Dr Samuel Johnson worked for a bookseller, Osborne, who had bought the Earl of Oxford’s library for Pounds 13,000 in 1743. Johnson’s job was to prepare a catalogue of the newly-acquired books, which was a “painful drudgery”, according to his friends. However to relieve the drudgery, Johnson “paused occasionally to peruse the book which came to his hand. Osborne thought that such curiosity tended to nothing but delay, and objected to it with all the pride and insolence of a man who knew that he paid the daily wages. In the dispute that of course ensued, Osborne, with that roughness that was natural to him, enforced his argument by giving the lie. Johnson seized a folio and knocked the bookseller down.” (“The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes.” Clarendon Press, 1975, p.81-2.)

Lord, how dearly would I have liked to knock down a bookseller in Karachi. Well, booksellers deal with a particular category of buyers-persons of intellectual bent, often impecunious. As an under-graduate at the Karachi University, I used to visit regularly three bookshops in the Sadar. My pocket-money had many charges upon it. But I could still buy a few paperbacks during a month, when they used to cost from twelve annas to two rupees each. Once in a while, my expenditure went up to ten rupees when some very interesting new book, costing five to ten rupees for a hardback, was included. Very rarely an irresistible book appeared on the shelf, with a price-tag of fifteen rupees or more. Then I would request the bookseller to reserve it for me for a day. Some obliged, some argued but promised to hold it on certain conditions. But there was one unfriendly man who automatically refused. And as luck would have it, his shop usually received the best books, e.g. Sartre’s “What Is Literature?” or Malraux’s collection of paintings at the Louvre with his critical comments.

Now I can see the man’s point. Why should he deny a book to a well-off buyer with ready cash and keep it for a student who did not have even fifteen rupees on him? But, at the time, I developed, quite unreasonably, a strong dislike for him and would have gladly knocked him down, if given a chance.

But things change. Here this man was not prepared to reserve a book for me for a day. And later, another was practically forcing about a dozen books on me free of cost. There is a rich bookshop in the main bazaar in Caracas. I did not miss visiting it whenever I was in the city. Most of the books there were in Spanish, with some English ones in a corner. Then the salesman told me that there were some old books in the basement under the main shop. And if I so wished, I could take a look at them. I readily agreed. The problem was that one reached the basement only through a trap-door in the floor of the main shop, from which a wooden ladder went down. I was afraid of being trapped for the night in the basement. So I climbed down the next day at around noon, after taking firm promises from the shop-assistants that I would not be forgotten downstairs.

There were rows upon rows of book racks laden with books, which were, in turn, hidden by a few millimeters of dust. They were in Spanish and my Spanish did not go beyond reading the newspaper headlines—- or reading, with great effort, some lines of Neruda or Lorca. But all of a sudden, the Spanish books gave place to the French ones. There were some old editions of Braudel but also “Souvenir” of the Duc de Broglie(1986), the “Memoires” of Bocher or James Perkins’ “Mazarin” (1887). I also found there Preobrazhensky’s “Accumulation Primitive Socialiste” in translation. This is where he argues that almost the only possible source of investments for the Soviet Union’s industrialization drive was its agriculture surplus. Stalin took his advice and, after collectivizing the agricultural land, squeezed the peasantry mercilessly. In fact, if the peasants did not have their small private plots, they would have starved. Wasn’t it this robbery of the peasant class that ensured that the Soviet Union would not ultimately attain socialism? Socialism is meant to eliminate exploitation, not to make it the basis of the new socio-political structure. Preobrazhensky himself was shot in Stalin’s massacre of old Bolsheviks in the nineteen-thirties.

I selected about fifteen books from the basement for myself. The problem arose when the bookseller was reluctant to accept payment for them. Ultimately he agreed to take one US dollar for each book.

The writer is a retired ambassador. Email: abul_f@hotmail.com