Gulshan Books is a well-known publishing house in Jammu and Kashmir. Its focus remains exhibiting state literature beyond the Valley turmoil, especially on Sufism and religion.

Recently, it came into national limelight for a mention in Limca Book of Records 2018. It was called the “only bookshop-library on lake”, an acknowledgement of its newly-built store on Dal lake.

In the land fatigued with unrest and ongoing conflict, Gulshan Bookshop is a soothing escape. The shop’s 80,000 books, neatly stacked on wooden wall shelves, signify a region now lost in history.

A glance through the titles reflects a Kashmir that once existed amid knowledge and serenity, bracing struggles and survival, as opposed to present-day references of political polarisation.

Books on Shaivism, Hinduism, advent of Islam, Rumi, Habba Khatoon and British travelogues are among the plethora of works to choose from. A few rare books could be heavy on the pocket, but remain a treasure.

I have assembled a fair collection of books on Jammu and Kashmir over the past decade. While the variety is drawn from personal and professional choices, most titles in this proud collection have come from Gulshan Books. I remember never to lend these books to anyone, fearing I may never see them again.

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Among the bestsellers at Gulshan Books are The Valley of Kashmir, a travel book by Walter R Lawrence, works on poet Lal Ded, such as Lalla Vakyani, Iqbal’s compilations, Cultural and political History of Kashmir by PNK Bamzai and History of Struggle for freedom of Kashmir by PN Bazaz.

Even books on Gilgit-Baltistan, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, can be sourced from here. Dardistan by GW Leitner and Gilgit, the Northern Gate of India by FM Hassnain caught my eye.

Each time I visit the Valley, often for work, I drop by this bookshop at Residency Road (or visit its airport outlet in Srinagar) to pick up a few rare pieces. Sometimes, I simply make a trip to Gulshan Books to soak in a world brimming with Kashmiri wisdom.

In January this year, however, I decided to walk up to its 52-year-old owner Sheikh Aijaz, to congratulate him for the record mention. I was pleasantly surprised by his initiative to open a free reading room for book lovers to simply sit by the Dal lake and read, irrespective of whether they intend to buy any.

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As we begin a conversation, he tells me he is the fifth generation of his family to join the book trade. The first shop was opened at Pattan (Baramulla), then Maharajganj (Srinagar), moving on to Chattabal and Gawkadal, before it settled at the posh Residency Road. The small shop at Gawkadal still stands, run by the owner’s father.

Aijaz deliberately chose to focus on reprinting books, which were fading out of public memory.

“This land is inherently known as Reshii’vaer/Peer’vaer (Land of saints). The history is of Sufis and poets, therefore we decided to focus on literature. We sought copyrights where needed and reprinted where the books were over a century old. We realised people were looking at scattered locations to buy books on J&K, so we worked to become the one-stop shop. We also welcome local writers, giving them a platform to publish their work,” he says.

While the family business always reserved space for books on culture, in the last 30-35 years, the spotlight shifted to preserving narratives beyond politics. Possibly, an early realisation that books will eventually come to the rescue of wandering minds that seek to explore the history of this culturally-rich soil.

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A glance through the titles reflects a Kashmir that once existed amid knowledge and serenity. Photo: India Today Group

In these polarising times, Gulshan Books is a truly secular representation. A shelter to voices from different communities who peacefully coexist under one roof.

These books would be restricted to the previous generation had it not been for reprints attracting a younger, niche audience.

However, Aijaz does not sound hopeful for the business. “Across the country, bookshops are turning down shutters. In the online age, I do not know till when will we able to continue.”

“Will your children want to succeed your business?” I ask, considering the poser valid for a fifth-generation book trader.

After a brief pause, he responds: “They are interested but we will see in next four-five years how things go.”

Just as I pick up my bag to leave, Aijaz offers me a gift — as expected, a book. I notice the title on the cover, The History of Kashmiri Pandits, by Jia Lal Kilam (written in 1955).

Sometimes, a book is all one needs to start mending broken bridges. #KhabarLive

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