March 10, 2016

From The Archive of Interviews: The Secret Pakistani Book Club

Bookay is a Pakistan-based Facebook group which serves as a one-of-a-kind online forum for the avid reader, writer and lover-of-words in both Pakistan and beyond. 

When did Bookay officially begin?

Jahandad Khan: I’m really bad with dates, but sometime around 2013 I believe.

Hasan Saeed: It started roughly - no, wait – exactly on 11 May, 2013. I remember because we celebrate the anniversary each year.
I mean, it’s not much of a celebration, because, you know, the admins are in different cities. We Skype call, congratulate each other, post on the group to let members know. Stuff like this helps us as a community. 

Tell me something about Bookay members, 

Jahandad Khan: We have a limited international audience right now. Back when we started out it was easier to keep track of who was joining, but at this point we kind of have too many members to keep track. I’m assuming we have 15% international audience right now; you can generally tell because some of them do write or share suggestions. There’s really no systematic method to find out, but you do get to know stuff about the members at an informal level.

Hasan Saeed: I can’t honestly answer that question, it’s against our privacy policy so I neither confirm nor deny whether we have any databases about such information.
But hypothetically, we do know that we have people from a lot of different countries cause some of them are our friends. For example Salma, our admin, she’s from Morocco, and she added her own friends too. I went to an exchange last year so I added friends who loved reading; one of my friends, she’s Brazilian and she’s a fan of Faiz Ahmed Faiz so I gave her a book. There’s a lot of cultures and diversity on the group; everyone’s basically united with one common goal for the love of books. 

You’ve been with Bookay since the starting, what’s your favourite memory related to Bookay?

Hasan Saeed: Well it’s kinda hard to pick one, but I guess that would be the book donation drive we had a few months back. We had basically decided to celebrate to commemorate our reaching 3000 members, and the plan was to hold a drive by asking members to donate books or money, whatever was feasible, which would go to school children in KPK. It’s got one of the lowest literacy rates in Pakistan, and that worked out really well. That was amazing.

Jahandad Khan: It’s really not a particular one, it’s just every time I meet someone who knows me through Bookay its always funny. I have an unusual name so people remember it and I’ve made almost 10 to 15 good friends among people who met me after they became active on Bookay. For example I once met a very active member who goes to the same gym I go to and we became good friends. Even in other cities they somehow seem to know who I am, so it’s always a pleasure to meet such people, and those are my favourite Bookay moments.
There was also this really online experience, a member post on Bookay, I think this was a year and a half ago. He was from Quetta, and he was talking about how he has benefited from being a part of Bookay and how it has helped him develop his world views. So things like that feel amazing.

Apart from the online stuff, do you guys hold meet ups regularly?

Jahandad Khan: Yeah, we try to hold one every month. It’s generally limited to Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, but I would really love to see it spread further, into smaller cities too. I mean we would love to see Bookay go out from these larger cities, because we know that most of the people who could really benefit would be people who don’t reside in the three big cities. There are a number of places in KPK, SIndh and Balochistan where we want to spread out so let’s see; it’s pretty exciting how it’s going so far.

So how do the competitions you guys have at Bookay work?

Jahandad Khan: We try to keep it as simple as possible, and I‘m sure there are far better ways to do it. Basically, we upload all the submissions we get without the names, so that during the voting it could be a friend and you wouldn’t get biased, and we ask the members to comment on whichever one they like most. We usually give a time span of a week or 10 days for the voting process and at the end whoever gets the most comments wins.
These competitions are really just for the honour of it, there are no cash prizes and stuff. The thing is, we have a lot of really good writers and so this is just to help them get a little bit of recognition.

Would you say Bookay has affected your personal life a lot?

Jahandad Khan: I don’t really like Facebook much, so there were lots of times I considered quitting Facebook altogether, because it was too distracting from work and my personal life, but Bookay is the only reason I’m still on this website. Even beyond that though, it has affected a life in a huge way; I’ve made many friends, and I’ve started reading new categories of books. Before Bookay I had a very narrow focus on particular genres, but on Bookay some members are far more experienced readers and so you find out about different types of books and lots of new ways of looking at the world, and these books can change you profoundly.
In terms of the negative though, every now and then we need to remind members we are doing this out of our personal lives and we aren’t moderating our forum 24/7. Sometimes threads can get closed and members get angry, and some can even abuse us so that doesn’t feel very nice. I mean overwhelmingly we have gotten positive feedback, but every now and then it changes. We have gotten negative feedback of all sorts; some of it is helpful and tells us what we’re doing wrong, but issues arise when people cross the threshold of civil behaviour. On social media you’re just a name or profile, its non-personal interaction, so they use coarse language or cursing, and that gets horrible.

Hasan Saeed: Some people who were friends did not like the way certain things were being run, for example they wanted control of things like hang outs or they wanted to be a bigger part of the picture, so I had to find ways to deal with that but otherwise it’s been a great experience.

Have you ever had any issues when dealing with the members?

Hasan Saeed: At times we have had issues, yeah. Mostly the members get along very well, but sometimes differences do arise because of differences of opinions. For example a member posted a review of a classic, and a couple of people who loved the book didn’t like the opinion, but instead of criticizing the opinion they started attacking the member. Recently we also had to ban a certain book because the argument it was creating was just too much hassle; we eventually had to ban all discussion on it.
The thing is, we to try keep from Bookay free from outside influences. We do believe that when you join the group, you are all equal in the eyes of admin and the group, but sometimes it does get out of hand. 

Is there a particular guide you follow at Bookay in terms of rules when dealing with these situations then?

Jahandad Khan: Well, we have a very strict policy on advertising, so anyone selling tickets or posting surveys, those are the things we remove. Some things can require more judgement; we try not to turn Bookay into a current affair platform, we just put the books out there, let people read them and make up their own mind. So for example you’re uploading a cold war book but then you want to impose your own view, that’s not the kind of stuff we like to see much; it’s contrary to the idea of people making their own minds. We also generally try to stay away from politics but in the sense of debates so we allow all kinds of books to be uploaded. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Pakistani and Indian members love getting into current affair discussions on social media, so we need to monitor those things.
Generally I play the bad cop in cases where a thread has to be closed or deleted. I think it’s something I do on purpose at this point; in groups this big, you need admins who are more visible with the hosting and encouraging and getting the creative stuff going, and also admins need to be visible in maintaining group decorum, so that’s me. Sometimes when I’m not around, when I’m busy with work or at my village and there are issues of bad internet connectivity, even Hasan or Salma or Hira, Marium, someone else steps in, but mostly it’s me.

Hasan Saeed: So we have a democratic ruling system, we answer to each other – the admins in the group do keep changing but those of us who are admins right now have been here for a while, so when someone comes up with an idea or when we want to form a new rule we vote on it and the majority vote carries. Most of the basic rules were set when Bookay was formed and they haven’t changed; all of us have the same approach to life and Bookay and the same thinking, so it’s easier to agree to Bookay rules
The two basic rules of Bookay: keep it simple and clean, and no religious or political rants; this is a place where we discuss books and apart from that respect everyone’s opinions.

Do you guys promote Bookay on other social media platforms?

Jahandad Khan: There’s really no Bookay page as yet, it’s just a group with members pitching in writing. We want to start a Bookay page though, for example for the short story competition we have. We’ve considered making a page and advertising it. The thing is, our core product is the group itself, so we don’t really advertise it anywhere. It mostly spreads by word of mouth; we have monthly hangouts where we encourage people to bring a friend along, or a reader tells other people about us, so that had worked well for us so far.

Do you know if you guys have competition in terms of other book-based groups in Pakistan? Is that something you guys worry about?

Jahandad Khan: Not really, I mean, our aim is to spread the love of reading, so seeing more groups would actually be great. It’s encouraging to see the book culture picking up in the country. I think reading needs to become cool again, and stuff like literary events and groups are very important for the revival of the book reading culture in this country.

So what do you think about reading trends in Pakistan?

Jahandad Khan: Initially I thought it was just Pakistan that was facing a reading crisis, but I travelled abroad and I realized it’s a global trend. For a lot of people, reading isn’t cool anymore. Especially young people, they look towards new sources of entertainment, and I think that’s very tragic. At some deep level books change you in ways that movies and shows can’t.
But that’s the bigger picture. In terms of trends in Pakistan, I think not enough young people are reading books, especially Urdu books. We have a very rich literary heritage and it’s very unfortunate that most of the people from elite, English medium schools are not familiar with it. I mean, I see on Bookay that when you upload a poem by Faiz, a lot of people who are from Pakistan or have Pakistani names ask for the English translation. It’s not that I’m against English literature, but I think there’s a lot of literary diversity we’re missing out on.

Hasan Saeed: I’d say trends in this country are kinda hard to describe, cause people don’t really seem to follow a pattern. The thing is I didn’t personally know a lot of readers before Bookay. Before college, I didn’t know many people who had the same reading inclinations as me; I pretty much like to read classics and I didn’t know many people who did that before college or university, so it was different back then.
If I tried to gauge people’s tastes from Bookay I’d say it’s very diverse. A lot of people in this country read classics/high fantasy, and the latest trend that I have seen on Bookay is to read young adult fiction, its kinda hip right now.
In my honest opinion people reading is a good thing but I personally don’t like young adult genre. Not as a whole, but some aspects of it, for example I think it’s become commercialized, and publishing houses keep packaging the same ideas into a neat little book and hook you onto it. It’s the same thing over and over again, people keep buying the series. Authors like Dan Brown, who technically isn’t YA, for example, but all his books are exactly the same, the same plot, character types, everything. I’m not a fan. 

What about Pakistani writers?

Hasan Saeed: Yes, I do like reading Pakistani authors; the last Pakistani author I read was Mohammad Hanif a few months ago when I picked up Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti and I loved it, it was absolutely brilliant, but still not as good as his first.
I do believe the number of Pakistani authors is increasing, especially in English. English as a medium in terms of the written language is increasing because, and it’s very sad to see, but people have moved on from reading Urdu and other languages. Most of the readers in Pakistan I find read in English and writers find a bigger audience, books become easier to sell. It’s still brilliant what they’re doing, of course. 

Jahandad Khan: In terms of books, I think there’s a particular kind of writing style that Pakistani authors use, I can’t really describe it. I’ve noticed that Pakistani and Indian authors are very similar. I love reading their books, Khushwakht Singh is one of my favourite writers, and I feel like he really represents the ethos of life in the subcontinent and has a very original kind of expression. Among Pakistani authors I really like Mohammad Hanif, but I’d say I mostly love Urdu Poetry. I’m a big fan of Faiz, Jaun Alia, even a fan of Rabindranath Tagore. I feel like there are a lot of similarities between Pakistani and Bengali authors; we might not like to admit but it reflects in our writing.

And where do you see Bookay in the future? What plans do you guys have?

Jahandad Khan: For this group, I see ourselves more as people who hang out in coffee shops and talk about books as opposed to people who enjoy being in front of the camera or under the spot light. There might be others who could go for that kind of personality, but i think we’re okay with the current image we have. In terms of plans to expand in the future, we saw a lot of high quality submitted during Bookay contests, and I considered getting selections published and distributed around members. Overwhelmingly the writers on the group are under the age of 30, and not all of them are comfortable with or have the means to get their work published, so we thought why not get it published as a sort of collection of the best we’ve seen over the years, but I don’t think that really qualifies as scaling up and besides that’s far in the future right now. Right now we like the small-community type feel we have with Bookay and we’re planning on sticking with that.

Do you guys think you’re making a difference?

Jahandad Khan: I guess that’s a very philosophical question (laughs). I mean, for me the reason behind Bookay is the love of reading. I know what the reading culture in Pakistan is like, and how very few people are reading. I think if even one person gets the courage to start reading then yeah, that’s great. And I’ve personally seen people I know come up with amazing stuff because they were encouraged by Bookay, so I’d say it’s working. I mean I didn’t even know these people were writers until they started sending in their stuff, so it was shocking, but it’s also great to see this kind of response.

Hasan Saeed: The majority of the people who benefit are the members who hail from the far flung areas of the country. Another wonderful thing about Bookay is that it has become a forum for the budding writers, people who felt shy about their work or they didn’t have someone to critique it, they have found a safe haven in Bookay.
 We also have a chance to break the image the country holds; when the majority of the people all over the world are asked about their perceptions of Pakistan, the first thing that comes in mind is uncouth barbarians. We have people all over the world interacting with members from Pakistan; these interactions have led to friendships and they are breaking the clich├ęd image of Pakistan. Also by fate and chance we have been able to form a forum that has some of the brightest people living in Pakistan and these wonderful people interact with each other on a daily basis. These amazing members come from different backgrounds; different paths in life but all of them are united by one common goal, books. 
We have monthly meetings where the members meet and they talk on various issues apart from books as well, these members are re-imaging Pakistan in their own way. Recently we launched a campaign to re-claim our libraries where members were encouraged to meet at libraries and recently we have an entrepreneur who is offering the writers on Bookay a chance to get their works published at a very low rate. We are also hoping to collect the works of these talented word magicians and publish them collectively. We are trying to break the stereotype that reading is a dying thing in Pakistan.