket of his jacket, and then slashed through the thick tape that sealed the carton's overflowing mouth. And once the sheen plastic came off, the cardboard flapped open, revealing a vast assortment of titles that had been thrown pell-mell into the box.
'Vampire wali hai, boss,' said the man, holding up a book and inquiring it uncertainly.
'Lagade lagade sari (Put them all out),' came a lazy, bored voice from the counter.
A long table with barely a few books was then heaped with pocket-size novels that appeared to be neither brand new nor did they look to be on the verge of snapping their binding and let the leaves slide out of their spine. They would be an ideal purchase for those who wouldn't mind a crease or two in the flashy covers for surprisingly economical prices, starting from just Rs100.
This is how the 16th Annual Karachi Book Fair looked like on its first day at the Expo Centre in Karachi on Thursday, December 30, where people of all ages and backgrounds gathered to cherish their shared hobby: reading. As the day wore on, scores of families dropped by and thronged Halls 1, 2, and 3, rummaging through crammed bookshelves, delving into the cartons lying carelessly on the carpeted floors, and standing on tiptoes to get a better look at the ostensibly illustrated covers placed on top of the tall racks.
Treasure for children
The sprawling exhibition has been organised by the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association in collaboration with the National Book Foundation. The fair opened to an overwhelming response as readers had to wait a year for their favourite booksellers and publishers to come under one roof after the pandemic started. In 2020, the event couldn’t be held due to lockdowns.
More than 330 stalls from both local and international publishers have graced the fair and titles are available across a range of languages, including Sindhi, Arabic, and Persian. The event was inaugurated by Sindh Culture Minister Syed Sardar Ali Shah and was attended by Sindh Health Minister Azra Pechuho and MPA Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui on the second day, Friday.
One of the biggest highlights of the 16th Karachi International Book Fair is the tremendous amount of exciting material it has in store for children. Comics, colouring books, storybooks, flashcards, painting kits, preschool games, and a vast assortment of stationery are sure to make children forget phones once they are at Expo Centre.
“Nothing can replace books,” said a mother of three, who were holding bags full of children’s books. “The pandemic has really changed the way children look at books since everything is happening on the phone. But events like these can help us bring them close to physical books again.”
There are several reading and writing competitions being held for children as well.
Stalls to look out for
If you are looking for fantasy fiction, thriller, romance, and adventure, you must check out Old Books Stall and Saleem Books in Hall 2. They have a wide range of children’s books and, surprisingly, entire series available (Horrid Henry, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid to name a few). They are selling pocket-size paperbacks for as low as Rs100, and hardcover (in some cases fresh off the press) between Rs200 and Rs300. First original hardbound editions such as those of Harry Potter (both British and the US) are available for Rs550 a copy.
If you are looking for cheap books but ones whose spines haven’t been cracked yet, you should check out Reader’s Heaven in Hall 1. Between Rs100 and Rs200, you will be able to get your hands on all your favourite titles that are otherwise not available in the market. Don’t hold back from moving the books around a lot as the title you are looking for may be nestled at the very back of the shelf. This stall has a great deal for children too.
Most Urdu titles are available in Hall 1, so are books on religion, history, culture and non-fiction.
There is a stall called Hero Books whose old, leather-bound, dusty, and moth-eaten early editions will take you back in time.
There are several other stalls abounding in textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, self-help guides, and a lot more. A woman, who bought an enormous second-hand encyclopedia for her six-year-old daughter, said that it is important for parents to have a library at home for children. Children should be made to put in effort for information rather than accessing it conveniently on their phones all the time.
The event has attracted a great number of school, college, and university students too. Some of them were looking for either the third part of The Hunger Games or the second of Divergent to complete their series. Turkish author Elif Shafak, whose titles The Forty Rules of Love and The Gaze were strewn across fiction displays, was popular among university students as well.
And if the book hunt has left you tired and hungry, a food court has been set up in each Hall for you to satisfy all your street food cravings. Biryani, chana chaat, tea, coffee, burgers, haleem, fries, and gol gappay are some of the many items on the menu to refuel you to continue with your book-hunting. Surprisingly, each dish will cost you at Expo just as much as it will on the street.
SOP compliance and grievances
Although every few seconds announcements are made for the visitors to keep their masks on at all times, one cannot ignore the inadequate SOP compliance at the venue. The event has attracted a huge number of people from all over Karachi but the management seemingly hasn't taken enough care with implementing coronavirus SOPs, given compact spaces inside the stalls and in food courts.
You're required to have a mask at the entrance, your belongings are scanned as a mere formality, but beyond the semblance of security at the entrance, there isn't much to ensure the best of precautionary practices. Once inside the venue, some visitors are seen taking off their masks. Entry without masks is not allowed, but customary temperature checks and vaccination cards were not observed at the exhibition.
Furthermore, there are grievances and some booksellers are not satisfied with the management. According to one of them, the management has provided only panels to the exhibitors and from lights to bookshelves to drinking water, everything has to be arranged by the booksellers themselves. One quick look around the halls will give you a clear idea that there are not even water coolers here, he added.
Some of the sellers also complained that visitors pluck books to read the blurbs and then don’t put them back, hence forming a heap on the tables every few minutes. They requested them to keep the titles back in right places.
The 16th Karachi International Book Fair will run till January 3, 2022. So why not spend the weekend in the company of thousands of books and get your hands on your favourite titles?