• July 19, 2024

Reading is forbidden

A big problem with Pakistani history is that huge chunks of it are missing from the public record. By this, I do not mean that chronology or publicly accepted superficial accounts of those periods have disappeared from the record. Certainly not. We lack granular details, 360-degree memories and feel of the given times, autobiographies and contemporary analyses, and more. Until the 1990s, things were not that desperate. But then, many factors conspired to make such accounts elusive.

Bear in mind that convincing people to volunteer information is not an easy task. Then writing a book takes a lot of discipline, commitment and positive reinforcement. Since in Pakistan, writing books does not offer you enough financial incentive, there has to be some other form of inducement to keep burning the midnight oil. Politicians may want to do so to clear their names, influence politics for their progeny, or to remind readers of their vitality, ergo eligibility for some public office even at an advanced age. Other newsmakers have similar motives. But given these angles, the works they produce are not always highly readable.

Then in the nineties, the cost of the production of a book suddenly shot up and has now reached generally prohibitive levels. Mercifully, the National Book Foundation back then was still operational, and it could reproduce books it deemed compulsory reading at much cheaper rates. But then, one day during General Musharraf’s tenure, a visibly agitated Ahmad Faraz, the famous poet and the then chairman of the foundation, confided in this scribe that some genius from the federal cabinet had gone abroad and without consultation signed a copyright agreement which made it illegal for the institutions like his to reprint foreign books. Since then, even this foundation seems to have become a shell of its former self.

Another gift that keeps giving is the Oxford University Press. Back in the nineties, it accepted many important manuscripts and published them with great pomp and show. But gradually, many critically important books went out of print, and because the OUP has the copyright and the original manuscripts, these books have gone out of circulation. Despite my repeated entreaties to relaunch them in ebook form, there has not been any let-up. While hobnobbing with the country’s influentials with some ambition to write books, I urge them to keep the copyrights to themselves and not send their works to the OUP. It might have served this country a lot in the academic sector in the past, but as it now stands, the Press is where good books go to die.

If you have adopted new reading technologies like e-readers or even your smartphones, you must be no stranger to the challenges of acquiring and reading boot-legged digital copies of the out of print books. Usually, they appear as an assortment of photographs of decaying pages combined into PDF formats. PDF files are highly inflexible and massive in size especially given the snapshots of the aforementioned pages. To have a sound reading experience, you need flexible and customisable formats like Epub, Mobi, Azw, and Txt. But there is no effort whatsoever to convert important books to these formats. May God have mercy on you if you are trying to read a digital copy of an Urdu book, even if acquired from a legitimate source! Formatting is something that our lot does not get. In fact, our approach to Urdu publishing is so outdated that we have not even integrated Urdu fonts into the formats mentioned above. So with the rise of e-readers and e-reading apps, most of these books will soon go extinct.

This brings me to another frustrating aspect of the Urdu language online. If you subscribe to video streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video, kindly open them right now and look for one feature. The audio and subtitles feature. A sizeable chunk of the content on display now offers an option to choose from a wide variety of regional languages. Where you don’t get a separate audio track in your preferred language, you get subtitles. You will find the national languages of many countries around us, and in the subcontinent, you may even find many Indian regional dialects also represented there. One language you will struggle to find is Urdu. That despite the fact that Netflix reportedly has over 300,000 subscribers in Pakistan. When you add the Prime viewership numbers, the total viewers must be much higher. Remember, numbers may vary, but India and other countries in the region also have Urdu-speaking and reading populations.

So what is it? India’s insistence on killing Urdu? Or our incompetence? Even if India wanted to treat Urdu with hostility and abandon it reserves for Mirza Ghalib’s grave, is it not the responsibility of the Pakistani authorities to ensure that the language is available on such platforms for their citizens? These are small matters of negotiation, but why would anyone bother? No real estate is involved with the potential to build quasi-legal housing schemes here.

Let me take you back to the discussion about books. I get it. Many folks may not want to invest time, energy and money in reading printed books. For such friends, the world provides two options. Audiobooks and book summaries.

Now one thing I know for a fact about voice talent in Pakistan is that there is no shortage of it. Besides countless radio shows, you will come across many voice-over artists with golden voices. Imagine if they could be engaged in reading good quality audiobooks, how much entertaining and informative content could be generated. The only few instances of Urdu audiobooks I came across were on platforms like Audible.com and they too were either read by Indian artists or Urdu speakers living abroad. There were a few amateur attempts found online too but clearly, their producers had no idea what an audiobook is for. Take the example of a gentleman who decided to read an Urdu translation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula for his audience and decided that he needed to read it in a spooky voice. I could barely listen for five minutes before rip-roaring waves of laughter threatened to give me a coronary and I quit. Ensuring copyright protection is another concern.

But dear readers, you can only complain about the decline in reading if you are giving people enough opportunities to read. Clearly, we do not. Critical thought needs a steady supply of data. Books can provide that. But evidently, no one is interested in that.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 10th, 2022.

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