In a modest cottage near gate number one in the interiors of Dal, a small wooden door opens into the only library in Dal Lake. Named ‘Travelers Library’ by its passionate 43-year-old owner, Muhammad Latif Oata, the library houses an eclectic collection of over 500 books in many languages, including Germen, French, Spanish and Hebrew . The personal collection of books would not have become a library had Latif, a third standard school dropout, not loved the idea of collecting and exchanging books in return for getting to know the stories.
Latif cannot read books but he loves them. He identifies his books by their colour and publisher’s mark. The books are placed alphabetically—from A to Z—on multiple shelves spread over a wall adorned with Allama Iqbal’s life size poster. There are separate, smaller shelves for books in French, German and other foreign languages. Every book in his collection evokes memories of those who exchanged books with him. He gets up and carefully pulls out a special, original edition of Ian Fleming’s novel Goldfinger gifted by a foreign visitor. He has many original, old and rare editions of books in his collection. On the desk lie five books in French language. Few days back a French visitor had come with his books for the library.
In 1988-89, when Latif was a 16-year-old boy, he remembers a foreigner named Terry who gave him an old, original edition of a book. He loved the book and wanted to preserve it, although he could not read it. He began collecting more books. One of the first books in his collection, he recalls, was gifted to him by a south Indian author, Anuradha Datta, who had visited his house in Dal the early nineties. When the turmoil began in the 90s, Lateef had to hide all his books. “Sometimes at home my parents would say, why don’t you sell these books to a rag picker,” he recalls with a smile.
Looking at the rows of books neatly shelved in his small library, he says all these books remind him of what he has lost in the past two decades. “I missed my education and had to drop out of school after 3rd standard to support my family,” he says in a regretful tone. “In my youth I had to work to support family and could not study.” Father of two young kids, Lateef now earns a living by running a modest handicrafts business. “I want my children to be able to read and write,” he says.
Latif has developed an interesting way of lending books from his library. The reader does not donate books to the library, he is quick to point out; he exchanges books with the library. If books are donated, he explains, people will not appreciate them as they are given for free. “That’s why I prefer if books are exchanged with the library,” he says. If anyone wants books from his library, he has to register for a nominal fee of Rs 200-300, which is a safety deposit, he says, and can be taken back after returning the books.
Since Latif could not himself read the books he collected, he started giving out books to the visitors and, in exchange, he would request them to tell him what the book is all about. He loves listening to the stories the books contain between pages. “This way I got know from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s children that talks about Kashmir that our Dal Lake once used to be spread over 80kmrs,” he says.
With the onset of turmoil in the valley, tourism was affected and Latif’s small handicrafts business suffered. He had to move out to Karnatka. There he would sell his handicraft items for six months every year after 1990. The books, however, traveled with him. “For those six months I would take the books with me,” he says. He kept adding more books to his collection.
After 2007 he stayed back and permanently established the library inside his wooden cottage in Dal. He started making small wooden shelves to stack his books. He wanted to make more shelves for more books but could not due to the construction ban in Dal.
Many foreigners who visit his library appreciate Latif’s passion for collecting books. They also gift him books for the library. Latif says mostly foreign nationals visit his library. “Not many Kashmiris come here and take books for reading,” he says. He says over the years his passion for collecting books brought him in touch with many people, with diverse backgrounds, from many countries.
Latif would like to collect more books and make more shelves in his library. Wondering why there are fewer books written on Kashmir by Kashmiris, he says many travelers and foreigners who visit his library often ask for more books on Kashmir. In fact he had approached Islamia College to request for some books on Kashmir. “But they told me all those books were burned,” he says.
Despite facing hardships in maintaining all the books in a small room on limited shelves, Latif has no plans to close his modest library. The sight of more books piling up the shelves makes him happy. The idea of the next visitor delights him. And he is happiest when people exchange books and get back to him after reading them.
Till I am alive, he says with a smile, I will keep collecting and maintaining this library. “And wherever I go these books will be with me.”
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