A neglected coup de plume

Published Mar 29, 2011 06:40am

illustration mehreen kasana
An average Pakistani bookworm will read or come across a treasure trove of intense and often realistic literature composed by fellow citizens. In those words of experience and observation, fictional or otherwise, they will agree with at least some of what the book says or tries to convey, for that matter. That feeling of being able to relate leaves a positive message for the reader who might think, 'Oh, we share something in common.' A bond is built; trust is generated between the reader and the writer. A sense of belonging takes form and that is exactly what a bookworm searches for among other feelings while reading. If you look closer, you will see Pakistani English literature gracefully detaching itself from the resonating tone of Indian English tradition; stuck in the past, lamenting colonisation, analysing prevalent corruption in the system and sometimes, describing a room over ten or eleven pages with burdensome details.

But during that saunter down aisles and aisles of prose and poetry, we tend to overlook one stark truth: where are the books for children? More importantly, why are there terribly few English books for the young ones? Of course we have Roald Dahl, Sweet Valley High, Harry Potter, Enid Blyton and a few dozen others (not to forget the cringe-worthy addition of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight for the “youth”), but they all have one thing in common: they are not Pakistani. They cannot speak of the experience to be a young one in this country. They do not share the simple joys, sometimes sadness and now, the restlessness of being a Pakistani youth.

I attended several educational and literary conferences where popular figures stressed upon the need to encourage literacy and reading books in our country - but there was something missing. Children are often forgotten at such occasions; a lot is honked, little is done. But forgive me for my glumness: there are efforts being positively channeled into this direction as well. The Pakistan Children Writers Guild was formed for promoting literature for children of which Dr. Mujeeb Anwar Hamidi is the patron-in-chief along with Professor Saher Ansari, Jamil-u-Din Aali, Masood Barkati, Alhaj Shamim-u-Din, Naheed Nargis, Fatima Suriya Bajia, Altaf Qadri, Dr. Aslam Saeed and Agha Noor Mohamed Pathan part of the executive committee of the guild. In this regard, a small yet colourful ray of hope was given by Mahnaz Malik who published her first story book for kids title 'Mo’s Star,' a story about a penguin trying to reach the stars.

I recall my fourth grade student’s snarky yet true remark during a reading class: “You know, if they coloured these books and told better stories like my grandfather does, I would read them with a lot more interest. Promise.” I did not doubt her honesty a single bit simply because she was right. Our children want to read books they can relate to. As far as I know, no matter how glamourised and addictive Twilight gets, young Pakistani girls cannot relate to Bella for two good reasons: 1) There are no vampires in Pakistan thanks to the angry summers we get. 2) I don’t have a number 2.

On a serious note, there is a dearth of localised English literature for children in the land of pure and that needs to be addressed, especially due to the education emergency we are facing. Book clubs should be formed, reading circles should be encouraged, young graduates and high school students ought to take the time out for younger ones and share stories with them. It is truly a simple task with incredible rewards. But above all, writers need to emphasize on the significance of children’s books and make sure that they step forward with contributions for these young minds.

No doubt, the achievements garnered by our writers must be extolled wherever and whenever possible, but we need to shift our focus towards a younger yet significantly larger audience. This crowd is the most neglected and unheard in our country. The irony is that it comprises the majority of our nation and, from what you and I have been told since childhood according to the loud teacher with the horn-rimmed spectacles in class, the majority is authority. These boys and girls want books. Give them something to read and something they can relate to.

Mehreen Kasana is an American-Pakistani student and blogger who enjoys writing humorously about politics and cultures. MS Paint is her best friend.

*Illustrations by the author.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (25) (Closed)


Madiha
Mar 29, 2011 12:23pm
I am sorry if this is random, but you're the finest MS Painter ever :P
Teacher A:
Mar 29, 2011 12:55pm
This is such an important issue in Pakistan. More books from local writers for children will help them find a feeling of belonging. Thanks for raising the issue, Mehreen!
Riz
Mar 29, 2011 12:57pm
and why do we need "localized English" literature for children here in Pak? just to serve 1% elite? do u really know what are kids reading in our villages?
ali
Mar 29, 2011 01:15pm
exactly we youth in Pakistan don't get any stuff to read. therefore we get nothing to enhance our vision... thanks for highlighting this indispensable topic
Stephen Isabirye
Mar 29, 2011 01:22pm
I am glad that you mention Enid Blyton amongst your favourite non-Pakistani writers. I too grew up in a "developing" or "Third World" country, Uganda and I narrate some of those experiences in encountering Enid Blyton, in my book on the writer, titled, The Famous Five:A Personal Anecdotage (www.thefamousfiveapersonalanecdotage.blogspot.com). Stephen Isabirye
Awais Aftab
Mar 29, 2011 01:36pm
Well-pointed out. I agree that there is such a need for children books by local writers. "Our children want to read books they can relate to." To be honest, I am not sure what sort of literature our children can actually relate to! Amir Hamza and Umra Ayyar? Inspector Jamshaid? For me personally, i'd think children can relate equally well to Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes.
eesha
Mar 29, 2011 02:00pm
i agree wholeheartedly. this issue has always been overlooked. excellent article mehreen.
afshan
Mar 29, 2011 02:42pm
Hey Mehreen, Im a mom of two young boys who inspite of my efforts refuse to develope any interest in reading. Can you suggest something? many thanks. Afshan
Rehan U
Mar 29, 2011 03:06pm
Hi.. I think there is a LOT more available for children( in local flavour) now as compared to 15-20 years ago ..However, the fact is that the trend for book reading has declined steadily and children have been one of the victims. Parents play an important role in nurturing reading habits in their children . Children can not be expected to have a passion for reading if adults around them do not show interest...
The Strategist!!
Mar 29, 2011 03:10pm
I agree with Madiha.... Although its true that the education system based in Pakistan is not based on ENGLISH literature but there is alot of Urdu Literature around to which you will agree... So its just neglected on some part and not all...
Book Tattler
Mar 29, 2011 05:32pm
Pakistani novelist and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi's children's collection "The Amazing Moustaches of Moochhander the Iron Man and Other Stories" was recently published by Puffin India and will be available in Pakistan by the end of July. Here is a review from a newspaper in India: http://www.mid-day.com/lifestyle/2011/mar/260311-...
abc
Mar 29, 2011 05:39pm
Some books from our neighbours are quite well suited for this purpose. http://www.tulikabooks.com/ for example.
Rajiv
Mar 29, 2011 07:17pm
there seems to be hardly a pakistan born and based blogger on dawn... what happened... i guess in india we have a very high regard for literary ability of pakistan... please bring someone forward... NFP seems the lone lion in blogging jungle here...
K
Mar 29, 2011 07:41pm
I'm not a very avid reader, but in my reading experiences during my childhood and youth, I have come across a fairly even blend of foreign and local literature, which I always found appealing. I agree completely with the author that being able to 'relate' to the plot, setting and characters is the defining factor for a reader's perception. I feel that figures like Kamila Shamsie (in her books Kartography, Salt and Saffron and City by the sea) have made some of the greatest contributions to Pakistani literature for the youth. The Book Group, though largely restricted to Urdu, also seems to be making commendable effort. The Readers Club - Pakistan's first online book rental service is yet another remarkable platform that young readers can benefit from. Do check it out!
A. Shiraz
Mar 29, 2011 07:45pm
We ought to push for access to education for ALL not just for the few who have parents working abroad or who are wealthy Pakistanis. If we don't make education and access to knowledge tools available to all then even us wealthy folk will suffer. We ought to stress authors who have written works that are significant contributions : original works that have made a positive contribution to humankind (anyone can parrot, imitate or come up with small innovations but we want to highlight and encourage sustained, significant intellectual contributions)
Somak Mitra
Mar 29, 2011 07:51pm
The dearth of literature for children is not just a Pakistani phenomenon. As far as I'm aware, the scarcity is present in India as well. I haven't really seen any books similar to Enid Blyton's works in the US as well. These Twilight works and most of the other types of literature popular in India isn't exactly for children. The need for literature to satisfy children is an urgent one. What I've noticed is that with the fast paced lifestyle, children are getting much less time to read, and hence the amount of literature available is also on a decline. These days TV and Internet are performing the work that books did for us in so much nicer ways when we were young. Inculcating the desire to read along with more efforts to increase literature for children should go hand in hand, otherwise, I'm afraid the bookworms are a dying species, both here in India, and in Pakistan.
Haseeb
Mar 29, 2011 09:25pm
Her TEDxKinnaird talk is amazing! It's about colorful books for children and how they keep children connected to learning. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGE99oYCeqc Awesome blog! Love the doodles :D
T.L.W
Mar 29, 2011 10:42pm
Well done Mehreen. Its a call to arms, but one I think with a little pressure and will power, "can" be accomplished. We have childrens literature in Urdu thanks to Book Group (that it needs to be spread fr and wide is more a distribution, marketting and logisitical issue), but in Pakistani Children's English literature, the distribution networks are there, its just that content needs to be provided.
ramshal
Mar 29, 2011 10:54pm
I don't think a dearth of English literature should be the main cause of concern. Growing up in Pakistan I never felt there was a dearth of English literature for me ( I could read Blyton a zillion times over still). I think the majority of the population should read books in their native language, more programs encouraging Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Saraiki, Balochi and even farsi. I would love to see a book store that has sections of literature in farsi for the Afghan refugees, other minorities, stories on the radio in native languages for the children in villages. This does not mean English isn't significant, I just feel we need to reignite and inculcate the beauty of language and literature of our land and other lands, within our own people. Sadly, the elite few who love and cherish "English" are forgetting the singificance of Urdu, the significance of Punjabi ( I speak as a Punjabi). I think another issue that children of this generation are facing globally i.e. lack of interest in printed books, literature, poetry et cetera. That isn't restricted to Pakistan. If anything, cross cultural literature should be made available to broaden our horizons beyond the American Twilight, the British Harry Potter. Why not include Arabian nights, African fables, Chinese philosophies of Chuang Tsu so that our younger populations view the world more rationally? I do definitely agree with encouraging reading with clubs, and organisations that support literature et cetera. Journals for children, by children et cetera. Good article, thanks!
Umer
Mar 30, 2011 02:36am
Well said. Most of our English speakers including myself are brought up on foreign novels and thus have a great disconnect with historical and cultural literature of your own country. I only realized the magnitude of my loss when I encountered fellow students in my Government College originating from villages and smaller towns. There is immense literature and culture, short stories and themes from hundreds and thousands of years. Unfortunately English speakers consider Urdu/Sindhi/Balochi/Punjabi/Pushto/Saraiki etc literature and speakers to be inferior. Efforts need to be made or our cultural heritage may not even show up in museums.
chak
Mar 30, 2011 07:39am
Fill your house with various sorts of reading material. Magazines, newspapers and general kids books. There ought to be a family reading time, when there is no TV on. If the seniors are reading something (anything, even a newspaper), then the kids also on their own start reading what is available at hand. Keep children's books at hand. Read them a story before they fall asleep at night or something. These are time consuming, but give better results.
Jawwad Zaki
Mar 30, 2011 08:18am
The issue is very much true and contributes heavily in any effort to develop our kids reading habits. however, I consider a lack of kids literature in Urdu and our native languages a much bigger issue that contributes more on a disconnect between our next generation and the land.
Yumna
Mar 30, 2011 10:07am
I dont the ability to relate to dictates anything as far as kids go. do we have magicians in pakistan? how do u explain the popularity of harry potter then. kids will read whatever is interesting. twilight included.
Saad Durrani
Mar 30, 2011 02:20pm
Give them comics.
uzma
Apr 02, 2011 01:12pm
VERY WELL SAID AND WELL_POINTED!!! WE need to publish more books related to children and the best way to Fill your house with various sorts of reading material. Magazines, newspapers and general kids books. There ought to be a family reading time, when there is no TV on.