My library was dukedom enough

Imaduddin Ahmed | The Friday Times

Salim Ansar owns many rare books and perhaps the largest signed book collection in the world

In the midst of the sleepy verdant avenues of Lahore Cantonment lies a trove that not a lot of people know about. It has been here since 2000. Home to a claimed 100 books pre-dating 1800, and 1,000 books pre-dating 1900, the trove is replete with works that would delight students of colonial anthropology and Raj military history. Owned by philographer Salim Ansar, the personal library has a spectacular signed book collection. Mr Ansar claims he has 1,207 signed books and plans to register his library for a world record with Guinness World Records.

Here you will find the first edition works of Richard Temple and Richard Burton’s 18 volume translation of Arabian Nights. Not only are Jules Verne’s, Alexander Fleming’s, Rudyard Kipling’s, Iqbal’s and Tagore’s first editions here, but theirs are also personally signed. There is a confidential proof copy of The Nizam and the British Empire (1923) and it looks as if one of Gandhi’s letters to Nehru – copied on p. 57 – was left in the book A Bunch of Old Letters Written Mostly to Jawaharlal Nehru and Some Written by Him.

To be found in this library are histories forgotten. Author BG Horniman records in Amritsar and Our Duty to India how the RAF bombed Muridke, Gujranwala and Sheikhupura in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, 1919. How many Pakistanis remember that? I bet you wouldn’t have expected to find a book by the title Institutes Political and Military, written originally in the Mogul language by the great Timour, improperly called Tamerlane, translated by Major Davy (1782). The Confidential 1948 survey of Afghanistan has details down to how many people attended a mosque and what the conditions of the roads were. Also present is A Narrative of the Campaign in India which Terminated the War with Tippoo Sultan in 1792.

Apart from reference books, every book, Ansar tells me, was bought to be read by him from cover to cover. “I love banking, but when I return from work, I’m tired. I enjoy coming home to these books. It not only lets me unwind, it allows me to enter a new world.” His collection begins with the books he read as a teenager from the mid-1960s. Ansar enjoyed Agatha Christie and Perry Mason thrillers before he graduated to James Joyce, Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Dumas. He lived in a time, he says, “When the only thing my friends and I would discuss were books – whether we were studying engineering or medicine.”

Ansar himself earned an MSc in botany from Karachi University in 1973. Russian friendship houses and Mao’s Little Red Book were the “in” thing during his college days. His interest turned to history and philosophy, and like most of his friends, he became infatuated with Marx. Yet when he graduated, he went straight into banking. His explanation: “You have to keep your hobby away from your work.”

Surprisingly, Ansar’s rich collection has not come as a result of robbing the bank that he works for. Says the executive vice president of the National Bank of Pakistan, “Pakistan is one of the few places in the world where antique books are cheaper than new books.” His complete first edition Encyclopaedia Britannica – published in 1771 – cost him Rs 2,000 after what he calls “bargaining” with the grandson of a deceased book collector. He can’t even remember what pittance he paid an illiterate book peddler for the oldest book in his library – a 1649 book of Gospels. A book valued at Rs 5,000, he tells me, would be valued at Rs 50,000 in India and Rs 100,000 in England. “I get about three offers a month from India to sell my signed Tagore copy or my entire library. My boss (Chairman of the National Development Finance Corporation) offered me Rs 15 million back in 1999 and said he would offer more,” Ansar says, “but I asked him not to raise the figure as I’m a salaried man. I don’t want to be tempted.”

Ansar opens an Iqbal signed copy. ‘Donated to the Punjab Club’ reads the first page. “The dealer got me this,” he says beamingly. “But isn’t that unethical?” I ask him.

“No. A lot of these books have been taken from libraries across India and Pakistan some time in their lives. This happens all over the world,” he replies. “Many of his books also come from libraries that are forced to shut down.”

Broken and broken into libraries aside, Ansar’s favourite haunts have been Anarkali and near the Government College University in Lahore, the F-6/3 Supermarket in Islamabad, Sadr bazaars in Peshawar and Abbottabad and Kharadar bazaar in Karachi. Booksellers now know him well enough to send him books by post. If Ansar likes the books, he sends the sellers cheques, if not, he returns them.

Does reading reduce intolerance of others’ beliefs? “Definitely. Not movies, not the internet. Till the ’70s, we were a lot more tolerant generation because everyone was reading and discussing a book.” Ansar tells me that among non-Muslim philosophies, he finds the Buddhist theory of Nirvana most attractive and he thinks that Buddhism would bring peace to the world. He also thinks that some of the greatest Islamic works have come from Shia Iran during the Abbasid period – and not only from the hands of Muslims. Are there any books that have made him doubt his faith.” “I stop reading a book if these bloody atheist b*****d philosophers like Rodinson or Descartes or Russell are convincing. I stop reading if it affects my faith.”

But he still keeps these authors in his library, which is often the setting of his welcoming hospitality. He invites TFT readers to come visit this library and offers his mobile number (+92 300 855 6677) as a means of reaching him. As for the future of his library, Ansar, in his mid-50s, says that he is as voracious a reader as ever and the library will continue to expand. He will start cataloguing his books within the month and would like to make the catalogue available online. Within a decade he would like a separate building for a trustee-run private-public library.

1781 ornithology book with coloured lithographs

The autographs of Imran and Jemima Khan, Tagore, Horniman, Sunil Dutt, Kipling, Abdus Salam, Iqbal and Gandhi

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