Instep Today

Curating literary spaces in Lahore

By Haiya Bokhari
Sun, 11, 20

Zinda-dil-ane-Lahore is a secret book-worm. The city of lights, parks and the rousing dhol has a literary predilection that is easy to miss but generations of its denizens are and have been readers, copiously consuming texts, cultivating literary spaces where like-minded people convene together (quietly) to browse through towering racks, buying old and new books alike.

If someone were to ask what the city of Lahore is famous for, bookstores wouldn’t be an answer most would consider. However, Lahore currently has three major book stores to its name; Readings, The Last Word and Liberty Books, not to mention countless shops offering old, antique and even new titles.

Growing up in 90s or early 2000s, the options for bookstores ranged between Anees and Iqbal Book Corner that sold curriculum texts, old book stores and tiny, rent-a-book ventures where you could go to buy or rent a book for a week. Lahore also had the famous Alif Laila Book Bus for children, a project that has been revamped recently to bring educational accessibility to the marginalized. Lahore also has the famous Urdu Bazaar in Andaroon Shehr, paved with books and history but it was hard to find modern texts and a wide array of genres until a decade or two ago.

Readings was the first major retailer that came onto the Lahori literary scene and is one of the city’s most cherished establishments. Inaugurated in 2006 as an old book store, Readings has grown exponentially, providing books of all kinds, at every price point.

The Last Word though, is an entirely different beast in comparison. While Readings gives off the vibe of a business establishment, the Last Word fosters a sense of community, feeling more like a safe space and less like an entrepreneurial venture.

The bookstore’s journey has been tumultuous but in finding its feet, the store also charts the growth of the city along with it.

We spoke to Aysha Raja, owner and curator of the stock at the store to better understand how a city that isn’t necessarily known for reading, threw its weight and support behind a this niche venture.

Raja explains what’s spoken extensively about her journey to and with Last Word but this year, with lots of time to reflect, she states that she wants to be as honest about her experience as possible. Raja moved to Lahore in the early 2000s after marrying Rafay Alam, a lawyer and environmental activist, and found the move from London to be a bit jarring.

Conversations and mindsets in Lahore can be a bit stilted. Finding like-minded people who are more interested in discussing ideas, rather individuals, can be difficult, given that our society is structured to curb originality of thought and rewards those who unquestioningly follow tradition instead.

For Raja, the bookstore was her way of staying sane and curating a space that was meaningful to her in the city. Starting out in about 2007/8, The Last Word came into being on the top floor of the Hot Spot ice-cream parlour in Gaddafi stadium, remaining there until 2014 when Raja decided to fully commit and go big.

The store then moved to a swanky new establishment in Gulberg on Kasuri Road until tragedy struck again and Raja had to move.

She explains that setting up the business and working with local landlords felt like “trial by fire.” From a plethora of early nay-sayers, who she now believes were only rejecting her idea because of their own limitations and narrow thought-process, to patriarchy and men who put up road-blocks at every corner, the store has truly been a venture of blood, sweat and tears. It’s been a constant fight against powerful forces that repeatedly threatened to derail the security and stability of the venture.

When the Last Word moved out of its previous home on Kasuri road and made its way to current basement abode in DHA Phase 3, Raja promised herself to not become attached to the space housing her venture again, hoping that this sense of pragmatism would prevent her from experiencing heart-break like she had previously.

Raja however recalls being in London when she got a call from the store saying there were men in the building, ready to shut the place down. Exhausted and at her wits end, Raja was willing to put up fight until her husband suggested a different course of action that eventually worked out. They had to shut shop while the legal issues around the building and previous landlord were sorted out; in the meanwhile, the store physically shifted to her own home.

“I’d wake up in the morning and walk out of my room to be informed by the cook that there were customers already in the house,” she recalls with a laugh. While the experience of opening a bookstore in your own home isn’t one that Raja would recommend, she explains that it was during this period that Lahore truly opened its heart and wallets to the venture.

People would turn up to the house and buy in bulk, picking up thousands worth of merchandise, showing support and solidarity with the store. Needless to say, Raja was moved. It also didn’t hurt that store was breaking its own sales records while functioning from her home.

Eventually, problems with the premises were sorted and Raja managed to get through to the landlady of the building who resided in Karachi, establishing a personal relationship with them. Raja explains that initially when the lock down happened and businesses shut down, she was even able to negotiate with the owner, paying a lower rent until she realised that the business hadn’t taken a hit and people were, in fact buying more books than before, to fill the silence and sense of alienation this pandemic imposed.

In the years since she first started Last Word, Raja has come to realise that she truly enjoy working with other women, finding them to exhibit a greater dedication to their job and extracting greater value out of their work. It is through the store that she met and worked with countless like-minded individuals in Lahore, whose preoccupations about life go beyond getting married and acquiring material wealth. She found people to have conversations with that wouldn’t leave her poorer than when she’d started speaking to them and through the store, curated not only a literary space but also set of people who espoused the same values as her.

“I love reading to children,” she explains, when we speak about the events that Last Word is known for, including dramatic readings of children’s books, open mic nights and even sessions that touched upon topics not regularly or openly discussed in society. “I had a therapist reach out to me, wanting to host a talk on child sexual abuse,” she offers as an example, a session that was very well attended, explaining how the store turned into a safe space where people could voice queries or concerns.

Though the journey to where the Last Word stands right now hasn’t been a straight, paved road but rather one on a delineating track that often looped back on itself, the store provided Lahoris a much needed space to escape to. In the silence of the store, there is camaraderie, a sense of belonging and a sense of being understood. There is a sense of kinship one feels browsing through the reading list, finding new works that Raja has hand-picked that resonate with you, finding titles that you would otherwise never be introduced to in Pakistan.

Raja feels as strongly about her customers as they feel about the store – she notices a younger generation that tends to frequent her establishment, teenagers, people in their 20s and 30s, new parents and generally a set of people that otherwise loud Lahore would drown out. It is a symbiotic relationship with both sides needing each other just as much, to create a space and a mind-set that you’d never really expect out of the city.

So, whether you’re a Lahori or an out-of-towner trying to get a sense of the city, stop by the store and experience a literary haven that makes you look at this ancient bastion of culture in a different light.