By Shawkat Hussain
The iconic Zeenat Book Supply, in New Market, is a decades-old cultural fixture amongst readers in Dhaka. An English professor waxes nostalgic over his evolving relationship with the store, and how the reading landscape in the city has changed over the years
When Salman Rushdie won the Booker Prize more than forty years ago in 1981, my first thought was to run to Zeenat Book Supply Ltd in New Market and see if they had a copy of the book. In those days, there were just a couple of bookstores in New Market which always stocked a good collection of English paperback fiction and nonfiction, and Zeenat was my favorite. I vaguely remember the owner, a man of few words (unlike his son Faisal who later took over), told me that they sold the few copies they had, and more would be coming soon. Sure enough, I bought my copy of Midnight’s Children a week later.
A couple of weeks back when I read that The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida had won the Booker for 2022 I was too far away to run to Zeenat. But even if I had been in Dhaka, it is unlikely that I would run to Zeenat, not only because I had become a “geriatric manatee,” as my son pointed out, but mostly because Zeenat was not likely to have it. I found it easier to upload an epub on my laptop.
Zeenat Book Supply first opened in 1963 when its owner Syed Abdul Malek, a PWD government officer bought a shop in New Market for 4000-5000 rupees and turned it into a bookstore. Within months it became popular, cannily tapping into the tastes of a small but discerning English readership.
There was nothing great about the physical ambience of the shop. Truth be told, it had no ambience at all. Small and dimly lit, it always felt cramped and colorless. A long counter, like most bookshops in New Market, used up more than a third of the shop, leaving barely enough space for three people to stand inside the shop. Floor-to-ceiling shelves lined the left side of the wall, and there were shelves on the other sides as well to which customers had no access. There were books on the floor and books on the counter-top. When you turned to look at the books on the left wall you showed your posterior to whoever sat behind the counter. If there were more than two customers, their shoulders brushed against one another with more intimacy than desirable. Browsing was no pleasure; still, the smell–and the availability– of new books in that tight space was exhilarating in those early days.
“I first started going to the shop in 1965 when I became a Dhaka College student, and I never stopped. “
I would generally go with a bunch of friends bunking classes, hang out in restaurants and bookstores in New Market, and spend all my scholarship money buying Penguin modern classics and the black Penguin Classics from Zeenat, and anything else that caught fancy These were formative years for us as young adults, and the books that we bought from Zeenat, and tried to read, formed the basis of whatever little intellectual growth we might have achieved.
During my two years of college, and my university years as a student in the English department, and throughout my years as a teacher from 1973 until I retired forty years later, I haunted Zeenat like so many others, younger and older. Zeenat has been a part of my life for the last sixty years, and I’m sure that more than half of my books in my now-dusty bookshelves carry the rubber stamp of Zeenat Book Supply.
During the 80s and 90s when sales were at their peak and Zeenat’s popularity at its highest, my sons in their pre-teen and early teen years were also frequent visitors with me. If we were bored and had nothing to do, the war cry was ‘Let’s go to Zeenat.” I remember particularly when my younger son was unhappy with something, we would buy a few books from Zeenat, and return happy. Zeenat kept a good supply of children’s books, both English and Bangla: Tintin comics, The Famous Five series and other Enid Blyton books, the entire Tell Me Why series, Chacha Chowdhury comics, books by Sukumar and Satyajit Ray. These books sold in the thousands those days. The top ten students of Scholastica were given cash vouchers of Taka 200 to buy books from Zeenat. The many books that my younger son bought in the late 80s and early 90s, mostly from Zeenat, formed the basis of a fanciful personal “Earth Library,” that he established. The library does not exist anymore, but the stimulus provided by books that he bought then has turned him into the young man that he is today.
When the owner died in 1994, his son Faisal took over the shop. By this time, having become a veteran customer of the shop, I had the dubious benefit, like many others, of being regaled by Faisal’s monologues. Recently when I talked with Syeed Faisal, he lamented that sales had fallen drastically, complained about the ubiquity of cheap, pirated editions, and the deplorable fact that young people didn’t read anymore, because now they had their android phones and iPads. Multiple government taxes also made it impossible to be a profitable bookseller, he said.
I wanted to tell him that now there were quite a few bookshops, brightly lit and with large open spaces and in multiple locations, who seemed to be doing well. Perhaps he could do the same thing: renovate, relocate, import more new books. But I didn’t say anything, because Zeenat, after all, remains a first love.
After forty-two years in the book business, Faisal’s heart is no longer in the bookstore that his father had started 61 years ago. Now he comes to the shop no more than four times a year. Two sleepy, tired, old men sit behind the counter, seemingly uninterested in the wares they peddle. I still go to Zeenat when I’m in New Market, look around for a few minutes, and if Faisal isn’t around (and he usually isn’t), I walk out empty-handed, and walk across to another shop where the lights are bright and brand-new best sellers tempt me as they used to when I was young.
Shawkat Hussain is a retired Dhaka University professor of English, currently based in Toronto