Of times past

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“To my darling Diane, With best love and kisses, for a very happy birthday, from Dadda.” But Diane in all probability is dead and gone and so is her father, both at the time residents of Nice, France, as signified by what is written under the note. That is because the note was written inside the tenth edition of The Legends of King Arthur and his Knights, printed in 1921, with the first edition being printed in 1862. The book was compiled and arranged by Sir James Knoweles and it is dedicated to Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of the time.
But this is nothing. The Siddiqui book store at Regal Chowk Lahore, is a hub of extremely rare, and antique books, and others also belonging to the more recent past. It has books in German, French, Urdu, English, and Hindi, and its bookshelves groan under the weight of decades and decades of historical memories trapped within the books themselves.
The oldest books that Haroon Siddiqui has in his book store are printed from back in the 17th and 18th centuries. A Latin book, ‘L. Annæ I Senecæ Tragoediæ. There is a letter inside too, written in faded ink, by an unknown person. The letter has been glued and folded inside the first few pages of the book, so old that it is now almost torn apart. Underneath some Latin are a couple of English lines “Literally: Closed thoughts and open face: The meaning is that the person to whom it applies is frank and innocent in look but in reality very deep.” Obviously the book seems to be a gift meant for someone. On the opposite page a Robert Carter has signed his name in faded black ink, signed 1890, Washington. Mysterious and fascinating. There is “A Comparison to the Altar” (fourth edition) printed in 1685, a Latin book called Paraphrases printed in 1711. There is a Bible of 1741, and an entire set of Encyclopedia Brittanica of the year 1875.
It is captivating, that small place on the main road; yet not many visit it except those who know what the shop has stored in it, and those who are collectors. The Latin books are probably not understood by anyone here, but their importance, being about two to three centuries old, is multifold, and only collectors would buy these. They are after all valuable possessions to own.
The 19th century books are a bit more common to see around in the shop, because there are really so many of them. These are also relatively in excellent condition, considering they have been going through at least two centuries, and some have traveled from England to Pakistan. Others are books that were present in the local libraries left by the British when they finally left. One book belongs to Alice McLeod, who has printed her name in neat, razor thin handwriting, with the date signed as 1898 on Susan Warner’s novel, “The Wide Wide World”. It was the same year Sir Syed Ahmed Khan died, and the Indian Criminal Procedure Code was drafted. Being in a bookshop surrounded by such pieces of antiquity one’s imagination can run astray…Would it be a relation of Lord Mcleod, Viceroy of the subcontinent? Was it someone else? Her writing is still intact, and so part of her self still exists inside the covers of the book. What did she think of this book? Did she give it away after reading it? Or did it stay on her bookshelf till she died. Unanswered questions of course these will remain, however the excitement that brings a book lover – especially a second hand book lover – can know no bounds when a book as old as this is found. There are some interesting old books too, apart from the non fiction and the researched material.
One such book is “Celebrities I Have Known”, written by Lord William Pitt Lennox, printed in 1877. These celebrities (most unknown for us in our time and age), comprise theatrical, sporting, social and political famous people. Some well known literary figures in this book include Walter Scott, and James and Horace Smith.
A whole set of Shakespeare, magically intact, with only a cover or two damaged, (but forgivable) also sits on one of the shelves. These are from 1863, an eight volume leather bound set. In fact many of these old books are leather bound, now of course decayed to a large extent and in fragile condition, but not unusable.
In another amusing discovery, one can see a signed and pasted note inside “Norseland Tales”, by H.H Boyesen. Although the printing date of the book cannot be seen anywhere it is obviously very old, one can guess easily from the late 19th century. In any case, the note signs the date 1905. It is a school letter head, which says “Awarded to David Kinnlar for Perfect Attendance”, signed underneath by the Headmaster and Principal. Funny, amusing, and even intriguing. One wonders whatever became of Kinnlar, and his subsequent school years.
But despite the collection of very old books, that Siddiqui has in his shop, there are also some very rare and very interesting ones too. A large collection of A.A Milne, Robert Burns, H.G Wells, the Bronte sisters in old binding can be seen. There is a very old “Indian Myth and Legend” by Donald A Mackenzie, whose printing date is not there but the book is definitely old. In fact there are several books by Mackenzie concerning the collection of myths and legends of other countries too including Greek and Roman. There is also a collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, and several sets of encyclopedia and very old travel books.
“I never realized when I began to delve into selling and exchanging antique books,” admits Haroon Siddiqui, whose father was the initial book seller in the family. “I purchased from libraries, and sent for some books from other countries. But my real turn was when I stumbled across an edition of books on Napoleon printed in 1682, which got sold instantly. It was then that I realized the importance of these books.”
For contact: 42-Mall Road (Regal Chowk), Lahore. Phone: 0300-4472132 and 0423-7242326