THELocated in an alleyway in Hyderabad’s crowded Murgi Chowk, a bit off the main road, is a modest orange sign with brown letters, announcing the presence of Haziq and Mohi. The storefront is old and run down, and is surrounded by other equally run down shops, most of which make cheap tourist souvenirs. There isn’t much to suggest that inside Haziq and Mohi is a treasure trove of rare books in Urdu, Arabic, and Persian that draw scholars and historians alike.
Launched over half a century ago by Ahmed Bin Mohammed Bafanna, Haziq and Mohi are now home to thousands of books. Most of them are decades, if not centuries old, and cover an eclectic variety of subjects: from history and philosophy to mysticism, religion, medicine, Islamic art and architecture. In one corner of this dusty store are old Hyderabad census records, and in another corner rare Persian, Arabic and Urdu dictionaries.
“You cannot get reliable rare books on the Internet,” said city historian Sajjad Shahid. “I was looking for the works of Raja de Domakonda, Rajeshwar Rao, who has published over 100 books on Urdu and Persian poetry. After searching everywhere, my quest ended at Haziq and Mohi. Likewise, for books of eclectic categories like mysticism or the rare diwans or poets, there are no sources. I couldn’t even find any books written by Maharaja Kishen Pershad, the former Prime Minister of Hyderabad, anywhere else in the city than at Haziq’s, which underlines his unique position.
Haziq and Mohi founder Ahmed Bafanna was an avid reader who inherited a large collection of books from his grandfather, Salim Bin Ali Bafanna. To make sure these books go to the right people, he opened the bookstore and named it after a famous pir or Sufi master. The district of Chowk, in which it was established, was one of the oldest book markets in Hyderabad and is mentioned in the book Glimpses of Nizam’s Dominion written in 1896 by A Claude Campbell.
“Hyderabad has been a repository of Urdu Deccan literature for centuries,” Shahid said. “Not only rare books, but many books written in the first half of the 1900s, which recorded its people, customs and monuments have been found here [at Haziq and Mohi]. “
The importance of Urdu – both as a medium of instruction and as a livelihood – declined in the region after independence. The large old libraries of the city’s aristocrats were of no use to the younger generations, who reduced their accommodation by moving into smaller houses. There was no room for the large number of books accumulated, and there was also not much interest in them. As an entire generation began to move away from Urdu, these books found a home for Haziq and Mohi as their owner was always on the lookout for new additions to his collection.
“Ahmed was one of the last of the older generation of booksellers who were scholars themselves and could speak on any subject under the sun,” Shahid said. “Even though they weren’t experts, they specialized in putting you on the right track.”
Ahmed Bafanna graduated in Linguistics from Osmania University and was fluent in French, German, English, Persian and Arabic. Over the years, he began adding Telugu, Farsi, and French titles to his collection, and soon the 400-square-foot store was filled with books from floor to ceiling. Books would be priced according to their age. Some rare unique editions, however, were not sold – those interested could have them photocopied.
In White Mughals, author William Dalrymple writes about tripping over the store while looking to purchase Bidri souvenirs for friends and family. “A boy offered to take me to a store where he told me I could find a Bidri box. He led me deep into the labyrinth behind the Chowk Masjid. There, at the end of a small alley, was a shop where he promised me that I would find ‘booxies booxies’. The store didn’t actually sell boxes, but books (or “booksies”, as my guide had tried to tell me). ” Sitting in the “dimly lit shop the size of a large broom closet” was the owner who, Dalrymple writes, “knew exactly what he had. When I told him what I was writing, he took out from under a pile a huge ruined Persian book, the Kitab Tuhfat al-‘Alam… ”
Dalrymple left the poorer £ 400 store but remained in contact with Ahmed Bafanna until the owner’s death in 2015. With his passing, Hyderabad lost a great deal of authority over Urdu literature.
Ahmed Bafanna, says Shahid, could produce rare books in the blink of an eye. “The store was extremely disorganized, with stacks of books all over the place in no apparent order, but it brought any title requested in an instant, as if by magic,” he said. “Very rarely, I had met him without being able to get a book.”
The store remained closed for 40 days after his death as his family deliberated over who would take responsibility. The responsibility lies with his younger brother Khaled Bafanna, who plans to modernize the store. With his son Ibrahim and his nephew Zubair, Khaled Bafanna digitizes and catalogs the books. “Ahmed bhai knew everything, so he never felt the need to sort by subject,” Khaled Bafanna said. “But we are struggling to get the books back, so we sort them out as best we can, with the help of our former servants and clients who share their knowledge with us. He also hopes to contact Persian experts and the Linguistics department at Osmania University when needed.
The difficulty of the task is measured by the fact that over the past three years, only a quarter of the collection has been cataloged. With plans to create a website in sight, Khaled Bafanna decided not to add any books to the store’s collection. That, he says, will begin once cataloging is complete, which he hopes to have by 2020.
Other challenges include maintaining the books and saving them from rotting. A quick glance around the store reveals many books over a century old – a story of Tipu Sultan in Urdu, a century-old Yaad Gare manuscript on the Nizam of Hyderabad, and a 115-year-old Arabic Quran. Many old books whose binding has come off are tied with threads. Khaled says these books need to be bound using a technique that takes a lot of time and attention and involves the use of tree bark as glue.
The number of bookstores in Chowk has dropped to 15, and Haziq and Mohi remain one of the last resorts for those looking for Urdu literature that is no longer in print. “A store like this… gives us a glimpse into our past and has immense historical value,” Shahid said. “For example, the books on engineering practices implemented by Sir Visvesvaraya, and how he made Hyderabad flood-free, have great civic value. Places like these are the latest sources of such information. #KhabarLive