Reviving Urdu, one book at a time
This month, Pakistani author Musharraf Ali Farooqi launched a new publishing house, Kitab, to promote Urdu literature among children in Pakistan. He tells Kareena N Gianani about why Urdu writing for kids needs a renaissance in his country and the delights of chancing upon children's writings by remarkable authors from the 1950s
You launched your children’s book, Tik-Tik, The Master of Time, under Kitab last year. What took you a year to formally launch the publishing house?
I had the Pakistan rights for Tik-Tik and launched it here (in Pakistan) in partnership with a friend, under Kitab. That, actually, was a test-run for Kitab, before I formally launched titles under the publishing house for the first time this month.
This year, which I spent trying and testing things, was an eye-opener. I travelled to schools in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi and did sessions with children. We sold quite a few books there, and I returned with a better idea of how many copies I must actually print.
However, the most significant insight I had was into reading habits. These visits gave us an idea of what Pakistan’s children were reading, what they would like to read, and what their parents and teachers wished they could experiment with. Many schools across Pakistan have quite a bit of money and the means to buy good books. However, they feel children are missing out on good-quality Urdu books. Kids are competent in English and have access to English books, but know very little about Urdu literature -- a fact most parents and teachers greatly lament today.
Is that Kitab’s philosophy then -- to encourage Urdu literature in Pakistan?
Yes, I’d love to promote it here because no good-quality Urdu literature or translations for children are available to kids yet. No one publisher can fill in the gap between fiction, modern fiction and classics. Many small publishers have sprung up in the past few years, published good titles, and shut down over time. I wanted to ensure it doesn’t happen to Kitab, and working at it for a year really helped. I found good authors and illustrators, got books’ rights and, mainly, acquired good formatting software for Urdu books, which doesn’t come easy usually.
Tell us something about the titles you’ve launched Kitab with.
We have launched with five Urdu titles and three books in English. We have published works of famous Pakistani authors such as Sufi Tabassum, Ghulam Abbas and Mehdi Azer Yezdi.
I am trying to introduce children to categories such as new literature and modern fiction. Kitab will also publish a good combination of prose and poetry -- very few readers, for instance, know that Ghulam Abbas wrote poetry. I chanced upon his poetry collection after someone told me his family had come across his children’s stories written way back in the 1950s.
Sufi Tabassum, for instance, wrote very layered poems. His book, Tot Batot Ki Duniya, talks about the common man and a changing society. It is a mythical tale of a young boy and how strange things happen to him.
How is the children’s books’ market in Pakistan? Also, they are exposed to brutal realities in many Western titles -- does Kitab plan to deal with difficult themes, too, say strife and violence?
Reality already engages children in very brutal ways, so I hope the literature Kitab publishes immerses kids -- that’s the only brief I have in mind. I remember bring gripped by fantasy and cultural gems in my childhood -- something that’s not available to children in Pakistan today. Yes, a lot of books, talk about painful subjects, but I want to focus on things we have lost out on culturally. The children’s books’ market is smaller in Pakistan than the one in India. Tik-Tik, for instance, sold 3,000 copies here. We are still trying to establish a smoother distribution market and selling with direct contact.
What do you plan to publish under Kitab in 2014?
I am definitely looking at more Urdu classics, and translating good English books into Urdu. I am also looking at commissioning translations of English fantasy books into Urdu. I am particularly excited about that because it could give rise to a new vocabulary altogether -- translating very modern English fantasy books in such an old language. It will be a very interesting experiment.
I am also looking at approaching Indian writers, and not just those writing in English. I am open to publishing any Indian language -- Hindi, Marathi and so on. Yes, but we do not have the expertise to handle books in Malayalam yet (laughs). For details, visit www.kitab.com.pk