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Books have been a source of pleasure for young and old alike since time immemorial, and through standard books one can mould children’s minds to ensure an enlightened future generation, opines Amra Alam. As an author who has penned 60 books in Urdu for children, she laments the fact that there is not enough good reading material and thus their lack of interest in the language.

While growing up she and her siblings had heard stories from their grandmother at bedtime, which fuelled their imagination and interest in books. One generation later there was a change in reading habits — her children were more interested in English books because they were easily available and visually attractive rather than Urdu books which lacked these qualities.

To get them interested in Urdu, Alam started making up stories for them and told them to draw pictures. These fledgling steps, later on, helped her to become a writer for children. She joined Bookgroup, which published books for children, as an in-house storywriter, and in her seven years there she wrote 45 books out of the total 140 which they had printed. Three of her books Khel Khilonay, Shararatein and Khatay Mithay Falsay are used as textbooks in private schools.

Through the years Alam has expanded her list of genres, adding scriptwriting for TV channels, a stage drama and a book, but her preference remains writing for children. Having grown up in India she had read books on the lives of leaders such as Nehru and Gandhi which were written in an interesting way so that children got to know about their leaders. They were not textbooks but story-books available in bookshops. Alam says there are no such stories here of our leaders and plans to write about them in the near future and has conceptualised a few already.

The difference in books abroad, she emphasises, is that there is no sermonising, their main objective being to generate interest in the young reader, whereas here the focus is on religious convictions and giving advice.

During her childhood days Alam and her eight siblings were given a lot of freedom to do whatever they wanted and were not restrained by their parents unnecessarily, so they had happy and open minds. The talent for writing and painting came from their father who belonged to Badayun, India, which is famous for writers and poets, thus assimilating literature and arts easily. They had also seen different religions and cultures in India which helped broaden their minds.

After migrating to Pakistan, Karachi in 1962, things became difficult as her father was not able to get a good job. But they had good literary people coming to their house such as Z.A. Bokhari, Saleem-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, Khalid Ishaq and Ahmad Ali Khan, which was a source of education for Alam and her siblings as they would sit with them. “We weren’t rich and did not have a social status but we were rich in meeting such people and most importantly, we had a loving atmosphere,” she recalls.

The writing seeds in Alam began to grow when she was in Saudi Arabia penning detailed, humorous letters to her niece who loved her style. Discovering her inborn talent she wrote a humorous piece on her aunts which Anwar Maqsood, her brother-in-law, liked. She then suggested that he help her and his wife Imrana Maqsood who is her sister, to write a serial, but this couldn’t materialise due to the lack of time from his side. The sisters decided to write on their own and came up with a serial Rabia Zinda Rahay Gi for a TV channel, directed by S. Sulaiman. The serial consisting of 32 episodes became quite popular. Encouraged by the response they wrote another hit serial Kahani Mohabbat Ki Hai Mukhtasir, again directed by S. Sulaiman. Their later ventures with other directors were not successful, so they stopped writing for channels.

As both sisters collaborated in writing the stories they would divide the chapters according to the content. While Alam wrote romantic dialogues, Maqsood focused on Urdu phrases. Alam’s writing was styled on her favourite writers — Ibne Insha and Gulzar — who wrote short sentences and easy language. “There were fights as well, as Imrana would find mistakes in my writing — having been a school teacher in the past she behaved like one. Only 15 months older than myself we are very close and understand each other.”

The sisters have also written a book together which focuses on their childhood in Badayun, a period Alam says they still miss today. After migrating to Pakistan they would go to India with their four sisters who were more interested in visiting Delhi and other cities rather than Badayun. So Alam and Maqsood decided to go there alone. She wrote to her Indian publisher that they were coming to India and would visit their birthplace to relive their childhood memories. Her publisher suggested that they write a book on it and name it Karachi Halwa Aur Badayun Kay Pairay, which they did.

Alam turned to children’s writing again and took out a monthly magazine Suntra, which was her baby from concept to layouts and topics. It became popular throughout Pakistan and was used as supplementary reading in schools. But when Suntra closed down last December she was asked to take out a magazine for Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) by Oxford University Press in collaboration with Idarah-i-Taleem-o-Agahi, an NGO working for children. It was launched last month in Islamabad during a CLF programme and named Uran Tashtari. Though hurt by Suntra’s closure she was confident that if one door closed another would open.

Alam is ecstatic about children’s literature festival programmes, as they bring about an awareness of books in children and parents who come to these festivals. Such programmes should be held regularly on large and small scales throughout the country. It is sad that the internet and DVDs have taken over, so parents should double their efforts to make their children read Urdu books as it is their language, she points out emphatically.

It is very difficult to write for children as it carries a lot of responsibility, requiring research and clear concepts as negative writing can hurt children, Alam emphasises, finding it much easier to write for grown ups. The language should be easy and friendly, laced with humour as they learn easily that way, adding further, that children should never be taken for granted as they are very intelligent.

As if piqued by the fact that so little is being written for children here, Alam questions whether there is some political reason behind this! Even Urdu books and Urdu newspapers are unattractive just as textbooks are. Quality of paper, content and material is also alarming. She deplores the silence of educationists on such important issues.

Some time ago Alam wrote a children’s book for an Indian publisher which was translated in regional languages as well as in English. Later, she received an invitation from Sharjah to participate in a seminar for children’s authors on the basis of this book. Quite incensed by the fact that the flag of Pakistan was missing among the other representative flags, she complained to the organisers who corrected their mistake by immediately putting it up. As a writer she says this was her first international recognition.

Spurred on by the writing muse Alam and Maqsood wrote a theatre play some years back which was shown recently at the Arts Council. It had been left on the back burner as they weren’t able to get a good director then. “It was a humorous play with a good cast and director and was produced by actor Shaan.” Alam says this was an experiment which turned out well. The topic focused on two neighbours having a wall in between and who are constantly bickering over little things unnecessarily. The neighbours represent Pakistan and India and the writers have tried to show that one can live together even with differences, if one wants to.

Life for Alam is complete — with loving relationships all around her and a husband who has been a pillar of strength for her. The family’s pride in her success, she says, is an incentive for her to continue with her mission of writing for children.