By Joseph Ngunjiri
KENYA: Anyone who has gone through the Kenyan education system in the last three decades must have come across the name Malkiat Singh. So omnipresent have titles bearing the name been in all subjects that some may have initially concluded ‘Malkiat Singh’ is a publishing house, before probably realising it is one person responsible for such prolific publication.
Malkiat has over the years provided the bulk of revision books for schools ever since the 8-4-4 system of education came into force in 1985. The most popular is perhaps the yellow-covered KCPE Encyclopedia, which was a collection of test questions for Standard Eight pupils.
The book, whose publication coincided with the initial Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams, proved to be a runaway success as almost every household had it.
The encyclopedia in effect ushered Malkiat into the psyche of Kenyans. From then on, book after book under the Dhillon Publishers imprint was churned out. And there is no stopping Malkiat as the next generation of 8-4-4 learners turns to his books.
Currently, he has over 24 titles approved by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) – previously known as the Kenya Institute of Education – for use in primary schools. To understand what this means, one needs to appreciate that only approved books – in the KICD’s Orange Book – can be bought using Free Primary Education funds.
And when you consider that in every academic year there are eight million pupils sitting the KCPE exams, it becomes clear that the man has made a fortune through writing books for the schools market.
“I keep improving my writing through hard work and dogged perseverance in the face of cut-throat competition,” says the soft-spoken Malkiat. “Writing school books for me has been a full-time job since the 1970s.”
On whether he writes all the books alone, Malkiat says he always acknowledges whenever he has received assistance from other authors. He explains that as a former teacher, he has a deep understanding of what is required for the school market.
“Of course it entails grasping the basic concepts of the syllabus as laid down by the Ministry of Education,” says Malkiat.
Looking at the salt-and-pepper bearded Malkiat, one can swear that he is not a day older than 60. But looks can be deceiving.
“For the disbelieving types I normally tell them that I am 55, but with the rider that it excludes weekends,” says the 75-year-old with a knowing smile.
So what is his secret for remaining fit at such an advanced age? “I am a member of Parklands Sports Club and Nairobi Gymkana,” he explains. “I go for workouts to remove extra calories.”
To show his appreciation for the 8-4-4 system of education – the goose that laid the golden egg for him – for a long time he ensured that all his vehicles’ number plates had ‘844’ in them. He, reluctantly, stopped the custom “for security reasons” after the Sunday Nation profiled him and mentioned the oddity.
What is more, his vehicles are delivered directly from the Sang Yong Motors factory in South Korea, who by now know his specifications. Malkiat says he never drives any vehicle for more than two years.
Such is the power of his famous name that he has got himself out of trouble on a number of occasions. “At times I am flagged down by traffic police officers, but they usually let me go without any trouble once I show them my driving licence,” says the author, adding that the law enforcers and many other people he encounters are usually pleased to meet him in person having only read his books.
Malkiat’s resemblance to Salim Lone, an adviser of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, has always earned him some curious questions.
“People often say that we are twin brothers, but I also joke that unlike him I am not involved in politics at all,” he says.
And for those who think that Malkiat’s first book was the KCPE encyclopedia, the man has news for you. His very first book, English Language Practice for Schools, was published in 1970 by the Longman Group. After its publication, Malkiat says he felt as is he were “on top of the world” having been recognised by a British publisher.
Then, he was a teacher at the Technical High School, which is today Nairobi Technical Institute, in Ngara.
“I got to know Tom Openda, who was sales rep for Longman, and he told me that they were looking for locally-based authors,” says Malkiat.
Tom, who later became managing director of Longman Kenya, also introduced Malkiat to Indian-based Orient Longman, who commissioned the budding author to write a series of English grammar books for the Indian market.
“I still get a good royalty cheque from India,” he says.
At some point in his writing career, Malkiat had thought of furthering his studies in Literature from the University of Nairobi. He even approached Ngugi wa Thiong’o, then head of the Literature Department at the University. But upon realising who he was, Ngugi convinced him that his skills would better be utilised writing books.
Apart from Dhillon Publishers, which he owns, Malkiat has been published by six other companies, both local and international. They include Longman UK, Orient Longman, Macmillan India, Evans Brothers UK, Vipopromo Agencies (Kenya) and Soma Group Kenya.
“I always concentrate all my efforts in providing publishers with manuscripts that they find commercially viable,” he says.
Malkiat, who got his BA degree at the age of 20 from India’s Punjab University in 1958, came to Kenya the same year.
“My results had to be sent by post,” he explains.
He had just got himself a bride and was looking forward to settling down. His bride’s parents, though living in Kenya, originally came from Malkiat’s village in Burj, Punjab.
As is the custom, theirs was an arranged marriage. “My parents were especially keen to have one of their children live abroad,” recalls Malkiat. “Apart from being the first one from our village with university education, I was also the first one to go abroad.”
The arrangement also worked well for his future parents-in-law as it was important that the husband to their daughter, Mohinder Dhillon, was someone who would easily get a job in Kenya.
Malkiat started off his teaching career at Eastleigh Primary, where he taught all subjects for about one-and-a-half years. He later joined Technical High School, where he taught Maths and History up to ‘O’ Levels, and English Language and Literature at ‘A’ Level.
At the time, he says, Asians dominated and the school had very few African students.
“I resigned from teaching in 1975 and took up writing on full-time basis,” he adds.
Malkiat, who has over 100 textbooks published in his name, is not about put his pen down.
“I still have the energy, the motivation and the drive, so why stop?” he asks rhetorically.
The author is a father of two daughters, both based in the UK. The younger one, Simi Dhillon is a maths teacher and has co-authored books with him.
Malkiat reveals that he is currently working on a book on English idioms for the schools market. He promised that The Nairobian will be the first to know a major announcement regarding the future of his writing.
“This one is big,” he says cryptically. “It will have a major effect on the Kenyan publishing industry.”