- “Writing came to me in the late 1960’s when I was approached by representatives of Longman Publishers. They were looking for local talent. I wrote four books for them while I was still a teacher.”
- It could be five pages or five paragraphs or five lines or just five words. It does not matter, but every single day, I have to put down something. And I am not about to stop.”
- Publisher Lawrence Njagi, the managing director or Mountain Top Publishers, says that selling the 43 titles and closing Dhillon Publishers that ceased publishing in 2012 was the only option that Malkiat had.
Along Factory Street in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, near Landi Mawe, there sits a string of large buildings surrounded by a wall fence and automated gates.
From afar, they look like warehouses or factory buildings.
Once the gates are opened, a couple of guards, a chugging machine room, crates upon crates full of rims of paper and gallons of ink provide the welcome.
On the first floor of the building, a smiling secretary ushers visitors into a large, warm brown coloured office whose waiting area is furnished with black leather seats and a glass table and a thick lush carpet on the floor.
On one side of the room is a large round table with several leather seats around it. On the other side is a desk and a seat.
Its occupant is not yet in the room.
When he finally walks in, he does not quite look like what I expected.
You see, the man is Malkiat Singh. Yes, that one.
The man whose name is synonymous with 8-4-4, KCPE, KCSE and success cards.
His is a household name in schools and homes countrywide as he is the most prolific author and publisher of revision books for schools in the country.
Malkiat Singh’s revision books have been in numerous school bags over the past 43 years. And yes, he is a very financially successful author, ranking high up there with author Wallah bin Wallah.
Malkiat is not tall, yet one can’t call him short either. He is not loud when he talks, but then again, he is not soft spoken either.
He is calm, with a firm handshake. Grey hair, clear eyes. He calls for refreshments from his secretary.
Dressed in a brown pair of khaki trousers and a simple jungle green shirt, he is the opposite of what his name connotes.
With all his success as a publisher and author, why has he remained in the shadows of the city — down in Industrial area — when he could easily have moved to the city centre or some up market area?
Does he have a family, anyone we should know of?
Above all, why did he decide to sell his 43 titles to Longhorn Publishers in August, yet his publishing firm was among the best performing in the country?
Could he be running out of ideas or has he just seen a new opportunity or maybe, just maybe, has he bought Longhorn Publishers in a backstage deal? Could that be it?
In 1938, at a farm in Burj village in Punjab, India, Malkiat Singh was born. School and farm work were the order of his life then.
On finishing high school, he moved to Punjab University to persue a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Political Science. He graduated in 1958.
He married the same year at 20 years of age, jobless and straight out of university.
It sounds like the start of a movie with an unpredictable ending.
His wife, Mohinder Kaur, is a Kenyan of Indian origin. After the marriage, he left his homeland to move to Kenya with the wife. Since then, he only visits India occasionally.
“When I arrived, I wanted any job. I needed money to support my family. A relative of ours decided to apply for a teaching job on my behalf. He filled the forms and submitted them to Eastleigh Primary School. They invited me for an interview and got the job,” he says.
He taught at Eastleigh Primary School for a year and-a-half, then he was promoted to Nairobi Technical High School, which was essentially a secondary school.
There he taught History, English, Literature and Mathematics. With this background, one can understand how one man could write books on language, mathematics, history and civics.
Nostalgically, he goes back to the time when he started writing.
“Writing came to me in the late 1960’s when I was approached by representatives of Longman Publishers. They were looking for local talent. I wrote four books for them while I was still a teacher.”
He adds that in 1975, he left teaching to concentrate fully on writing. It is the only thing he has done since earning a place in schools and households and claiming a cornerstone in Kenya’s education system.
There is something purposeful about him. “I have to write something every day, except on Sunday.
It could be five pages or five paragraphs or five lines or just five words. It does not matter, but every single day, I have to put down something. And I am not about to stop.”
He has done so for the past 43 years.
At 75 now, his love for football, which he used to play, has not waned, though with age he now does his workout in a gym.
Some of his most important decisions seem to have been influenced by very odd events.
Take his decision not to enrol for Masters or PhD classes for instance.
He had written four or five books, and had planned to join the University of Nairobi’s literature department.
Writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o was then a lecturer in the department.
Malkiat first arranged a coffee meeting with Ngugi at the Norfolk Hotel. Over coffee, he told Ngugi he wanted to join his Masters class, then proceed to the PhD class.
Ngugi gave him an amused look and asked him in a serious matter of fact way: “What for? You are already doing what people go for PhDs to do and you are doing it well. Just keep doing what you are doing.”
Ngugi and Malkiat have not met since and he is not sure Ngugi would remember that conversation.
Ngugi reminded him that the few books he — Malkiat — had written already were his PhD certification. He just needed to keep writing. And that is exactly what he has been doing since.
As Malkiat finished his coffee that evening, out went his dream of pursuing a Master’s degree.
“I believe that if you have a destination, when you take a step, no matter how small the step, you have moved closer to your destination. I write daily, in fact, sometimes I work on two or three books at ago.”
His two daughters have settled in the UK and have born him seven grandchildren.
First born Baldeesh Kaur Rai is a dietician and co-author of a science book series.
Simi Dhillon, is a teacher in London and a co-author of a primary school Mathematics book series. They visit Kenya every Christmas.
Malkiat’s wife, Mohinder Kaur, is in his words an exceptional wife.
In August this year, Longhorn Publishers acquired 43 titles from Malkiat Singh. Both Malkiat and Longhorn are tight lipped about the cash value of the deal.
The only thing that the Longhorn managing director Musyoki Muli made public was that the current Intellectual Property rights valuation for the 43 titles is Sh83 million, and that they target to make Sh200 million annually in sales of the 43 Malkiat titles from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Malawi, South Sudan, Tanzania and Ghana.
But why sell the titles when he is at the top and doing well?
Malkiat says that for a loner like him, the publishing industry dynamics have changed so much of late that competing would have been difficult.
He has always worked without a proper marketing structure, which he says is essential for survival in the current market.
Mr Muli agrees. “Strategically speaking, publishing has some of the lowest industry barriers.
This means that the market is liberalised and open. The best scene for heated competition. And being that his main source of resources is school books, which everyone else is eyeing, things get a little thick.”
Publisher Lawrence Njagi, the managing director or Mountain Top Publishers, says that selling the 43 titles and closing Dhillon Publishers that ceased publishing in 2012 was the only option that Malkiat had.
“It was a smart move and if you ask me, I’d say that he would not have survived the next 10 years on his own,” says Njagi, the chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association.
So what were Malkiat’s best years out of the 43?
“The decade of the 1990s was very good. My books were selling better than those produced by the major publishers. This went on up until 2005. Those were very fruitful years. I was all over.”
And there were hard times, too. Some time in 1993, the frustrations of dealing with publishers led him to form Dhillon Publishers, which published his books until 2012.
The decision to stop publishing came when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. He took to caring for her, and balancing the two was not practical since they had to travel abroad frequently for treatment.
She is now completely healed.