Rumana Husain: At the very outset you have posed a difficult question! J
However, if I have to choose only one of these roles then I would say writing/illustrating children’s books has always given me the most satisfaction. And I have consistently done it for thirty-two years now.
ZM: Are you satisfied with the book publishing industry in Pakistan? Especially children’s books. Please elaborate.
RH: The answer is “no”, because there are very few writers or illustrators of children’s books to begin with, and by that I am not referring to school textbooks. When I co-founded the Book Group back in 1988, it was prompted due to a dearth of good Urdu books for children. Although the situation is slightly better now, it is still far from satisfactory. In my personal experience of doing over sixty children’s books, none of the publishers have made it financially worthwhile; be it small publishers or large publishing houses. I have done it for the love of it, but monetary gains have always been negligible. Therefore why would people bother about writing books for children?
ZM: What do you think about the reading habits of children (and also adults) in Pakistan? Please support your answer with reasons to substantiate your views.
RH: The reading habits of children are poor because they don’t see their parents or even their teachers reading and discussing books. Some private schools do hold a ‘Reading Week’ or such activities, but they aren’t sufficient to encourage or mobilise children to become life-long readers. Believe it or not, but according to some parents, even their Montessori-going children are so ‘busy’ that there’s no time for books! The State therefore needs to be at work full-steam, to change this mindset.
I feel that promotion and marketing by the publishers must also be innovative and aggressive, so that parents and teachers get convinced that books, beyond the textbooks, are vital for children’s imagination, their emotional development and for discovering new ideas, new concepts, learning new words, and much more.
Paper and printing should be cheaper so that books can be affordable for all income groups. Though by and large, even those parents who can well afford to buy books do not care about building a home library for their children.
Ceremonial plaques and all kinds of other prizes, awards and gifts need to be replaced by books instead. There is a lot that can be done if we are really serious about promoting reading.
ZM: How do you find the state of libraries in the country? What about children’s libraries in and outside schools?
RH: Public libraries are almost non-existent. Only very few are doing well. If Pakistan is serious about building a reading culture then small and cheap lending libraries must be established in all neighbourhoods, just like the hole-in-the-wall ones that used to exist when I was growing up in the sixties in Karachi. Paan shops could give way to such libraries.
Regarding libraries for children…there are children’s sections in some public libraries but in the entire country there may be a handful of libraries dedicated to children alone. A few schools do have really well-stocked libraries. And I have been to such elite private schools where I have been invited to speak as an author, but the school’s library only carried a book or two by me. Then there are public schools with libraries but the books remain under lock and key, only to be gazed at, for fear of getting ‘spoilt’ if children were to hold them.
ZM: What are your suggestions to improve the situation in every aspect of children’s book publishing in the country?
RH: The State and the private publishing houses must make it a priority to print large numbers of children’s books. Over 1,500 fiction books for children get published in India every year, and over 20,000 copies of each title are printed in several Indian languages. I cannot find figures for Pakistan but it is doubtful if even 200 new fiction books are published. The print run is extremely low, and translations or original stories in regional languages are almost non-existent. This needs immediate rectification.
Regular monthly campaigns should be run throughout the country, to encourage reading books. The print and electronic media should also be usefully employed in this.
Libraries must be established in every neighbourhood for easy access to books. They do not need to be elaborate, but they must have a presence and hold weekly activities to attract and encourage children to visit them.
School libraries must be well-stocked. Children’s literature from around the world should be there, as also children’s books in Urdu and Pakistan’s regional languages.
- Good quality paper must be produced locally so that publishing books is not an expensive investment for publishers.
All the above can be achieved if authors and illustrators get encouragement, adequate support, remuneration/royalty and there is greater respect for their craft.
ZM: What inspired you to write and illustrate Jingles in the Jungle?
RH: Right from my childhood I have been interested in music, and besides singing for my friends just for fun, I did make attempts to learn…and persevered with sitar lessons for eight years and later on with classical singing lessons for almost two years. However, I failed to continue, and the guilt of letting down my ustads have always haunted me. My sitar ustad in particular, took pains to teach me in a very mathematical, methodical and affectionate manner. Both my children were very young then, and i finally gave up when daily practice became impossible. So for a long time I was mulling about this idea in my head about how music and language must have originated. We cannot imagine living our lives without either. The rest of the story just flowed when i sat down to write it, as I can never ever structure a complete plot beforehand. I need an idea or the opening line to begin with and the rest just follows. The jungle as a setting from where music must have originated was a natural choice. The camel in my story symbolises diversity, acceptance and inclusiveness, as he obviously didn’t belong to the jungle but I needed the other animals as well as the humans to come together to watch him and touch him and be in awe of him.