Bookshops define the character of the city

Indians and Pakistanis love Track II. It's a free holiday in a cool clime, in a comfy hotel, with lots of drink (Indians and Pakistanis love drinking together), a bit of shopping, and for some even a possibility of short-term romance.

By Aditya Sinha (Going Viral)

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Published: Thu 21 Jul 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Thu 21 Jul 2016, 2:00 AM

In Istanbul nearly two months ago, I was on the sidelines of a Track II conference. These are are non-official dialogues between individuals from India and Pakistan, hosted by a European think-tank, NGO or university - though the actual driving force is that country's foreign office, while the invisible hand is of the Americans. Participants include retired diplomats, soldiers, academics, journalists, spies and activists; sometimes other South Asians are invited to give the conference a fig leaf of a multilateral peace initiative. Track II is meant to open new avenues of dialogue that might eventually be pursued at the official level. But ultimately it is a Western desire for lasting India-Pakistan detente that drives these conferences, along with an American fear of war between two nuclear powers.
Indians and Pakistanis love Track II. It's a free holiday in a cool clime, in a comfy hotel, with lots of drink (Indians and Pakistanis love drinking together), a bit of shopping, and for some even a possibility of short-term romance. You say what's expected of you in these predictable discussions, the conference is over and you return to routine. The conferences continue whatever the state of India-Pakistan relations - it is a useful link to keep alive during the lows, and is potentially a force multiplier during the highs. My first such conference was in the early 2000s, in rural England, yet despite the bonhomie of these talkfests and the refreshing holidays such conferences provide, it is not easy to see what difference they make to diplomacy.
I took a day off to avoid participants and do some tourism. In the historic district there is a bookshop identified by a large sign that reads "Bookshop"; it's actual name is Galeri Kayseri. (Actually there are two branches of Galeri Kayseri, in effect mirroring each other on opposite sides of the same road, Divanyolu Caddesi.) If there is one thing I can't resist, it is a good bookshop (or even a poor one, for that matter); every great city of the world has bookshops that help define the character of the city, be it large chain stores or small, hidden treasure-troves filled with out-of-print curiosities. Bookshops are often a window into a particular city's history and culture - no wonder the legendary Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges wrote labyrinthine fantasies that included imaginary libraries.
Indeed, one of the highlights of a visit to Dubai a few years back was a visit to the Japanese chain bookstore Kinokuniya on top of The Dubai Mall. (For sure, there are other bookshops in the city worth visiting.) Though it might be a complaint for some, the store is so big that you could lose yourself in it for a few hours; and though it is hardly the place to discover forgotten treasures, its hugeness of variety makes it worthwhile for any bibliophile. It shamed me to think that the city near where I now live, New Delhi, has slowly but surely gotten rid of its great, historic bookstores, replacing them with beauty parlours or bland multi-national brand outlets.
Till this visit, the only Turkish fiction I had read was Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, a metaphysical murder mystery of Ottoman miniaturists - which, to my puzzle-loving delight, was written as if it were a miniature painting of words and meta-fiction. At the Istanbul bookshop, however, I avoided Pamuk and asked about what else Turkey had to offer. Fortunately, the young woman at work spoke English and spoke passionately about every book she showed me. In the end I purchased three that are unavailable outside Turkey: Ahmet Umit's Patasana (the author, she said, sold ten times as much as Pamuk), Ayse Kulin's Farewell: A Mansion in Occupied Istanbul, and Irfan Orga's Portrait of a Turkish Family.
The epic Patasana is a hodge-podge of genres and though verbose, it's still engaging. A young archeologist, Esra, leading a multi-national team at a dig near the Euphrates, is shaken by a series of murders that mirror a series of murders several decades back. She falls in love (Mills & Boon style) with local policeman Captain Eshref, an ex-soldier who believes separatist Kurds are behind the murders. It turns out that the American on the team commits the murders. What an ironic metaphor, given the current political troubles facing Ankara. No wonder Ahmet Umit sells more than Pamuk.
Back at the hotel, there was bilateral interest in my new books (a retired Pakistani diplomat had bought silver for a nephew's wedding). More irony, since the conference had not gone well, reflecting the bilateral relationship currently. When intellectually engaging the rest of the world, Indian and Pakistani views are not dissimilar; especially at a place itself in turmoil. Perhaps that's an idea for the next Track II dialogue: the two countries jointly looking outward in the world of ideas, instead of at each other for the umpteenth time.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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