Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Without Libraries there is no past, no future

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The first library I actually got to know was the Station Library, Kharian. As a young lieutenant I had plenty of time to read – despite all the evil young officers got into in those far off 1970s. I remember the only other officer in the library used to be one we all know as Tumble (24 Cavalry) – and I can bet my life he doesn’t remember I was there too. I left the army after seven years; Tumble retired as a lieutenant general and our friendship continues to this day.

I used to read rubbish in those days. War novels, James Hadley Chase mysteries and all sorts of other stuff. But I read with unmatched avidity, sometimes running through one JHC novel in a single day.

After I left the army and moved to Karachi in 1979, I joined my first real library: the British Council Library. And that was the start of my real education. I will never forget that the first book I borrowed was a hardback copy of Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary – have since read this book twice again. There followed Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and I was hooked to travel writing. Over the next two or three years, I must have read the entire travel section at the library.

In 1983 I started writing and my need for research introduced me to the library of the Department of Archaeology. That was the bonanza of my life! I would bunk work (yes, bunk work) to spend time in this wonderland where I read like a man possessed. This was a non-lending library meant only for departmental use, so I had only some hours to cram as much as I could. And I did just that. I was young and whatever I read settled inside my head in easily accessible files. I simply began filling up these files that still come in handy today.

It was about this same time that I became a member of Liaquat National Library, also in Karachi. I do not remember, but it was in either of these two libraries that I was introduced to Eric Shipton’s Blank on the Map. This is the story of the 1937 Shaksgam Expedition led by Shipton to map the Central Karakorams and the region immediately to the north of it. The telling of the tale is enthralling and in a style that places the reader right there next to the writer as if one were Shipton’s travel companion. One has to have some special deficiency to not become a Shipton fan.

When I moved back to Lahore in 1988, my British Council membership was transferred to the library here. That same year, I joined the Punjab Public Library as well. The Lahore BC had a fabulous section on the subcontinent that ranged from history to geography to archaeology to mountain travel and exploration. For an annual membership of just twenty-five rupees (later raised to, I think, Rs 400), one got to read some truly great travel literature at BC. At some point – I do not remember the year – BC shut down the library. Luckily Iftikhar Malik who then headed BC had the good sense to preserve the subcontinent section even as all other books were discarded.

For some years thereafter my sole refuge was the Punjab Public Library. To the staff of this one institution I am particularly grateful that I was given free run of the shelves. And what treasures I discovered there! Priceless treasures that I could never have stumbled across in the catalogue. Much of the nineties were a blissful period of being cloistered in those old walls of PPL and reading. A life member (as I am), can also draw up to four volumes not older than, I think, thirty years. This facility I have availed to the fullest. With my membership now older than a quarter century, the entire staff knows me well and their preferential treatment is a general feel-good for me.

However, with all its plus points, PPL needs so badly to update the catalogue!

Two other great places for the keen reader and researcher are the libraries of the Civil Services Academy, at the DMG (now PAS) Campus on The Mall and the Common Campus at Walton. I have been fortunate to avail the facilities at both. More at Walton where I am particularly beholden to the Librarian and her staff.

Last but definitely not the least is the Quaid e Azam Library in the old Gymkhana building in Lawrence Gardens. For the life of me, I cannot fathom what wisdom caused some cock-eyed bureaucrat to ordain that membership would only be given to college graduates. This absurd stipulation effectively precludes all seekers in their quest for knowledge. And if they don’t gain knowledge how does one expect them to become graduates? This must be the only library in the world which lays down such a condition.

The only library outside the country that I am well acquainted with is that of the Royal Geographical Society. When I became a Fellow back in 1991, we could work in the library, surrounded by ancient oak furniture and volumes dating back to the 18th century and older. Books from the 19th century were a dime a dozen, in a manner of speaking. By this I mean first editions from those far off times.

Sometime after the year 2000, a new reading room was added at the back of the old building. And when I returned in 2006, I used this new facility. I was just so happy that I had experienced the old library and reading room because that was what a library should be. The smell, the ambiance, the look and, most of all, the neatly racked books. In comparison, the new reading room is sterile. You check the catalogue and tell the staff what you need. They get it for you. If in the middle of reading you need a cross reference, you simply cannot reach back into the shelves and get another volume as in the old days.

At RGS, the staff is so helpful they bring tears to my eyes. There is no book in the catalogue that you want and cannot be found within minutes. This is the place to go to if one needs to know anything and everything about exploration and world geography.

I will not be fair if I do not say a word about the central library at the Punjab University. That is one disorderly place. But in that disorder you find a treasure as great as PPL or the library of the Department of Archaeology.

So, because of being the worst possible student since my earliest school days, my education did not come to me from any college or university. I was educated in the libraries of Karachi and Lahore and at the RGS.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 30 April 2014 at 06:46, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

A life time achievement, reflected in the pile of books authored by you. I hope to be able to read them someday.

At 30 April 2014 at 10:52, Anonymous Abdul Siddiqui said...

Did not see the Land of the Giant DEOSAi in this pile of books. It is an awesome work and big contribution. Please keep it up.

~~ This is an old image, Haleem.

At 30 April 2014 at 10:52, Anonymous Rizwan Raja said...

Great work and contribution sir

At 30 April 2014 at 10:53, Anonymous Khalid Waseem said...

Well done Sir. May God gives you more health and life to contribute more. Keep well

At 30 April 2014 at 10:53, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Education is not to do Master, the real education is ,how much some have read and attain knowledge/ maintained in his life. Sir your library shows the lust you have for reading and writing .

At 30 April 2014 at 10:53, Anonymous Osama Siddique said...

Quite a body of work

At 30 April 2014 at 10:54, Anonymous Majid Sharif said...

"Riders on the wind" very insightful work, I came to know about this book through Aitzaz ahsan;s" Indus Saga and the making of pakistan" in which there is a story of an old woman who is laughing and weeping at the same time.The story of Raja Rasaloo of Sialkot.

At 30 April 2014 at 10:55, Anonymous Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

So proud of you:)) n ur amazing work

At 30 April 2014 at 10:56, Anonymous Atta Ur Rehman Sheikh said...

Every tom, ‘dick’ and harry has been conferred the most coveted Pride of Performance Award by the GoP. With such a quality, and original work, by all means you deserve one!!

At 30 April 2014 at 10:59, Blogger S A J Shirazi said...

Right you said Atta Ur Rehman. I hope someone see this quality (and amount of work) and realize what Salman Rashid has done to show Another Pakistan.

Is someone listening in this din?

At 1 May 2014 at 00:42, Blogger Hami said...

Can I have a soft copy of "Riders of the Wind". I live in US and very hard to find a book here. Please!

At 1 May 2014 at 09:55, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

To get the "coveted" prize I need to know a senior federal bureaucrat. And I know no one. These prizes are worthless - though I won't refuse it when given - because the basis for winning is connections, not the value of one's work. Meanwhile, the finest awards are the comments above from all of you. To you I am truly beholden.

At 6 May 2014 at 10:12, Anonymous Diane Nicholls said...

I quite agree, where would we be without them? No hushed tones as we leaf through our histories or savour what has yet to be discovered.

At 8 May 2014 at 12:10, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

So truly spoken, Diane. thank you very much!

At 18 May 2014 at 13:03, Anonymous Atta Ur Rehman Sheikh said...

I was very delighted to read the write up on libraries. Other than libraries established during the Raj or afterwards, libraries such as BC, American Centre, French Centre and Goethe Institute in Lahore played very important role for students and others, in terms of providing latest books or books otherwise not available in government run libraries. Dyal Singh library in Lahore is another goldmine of books. I saw a library in Civil Secretariat as well. Why don’t you do a write up on libraries in Lahore!!!

~~ Good idea about a piece on Lahore libraries. I'll tackle that when the weather gets cooler in some months' time.

At 22 May 2014 at 09:56, Anonymous ahmed said...

So proud of you:)) n ur amazing work

At 22 May 2014 at 15:08, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ahmed, I am very grateful to you. Thank you.

At 24 July 2014 at 02:00, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

And I tell people he's a National treasure...

At 24 July 2014 at 10:33, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Gratified, Rehan.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days