Before the creation of Pakistan, Karachi was a small town with a population of 250,000, and hardly any publishing infrastructure or activities. But after independence in 1947, the city experienced rapid growth with a sudden influx of educated, sophisticated people as it became the capital of the newly formed country and its only banking and business centre.

Lahore, the publishing centre of British India, began to decline as the mostly Hindu publishers and booksellers migrated to India after Partition. The most famous example was Ferozsons, a major bookshop in Lahore owned by Ram Advani, who moved to Lucknow, where he set up another bookshop.

The smaller Muslim publishers of Lahore tried to step into the vacuum and were somewhat successful while the new government continued the colonial policy of allowing private sector publishers to produce textbooks for government schools from 1947 to 1962. The textbooks published after the creation of Pakistan were Urdu readers for grades 1 to 5 by DarulIisha’at, Punjab, another series of Urdu readers for grades 1 to 5 by Moulvi Abdul Haq, Lahore, and Geometry books for middle schools by Punjab Book Depot, Lahore.

Publishers such as Sheikh Mohammad Ashraf, Sheikh Ghulam Ali & Sons, Qaumi Qutub Khana, Ferozsons of Lahore, Urdu Academy of Sindh, and Shaikh Shaukat Ali of Karachi began to fill the vacuum by identifying and developing local authors. The field was still open to private publishers who could publish textbooks for state schools.

They would have flourished had this continued. The country was relatively stable, and there was little serious competition for domestic publishers as Chand Kapur, Munshi Gulab Singh, Sardar Sant Singh, Thakur Dev Anand, Atma Ram & Sons, Rama Krishna & Sons had all left for India and no foreign publisher had entered the field. Only a handful of publishers were active in those days in Sindh, Balochistan, and the North-West Frontier Province, although Lahore remained a publishing centre.

However, this favourable position changed after martial law was declared by Ayub Khan in 1958, and the publication of textbooks for grades 1-11 was nationalised and handed over to a single, national textbook board in 1962. Thus, textbook publishing for state schools was transferred from the private to the public sector. In 1971, this was broken up into four provincial textbook boards,vand the publication of school textbooks brought under the exclusive control of these boards.

The establishment of the national textbook board stifled the nascent publishing industry, relegating it to a position of printer or contractor rather than a creative, originating publisher. Publishers ended up as printers of low-quality, low-profit textbooks for government schools. This monopoly killed the competition needed to drive up publishing standards. Since publishers used their profits from school textbooks to publish general and academic books, the textbook genre also began to crumble.

The English-medium private school market then comprised about 200 schools. The position changed with the emergence and expansion of private schools in the late 1970s, when the nationalisation of private schools by the Bhutto regime was reversed. The situation improved further in the 1980s.

Other factors that led to the mushrooming of private schools were the decline of the state school system because of poor management, low-quality textbooks, the growth of a middle class that demanded quality education, and the reduction of government controls in private sector education. The government realised its inability to provide quality education and adopted a laissez faire attitude towards the private sector, which encouraged entrepreneurs to set up more schools.

How I began

I was fortunate to be in publishing at this exciting time. It has been a long journey, during which many obstacles had to be overcome and glass ceilings shattered. It has been both exhilarating and disillusioning. I started my business in Karachi in 1986, after feeling cramped and not getting the opportunities or challenges I needed in six years at Oxford University Press, which was more of an importer than a publisher at the time. Its policies did not align with my ambitions to publish original books.

I decided to set out on my own. We had a family car and I made full use of it for promotional visits to schools, libraries, banks, the airport to collect consignments, and the truck stands. It wasn’t easy, since I also had to take my children to school and back. My mother offered me a place in her large house to set up my office and looked after my children after school. I named my company Saiyid Books.

My first mission was to travel to the UK in search of agencies I could represent. I visited many publishers to persuade them to appoint me their exclusive agent in Pakistan. I went to the big publishers of that period, such as Longman and Macmillan. They were surprised to meet this new, one-woman publishing house, yet were interested in my proposals and were willing to make me their non-exclusive agent.

Other publishers were more receptive. I returned to Karachi reasonably satisfied, with about half a dozen agencies and some useful contacts. I registered my company, opened a bank account, obtained an import licence, and then began the task of collecting orders in Pakistan and preparing to import books. Raza Rahim, my banker, walked me through the process of getting an import licence, opening letters of credit, and the entire process of imports and remittances.

Although my office was a spare room in my parents’ home, it was actually in the large briefcase that I always carried with me, which contained samples, catalogues, leaflets, letterhead paper, stamp, and cheque books. I visited schools, universities and libraries with catalogues of UK publishers, made presentations, and collected orders worth several hundred thousand rupees.

It was a risk, since no advance payments were made. If my customers backed out, my fledgling business would collapse and I would be in debt. But I went ahead and placed orders, and the books began to arrive. I went to the airport with a clearing agent to clear them from Customs.

I did the costings and pricing, typed invoices, packed books in cartons, loaded them into the car, drove to the truck stands in Kharadar, an old crowded area of Karachi, booked the consignments to different parts of the country, and despatched the truck receipts and invoices to customers. And thus my business was born. Thankfully, my customers came through with their payments.

One day, I turned up at the law firm of Surridge and Beecheno with some law catalogues and met one of their partners, Abdul Bhojani. They went on to become one of my best customers. They would mark their requirements for books freely in the catalogues. I built up their reference library.

Then one of their partners wanted books from India. I didn’t have a clue about the Indian market, but identified a jobber who bought books from different Indian publishers and exported my orders. Surridge and Beecheno were delighted each time their order arrived and paid promptly.

I started noticing that, even after making payments to my principals and other creditors, my bank balance was rising! I was getting children’s books, school textbooks, academic and law books and supplying them to a growing list of customers across Pakistan. I developed a secure clientele through good service and the efficient provision of a wide range of books. My staff grew to five between 1986 and 1988 and Saiyid Books began generating an income. Eventually, some key British publishers contacted me to discuss shifting their business to me.

Back to OUP

Around this time OUP’s head, Zia Hussain, left his position and a team arrived from Oxford to recruit a new chief. They interviewed many people and then called me. We had a good meeting and they invited me to rejoin OUP as Sales and Marketing Director. When I had left OUP in 1986, I was reporting to the S&M director, and now I was the proprietor of a successful business. I declined.

A few days later, they called me again and offered me a new position: head of OUP Pakistan. I was tempted. When you have worked for an organisation at different levels, starting from the entry level, it is exciting to get a chance to head it. Everyone in my family dissuaded me, especially my sister Naushaba. She felt strongly that I should not trade a growing business with a salaried job.

But I did not want to remain an importer and distributor of books. I wanted to become a publisher in the true sense of the word, and this required substantial resources. I wanted our children to read books that would make them independent thinkers and proud of their country, and not produce colonised minds. I wanted colourful books in Urdu, Sindhi, and English that were sensitive to our culture and heritage.

I responded to OUP’s offer with interest. I was invited to Oxford to meet the top management. I was there for a week and, following interviews by people in various departments, I was given a letter of appointment. I returned and spent the next three months winding up Saiyid Books. A week after I took over, in August 1988, President Zia-ul-Haq died in the Bahawalpur plane crash.

The senior male staff members at OUP were shocked and dismayed to see a woman boss. They decided to gang up and place obstacles in my path and frustrate me enough to make me leave. I had given up a successful business which, I must confess, I later came to regret, and did not want to throw in the towel.

The staff started betting on how long I would last without the cooperation of senior employees. They wanted to run a business in which I would act as a rubber stamp and provide formal approval to their decisions. They would tell me to enjoy myself while they did the work, and would tell me that if I worked too hard, I would grow old. Some said I would last six months; others, a little longer.

This steeled my resolve to prove them wrong. I had to perform surgical operations to remove some of the ring leaders, and was able to do this as I was given autonomy and trust. Gradually, things improved and I built a new team and got down to the serious business of publishing.

My gender caused difficulties beyond the office as well. When I was running Saiyid Books, my work was restricted mainly to Karachi, which was more cosmopolitan. At OUP, I had to travel to all parts of the country. I remember a government official who, on seeing me enter his office, ran out as if he had seen a ghost, saying whatever work I had come for would be done if I sent a man.

I would visit booksellers in Peshawar in my liberal Karachi outfits and they would not even ask me to sit. They were afraid their reputation would be ruined if they were seen dealing with a woman. Eventually they realised that if they wanted supplies, they had to work with me, and they relented. Over time, they relaxed enough to not only offer me a chair but also kahvah. However, my gender was an advantage in dealing with school heads, who were mostly women.

The explosion of private schools in Pakistan at this time created great opportunities for private publishers and I ensured that we geared up for the challenge and benefited from the rapidly growing market for textbooks. I invested heavily in human resources and in the development of an extensive publishing programme and infrastructure.

Building a publishing company

Getting experienced and trained staff was a challenge. I myself had learnt on the job and benefited from mentors and the right opportunities. Among my mentors were Ravi Dayal and Santosh Mukherjee of OUP India, with whom I spent considerable time. I recruited editors, designers and illustrators, sales and marketing staff, and began guiding and tutoring them. Many attended a publishing course in India. Because they were well educated, motivated, and excited about learning new skills, they learnt very fast.

A UK-based designer came to Karachi for a month to set up a design department and train our designers and illustrators. We expanded operations from Karachi and Lahore and opened offices in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Abbottabad, Multan, Sargodha, Faisalabad, Sukkur, Hyderabad, and Quetta, after which we set up a network of thirteen bookshops in Pakistan and organised annual nationwide book fairs, held simultaneously in twenty towns and cities.

We were giving long credit periods to distributors because we lacked warehouse space and some stocks were actually kept outdoors under tarpaulins. We expanded our warehouse space to reduce dependence on distributors for our stocks as they took advantage of this to delay payments.

A major problem in Pakistan has always been book piracy, towards which we had a zero-tolerance policy. We took strong action against pirates by organising police-assisted raids. They reacted by ganging up and announcing a boycott of our books just when the schoolbook-selling season was upon us. We responded by setting up our own sales depots and counters for the season. However, when the season began, they broke ranks and began buying our books and selling only genuine books.

Cramped by the small size of a residential house in Karachi from which OUP Pakistan was operating, I bought a two-acre plot in Karachi and built an office of 40,000 square feet and a warehouse of 20,000 square feet. The new office was equipped with an integrated software solution that revolutionised business practices in supply and material management, distribution, customer services and royalties.

I tried to put in place global best practices and benchmarks to enable the business to operate at high levels of efficiency. The office building was a celebration of Pakistani art and crafts, with the works of Pakistani artists and craftspeople proudly showcased.

Creating a market

In 1990 we generated a heated debate in Pakistan on the sensitive issue of the creation of Bangladesh by publishing The Separation of East Pakistan by Hasan Zaheer. Issues that had hitherto been brushed under the carpet came out in the open. The book sold well and freely. No restrictions were placed nor obstacles created by the government of the day. Those who disagreed with the book responded by writing their own versions. We published those too.

Hasan Zaheer’s book acted as a catalyst for our publishing programme, and manuscripts flooded into our offices. From children’s books to doctoral theses, esoteric and research works, fiction and poetry and informative writing in several languages, there was so much to publish that I felt overwhelmed. Over 50% of Pakistan’s population comprises people below the age of 15, thus creating a huge market for children’s books.

Pakistan is a researcher’s delight. There are vanishing arts and musical forms and instruments to be documented, architecture in little-known places to be captured, unsung heroes and heroines to be resurrected, obscure ways of life, unique customs, and little-known languages and literature to be recorded. There are so many unexplored themes in literature – such as the lives of refugees, people subjected to karo-kari, children subjected to labour. Themes for PhDs and opportunities for pioneering research are not hard to come by.

In Pakistan, while capturing the market may not involve much more than pure business sense, expanding it requires an understanding of the conditions, attitudes, values, and habits of people, and the will and capability to change them. If you have imagination and courage, and can persevere, the field is wide open.

In 1997, we published 37 books to celebrate 50 years of Pakistan’s independence. In 2007, we published books 70 to celebrate Pakistan’s 70 years of independence. We were constantly on the lookout for new ideas, projects, and partnerships for promoting our books and authors. Where something did not work, we quickly cut our losses and moved on.

In 2010, after attending the Jaipur Literary Festival, I founded the Karachi Literature Festival, the first of its kind in Pakistan. Our aims were to promote authors, attract the general public to books and reading, and create a model that could be replicated across Pakistan and become a movement. Our festival was open source, anyone could replicate it. To my delight, literary festivals followed in Lahore, Faisalabad, Quetta, Hyderabad, Gwadar, and Larkana.

In 2017, we partnered with a research organisation, Bloomsbury Pakistan, and took the festival to Southbank Centre, London. I also co-founded a travelling Children’s Literature Festival, of which 65 have been held across Pakistan.

The new journey

In 2019, I left OUP and set up Lightstone Publishers in Karachi. But just as my new publishing house was about to become fully functional, the pandemic struck and we were all placed under “house arrest” as it were. For a couple of weeks, most of us were inactive. I must confess thay I enjoyed the detachment and time to reflect and work from home.

Eventually, even as the lockdown continued, my colleagues and I returned to regular work with the help of technology. Fortunately, when the lockdown was relaxed somewhat, bookshops were allowed to reopen; so our supplies resumed partially. Schools were due to reopen on 31 May, after the Eid holidays but that date has now moved to 15 July.

Covid-19 has shaken the world to its foundations and it is unlikely that we’ll go back to how things were before. Our lives and businesses will need to adjust to new ways. Our reliance on technology will increase and incessant air travel and local commutes will be replaced by tele-commuting and online commerce. It will certainly save time and expense.

I would have had to travel at least twice to Islamabad, once to Lahore, and once to London in these last two months had it not been for the pandemic. It’s been wonderful staying put in Karachi and having more time at home. New ways of working will evolve as the pandemic shapes our lives and we move from a globalised to a digital world.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.