As you stand before the gate, a refreshing sense of liberation takes over. You are in full view of a house. Right in front, you can see the cosy car porch and to the left, the front garden; it features a bench, cacti-like vegetation and is teeming with clay artefacts, big and small, which lead your eyes to the front steps. Everything aesthetically coalesces in a canvas of warm brown earthen colours
This is the house where Rumana Husain lives. And this is the house that her husband, architect Mukhtar Husain, designed and built for himself, his wife, their two children and Mukhtar’s mother. Until a year ago, their family dog, Cham Cham, also shared this space with them.
|Rumana and Mukhtar Husain's residence | Syed Tahir Jamal, White Star|
Because you can get an eyeful of the beautiful house standing outside, you feel warmly welcomed even before you are let in. The low gate to the house is like a garden gate; a mere demarcation of property but not of space — the space is continual. In Karachi, gates are formidable barriers to keep out thieves and burglars, voyeurs and beggars; anyone uninvited. “Mukhtar does not feel one should live inside a box, cut off from the world around us,” Rumana explains to me, after she lets me in through the gate herself. She is dressed in one of those beautiful saris she is identified by, sporting jewellery to match and a big, warm smile. These three things are quintessential Rumana. She never leaves the house without them.
The Husains are a low-key couple, well-known and beloved in the circle of Karachi’s artists, activists and aspirants. Their home and time is available for anyone looking for a bit of guidance or a spot for a meeting. Just before I arrived, Rumana had an ex-student come over; one she had taught while she was the principal at CAS School. After I leave, Rumana will be out again to attend the opening of a group show at Chawkandi Art Gallery. It is in and out of the house for Rumana, all without a hassle.
|Rumana and Mukhtar Husain | Courtesy Rumana Husain|
You can think of her as a multi-armed deity when you consider the many vocations she has. Writing, editing and illustrating books for children; organising multiple festivals and civic forums in Karachi, such as the annual Karachi Conference, the Children’s Literature Festival, the I Am Karachi campaign; making appearances at arts and culture shows; at school events like the Habib Girl’s School golden jubilee for which she is editing the commemorative book; protesting against houbara bustard hunting by the Arab sheikhs; going to vigils or protests: The list of her activities and engagements can be different in any given week but it will always be as lengthy as this. She warns me it will be a challenge keeping up with her schedule. So it turns out to be.
As she introduces me into her life, she is in control of what she wants to talk about and leave out. She is like this in most interactions — always keeping discussions on track. Maybe because she has to devote her time to multiple things in the day, she has to be careful about conversations drifting endlessly. And she does so effortlessly. Amra Ali, Rumana’s close friend and her co-founder for the art magazine, NuktaArt, wonders what Rumana eats to be so organised moving through a calendar brimming with meetings and events to participate in. And all that has never stopped her from sharing her time with her friends.
“One life is not enough for all the things I want to do,” is how Rumana herself explains it.
|Rumana reads out an excerpt at the launch of her book, City Tales and Village Tales, at the Children’s Literature Festival 2015 in Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star|
NuktaArt, founded in 2005, was a biannual art magazine that sought to move discourse on Pakistani art outside the artist community. The four women who founded it – Niilofur Farrukh, Sabiha Imani, Amra Ali and Rumana – lived and breathed for that magazine for a whole decade. Around a table at Ali’s house, these women discussed what to include in the magazine, what writers to get, how to grow out of a niche audience. They also enjoyed spending time together.
Initial funding for NuktaArt came from the Prince Claus Fund. It was only during the first two years of its publication that the magazine made some money and it was only for those two years that its editorial staff got paid. It made perhaps less than 200,000 rupees in 10 years, says Ali.
The magazine was founded to generate a vibrant discussion on art. “Nothing else mattered.” Some challenges faced by NuktaArt since the beginning ultimately caused the wind up of the magazine. It was difficult to convince the publishers to invest in and promote such a niche publication; it was difficult to coax advertisers and it was frustrating to deal with writers, says Ali.
|Talking about her book Karachiwala | Courtesy Rumana Husain|
Rumana explains that the mandate of NuktaArt was to fill the gaps in the education and promotion of art in Pakistan: “We wished to uphold international standards of publication to showcase Pakistani art and open a discourse, instead of just publishing reviews; that was the vision.” She is proud of her stint with the magazine. NuktaArt, says Rumana, “placed me at the centre of the art world”.
NuktaArt isn’t the only publication Rumana has to her name, of course. She is a littérateur in many ways, spending a huge amount of time reading and writing books. There is a mile-long string of children’s books she has illustrated, written, co-authored (over 50 titles). Like her fascination with a discourse on art, Rumana is extremely interested in diversity. “Right from my childhood, I have had an interest in the world and in different kinds of people, their customs, what they wear and eat. I was fascinated with the world.”
Her third fascination is Karachi. The city, in fact, is a common thread running through her association and involvement in various projects. Her book, Karachiwala: A Subcontinent within a City, was launched in 2010. It was very well received and Rumana was invited to talk about it at several institutions and platforms in places like Karachi, Amsterdam, Chicago and, most recently, to The Shanghai Lit Fest 2014.
|A page from the book Bhooli Bisri | Courtesy Rumana Husain|
One afternoon at her place, she shows me the layout and design of her upcoming book: Street Smart. And then she brings out piles of thin colourful children’s books, hardback ones for foreign publications, and teachers’ guides and books for supplementary reading that she has either authored or illustrated. Rumana goes through each book with me, relating as much detail about the concept behind it as she briefly can. There is a long list to go through, but my questions are not required. I also feel I am not allowed to touch or dwell on any book. She’d rather have them in her hands like prized possessions –—being keenly aware that each end product is her individual hard work materialised.
As you enter a colonial bungalow in Bath Island, Clifton, which houses the Karachi office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), you will see a tall and colourful mural made of fabric on your left, rising up to the ceiling. This is Rumana’s creation. It could be a piece of art that belongs in a bright and cheerful primary school, depicting the endangered flora and fauna of Pakistan, appliquéd on to each province where they are found.
There is another one on the second floor. It is a 10-foot fabric appliqué mural called The World of Nature, made similarly of cloth with figures clad in native dresses stitched onto various parts of the world, from Dutch to Scandinavian to the women of Thar and the Andes. Flora and fauna found in different parts of the world are also matched to their native countries. As Rumana tells me about this piece, she seems delighted in her memories of how well loved her creation is. It was flown to the Swiss headquarters of IUCN in Gland in 1992 where it hung until 2014.
“I asked my daughter-in-law to go see it for my sake,” she says. “Something about playing with the texture of fabric and stitching things together was very appealing to me and came to me with natural ease,” says Rumana. She seems to take as much delight in talking about her granddaughters and her children’s childhood as she does while talking about her murals.
|A 10x10 foot fabric applique wall hanging made by Rumana Husain, titled The World of Nature, is on display at the Karachi office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature — Mohammad Ali, White Star|
Rumana has made herself comfortable in the IUCN lobby, as if she still works here, and gives a big, warm smile to any staff member who walks by, as if she knows them closely.
Her creative works and her contribution as an educator and citizen of Karachi are inextricably linked with children. After her first exhibition of stuffed toys in 1981, she was commissioned by the Aga Khan University Hospital at the time, to produce 55 wall hangings for its Children’s Ward. Rumana was crestfallen after a recent visit to the ward; her murals were absent from the corridors. After 25 years, the new administration had taken them down and done up the hospital in kitschy, “tacky” fashion with Disney cartoons painted on the walls that gave off a hollow plastic cheeriness. “I am so keen on promoting Pakistani-ness in children’s imagination,” she tells me on more than one occasion. “You see that I have even made a figure of myself on the bottom right of The World mural, wearing a shalwar kameez.”
In all her children’s storybooks, too, the characters display their Pakistani identity. They travel across Pakistan in her City Tales and Village Tales, for example. Their dolls are not Western plastic dolls with blond hair and blue eyes but ragdolls that any child can make at home. They have black hair and eyes, and wear local dresses.
In the yellowed pages of an issue of the Herald from October, 1981, Najma Babar writes on Rag Dolls and Cuddly Crocs. This must be it — I was looking for a review of Rumana’s exhibition of stuffed toys that year. It all began with making a stuffed hippo for her one-year-old son Adil. Soon, as the article reveals, her house was filled with colourful playthings made of cloth, big and small, sea animals, rag dolls, including “golliwogs”.
|Rumana Husain at Arts Council, Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star|
“Many things have not come to me through planning. My life has taken its course. Just because I wanted to make a stuffed toy for my son, that made me make so many.”
When we are discussing the article at her house, she tests my memory about which stuffed toys were photographed for it. I am relieved to be able to recall the opening picture — Rumana holding up a friendly, arm-long red lobster in it. But that picture made an impression for another reason. Seeing the youthful Rumana was somehow an original experience of all the energy that she carries today. As a young woman with vibrant large eyes, which now eagerly peer out from behind a pair of thick spectacles; a straight delicate nose on an angular olive skinned face that has now rounded out, and a pursed but mirthful mouth which is now even more expressive and turns into a wide grin easily; there is a certain sprightliness in young Rumana that has remained alive still, although it may be less visible in her sari-clad avatar that resembles a dignified school principal.
When Rumana joined CAS School in 1986, it was just being set up in a house in Defence Housing Authority. She was hired as the arts teacher, but moved up over the years to become the headmistress and then vice principal from 1995 to 1996. Her decade at the CAS was a time for nurturing others and also pursuing a simultaneous path of bookmaking. As the headmistress, Rumana implemented creative and innovative methods of learning and introduced artistic subjects for children. “I was learning the sitar then, and I would play it in the morning assembly for the children,” she says. She hired the late Musadiq Sanwal as the music teacher, who was a creative artist always ready to think out of the box, and Syed Mohammad Ahmed, who is now a television playwright, actor and director of children’s television programmes, as the dance teacher.
“One life is not enough for all the things I do,” is how Rumana herself explains it.
The academic standard and calibre of students was less than exemplary back then. The institution was going through teething troubles and couldn’t control the quality of students who enrolled. But the school boasted of a “nice library,” recalls Rumana, this being another collection of books that set her thinking. The library had beautiful books for children; all western literature. In an attempt to promote learning in Urdu, the books had Urdu translations stuck next to the original English text. Rumana found this endearing and it made her go home one day and dig up the collection of children’s books her husband had put together over the years from his trips to various countries. She came to CAS the next day with an armful of books from China, India and Russia to show to the school owner, Sami Mustafa. This was the start of what came to be known as the Book Group. They decided to create and sell their own books, of which Rumana and Mustafa co-wrote the first.
The Book Group is an integral part of Rumana’s life. She may not like to term it so. Perhaps, it was the only episode in her life when her calm and collected persona was not enough to protect her. This may also be the only phase in her life that didn’t run its natural course. “I look back at it with a bitterness which continues.” During her work for The Book Group (“I never made any material gains” in the form of royalties), Rumana was already well branched out as a resource person in the field of education and children’s publishing. Whereas she was invited to represent Pakistan at literary and cultural platforms abroad, at her own workplace, she was being “persecuted”.
In all my encounters and conversations with Rumana, this is the only grey cloud that overcasts the sunny personality — to a surprising degree in fact. But it is less surprising that this experience taught her an enduring lesson. Once she was back on her feet and delved into researching for Karachiwala, “I realised I had the capacity of reinventing myself.” The book’s success was an endorsement.
|A page from her book series Hop on the Story Truck of the City Tales | Courtesy Rumana Husain|
In 2011, Baela Raza Jamil, an education activist and head of Lahore-based Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, requested Rumana to visit Lahore for the Children’s Literature Festival, the first-ever held in Pakistan in November that year. This led to the next big idea, the next project in her life. Soon she was working on having a Children’s Literature Festival in Karachi. “We formed a board of directors and it became part of the KLF [Karachi Literature Festival]. This way I began taking ownership of some things,” says Rumana.
Ameena Saiyid, the doyenne of publishing in Pakistan, who also collaborated on the Children’s Literature Festival once under the umbrella of Karachi Literature Festival, has known Rumana for over 20 years, and considers her a social asset. “She is very sensitive and really listens to children. She has an endearing way of speaking to them. It is evident that children are drawn to her.”
Rumana recited a poem on child marriage at last year’s Children’s Literature Festival at one of the sessions:
|Rumana Husain uses poetry as a tool to help highlight the issue of child marriages|
In its simple and direct versification, the poem drives home some important messages.
For the festival last month, Rumana transformed into a singer for the sake of doing a session on composer Sohail Rana’s popular children’s songs recorded for Pakistan Television in the 1970s and the 1980s.
Rumana is working on a series of illustrated books (in a format similar to that of graphic novels) on eminent personalities of Pakistan for the Oxford University Press. She was also the juror for the KLF Peace Prize, and had her plate full – as per usual – with 18 books to peruse before February this year. This coincided with planning for a film festival in early March under the I Am Karachi banner. “My love affair with documenting different aspects of Karachi will continue,” she shares with me when I ask about her future plans. “Maybe there is a third book soon. This city has so much to offer.”
Rumana, however, is not just a starry-eyed lover of art, culture and books. She is also interested and active in many social causes such as protesting against houbara bustard hunting and voicing her concerns about the security of children and teachers after the Peshawar school attack.
“She has a lot of ideas, and is passionate about whatever she undertakes. At one point, I believe, she was working on a museum for children,” says Saiyid (referring to the Children’s Museum for Peace & Human Rights for which Rumana worked as head of activism and outreach section from 2001 to 2008).
|Arshad Mahmud and Ghazi Salahuddin, join Rumana Husain as panelists at the Children’s Literature Festival | Mohammad Ali, White Star|
Like Rumana, her contemporaries strive to inculcate what is seen as ‘bohemian’ learning. Along with composer and actor Arshad Mahmud and seasoned journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, she was at a panel at the Children’s Literature Festival last month, discussing her dreams for Karachi. Daydreaming is important, they told the teachers and pupils alike. So is watching plays for entertainment. Karachi is important, they added, and you can help it improve.
“There must be more entertainment than just television,” said Mahmud. They all agreed and Rumana wondered at the lack of interest in children’s entertainment on television. “You can set your ratings aside for a one-hour show for children from which they can learn something,” she said with a trace of indignation and exasperation. “We say we love our children but I don’t see us taking care of them very much. These are the things that show our neglect of them,” she had said earlier on in the discussion.
As the Children’s Literature Festival is coming to a close, I leave Rumana in the hubbub of uniformed girls and boys, filtering in and out of the Arts Council gates, excited to be at a festival on a school day.
This was originally published in Herald's March 2015 issue. Subscribe to Herald in print.