Reading came early to me. Through the pages of the colorfully illustrated English children’s books, written almost exclusively by American or British authors, my peers and I, attending schools established by the British for British and Anglo-indian children of the 19th century, absorbed stories with innocence and nonchalance.
Around the age of 12 was when the discrepancies between myself and the characters in my books started to register. Ladybird Book’s blonde haired, blue-eyed Peter and Jane looked nothing like me, nor did their relaxing holiday to the English seaside look anything like my family’s eventful outings to Hawksbay beach. Most of the books I read, it seemed, posed this problem. In contrast, Ruqayya Diwan Adamjee’s second book, ‘Main Aur Tum’, that launched last month at The Second Floor, is quintessentially Pakistani.
Main Aur Tum features 48 whimsical illustrations and emotive phrases that cherish perfect pairings encountered during ordinary life in Pakistan. Written with an audience in mind, the book’s native theme, characters and anecdotes are as comforting as they are familiar, and will resonate with adults and children alike. Written in both Urdu and Roman Urdu, the book is accessible to a varied demographic and can be read from left to right, and right to left. It does not therefore have a beginning or an end, just like the optimism that characterises it.
Graduating with a degree in Economics from Duke University in 2013, Adamjee worked at an impact investment fund for 3 years before writing and illustrating her first book, the bestselling ‘Choti Choti Khushiyan’. While her first book was published by Markings Khudi, the self taught artist/writer challenged herself by choosing to self publish ‘Main Aur Tum’.
The perfect pairings in ‘Main Aur Tum’ are the common, easily overlooked fragments in our daily lives. Some revolve around food like “Ramzan aur pakoray”(“Ramadan and fritters”), some deal with necessities like “jootay our polish” (“Shoes and shoe polish”), and some are more universal like “neendh aur khwaab” (“sleep and dreams”). But the most enjoyable pairings are the ones that represent the cultural fabric of Pakistan like “chawda augst aur hara rang” (“Independence Day and the colour green”), and “Shaairy aur wah wah” (“Poetry and appreciation”). These imaginings, rooted in Adamjee’s very specific visuals, instantly transport the reader and evoke elation and nostalgia.
A complete novice to illustration, Adamjee sought inspiration from the books that had colored her childhood. The consistent use of the colour red for cover, binding and first and last pages of the book evince Dr Seuss, while the expressive eyes of the ‘Main Aur Tum’ characters recall figures from P.D. Eastman’s ‘Are You My Mother’. In the rapid lines that create movement within still drawings, and the hand drawn aesthetics that characterize her work, one can also see traces of Quentin Blake. Set against the brilliant white of the page, the black and white illustrations read as simple, unstuffy, and relatable. The sparring use of colour emphasizes – coloring a cricket ball red creates drama in “aakri over aur tension” (“last over and tension”); accenting the large white stage in “mehndi aur dance” (“mehndi and dance”) with chromatic orange lights help create a sense of the theatrical.
When initially faced with the insatiable positivity of the book, I found myself questioning whether the book made me feel glad for its effect, or guilty about engaging in what felt like escapism. In truth, it consciously did both.