A small room on the first floor of a nondescript two-storey wooden structure in the interiors of Dal Lake in Srinagar houses Travelers Library, a unique library established by a soft spoken, 51-year-old school dropout who can’t read books but loves to collect them.
Over the past two decades, Muhammad Latif Oata has collected and preserved more than 600 books in several languages. In 2008 he established a small library housing his collection – the only such library inside Dal Lake.
The son of a plumber, Latif grew up around Dal Lake in Dalgate area of Srinagar. When he was 12 he had to drop out of school as his parents couldn’t afford his education. Later he was adopted by his grandparents.
In 1986, at the age of 16, Latif left Kashmir. Following a group of Kashmiri handicraft sellers, he traveled to Calangute in north Goa, where hundreds of thousands of domestic and international tourists throng. There he found work as a salesman in a market area shop run by a Kashmiri handicrafts trader.
After working here for four years, he shifted to Tamil Nadu, where he rented a space in Mahabalipuram to open a shop selling handicrafts like papier-mâché items, hand-embroidered shawls and stools brought from Kashmir.
He worked there for ten years, travelling to Kashmir every six months to buy stock for his shop. In 2000, he moved to the little temple town of Gokarna in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, where he sold handicrafts in a rented shop till he returned to Kashmir in 2007.
Latif’s love affair with books began in Gokarna. He loved chatting with the tourists who stopped by his shop. Once, a British tourist came in to buy some handicrafts. He was carrying a copy of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things. Latif curiously asked him about the book. The tourist handed the book over to Latif before he left the shop.
Seeing his interest in books, many tourists who came by would donate and exchange books with Latif, often returning to the shop to bring him a book before they went back home. At times he would get old and rare books published in the ’50s and ’60s in English, French and German which he preserved in his collection.
Unable to read himself, something he deeply regrets, he often requested his visitors to tell him what the books were about. Latif took care of all his collected books as though they were his own children. He would dust them carefully and carry them with him whenever he had to travel. There was always space for his books in his rented accommodation. As the years passed, his collection swelled. By 2003, Latif had collected more than 400 books.
“All these books I collected and preserved for years…my best possession,” Latif said with pride in the broken English he has picked up over the years from his interactions with foreign tourists. “I know the value of these books even though I can’t read them.”
In 2007, Latif decided to go back to Kashmir and settle down there. As the tourists began visiting the valley again, he opened a small handicrafts-shop-cum-travel-agency in his house at Dal Lake. All his books, which he had carefully packed and brought, took up most of the space in his room. His family coaxed him to sell them to a scrap dealer, but Latif had other plans.
With the help of a friend, he built two large wooden bookracks with eight shelves each, and put them in a room on the ground floor of his house. Thus he created his little library, which he later threw open to visitors. On the advice of a visiting French tourist, he organised the books in alphabetical order.
The library gradually started attracting tourists and foreigners who were staying in houseboats over the summer in the Dal Lake. They were impressed by his collection. Many visitors donated and exchanged books with his library. By 2013 his collection had grown to about 600 books.
Latif asked for a deposit of Rs 200 from those who borrowed books from the library. The amount was given back when the visitor returned the book to the library. He didn’t want to earn money from the library.
“Some tourists would donate say two books in return for one borrowed book, and that would be my profit,” he said. “It would add value to my library.”
In the devastating floods of 2014, more than a hundred books in his collection were damaged when water levels rose in the Dal Lake and seeped into the ground floor of his house. Latif had to shift the undamaged books to the first floor, where more than 300 books are still preserved. He regrets not having been able to save several hundred books on the lower shelves.
Today, Latif’s collection has books from several countries in many languages, including English, Swedish, Norwegian, Hebrew, Russian, Korean, French and German. An old paperback edition of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism sits close to an old hardbound edition of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger. Different editions of classics by George Orwell, Charles Dickens and Ursula K Le Guin occupy other shelves. There are books in almost every genre.
The revocation of special status of the former state by the BJP government in New Delhi on August 5, 2019 and the subsequent clampdown and communication shutdown, followed by the pandemic-led lockdown of 2020 were major blows for Latif. The library has mostly remained shut for more than a year now. As tourists have stayed away from the valley, Latif’s small travel agency and handicrafts shop has also suffered heavy losses, forcing him to take up the manual labour assignments to make ends meet.
“There are days when I don’t get any work. Sometimes I’m able to get work for only 10 to 12 days a month,” he said in a disappointed voice. “Sometimes I have to borrow money to meet family expenses.”
Despite the circumstances, Latif is not complaining. He is also hopeful that tourists will return next year, and that his handicrafts business and travel agency work will pick up again. He is looking forward to welcoming more visitors – and more books – to his small library.
Latif often visits his library after work to ensure that the books are intact and shelves are kept clean. Before locking up the room, he covers the book shelves with a sheet of cloth to keep the dust from gathering till his next visit.
Whenever he is free from work, he likes to spend some quiet time in his library room. He picks up the books from the shelves, dusts them, and rearranges them back on the shelves. “It gives me peace of mind,” he said, adding that as long as the library exists, it will find visitors and readers.
Latif would like more young people from Kashmir to visit the library and discover books in his collection. He wants to add more books written by Kashmiri authors in English, Urdu and Kashmiri to his library.
“Many tourists including foreigners who visit my library would ask about books written by Kashmiri authors on our history, culture and literature. They have an interest in that kind of book,” he said. “Our authors and writers need to come up with more such books.”
Latif feels the younger generation these days is drifting away from books, spending more time on their mobile screens and on social media. He hates smartphones. He doesn’t own one. “These new devices and smartphones,” he pointed at mine in disapproval, “they are taking our young people away from reading books.”
Father to a teenage son and a daughter who has started college, Latif is happy to report that his children share his love for books. They often visit the library with him, sometimes borrowing a book to read. He doesn’t want his children to miss out on their education like he did.
“I hope they live a better life and become good human beings,” he said with emphasis. “I hope they love books like I did and also read them, which I couldn’t.” After a thoughtful pause, he added: “I hope they will take care of all these books after me.”
How long will he look after these books and keep his small library open when there are fewer visitors and tourists around because of the pandemic, I ask him. A sudden smile lights up his face.
“I will maintain this library and keep all these books as long as I am alive,” he said, continuing to smile. “And even when I gone, these books will remain…because books always find readers.”
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.