For the love of Urdu

Once a treasure trove of bookshops, the grand old Urdu Bazaar in the walled city of Delhi faces an existential crisis.

Published : Jan 11, 2024 11:00 IST - 10 MINS READ

Maktaba Jamia, estblished in 1949, is among the last surviving bookstores of Urdu Bazaar.

Maktaba Jamia, estblished in 1949, is among the last surviving bookstores of Urdu Bazaar. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

Rizwan, 52, sits in his narrow shop in Urdu Bazaar outside the Jama Masjid in the walled city of Delhi, telling the beads of his red-beaded rosary, undisturbed by the din of the traffic outside. Rizwan Book Depot is one of the last surviving bookshops in Urdu Bazaar. Once a treasure trove of Urdu literature, the grand old bazaar now faces a crisis of survival.

Karam Illahi, Rizwan’s great-grandfather, started this bookstore before Partition. Rizwan joined the family business in 1983. The shop began by selling books in Urdu and Islamic literature, and then only in Islamic literature because they “sell.”

It is a hard day for Rizwan. He regards it like any other day, though. No customer has walked in since morning. “The readership of Urdu has declined massively,” Rizwan says, as he directs his salesman, Waris, to find a book that he has been looking for. A wooden shelf holds a diverse collection of books in Urdu and Hindi. Old Urdu newspapers have been stacked in a corner of the shelf. Just outside the shop are some magazines, Quran holders, and miswaks (teeth-cleaning twigs) to attract customers. “Our business has declined by almost half,” Rizwan says. “There was a time when people used to read Urdu books and newspapers, but now hardly anybody does.”

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Rizwan was a young man when he witnessed the changes taking place in the bazaar. “Earlier, there used to be many bookstores around here; today there are none,” he says. Talking about the recent communal violence in Nuh, Haryana, he explains how communal tensions have made their business worse. “The situation has changed after 2014,” he says. “Every other day, we hear news about something. The recent incident in Nuh has affected our business because most of the literature used to go there. Communal tensions have affected our business and our lives.”

“ Now most people come here to have kebab and biryani. Urdu wale lawaris hogaye hain (speakers of Urdu have become orphaned).”Rizwan Bookstore owner

Over the years, Urdu bookstores have been replaced by eateries and garment shops. “Now most people come here to have kebab and biryani. Urdu wale lawaris hogaye hain” (Speakers of Urdu have become orphaned), Rizwan says, laughing, as he prepares to leave for afternoon prayers. “Only the name Urdu Bazaar remains. This is a food bazaar now. And this makes me sad.”

Frail Ali Khusro Zaidi, 69, browses through the shelves, dusts off the books, and finds the right book for the old couple who have come from Mumbai to Maktaba Jamia, one of the oldest surviving bookstores of Urdu Bazaar. Maktaba Jamia has been in the business since 1949, and Zaidi has been working at Maktaba since 1978. He retired in 2014 but returned to work voluntarily. He is someone who has witnessed the fading away of bookstores first- hand.

A decline in readership

Maktaba Jamia is a spacious, well-stocked bookstore. From Ghalib to Sahir to Manto to Ismat, it boasts a diverse collection of Urdu fiction, poetry, and drama, and people from across India and overseas frequent it. According to Zaidi, the Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux visited Maktaba in 2022 and was “fascinated” by its collection of books. “I don’t think the number of Urdu readers has gone down,” Zaidi claims. “The new generation is working hard to learn Urdu. Books in Urdu are still getting published, and readers are reading.”

Later, however, he admits that there has been a decline in Urdu readership. He says: “When a child is born, a mother prefers to make her child learn words in English rather than in Urdu or Hindi. We feel ehsaas-e-kamtari [inferiority complex] when we speak in Urdu. See the leaders of the world who proudly speak in their native languages. Colonial education has still had an effect on the Indian public and their mindset.” He adds: “Only middle-class people are learning Urdu.”

In September 2023, Maktaba Jamia shut down for a week during the G20 summit in Delhi. The news attracted a lot of attention from Urdu lovers across the globe. Although the financial crunch has been one of the main reasons for the closure of bookstores, there is also the politicisation of Urdu, which is associated almost exclusively with the Muslim community and culture. “It’s political vendetta,” Zaidi says, “that has associated this language with a particular community. There is no truth in it. Muslims as well as non-Muslims read and write in this language.” But he also says that the Urdu language has been “ostracised” for there are not “enough income-earning opportunities” associated with it.

Zaidi has a prodigious memory. He recalls the names of bookstores in Urdu Bazaar that have shut shop until now: “Mir Saludin Nissamudin, Idara Tabliga-e-Deeniyat, Maktaba-e-Shahra, Maktaba Burhan, Nadwatul Musanifeen, Lajpat Rai & Sons, Khutub Khana Rasheediya, Central Book Depot, Sangam Kitab Ghar, Ilmi Qutub Khana, Khutub Khana Hameediya, Saqi Book Depot, Chaman Book Depot, Khutub Khana Naziriya, Deeni Book Depot.”

And yet, he is still hopeful about the prospects of Urdu and Urdu Bazaar. “Urdu language is not meant to die,” he says, “as long as we have readers and writers left in this language. We can’t bring back the extinct bookstores, but we can hope for the surviving ones.”

Kutub Khana Azizia, described by its owner as a “historical shop” since it was frequented by well-known poets and politicians back in the day.

Kutub Khana Azizia, described by its owner as a “historical shop” since it was frequented by well-known poets and politicians back in the day. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

There is another bookstore, established in 1939, that goes by the name Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu. This is where Zaidi worked before moving to Maktaba. After Partition, the original owner of the bookstore moved to Pakistan and left the shop to Niyazuddin, the grandfather of Moinuddin, 43, who currently manages the shop with his two brothers after his father, Nizamuddin, died a year ago.

Moinuddin echoes Rizwan’s view that sale of Urdu books has declined by at least 50 per over the years. “On some days nobody comes, and on other days the bookstore is crowded, but not as much as it used to be.” The bookstore stocks books in Urdu, Arabic, Persian, and Hindi. Moinuddin says that the sales are mostly of “religious books”. He believes that it is the “responsibility of people” to learn Urdu to preserve its essence. “We don’t teach children Urdu nowadays. The new generation is more fascinated with English than Urdu or Hindi. Urdu has been dropped from schools, colleges, and universities. Who is responsible?” he asks. “Despite all of this, there are still readers in Urdu, and that is what keeps us going.”

To get to Zulfiqar Book Depot, one has to pass through a small shop which sells dates. 

To get to Zulfiqar Book Depot, one has to pass through a small shop which sells dates.  | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

To get to Zulfiqar Book Depot, one has to pass through a small shop that sells dates. Inside the bookshop, is Alauddin, 80, who has been running the bookstore ever since his son-in-law died five years ago. The bookstore has stocks of the Quran, Hadees, and Islamic literature because “the demand for Urdu literature has gone down”. “We are just resting here, passing time,” he says, as he stares at the traffic outside.

Alauddin spends most of his time at the bookstore and is not surprised at the slump in the business. About the future of Urdu Bazaar, he seems despondent. “Eateries have replaced bookstores, and there is more demand for food than books,” he says. Asked about the government’s initiatives to preserve the Urdu language, he says: “The government is in the process of eradicating this language. They are changing Urdu names and promoting Hindi over Urdu.”

Financial instability

For the past 30 years, Ahmed Nabi has been working at Kutub Khana Azizia, the bookstore that his grandfather Samiullah Qasmi started in 1937. He describes it as a “historical shop” because some famous poets and politicians have visited. Owing to financial instability, Nabi had to lay off eight employees. Now he has only one other person to help manage the store. “In the beginning,” he says, “the business was all good. Poets from Delhi and Uttar Pradesh used to gather here to narrate their poetry. There were mushairas and mehfils. Personalities like Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Zakir Hussain used to come here.”

He sees “digitisation” as the reason for the decline of Urdu readership and sales. “Now people have the Internet. They can access any book and read it online. It kills the desire to read on paper. Now hardly anyone comes to purchase a book in a bookstore, that too an Urdu book,” he explains.

Amidst the continuous drone of traffic, as the evening draws near, Urdu Bazaar seems to be desolate. Time has erased the greater share of bookstores from the bazaar—and from public memory. Now only four or five bookstores are left standing, with no clear sight of the future.  “The situation is worse,” Nabi says at last. “We are surviving from hand to mouth. The way things are going, I am not hopeful that this bookstore will be here in the next 10 years.”

Keeping a language alive

Asif Fehmi, 69, is the editor of the Urdu magazine Din Dunia, which his father, Mufti Shaukat Ali, started in 1921. The magazine started as a tabloid that covered politics, fiction, films, and society. “The purpose of the magazine was not only entertainment and knowledge, but it was a service to society,” he says.

Din Dunia started publishing monthly after Partition and wound up when COVID struck. Now, two years later, Fehmi struggles to keep the legacy alive. Financial viability, decline of Urdu readership, and lack of advertisements are some of the reasons that shut down the magazine. “Nowadays, nobody reads a newspaper or books in Urdu. We are totally dependent on the Urdu readership,” he says. “More than the government, society is responsible for keeping a language alive.”

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With the passing of time, Fehmi has witnessed gradual changes in the Urdu publishing industry. “Pakistani books are published here, so publishers find it easy to copy them. There are only government-funded Urdu magazines left, which do not even make a profit because there are no readers out there,” he says. “The Quran is more accepted in the family than Urdu literature. The books are going to disappear soon as the digital revolution takes over.”

Fehmi is working hard to restart the magazine, and if it does, it will be published quarterly. “Currently, we don’t have a place to start the magazine. We need to find money and resources to keep the magazine going,” he says. “It’s necessary to preserve the Urdu language. We can’t let it die. But we need resources to do that.”

The entrance to the Hazrat Shah Waliullah Public Library, founded in 1994 after communal riots engulfed the Old City.

The entrance to the Hazrat Shah Waliullah Public Library, founded in 1994 after communal riots engulfed the Old City. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

A space to read

Situated in one of the bylanes of Old Delhi, away from the bustle of Urdu Bazaar, Hazrat Shah Waliullah Library waits for visitors. The library was founded in 1994, an initiative by the Delhi Youth Welfare Organisation after communal riots engulfed the Old City. It was created for the purpose of providing a space for the local community to meet and read. Now the sole purpose of this small library is for the “preservation and revival of the Urdu language”.

Mohammad Shareef, 60, has been volunteering in the library for 17 years now. The library holds 1,000 books in Urdu, English, and Persian. It is a tight space packed with books, with four volunteers working on alternate days. Although the library is separate from Urdu Bazaar, the aims are common: to keep the identity of Urdu alive. “I come here every day for the service of people,” Shareef says as he sits on a wooden stool. “Mostly, students and researchers come here,” he says. “A girl from Japan came here to do research on Daag Dehlvi. The irony of the situation is that our own people do not know where the library is situated.”

Every day, the library opens with the hope of getting more visitors. “We keep Urdu newspapers here for visitors to read,” he says. “There are people who still read Urdu. They are our only hope.”

Just like the bookstores in the bazaar, the library is also steeped in silence. Shareef is used to this silence and the absence of readers. “We will die,” he says, “but the Urdu language won’t. Urdu runs in our blood. It can’t be erased. 

Mir Umar is an independent journalist based in Delhi.

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