Old Encyclopedias and Dictionaries that are prized parts of the collection at the The Urdu Arts (Evening) College, Urdu Hall Library. (Courtesy: Shefali Jha)

In Conversation with Syed Raziullah Hussaini: Despite Abundance of Urdu Speakers, Hyderabad's Urdu Libraries Struggle to Survive

in Interview
Published on: 24 February 2020

Shefali Jha

Shefali Jha teaches at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Hyderabad. She has a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, and is currently working on publishing her doctoral dissertation on Muslim politics in Hyderabad.

Syed Raziullah Hussaini teaches at the Urdu Evening College that also houses the Urdu Hall at Himayatnagar in Hyderabad.

He was born and grew up in Hyderabad, and as a young student in 1987, helped compile an exhaustive report on the city’s libraries which contained Urdu books and manuscripts. His interest in books both precedes and was fed by this extraordinary project. 

Following is an edited transcript of the interview, in which Shefali Jha speaks with Hussaini and M.A Moid, a scholar working on the Old City of Hyderabad, about the project as well as their experience of the changing Urdu reading culture in Hyderabad. The recording, transcription and translation from Urdu to English were all carried out by the interviewer.

Shefali Jha: Razibhai, about your experience of libraries and reading as an old Hyderabadi and a teacher of Urdu, what was the place of libraries in your life when you were growing up? How has it changed now, if you think it has?

Syed Raziullah Hussaini: This is a really important question that you have asked; from what I say now you will see how important libraries were in Hyderabad. I was a student of Darul Uloom, Kali Kaman, one of Hyderabad's most famous schools.

SJ: That is a historic school, yes!

SRH: Their library was so good, we would borrow books every week: books to do with the nisabi [syllabus], but also children's books—you know, stories, with pictures and photos—books to do with Islamic history or religious books. And we would all read them with great interest: I would get them and my siblings would read as well. It was a 'well-organised' and umda [excellent] library. And they got books from everywhere: all the big publishers, from Delhi, Bombay, etc. Then there were children's magazines, of which one of the important ones was Nur, then there was… Din aur Duniya. There were several, but these two we would read regularly. Nur came from Rampur. There was a reading room in school where they subscribed to newspapers. Whenever we had some time, we would spend it in the library, apart from the playground or games. 

The other place I went to quite regularly was the Asafia Library [now known as the State Central Library at Afzalgunj]. It was so rich—and I am talking only about the Urdu section now. There were two sections. On the ground floor, there was a children's section, and on the first floor was the section for youth, adults. And it was so well-organised: the books were arranged on the stacks, and so wonderfully kept—as if they had just come in—the officials and staff were always available. My house was near Charminar; so, after school I would walk over to the Asafia Library—you know, after lunch, finishing up errands and whatever jobs there were at home. I had two friends who would go with me, so the three of us would sit there until closing time at 8 in the night. And it was so much fun…like kids these days enjoy watching TV, that's how much! In fact, we enjoyed our reading in that library much more. 

M.A. Moid: And the mahaul [atmosphere] there… 

SRH: Oh yes, such an atmosphere! My dear friend M.A Moid will also attest to the pleasures of that library; he was one of those who benefited from it. 

MAM: It was the same—we would go quite regularly, really looked forward to it.

SRH: We really did enjoy it—fasle bhi simaṭ jate the shauq ki wajah se [distances shrank to nothing, thanks to the pleasure we found in reading]. 

SJ: So, what kind of people frequented these and for what kind of books?  

SRH: Lots of children would come to the library. Not so many girls, mostly boys, but lots of children…As we grew older, we moved on to the first floor.

SJ: That's it, you graduated to Jasusi Duniya [a popular series of Urdu detective stories by Ibn-e-Safi] then! 

SRH: Exactly! After SSC and during our college years, we would go to the Urdu Hall, which of course has its own excellent library—it has over 50,000 books. We were members of all these libraries; the books would be brought home. I do not hesitate today to say that we read a lot during this phase, especially translations from English work…Mazhar-ul-Haq Alavi's books [popular translator of H. Rider Haggard's novels], Russian novels, and…of course, Ibn-e-Safi. Today, many people have written about this, but even then, it occurred to me that many people must have learnt Urdu because of this man. 

MAM: He was so popular—people would wait for the next in the series… 

SRH: There was a reading culture at home since my father was a teacher; we had subscriptions to many magazines and journals at home. Aside from the libraries just mentioned, let me tell you about another one that was really interesting—in Hussaini Alam there was a private library named 'S.S. Library', where they would rent books out. And they were all Ibn-e-Safi novels. The Ibn-e-Safi novels that were not available at the Asafia Library would be available there…Seriously! The first novel—Diler Mujrim—after that I do not remember, but basically the idea was that you would get it here if it was not found there. It was just a mulgi  [a small shop]. I think it is still there…but I am not sure they are still in business. And the proprietor was a non-Muslim gentleman.

MAM: Must have been an Urdudan [Urdu speaker].

SRH: Yes, an Urdu person.

SJ: Let us talk about the project that you undertook of documenting Urdu collections in libraries in Hyderabad. How did it start and how did you come to be a part of it?

SRH: As far as I remember, I did not come to be a part of it directly. The work was undertaken by the Nizam's Trust Urdu Library. A meeting was held at the Siasat (Urdu newspaper in Hyderabad) office, with the main people who would run the project participating in it. There it was decided that information about libraries would be collected: how many were there, how many had Urdu books…that there ought to be a survey. Mohtarma A. W. Shakira, who was a librarian at the Osmania University was one of the people at this meeting. She was put in charge of the work. 

SJ: So, this project was started by Siasat?

SRH:  Yes, late Abid Ali Khan [one of the founder-editors of Siasatsahab was one of the people on the board of the Nizam’s Trust Urdu Library. These kinds of meetings were usually held at the Siasat office.

Then she consulted with her brother Abdul Hai sahab, who was a librarian at Urdu Hall in Himayatnagar, and he suggested my name. 

SJ: I see! 

SRH: Yes, I was associated with Urdu Hall at the time—as a student first, but also otherwise. There are two colleges in Urdu Hall. One is older—it was started in 1956—the Oriental Urdu College [where I was a student], so I was a part of it. Anyway, so Abdul Hai sahab suggested my name and introduced us, and she explained the work to me: 'Look, you have to come with me, we have to travel around Hyderabad and look at all the libraries, whether government or college orshakhsi [privately/ personally] run libraries.'

I was a bit hesitant but she resolved the situation by coming home, talking to my parents and explaining to them that the boy was going to work with her, this was the kind of work we'll be doing, etc. And Mohtarma was a very nice and good person…So, that is how I began to work with her. We began in 1987 and ended in 1988. I had just finished my MA and was in search of a job…At that time I was not sure if this is what I wanted to do, how it would help. But then they had another meeting and decided that everyone who was working on the project would be paid muavaza [monetary compensation], so that made things a little easier. But I think I would have agreed anyway, because this was a ghumne ka mauqa [an opportunity to explore the city]. I was an Old City person, and I used to be associated also with the Idara-e-Adabiyat-e-Urdu [Aiwan-e-Urdu], where I was learning calligraphy at the time. So, I knew a few people, and then she was very persuasive, and we started work. 

It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it. 

Her house was in Vijaynagar Colony, which is near Nampally, and mine was at Zeba Bagh, Asifnagar (about 1 km)…So, I would walk over to her place, from where we would take a riksha (cycle-rickshaw). Sometimes, we would negotiate and engage the riksha for the day, sometimes we would go to the Idara-e-Adabiyat and get another riksha from there [a little over 5 km]. 

The information we collected on this project…We actually went to each place, and looked at the ba nafs-e-nafis [books themselves] …Not just visiting and looking at the record and noting down names of the books, no…After we entered the library and examined the accession register, we would go to the racks and check which books were there, which were not, and what rare books they had. This was an important part of our work, to write down the details of the rare, precious books in each place.

Since she was associated with libraries, she already had the data: which library was located in which place, where we needed to go, etc. This made our work easier. You see, everyone knew her and respected her…She was from a Nawayati family (community of Muslims in the Deccan and southern India), and they were known for their scholarly bent and achievements. Wherever she went, they opened their homes and collections to her. This is no longer the case—these days, people do not allow others access to their private collections. But with her, they were very welcoming; in fact, if we missed something, they would draw our attention to it: 'Here madam, we have this book as well, see?' Then there were college libraries, the Central Library of the Urdu Arts college, the Anwar-ul-uloom College library, Mumtaz College library. Of course, the library of the Nizam's Urdu Trust  has quite a good collection. There's Osmania University, HCU (Hyderabad Central University)…Of course, we took buses when the distance required it, but mostly it was in a riksha…Most of our trips were in and around the Old City. 

Apart from me, there was a ‘certified librarian’ who was part of the project—Javed Abdul Muhit, mentioned as ‘Javed Ahsan’ in the report—he was a professional and he joined after me. He also participated quite enthusiastically. Then there were two other people. 

SJ: And what happened after? Do you remember?

SRH: See, my job began after the meeting, and my work ended with the submission of the report. I really do not know what was decided after that, what was to be done…I can say, though, that that report should have been published. Right now, it is with the Nizam’s Trust Urdu Library, and has very limited circulation. At least people would know about these libraries, that they exist and where they are, the kind of books they have. They are not just about Hyderabad, but about the whole of India, our history, literature, society. This is not associated exclusively with Muslims though, it is about Indian history.

SJ: From your experience of the project, were you surprised by anything or was it all known to you? For example, were there libraries you never knew existed? 

SRH: No, I had an idea…That is because, as I have said, I used to go to a lot of these libraries—even the Shalibanda library, I knew there was a library there and I used to go there. The Nizam’s Urdu Trust Library…at that time it was in Asifnagar, Muradnagar (today in Malakpet), and I used to go there. 

But what really surprised me were the private collections—that there were such azim [incredible] books, and such scholars in Hyderabad! That I did not know, and I was very happy to discover it. I knew about the other libraries because I am an Urdu MA ‘pure Urdu-medium’ person, I have been a student of Urdu literature and today this is my profession. So from Shalibanda to Idara-e-Adabiyat, all the libraries in between—I knew about those. Of course, many of those libraries are, sadly, just names today—they do not exist anymore. 

MAM: And what happened to the books in these libraries?

SRH: We don’t know…That is actually another topic for research. 

SJ: Was there a memorable person or place that you found during the project that has stayed with you?

SRH: As I said, I knew a lot of these places already because I was interested in books and visited libraries quite a lot. But Mohtarma Shakira knew all the private ones as well… ‘Yes Raziullah, we have to go to this library there.’ ‘I don’t think there is anything there.’ ‘Oh no, there definitely is, we have to go.’ For example, in the Old City, there is an alim-e-din [priest] whose house was in Dar-us-Shifa, near the traffic police station, you know the outpost…Maulana Taqi Wafa…He was a very well-known Shia gentleman. He had a private library, a great collection… I had no idea, but she knew: ‘We must go there, he has a lot of books.’ Religious books, tarikhi [historical] books and adab [literature]…So, that was one. Then there was Hasanuddin Ahmed Sahab's library—and there we were welcomed with such warmth. She was family, so they were very hospitable; we spent two or three days there, going every day. Because it was a huge library, and then Samad Sahab…

SJ: Of the Urdu Research Centre?

SRH:  Yes, who had his own rich collection—lived there in those days. Another place I must mention: in the Public Gardens there used to be a children’s library called Indira Priyadarshini Library near the auditorium. 

SJ: Oh yes, that’s right!

SRH: I was amazed by that library as well—it was a government library, just for children, and maintained very well. They had membership for children, and there were a lot of kids that went there. They had a great collection—books by Abul Kalam Azad, Zakir Hussain, who as you know, was a well-known writer of children’s books—but now it is shut down, and nobody knows why or when that happened. Maybe it is a lack of staff that has led to this state of affairs. 

SJ: Yes, people have complained about that to me as well during the project. What kinds of complaints or problems did the people who ran those libraries have at that time?

SRH: Back then I do not think they complained much actually—they seemed quite razi-ba-raza [content] to me. I suppose they seemed like that because as far as the government libraries were concerned, the libraries in the system—they had the staff, employees…So, it all seemed taken care of. The private collections…They never had any complaints, perhaps because they were just pleased to have such great collections! I mean, the basis of private collections is shauq[interest], so obviously they had great books. You look at Amin Jung’s collection or Mehdi Nawaz Jung—they donated their books to us. Then there was Raj Bahadur Goud, Dr Zeenat Sajida—the famous Urdu professor and writer—they donated their books to us as well. In fact, I would go further: when we were in the 10th standard, our Urdu textbook explained the distinctions between nasr aur nazm [prose and poetry] so scientifically, I can tell you how clear and effective it was. The writer of that book was Dr Hussaini Shahid, Prof. Sajida’s equally well-known husband. It is no longer a part of the syllabus, but it is still available in libraries; you can actually pick up these books and compare the standard of interest and scholarship of those people with both the writers of books and the readers these days. 

SJ: But did they not face any problems in running these libraries then?

SRH: There was a paucity of funds, definitely…You know, there were issues about buying new books, etc. These were the common difficulties one heard about in the smaller places— ‘How does one maintain a library, I’m the only one here…’ I went to so many of them. Salar Jung Library was one place that had some kind of intizam [arrangement], and at the Idara-e-Adabiyat there was something called a fumigation chamber that housed manuscripts and keeps them safe from insects, etc. This I never saw anywhere else. Maintaining a private collection is not easy though—if you collect something or it has been in your family, the availability of funds to maintain the collection will ensure that you can take care of it. Otherwise… 

MAM: And the old book market at Charminar used to have these books that probably came from collections that could not be taken care of… 

SRH: Yes, and the old bookshops at Chowk—they are still there. The small libraries received a little bit of money, never qalil [enough]. Now they do not have even that much.

MAM: [Qalil-tarin] Nearly non-existent. 

SRH: Yes, exactly! 

SJ: From your own experience and information, were Urdu libraries important in smaller district towns? How were these different from the ones in the city?

SRH: I have spent time in Nalgonda, Mahbubnagar, Nizamabad and Medak in connection with my work—more or less for the last 15 years, with regular visits. I mostly went around colleges, of course, but I also had the opportunity to explore generally—since I am tajassus [interested] in local libraries, etc. I saw that there were libraries and reading rooms with Urdu books, but mostly those on the syllabus, and other than those a few light novels, some Ibn-e-Safi…but mostly books that have to do with the courses.

SJ: There is a thriving Urdu reading-speaking-writing public in Hyderabad, yet the state of the libraries is by and large quite bad. Most of the libraries used to be and still are in the Old City, but the people who take care of them complain that there is no money, no staff and no interest in books. Yet people read newspapers, magazines, novels, poetry, and go to mushairas [poetry readings], book releases, etc. And there are so many Urdu institutions in the city. How do we understand this disconnect?

SRH: This is a multifaceted problem; it has several sides. So, we cannot say that it depends on this one thing…There are many reasons. And I would like to signal a few. Moid will agree with me—when we were in school and college, there were all these digests and monthlies that we could name: HudaShabistanBisvin ṢadiNurShama. Now tell me why these stopped coming to Hyderabad? And they were all coming from big publishing houses in Delhi, etc. There was a market here…There were weeklies too, like Nasheman—still comes—but back then every home had a copy of Nasheman. See, I think this happens through libraries: you go there, you see something aside from the papers you went to read, say Nur, then you go again and read it, then you think: We should get this at home, let’s subscribe. Now the libraries do not subscribe to them—because they have no funds.

And yes, it is true…I was in charge of the book stall at Numaish [the annual Hyderabad trade exhibition that runs from mid-January to mid-February] for a couple of years in the late 1980s and then again in the 1990s. The sales were brisk—60–80,000 worth of books were sold during the week, and upwards of 1 lakh over the weekends. So that was my experience—people in Hyderabad were interested in books, and I think this continues to be the case. It is just that tarsil, jo ba-qaida se honi chahiye, wo nahin ho rai [books are not really reaching them in the orderly way that used to happen before].