For the last few years, the manager of the Book Corner, a secondhand bookstore in Islamabad’s Jinnah market, has been asking me when he would finally see my first novel on his shelves. My response was always the same: soon. But late last year, as the South Asian edition was being finalised, my answer was slightly different: the book would be out soon, but I wasn’t sure he’d be able to display it in his shop because of its cover.
The novel takes place in 1970s Karachi, in a freer country than the one today, and one of the main venues is a cabaret from the pre-Prohibition era, when the city’s nightclubs drew visitors from across the region. When my Indian publisher asked me what I wanted for the cover, I suggested something that evoked the cabaret. The photograph we finally decided on is a close-up of a dancer in an opulent white corset; her legs are crossed, revealing a significant shot of her thighs, as well as the corset’s crotch. The title, Invitation, runs across the belly. More than a few people predicted it would never make it past customs officials or booksellers in a country that seems more and more to be trapped in a puritanical straitjacket.
When I showed the manager of the bookstore the image on my phone, he had a co-worker dig up an old copy of Khushwant Singh’s 1956 novel, Train to Pakistan, about Partition. The campy illustrated cover has a villain (whether Hindu or Muslim is not clear) standing over a woman who has probably either been or is about to be raped, whose clothes are partially torn, revealing a big bust and a lot of leg. The image was a scandal for some time, he said, and the book would have only been available in stores like his rather than mainstream outlets.
So, would his store carry my book if its cover, too, shocked local sensibilities? If worse came to worst, he replied, I could bring him copies from India and he could keep them under the counter where, for example, he kept copies of Salman Rushdie’s novels, among others. Not the worst company.
In the 1980s, General Zia-ul-Haq’s military government banned Rushdie’s novel, Shame, because of its unfavourable depiction of a country that was “not quite Pakistan” and a dictatorship that was not quite Zia’s — but just about. The ban backfired because with all the attention the book became required reading for new diplomats posted in Islamabad. Many Western capitals sent copies via the diplomatic bag and, as a result, the capital was flooded with copies — an attack of Shame, if you will — which eventually ended up in the many secondhand bookstores interspersed through the city’s main markets.
You can, of course, find secondhand bookstores the world over. But in Islamabad these bookstores sometimes suggest a sense of a breach, of things that shouldn’t be there. Like a Rushdie book.
There was another little book during the Zia regime that circulated in manuscript form, clandestinely, through these stores: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s If I Am Assassinated, which Pakistan’s first elected prime minister wrote from jail after Zia’s 1977 coup. Its publication was blocked, and the regime closed the offices of the press that tried to print it. The military hanged Bhutto in 1979, but he remained a powerful anti-military symbol that the regime tried to suppress by targeting his party colleagues, his daughter, his supporters and, indeed, his words. Yet, in stapled copies, there was his most polemical work being sold right under the dictatorship’s nose.
In the Eighties and early Nineties, when my father was posted in Islamabad, these bookstores were a child’s access not so much to forbidden works as to Western culture. In those days, the federal capital didn’t have much. There was one television channel, state-run, that showed one highly censored English movie a week — including, my favourite, a censor board — approved Dr No with the bikini-clad Ursula Andress completely excised from all her scenes until the very end, when she appears out of nowhere, more or less fully dressed.
There was no real cinema to speak of, so we survived on pirate video stores that rented “camera copies” of new releases overlaid with the silhouettes and chatter of moviegoers moving back and forth in front of the projector.
In these conditions, the authentic experience was to be found in the secondhand bookstores, stacked with publications that were passed on by the city’s many foreign visitors, including diplomats, donors, teachers and tourists.
If entering such shops today can feel somewhat like a rearward timewarp, back then it felt as if we were re-entering the present. In the days before the internet, the network of secondhand bookstores, with their dusty piles of Western magazines on the floor, was like a cable between East and West, past and present: Mad magazine; Empire, the movie magazine; two- and three-week-old Sports Illustrated issues to keep us up to date on the NBA and NFL seasons; Ebony to tell us what was happening in rap and hip hop. When my father was posted back to Europe a few years later, I didn’t feel too far behind the times.
If the internet and cable television have closed the East-West gap in Pakistan, Islamabad’s secondhand book stores are still good for one thing: rare books. In Pakistan, of course, “rare” means something different from, say, Edinburgh, or my old home, Northampton, Massachusetts. Rarely do you find, for example, Saul Bellow in any of the mainstream outlets in Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad. So when I entered a serious Bellow phase, I went from secondhand store to secondhand store, finding Dangling Man and The Victim in one, Augie March in another, and, after several failed attempts, a beautiful copy of Herzog in a store that I hardly ever visit, which caters more to readers of plays and 19th-century classics. Other unusual finds have included a collection of Kenneth Tynan’s dazzling profiles for the New Yorker, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and, perhaps strangest for me personally, a novel by my old professor and mentor in Massachusetts, Sabina Murray.
“Rare” here can also be for the puritanical factor. This adds a delicious buzz to browsing those dense, dust-covered piles and shelves. In the Book Corner, where Rushdie novels lie discreetly under the counter, I’ve found a copy of Catherine Millet’s explicit memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, and a July 1964 issue of Playboy, with a beautiful spread on Brigitte Bardot in the middle pages.
Which brings me to the best of the lot, my favourite secondhand trophy: it’s another Playboy production, this one a first edition of a collection of the best Playboy interviews, whose roll-call of subjects includes Miles Davis, Bertrand Russell, the legendary jungle doctor Albert Schweitzer, a medicine man of another kind in Timothy Leary, Nabokov, Fidel Castro, Jimmy Hoffa the month before his disappearance, James Earl Ray nine years after he shot Martin Luther King, and many others. The conversations are extensive and remarkably frank. Given the list, one doesn’t really need to cite the content of the interviews to convey how beguiling this book is. It may not be, for the local sensibility, as indecent as the magazine itself. But it’s a demonstration of the unpredictable encounters in these little asylums of words and ideas, in a city which has for most of its 50 years felt like an isolated island dominated by an austere bureaucracy — but where, perhaps for the wrong reasons, people from around the world still come for one- or two- or three-year stints, leave something behind and, I’m sure, take something back.
Since I began writing this piece, my speculations about the fate of my own book in Pakistan subsided as I heard that the novel had made it past customs and into Pakistani bookstores, where it is selling well. When I went to the Book Corner to break the news to my manager friend, I found the book already on display at the front of the store. He had ordered 20 copies for sale among the small collection of new releases he stocks.
I visited him again the following weekend, and he told me that he’d sold out and had to restock, and that the prominent display of a cabaret dancer’s thigh had not brought him any grief yet, from mullahs or anyone else.