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Illiterate, but a passionate librarian who loves books

Majid Maqbool, Jan 14, 2014, International New York Times: 23:05 IST
Latif's love affair with books began in the early 1990s when he was in Goa, where he sold handicraft items in a small shop.

Latif, a Kashmiri, has collected his books through donations from people visiting his shop

On the banks of picturesque Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, sits the only library in the neighbourhood, run by a man who loves books but cannot read. In a single-story wooden house, carefully maintained shelves are filled with around 600 books in several languages, the prize possessions of Muhammad Latif Oata, a 44-year-old handicrafts seller who dropped out of school at age 10 to work.

Over two decades, Latif, a Kashmir native, has accumulated all these books through exchanges and donations from people who visited his shop, first in Goa, then in Karnataka and now here in Dal Lake, a popular tourist destination. His collection includes books written by authors from many countries, like the United States, Britain, Sweden, Italy and Korea, reflecting the donors’ nationalities.

Since the vast majority of those who visit the library are tourists, he has named it the Travellers Library. Anyone can take a book; all Latif asks is that borrowers describe the stories contained in the pages of the books they return. Many visitors, who are Indians from other states and foreigners who come to see Dal Lake, leave behind their own books to add to his collection.

“I like to exchange books with the visitors,” said Latif, who can converse in English, having picked up the language by regularly interacting with foreign visitors over the years. “I trust those who take books from my library, and I tell them if they leave behind bad books here, their children will one day come here and read them,” he said with a smile.

Latif’s love affair with books began in the early 1990s when he was in Goa, where he sold handicraft items in a small shop. One day, a foreigner stopped near his stall, holding a book written in English by a south Indian author. He didn’t want the book anymore, so he handed it to Latif. Because Latif couldn’t read, he asked the foreigner to tell him what the book was about. The story was about a young girl from a poor family in Kerala who achieved success despite all the struggles in her life.

“When he told me the story of that book, it inspired me and drew me toward the stories contained in books,” said Latif. “I wanted to know more stories from people who had read them in books as I couldn’t read them.” Latif kept that book on his shelf in the shop.

Some time afterwards, a foreign couple who stopped by his shop asked to buy that book. Latif told them that he didn’t want to sell it but that he would be willing to give it to them if they left another book for him. The couple gave him two books. By exchanging books in this manner, his collection on the shelf grew, and visitors would often narrate the stories in the books they left behind.

When Latif moved to Karnataka in 1997 to set up a small stall in a market to sell handicrafts to tourists, he took his books with him, numbering around 50 at the time. Often customers would stop by his stall after seeing his modest collection of books, and more book exchanges ensued. By 2003 Latif had collected around 400 books.

As tourists began to visit Kashmir Valley in increasing numbers, Latif decided to return home in 2007, again bringing all his books with him. At home, he said, his parents and relatives badgered him to get rid of his books or sell them to trash collectors, but he had other plans.

Preserver of legacy

On the banks of Dal Lake, he set up a modest handicrafts store in the house his family owned and installed small wooden shelves. A foreign tourist helped him stack his books on shelves with the titles in alphabetical order. When tourists stepped into his shop to buy handicraft items, he said, many expressed surprise at seeing the extent of his book collection.

Among the titles in his library are best sellers from Nicholas Sparks and Michael Crichton, but there is also a new copy of Edward Said’s 1993 book “Culture and Imperialism,” recently gifted to him by a visitor. Latif, who has learned to identify his books by their unique publisher marks, pulled out an original hardbound edition of “Goldfinger” by Ian Fleming.

“I have many original, old and rare editions of books which cannot be found anywhere in the valley,” he said with pride, dusting the book off with his hand before carefully putting it back on the shelf. Local residents don’t seem to know about his library, Latif said. But he’d like to see more Kashmiris borrowing and exchanging books with him, he said. He’d also like to get more books in English, Urdu and the Kashmiri language, especially books written by Kashmiris.

“When tourists from many countries see the books in the library, they often ask for books written by Kashmiri authors. They want to read stories about the culture and history of Kashmir,” he says. “We need to encourage our writers and our authors need to write more books and tell the many stories of Kashmir.”

As the father of a 15-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, Latif said he wanted to make sure his children received the education that he didn’t get. To his delight, sometimes his son will accompany him to the library without being asked to and picks up an illustrative book or a dictionary from the shelves. “I hope they read many books from my collection and take care of these books after me,” he said.

Although he can’t read any of the books he owns, Latif said their very presence remind him of the many people who exchanged books with him over the years, keeping his library alive. “Just looking at these colours keeps me happy,” Latif said, pointing at the coloured spines of books sitting next to each other on the shelves. “When I have nothing to do, I spend time here looking after my books.”

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