Once Upon a Macaroon: London Readers’ Club Inaugural Meet

by Zainab Kizilbash Agha


‘What really knocks me out is a book that when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you would call him up on the phone whenever you like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.’ J D Salinger


Yes. How nice if we could pick up and call Jane Austen to ask for Mr. Darcy’s number or ask Yann Martel to end our misery and tell us whether that tiger in Life of Pi was made up or ask Kamila Shamsie for the achaar gosht recipe from Salt and Saffron or hang out with Ngozi Adichie and tell her how cool she is. But since we cant call Kamila or Yann or Ngozi (and certainly not Jane) I guess the next best thing is to find other people who get excited about books and, well… get excited about them together.

And that is why I kept stalking DWL facebook posts to ask when we would have a DWL Reader’s Club meet in London, until one fine day the DWL voice replied, ‘When you organize it, my dear’ and I went away skipping and jumping at the thought of a readers’ meet finally happening in London (as did the DWL voice, I am sure).

So for its first meet the DWL Readers’ Club in London (from now on referred to as the London meet) chose to discuss Hosseini. Of course at that point the ‘DWL Readers’ Club in London’ consisted only of me and Sonal (who had been volunteered to co-organise this event) and our choice was the result of some careful thinking.

Me: ‘Who should we talk about?’

Sonal: ‘Hosseini.’

Me: ‘Why?’

Sonal: ‘I just got his latest book.’

Me: ‘But DWL Dubai is already starting off with that one. Okay, okay… let’s be different and talk about all his books!’

Sonal: ‘Haan. Good idea. We could talk about what people think about the characters he creates.’

Me: ‘Haan haan. Clever.’

Sonal: ‘And look, here is a picture of all three of his books together that we could use to advertise the meet.’


Hosseini seemed to work as we eventually got twenty-four people signed up for the meet. True that some of them didn’t live in London, nor even the same time zone, and most of them shared either one of my last names, but that was all mere technical detail. We were going to have this meet, even if I had to bring my kids to help fill up the seats (although their response to his  books had been pretty lukewarm  – ‘But mama you can’t really have a thousand suns’).

Fast forward to 2:59 pm on the day of the meet and Sonal and I could be found staring forlornly at a plate of macaroons dutifully shaped in the letters ‘D’ and ‘L’ (we used sugar packets for the ‘W’… those macaroons are expensive!).  Our back-up plan, if no one came, was to yell ‘free macaroons!’ and snap lots of pictures when people stampeded to our table.

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Thankfully people did show up.

I spotted Harsha first, struggling behind the long queue trying to get into the café. I went to bring her to the table, greeting her enthusiastically. She politely asked how I had managed to recognise her, considering we had never met. I shrugged noncommittally (how could I explain that she would recognize people too if she had stalked their page a few times to determine the probability of them turning up at this meet?).  And then after Harsha came the others, filling our table to capacity. These included a real writer (yes, yes, the cool factor of our meet went up a notch or two) and a DWL regular who has been to DWL Karachi meets.

I had anticipated that the conversation of a group that had never met before would be full of starts and stops, so had come armed with sheets full of ice breakers. But this was a group of women who were ready to chat. After a few minutes of ‘so which of his books have you read?’ and ‘how do you know about DWL?’ I discreetly dumped my sheets of paper under the table before anyone could spot my lame whose-line-is-it-anyway-type ice breaker questions about characters from the book.  A little introduction about DWL, Papercuts, a plea about the Indiegogo campaign, and we were ready to talk Hosseini.

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Most people had read his first book, some his second and a couple of us his third book, so the conversation focused on themes of his books rather than specifics (note to self and Sonal: for next meet choose one book so everyone talks about the same writing).

As this was Hosseini, the first word to go around the table was ‘depressing’. For some of us, though, his writing was sad but also showed that life was resilient – his characters went right on living and growing through all the tragedy. We went through the characters in his book, noting how they were impossibly human in their capacity for good and bad. A question we asked was whether the women in his books were stronger than  the men. Anqa passionately disagreed, saying that Mariam was shown just as human as her father, for example, in her initial relationship with Laila. We spoke about how the relationship between fathers and sons and their capacity to disappoint each other was a recurrent theme in his books and how legitimacy and gender played into the story lines.

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Holly felt that The Kite Runner had the weakest protagonist she had ever come across. Ayesha felt that although Hosseini fleshed out real characters, he didn’t do so well in describing how they felt.  Perhaps this was because of his first profession as a doctor:  he gave us the diagnosis but let us work out our feelings for ourselves. The doctors around the table nodded their heads vigorously on that one.

Inevitably the conversation turned to Afghanistan and the fact that Hosseini made this country accessible to the world at the right time. We discussed whether he was qualified to write about Afghanistan, a country he left when he was only ten. But all of us around the table agreed (strongly) when Harsha said that it takes one to leave a country to see it and experience it more clearly as she felt about India, having left a few years ago.  Perhaps that was why he was able to describe so beautifully what Amir would feel like when he went back to Kabul to find his family home before he went back himself (something he describes as ‘life imitating art’ in the foreword to the tenth edition of the Kite Runner).

We discussed how one’s own personal context has an impact on how one feels about a book. A few of us around the table felt that our threshold for pain was much lower than where it was a few years ago. For books that had recently made us laugh, Moni Mohsin’s  and Shazaf Fatima Haider’s work was cited. Sonal wondered if the things that made us sad were universal but the things that made us laugh were more culture specific. I suggested it was also because humorous writing is so difficult – it demands that the writer writes only what the reader wants to read rather than what the writer wants to write.

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On the same note, Nigham suggested that the next London meet should be on a lighter book. ‘What?’ I thought, ‘They want to do this again!’ and my facial muscles (which had not sagged throughout the meet) hoisted themselves up even more. Somewhere quieter perhaps, Ayesha suggested, and we nodded as the waiters hovered around us to release space to the Covent Garden crowd, which leant, half frozen, against the café’s doors.

And that is how our first London meet ended: appropriately, with plans about the second.  To find out more about when that will be, and what book we will be reading, please email london@desiwriterslounge.net or watch the DWL facebook page.  To find out whether any one showed up (again) watch this blog!


DWL shines at GALF Day 2

Even though our journey to Goa was fraught with drama (read Omer’s post Goa, Goa, Gone for details) our first session was a success. DWL started off its first day at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival with a performance by Nimra Bucha and Adnan Jaffar of the play Yesterday An Incident Occurred, by Mark Ravenhill.

The play, with its dark humor and satire, went down very well with the audience and both the actors were commended on their performance. Initially the play was to be performed at the Inaugural Gala but it was postponed at the very last minute due to lack of time. But as our crazy 24 hour journey to Goa taught us, all’s well that ends well, and we were very pleased with the positive response from the audience. Kudos to Nimra and Adnan for putting up such a great show!





Goa, Goa, Gone!

DWL is in Goa for the IV Annual Arts and Literary Festival. Our group has been invited to attend as a Festival Partner. Guest post by Omer Wahaj (Managing Editor – Papercuts) peppered with some local vernacular.

Goa, Goa, Gone!

A strange and hectic account of several different places at several different times. 

5th December, 3 am, Dubai Airport

On our way to Goa but still in Dubai.

We have miles to go before we reach Mumbai.

We started from Karachi, with our guests Nimra Bucha and Adnan Jaffar. Afia forgot her Indian immigration papers so she had to stay back. Adnan, Farheen, Nimra and I made it to the flight out of Karachi but we couldn’t make our flight out of Dubai. JetAirways, being the Jut Airways that it is, left us high and dry, even though we ran a 400 meter marathon and almost beat Usain Bolt’s record trying to reach the counter half way across the United Arab Emirates. We were waiting at the Emirates transfer desk to get our tickets sorted when Afia strolled in and said, “Hello guys…” like nothing to it.

This is us goofing around at the Dubai airport.



5th December, 1 pm, Mumbai Airport

After finally reaching Mumbai, we had to take a bus ride from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, which took so long that for a minute I thought that the domestic terminal might be in Goa only.

6th December, 1pm, Goa

Reached Goa last evening. Something went awry and Adnan and Nimra couldn’t perform as per schedule. They’re doing it today at 3pm itself. A sitar/tabla/drums band tore it up in the auditorium. Amazing music.

Will be live tweeting some events and seminars. Keep yourself posted with @desiwriters #DWLinGOA


SALF 2013 – Closing Night: Addictive Cities

Guest post by Zainab Kizilbash Agha


Panel: Amit Chaudhuri (author, Professor of literature at East Anglia) and Jeet Thayil (poet, author, musician)

Moderated by: Ted Hodgkinson (British Council Literature)

Date: November 1st, 2013


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The South Asian Literature Festival ended its 2013 programme with an event interestingly titled as ‘Addictive Cities’. There are some cities – cities like Calcutta, Karachi and Bombay – that have drawn writers back repeatedly and that have helped writers tell the stories they want to tell, while in turn the writers have wound up telling the stories of the city.

Even though it was a particularly wet evening, and a Friday, the room was filled to capacity with people in welly boots, waterproof jackets and slightly wet green saris. In the session, a little longer than an hour, Ted Hodgkinson conversed with  two authors who have had particularly monogamous relationships with their cities: Amit Chaudhuri, author of various books set in Calcutta including The Immortals of Calcutta;  and Jeet Thayil, poet and author of Narcopolis, which is a story of Bombay experienced through opium addiction.

Ted cleverly used the mundane details of life in each author’s writing to engage with them on bigger ideas – identity, religion, modernity and Indian cosmopolitanism.

Both authors agreed that they liked to ‘flip’ reality in their writing and show readers a different perspective on things.  For example, both tended to show the urban, man-made landscape as more natural than the rural one. For Jeet, this battle between urban and rural was like a match between the writings of Baudelaire and Wordsworth. The city won, he said, because only it could make people truly anonymous, and therefore it was ‘the only place where freedom was possible’. Bombay, in particular, interested Jeet because of the way the city warmly accepted all kinds of people in a truly democratic way, rewarding nothing but talent.

To explain his fascination with Calcutta, Amit read a passage  that  praised the city’s essential modernity, talking about the sense of timelessness that Calcutta embodied – not in the grand, formal way of mausoleums, but embedded in the patina that covered the streets, in its ‘aura of decay’ and the ‘slated windows that have stood forever’. “True modernity is not anything new,” he pointed out.

Jeet also read part of the prologue to his book, which started with ‘Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name […]’. He rejected the use of Mumbai, he explained later in response to a question, because it was a deliberate political construct by people ‘who don’t read books and never will’. Amit added to this by explaining that the word ‘Kolkata’ did not exist in English other than as a utopian literary term just like ‘Calcutta’ seemed to have no meaning in Bengali.

The conversation continued on many different themes, one of them being the defining characteristics of good writers. According to Jeet, romantic poets were particularly to blame for making writers believe that they had to live a certain lifestyle – full of blistering relationships, drugs, alcohol and an assortment of other addictions – to be able to write, with the result that they become too busy leading that life to actually write. He read out a poem he wrote as a letter to Baudelaire after he won over his twenty-year drug addiction, admonishing the French poet for pushing him towards drugs. Ted offered him the poem on a paper to read out. Jeet declined and read it from memory and the audience got to see the performance poet at his best. There were laughs as Amit checked his recitation against a copy of the poem on a page in front of him.

The evening ended with a question about Calcutta and what the city meant for the Bengali identity. Amit said that as a child, Calcutta would speak to him about his Bengali identity through children’s fiction. He went on to explain how many serious writers of adult Bengali fiction, including Tagore, wrote a quota of children stories. This project to invest in Bengali children’s literature began in the 19th century and stretched ‘till today. Indeed, what better wayto help a child’s identity develop than through good stories? A future DWL project perhaps, I thought, as the evening and the Festival closed with promises of more to come next year.


Zainab Kizilbash Agha works in the public sector trying to improve how governments spend money and the choices they make. She has worked  with governments in Pakistan, Namibia, Ghana and now works in the UK. She writes for therapy. Some of her rants are here:


Khayaal Festival of Arts & Literature 2013 – First day

By Fatima Hafsa Malik, DWL Events Coordinator, Lahore


When I decided to attend Khayaal Network’s literature and art festival a couple of weeks ago, I expected to enjoy myself.

What I didn’t expect was to be blown away.

A two-day event at Al-Hamra Theatre, it lived up to its promise, at least for me.

Regrettably, I could not attend on Sunday but the four sessions that I did attend were nothing short of brilliant. I could only make it to the afternoon sessions after work and so when I walked into Hall 1 at 2.30 or so, Mira Sethi’s session with Mohsin Hamid was already underway.


Mohsin and Mira in conversation

Mohsin is one of my favourite Pakistani authors and his was a talk that I had been looking forward to the most when I saw the schedule. And he did not disappoint. He was supposed to talk about English fiction and the Pakistani imagination, but he and Mira covered so much more. When asked which one of his three novels was his personal favourite, he said they were like his children but perhaps the latest one was the closest to his heart, although Moth Smoke being his first work of fiction would always be special. Talking about How to Get Rich in Rising Asia, he said that it was his attempt at a ghazal. And that he wanted to write about love like it has been written about in Sufi poetry, referring to the beloved in the ‘you’ form and lifelong love affairs. He said he wanted to explore what a non-transactional love would be like, what it would be like when you say to somebody that you love them and instead of meaning that they make you less lonely, if you meant that you would like them to be less lonely whether or not that includes you. When wrapping up before the Q and A portion, Mira asked Mohsin what his hopes and dreams were for Pakistan as a writer and a Pakistani. He said quite simply, ‘I don’t need much actually. I would be happy if Pakistan became a place where people stopped killing each other so much.’ Enough said, wouldn’t you agree?


Salman Shahid in action

The next session was ‘Main Manto’ with readings by Sarmad Khoosat and Salman Shahid. How does one even begin to talk about Manto and the sheer impact of his genius? And how does one appreciate the talent of the two speakers who chose such different pieces and transported you to another world altogether? Suffice to say that I had goose bumps by the end of both readings. Salman Shahid read a short story by the name of ‘Thanda Gosht’ and if you haven’t read it yet, you must. A punch to the gut in typical Manto style, it was a very powerful

Sarmad in an uncharacteristically serious pose

Sarmad in an uncharacteristically serious pose (photo credit: Express Tribune)

reading. And Sarmad Khoosat simply stole the show. He read a letter of Manto’s and the resounding applaud he received after the reading was an honest testimony to the effect he had on the listeners. After the two readings this session also included the screening of a short teleplay by the name of Main Manto. And let me tell you, the audience was mesmerized. There was a hushed silence throughout the hall while we watched the life story of Manto play out before our eyes. It had a star studded cast including Sarmad Khoosat as Manto himself, Saniya Saeed as his wife and Arjumand Rahim, Mahira Khan, Faisal Qureshi among others. I think it deserved a standing ovation. And when it ended, I realized for the hundredth time how lucky we are to have such amazing talent amongst us.

The session after that was ‘Literature and Culture – a Discussion between Khaled Ahmed and Intizar Hussain’ and it was great listening to these two veteran writers talk at length about the Urdu language and the effect literature has had on our culture. They were both of the opinion that literature has suffered at the hands of politics and extremism. Intizar Hussain remarked that the beauty of the Urdu language lies in that it has been born from many languages and we must acknowledge that fact to appreciate it.

Bilal Lashari applauding in the 'Lights, Camera, Action' session

Bilal Lashari applauding in the ‘Lights, Camera, Action’ session

The last session for the day in Hall 1 was ‘Lights Camera Action’ and it had a few members from the teams of both ‘Waar’ and ‘Mai hoon Shahid Afridi’ who were interviewed by Shahnaz Sheikh. I haven’t watched either movie and so it was an interesting session for me as I had no opinion about them. And as proud as I am of the effort that has gone into both these films, the session seemed a bit ‘promotional’ to me. Maybe that was intentional, who knows. The audience seemed divided about the movies as well, some completely thrilled with them and others not so much. When asked why Waar was in English, Bilal Lashari said it was easier to promote at an international level and that it had subtitles. ‘But a large percentage of the population cannot read, Bilal,’ someone said, to which he replied that people still seemed to connect to the movie in spite of the language barrier and it had had a lot re-watchers in theatres. My take? Why not have English subtitles? Aren’t a lot of international movies in their local languages? Is it a reflection of the gora complex that seems to have ingrained itself inside us? Or am I reading too much into this?

All in all, it was a very intellectually appeasing day for me and I had a foot wide grin when I walked out of the complex to head home. There were a few technical glitches during the teleplay screening but it was worth the disruption. The attendance could have been better in my opinion but it was still heartening to see Lahoris of all ages turn out for a literary adventure. I am sure everyone who attended it had a great time and to all those who didn’t, mark your calendars for next time. It wasn’t an event to be missed!


Fatima Hafsa Malik alternates between medicine and writing. She can be found at www.fatimahafsamalik.blogspot.com and @fhafsamalik

SALF 2013 – Reporting Across Borders: India and Pakistan

Guest post by Sonal Tarneja


Panel: New York Times correspondent Declan Walsh, Executive President of the Times Group in India Rahul Kansal, and lawyer and journalist Farooq Bajwa.

Moderated by: Shreela Ghosh, South Asian Arts Director at the British Council.

Date: October 26th, 2013

Reporting across borders SALF


Starting off as a discussion on the state of reporting across the Indo-Pak border, this session delivered much more than it promised – it offered an insight into what’s going on on both sides of the border, the relevance of Partition today, and a contrast of attitudes, perceptions and ground realities.

Reporting, like most other exchanges across the border, is not easy. With just four Indian journalists – from across all publications – in Pakistan, and an unsaid number of Pakistani journalists in India, cross-border reporting is stifled and poor. What gets reported in India, then, is what sells – a reiteration of young India’s view of Pakistan as an imploding country – “trouble for India”. Whereas until the 1980s one got to see a positive glimpse of Pakistan, especially with television shows like Dhoop Kinarey, which were beyond their times compared to Indian offerings (or lack thereof), more recently news from across the border is unidimensionally and progressively about terrorism. Pakistan, on the other hand, is so absorbed with its own internal problems and near turmoil, and the threat from neighbouring Afghanistan, that India has slid down the list of top news items and priorities over the last 10 years.

So is Partition even relevant today, or have both sides moved on? With 60% of the Indian population less than 30 years old, Partition isn’t very relevant in India today. It’s a part of history. In Pakistan, however, the Partition is about the unfinished business of Kashmir, though not in the top of the current national agenda. With the focus of animosity shifting towards the US since 2001, India is considered far less “bogey” than it used to be. Pakistanis now don’t see India as a threat, and in fact 60-70% want better relations with India.

That said, certain establishments – reportedly the military – are still holding firm. The latest Pakistani film ‘Waar’ reveals an interesting insight. It’s interesting that for a country torn by war, Pakistan’s first attempt at a “Bollywood style blockbuster” portrays India as the trouble maker, when, as a matter of proportion, the issue lies elsewhere.

Overall, on a people to people level, cultural exchanges such as open access to Bollywood films in Pakistan, and consumption of Pakistani music and performances in India, is giving birth to a positive attitude on both sides.

So what is the solution for long-lasting peace? Increased trade can improve things, and is bound to eventually, but the question is when. Even under existing agreements, trade can almost be quadrupled. But with artificial barriers (or “silly bottlenecks”) such as requiring the other side to park its trucks half a kilometer from the border because ‘the road conditions don’t allow for heavy trucks’, a lot more needs to be done. Elimination of tit for tat barriers, easier and less stringent visa requirements, and even helping the other side overcome onion shortages (!) are a great place to start. In the meantime, ‘Aman Ki Asha’, a peace initiative between the Jang Group of Pakistan and the Times of India, is trying to make a small difference.



Sonal lives in London and has a deep interest in South Asian history, with specific focus on the Partition. Her personal blog can be found on sonaltarneja.blogspot.com.


(This is independent coverage of an event at the South Asian Literature Festival in London. DWL is not responsible for the views expressed or relayed in it.)



Interview: Saad Shafqat on his debut novel ‘Breath of Death’ – a medical thriller based in Karachi.

Saad Shafqat is a neurologist by profession, a cricket writer/columnist and the author of the medical thriller, Breath of Death. We caught up with him recently to talk about the book, terrorism, and his future projects. Breath of Death is his first novel.

How did you decide to write this novel?                                                      


I’ve always enjoyed telling stories and sharing anecdotes, and for a long time I’ve also felt drawn to the craft of writing. I felt an urge to write this novel at least partly because I wanted to combine these two inclinations. I’d been writing on cricket and on social issues for a while, but I hadn’t done fiction before. I think if there is a story inside you, it has to come out somehow. It’s in our nature as human beings, and it has the effect of easing a burden. I guess at some level I just felt there was a story somewhere inside and I had to express it.

The story is based in Boston and Karachi, the action takes place in a hospital and the protagonist is a neurologist. Did your professional surroundings inspire you?

Yes, very much so. A hospital is really a miniature human society, with life-and-death drama at its core. There is no shortage of emotional triggers. On top of that, physicians spend a great deal of time in their professional milieu, so there’s constant exposure – I would even say bombardment – from the daily realities of the medical experience. The setting and surroundings of our work have the potential to play havoc with the mind, and it seems some of that gets translated into fiction-writing. Many novelists have in fact been doctors (there’s even a Wikipedia page dedicated to that category).

You’ve written about the taboo of pirs and fakirs, not once but twice in the book. Is this something that you’ve observed in your patients?

Yes we see this from time to time. It’s very depressing, because it’s all about deception and exploitation, and about innocent people getting badly misguided in the search for good health care. I think it’s also true that these negative influences are on the wane. There’s an increasing degree of transparency in our society now, with the proliferation of media, mobile phones, internet, etc. Patients and families are becoming savvier and better informed.

 Religious extremism and anti-American sentiment seems to be at the heart of most terrorist operations. Both the villains (if we can call them that) Malik Feysal and Hamza Kadri also display these feelings. But so do the doctors at Avicenna Hospital. Were you making a larger point about American foreign policy by showing this?

I think there’s a lot of ambiguity in the way we relate to America and its various aspects, and I’ve tried to portray that in the book. America’s foreign policy and military outlook, for example, are deeply unpopular with everyone, and this sentiment cuts across socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural, and even international barriers. Yet there is also no denying that there is much about American life and society to admire and emulate – freedom, justice, prosperity, intellectual ferment. This is what makes America fascinating, and draws us to America as an iconic idea. I also think that, as a writer, it is important to create ambiguity. You want to try and keep the reader guessing whose side you’re on. When discussing America, that kind of approach comes naturally.

 As a first time author, what kind of publishing hurdles did you face?Pic for Mail Today

Getting fiction published by a first-time author is uphill anywhere, but perhaps especially so in Pakistan, where there is no credible fiction publisher. The only multinational publisher with local offices is Oxford University Press, and while they’re doing a terrific service through the literature festivals in Karachi and other cities, they’ve stopped accepting fiction from Pakistan. This is in marked contrast to India, which has local presence of some of the big publishing houses such as Penguin and Random House. So you naturally have to look outside the country, and many of us have focused on New Delhi, which has fast become the publishing center for desi fiction in English. I initially sent out my manuscript to literary agents in the US and UK, but kept getting rejected. A few did give encouraging comments, which was very heartening, and that strengthened my resolve. Eventually I started exploring options in India, and got lucky with Wisdom Tree, an emerging Delhi-based publisher who decided to take a chance.

 How has the response been to the book so far? 

It’s been very encouraging. The book launch received coverage in the local press, which was very flattering. In Karachi, the book sold out from Liberty Books a few times already, and it’s also done well on internet outlets like Amazon, Goodreads, and Biblio. There was a very positive review on the Dawn website from Fatema Imani, although the one in Dawn’s print edition was more lukewarm. I’ve been told a couple of other reviews are in the works. I was also very pleasantly surprised to see an endorsement for the book from John Upton, a popular science blogger based in the US. He called it “an exciting story” and a “well-composed thriller.”

John Grisham, being a lawyer, writes law thrillers. Is it safe to assume that you will continue writing medical thrillers?

I’ve started work on a dark comedy in a medical setting. This one too is based in Avicenna Hospital, but the central character is a woman. She’s a trauma surgeon who gets into some trouble, and then she has to get out of it. Asad Mirza, the protagonist in Breath of Death, might come in at some point, but peripherally. The series I would like to create is on the unpredictable nature of life in Karachi, with Avicenna University Hospital as the common theme. Medicine is full of drama, and when you situate it in a city like Karachi the possibilities are endless.

What does it take to make a book?

Guest post by Saira Haqqi


I have a confession to make.

I judge books by their covers.

To be more exact, I judge them based on how they are made.

This probably seems inexplicable. Whereas books were originally luxury items, created for the enjoyment of a wealthy few, they are now so common that we hardly give their binding a second thought. After all, they’re just churned out by machines, aren’t they? Isn’t their content more important, at the end of the day?

And yet, we are all aware of books that have been profoundly unsatisfying to read. That obese textbook that lurched out of its covers within a few weeks, that ornate tome that refused to open far enough to allow one to actually read it, or that paperback that disintegrated into a pile of loose papers before it had been read once – we’re all familiar with books that just didn’t succeed as books.

Do books have this luxury? They do not.

Do books have this luxury? They do not.

I’ve had occasion to think about all of these things this year, since I am spending my summer binding books the old-fashioned way – by hand.


The best – and worst – thing about bookbinding is that it feeds into relentless perfectionism. A friend and mentor once warned me that when making a book, you have to get everything just right from the beginning or the book will be a complete flop. Her words were, unfortunately, quite true, and become positively intimidating when you think of all the steps involved in making a book.

Since I’m making blank books, I (thankfully) don’t have to worry about printing anything. I start by cutting and folding large sheets of paper into what are called ‘gatherings’ – a group of pages folded together. These are pressed in a contraption called a “book press” for several hours, if not overnight, to squish them as flat as possible. Then the gatherings are cut – one by one – more exactly to size using a “board shear” – a lovely little machine that could easily slice off a finger, if not an entire hand. For the books I’m making these days (twenty gatherings, eight pages per gathering) this takes about an hour and a half per book.

Saira Haqqi blogpost 1

One gathering – nineteen to go!









Then, each of the gatherings is marked with a series of holes through the center fold, which are then used to sew the book together, a gathering at a time.

As you can see, this is a very neat process.

As you can see, this is a very neat process.


Then the pages can be trimmed again; the edges decorated with paint or gold; the spine left flat or rounded (a process that involves a hammer and muscles you did not know you had); covering material prepared (and therein lies a tale); hard-cover boards cut; innumerable things measured, re-measured, mis-measured, and re-measured again; and the whole thing put together, usually with an air of washing one’s hands entirely of the wretched thing.

Two books awaiting covering. Only about a four hours of work to go!

Two books awaiting covering. Only about a four hours of work to go!


To say that the affair is an exercise in frustration is putting it mildly. It’s physically exhausting – I’ve spent almost every day these past few weeks standing and applying some kind of pressure with my hands and arms. The whole thing involves innumerable pointy, dangerous tools that result in all kinds of fun scars to show one’s friends, and results in a wonderfully expanded vocabulary of a type that unfortunately cannot be printed in these august pages due to the fear of ruining the innocence of young eyes.

The closest I shall ever get to practicing medicine.

The closest I shall ever get to practicing medicine.


And yet! There is a certain joy to creating something all by oneself that can be explained by any five-year-old who has had a drawing stuck up on the fridge. And there is a sense of accomplishment to mastering skills that, no matter how easy they may sound, take years of practice to accomplish successfully. Simply cutting paper can be difficult when you have to cut it to an exact dimension – not a millimeter more, not a millimeter less.

It helps that sometimes the books look pretty, too.

It helps that sometimes the books look pretty, too.



So the next time you go into a bookshop – or simply glance across your bookshelf – take a moment to think about the way in which the books have been made. Think about the miracle that brought them to you in this format – that history of people who, like me, poured their body and muscles into creating this object to further the spread of knowledge. And marvel that we ever got this far.


Saira is currently enrolled in the New York University graduate program in art conservation, where she is specializing in the conservation of library materials. You can follow her personal blog at sairarias.wordpress.com.