IN THE EVENING, once the heat begins to ebb, Mazhar-e-Alam shuffles up the stairs to his shop, asks his neighbour to raise the metal shutter, and settles down for business under a hanging bulb. Perched above a bicycle repair shop in the old Nakhas neighbourhood of Lucknow, across from the decrepit Prakash Talkies and next to a dealer in used plastic barrels, the Mazhar-e-Alam Library is one of the few quiet, nearly invisible institutions that sustain Urdu in a neglectful world.
Alam is a small man, 74 years old, in a neat white chikan kurta and a Gandhi cap, and wearing a hearing aid. Surrounding him are bundles of old issues of Urdu women’s magazines like Pakeeza Aanchal (The Chaste Hem), obsolete geography textbooks, a few Hindi pulp novels of the kind you get at railway stations, and a cricket poster, perhaps tacked up by his son, Arshi.
These mundane things are not what bring Alam to his shop every day, though. He comes to talk about literature, and he disdains any other pastime. “All kinds of people come here,” he says expansively, but quickly clarifies, “I mean, people connected to literature.” His disciples in poetry come to have their work corrected, while others sit for hours, discussing Ghalib or Islamic medicine. The library is more modest now than it was before the 1977 Muharram riots, when it was looted and burned, but readers still come here to consult the old newspapers, film magazines, agriculture manuals, mystery novels, and the tens of thousands of other wonders that Alam can produce from his warehouse.