Kashmir: The Book Collector

ONE BOOK AT A TIME: Despite being unable to read most of the books he has collected from foreigners over the years, Muhammad Latif Oata says the sight and smell of books brings him happiness.

A school dropout from Kashmir opens a ‘Travelers Library’ in Dal Lake

BY Majid Maqbool

In a small, nondescript room on the ground floor of a two-story wooden house, situated in the remote banks of Dal Lake in Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar, stands an impressive library put together by a soft-spoken handicrafts seller. Forty-seven-year-old Muhammad Latif Oata has diligently collected and preserved more than 300 books in multiple languages over the past two decades, keeping them carefully stacked in eight wooden shelves. He keeps his library’s door open for all book lovers.

A high-school dropout, Oata loves to exchange books with those who visit his library, mostly tourists, thus earning the name ‘Travelers Library.’ In recent days, however, visitors have been far and few given the prevailing unrest in Kashmir following the killing of 22-year-old rebel commander Burhan Wani on July 8.

Since then, about 73 people have been killed in anti-India protests across Kashmir, more than 8,000 injured and about 700 people have suffered from pellet gun injuries.

Driven by the 1990s political unrest in Kashmir, Oata was forced to drop out of school to support his family at the tender age of ten. He spent many youthful years outside the state, earning his livelihood by exporting and selling handicrafts from Kashmir.

His tryst with books dates back to early 1990s, when he lived in the western Indian states of Goa and Karnataka for over 10 years. One day, as he was busy selling his handicraft items in a small shop in Goa, a foreigner stopped near his stall and gifted him The God of Small Things—a booker prize winning novel by Arundhati Roy.

He would request people to exchange books and also narrate the stories.

Often, he would get more books than he’d expected. At times, he was gifted old and rare books—first prints dating back to 50s and 60s in English and other languages, which are still preserved in his library.

Wherever he went, the books travelled with him. He kept them by his side, always taking care of them. His collection kept growing. By 2003, he had accumulated over 400 books in multiple languages.

In 2007, Oata decided to return home with all his books and settle down in Kashmir. In spite of some of his family’s reluctance, Oata decided to keep his 600 books.

He sheltered them all in one of his rooms on the ground floor, which gradually turned into today’s ‘Travelers Library.’ All the books were arranged alphabetically. Slowly, tourists would drop by, exchanging and gifting books and in the process, discovering a rich collection in his library.

Books of all genres—bestsellers; contemporary literature; classic novels in English, French, Russian and other languages; biographies of writers, leaders and famous personalities—occupy the shelves.

Astonishingly, Oata can easily identity these books by their unique smell and also remembers the visitor who donated these books.

In September 2014, a flood caused by incessant, week-long rains, led him to shift his family to another place. When he returned a few days after the flood waters had receded, to his horror, he found many books floating in the water. Other books were covered in mud. Over 200 books were damaged, he rues, mostly books in German which he’d kept in the lower shelves. Oata says he felt worse for his damaged books than his house and handicrafts shop.

He points to a big stack of soiled, damaged books, their pages torn and rendered unreadable. They are still kept in a corner near the library. He tried to repair their damage, but couldn’t do much.

Oata keeps all the books in order, and regularly cleans the shelves. He has also prepared a stamp for the library to keep a record of books he receives and lends.

“The smell of these books…gives me happiness… though I can’t read them,” he says in broken English that he learned over the years by interacting with tourists and foreigners.

Few years ago, a young British visitor developed a membership system for his library, clarifying the rules of the book exchange for the visitors. The laminated card reads in longhand: “Bring two books, take one away. Enjoy the gifts others have left for you.”

Although not many tourists are visiting his library these days, Oata is still hopeful that he will find book lovers who will visit his library to discover his little treasure.

Oata believes all the books in his library cannot remain unread for long. “Books…always find readers…after many years…no worry,” he says with an optimistic smile, adding after a thoughtful pause, “My books…always there…even after I gone from this world [sic].”

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