Rare books: A forgotten history being preserved at Sangemeel

By Sonia Malik


Ruling Princes and Chiefs of India chronicles the origins, family tree and policies of the princely states in colonial India. The book by Sir Lawrence Walter was first published 17 years before independence and emphasised the various issues that needed to be dealt with in the states prior to the transfer of power to the respective maharajas and nawabs.

The book was reprinted by Sangemeel Publications after its owner Afzaal Ahmad received a copy as a gift from a friend four years ago. “When I reprinted it, about 80 years after it was first published, I got messages from very envious book sellers and publishers in India,” he says. It has sold 500 copies at Rs12,000 each in three years.

Sangemeel has published 500 or so rare books in the last decade or so, with the owner drawing on a small, close-knit community of collectors to preserve studies of vast regions of the subcontinent that are still pertinent today.

They include some 50 books on the 1857 War of Independence – or the Mutiny, as the British called it – 49 annual district gazettes, travelogues, and English, Arabic, Persian, Pushto and Urdu dictionaries. There are several books on Pakistan’s tribal areas, detailing the difficulties of military operations in the region by English officers over a hundred years ago. A General Report on the Yusufzais by HW Bellow gives an account of the influential tribe that gave us Malala Yousufzai.

Most of these books were written by English travellers or military officials deputed across colonial India between 1857 and 1947. Apart from Sangemeel, they can only be found at the British Library in the UK, or in private collections, says Ahmad.

There are some 30 books on Waziristan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan giving detailed accounts of military expeditions and travel experiences, as well as the geography and culture of the region. “The tribes were equally problematic to the English as they are to us or the US now … there is an interesting comparison between this region a hundred years ago and today,” says Ahmad.

Having read at least the synopsis or introduction of most of these books, Ahmad said that the lessons in them appeared to have been lost on modern-day Pakistan. Many princely states had free primary school education, he said. The British officers wrote detailed accounts of military operations they initiated or administrative policies they advised, “very unlike officials of present-day Pakistani government and military,” he said. “The examples are right here in these books: how to go about leadership, how to devise policies.”

He said that the British authors stuck closely to the facts when documenting places and problems, while in modern Pakistan, rhetoric was in the forefront and facts pushed into the shadows.

“Journalists and the younger generation should be encouraged to read these books as they provide a substantial insight into the history of our lands documented by the British,” he says.

Ahmad said that his father Niaz Ahmad published mostly Urdu books but when he took over the business in 1980, the trend was for English books. Niaz Ahmad opened Sangemeel in 1962.

“It has become increasingly difficult to find readers for such books. Today’s reader wants to read today’s writer. It’s the old crowd or some teachers interested in buying these books. Until five, six years ago, we had quite a few foreigners come and show an interest in these books. Now there are fewer tourists, it does not happen too often,” he says.

One of Sangemeel’s most recent publications was Kitabein Apnay Abaan Kee, which discusses the 100 greatest Urdu writers of the subcontinent in the 100 years before Partition.

Building a collection

Sangemeel’s rare book collection is largely a result of cooperation from local book collectors like Ikhlaq Ahmad Khan, who started allowing the republication of some of his books in the 2000s. Khan has a private library of over 5,000 books, many of them on Central Asian history, the princely states of India, Railways and the Mughal emperors. He also has census reports on Bombay, Calcutta and Madras from before Partition, “which no one in Pakistan would be interested in reading,” he said.

Ehsaan Nadeem, a noted archaeologist and historian, and Dr Liaqat Ali Niazi, former deputy commissioner of Kallar Kahar, also contributed rare books and manuscripts for reprinting.

Travel writer Salman Rashid, many of whose books have been published by Sangemeel, also opened up his collection. His contribution included Indus to Tigris by H.W. Bellew, which describes a journey through Balochistan, Afghanistan and Iran, first published in 1872.

Rashid said that in the 1970s, a company by the name of Indus Publications and run by Safdar Mehdi reprinted 50 to 60 books on exploration and travel by 19th century English writers in India. “It was some brilliant work. But Safdar died over five years ago and it seems the business will be closed down in a few years,” he said.

Ahmed said that public libraries were not keen on sharing their books. “The Archives Library inside the Secretariat near Anarkali, the Lahore Museum library, the library in the Lahore Fort – all these places have some magnificent records and books. Every time I have made arrangements for acquiring some books for re-publishing, the officials in charge of these places have been transferred,” he says.

“Sadly, some private and public enterprises think what they have should not be shared with the public at large because it will lose its value. They should open up their minds and realise that sharing will help preserve these rare books,” he said.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2012.

The list of rare books reprinted by Sangemeel Publications can be viewed here.

Original Link: https://tribune.com.pk/story/459408/rare-books-a-forgotten-history-being-preserved-at-sangemeel/

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