Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Goodbye, Uncle Pai

It was the month of May and the hot summer sun was beating down on no one in particular. A young boy, around seven years of age was standing on the platform of a railway station with his parents. He was happy. The horribly monotonous ritual that was school had just gotten over and he was waiting to go to the only place on earth where there would be absolutely no repercussions (or beatings) for his actions. In fact, it was a place where his mother would get scolded more often than him. His grandmother’s village. But a whole day of train travel was a prospect that he didn’t fancy too much (AC seats were very expensive, you see). And he’d made his displeasure clear to his mother right from the beginning. How? By whining and unleashing a barrage of questions upon his mother, who was already tired at having to take care of the boy’s little brother.

Seeing this, the father sprinted to the nearest bookshop and bought a couple of magazines. He ran back to the train and slid the magazines through the window and told the boy, “Here. Take this. It’s a very good magazine. And keep quiet.” The boy picked up the magazines and looked at them. On the cover was a motley assembly of monkeys, crocodiles, foxes, a king and his minister and a hunter whose hat had completely covered his eyes. The boy read the title: T-I-N-K-L-E. ‘That’s a strange name’, he thought. He dived into the book, having nothing else to do, and never came back.

That little boy was me. As you might have read, the founder of Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle, Anant Pai, fondly known to us children as Uncle Pai passed away recently. Anyone who has grown up in the ‘90s and has a reading habit will have read Tinkle. The beauty of Tinkle lay in its simplicity and its endearing characters. Tantri the Mantri was a genius when it came to plots and we never failed in our enthusiasm to find out how his plan would be undone. Shikari Shambhu (coward that he was) always was the hero. The Suppandi strips were like little children themselves – good, clean and loveable. Kapish the monkey always amazed us with his cleverness. The awesomely funny pair of Chamatka and Doob-Doob is perhaps the one of the funniest characters I’ve come across. Then there was Nasruddin Hodja, Pyaarelal and the rest of the gang.

My grandmother’s house is an old mansion (it’s a big house really, but it’s my blog so I will call it a mansion). The whole area is a bunch of houses with terraces so close to each other that you can practically jump across from one terrace to another. Just behind our house is a house that is more than hundred years old. Its roof has caved in, and I could see the courtyard and the old rooms. Having just read an Ajay adventure in Tinkle, I jumped from my terrace into the old house. Like Ajay, I didn’t break any bones, but unlike him, I got what every child in our generation got for not following orders - a couple of slaps, an audio cassette’s worth of screaming and a stern warning of more of the former to follow if I fooled around anymore.

Tinkle was not just stories. It was educational. There was Tinkle Tells You Why – something that explained science in an easier, cooler way than the textbooks. There was the geographical tour feature that took you places – I remember a travelogue comic of sorts on Nagaland – precisely because it showed the rich culture and landscape of Nagaland, which till that point of time (for me) was a place where people with straws in their hair shouted ‘Humabalala jhingalalala’ and danced around in circles. There were the Tinkle fun projects (from where I lifted one project and secured an ‘A’ at school). There were puzzles and we competed for the princely sum of Rs 50 (I think) and getting our name featured in the next issue. I sent in many entries, but never won a prize. But I did get some stickers. I’d also sent in entries for ‘It Happened to Me’, though never got published there (I only tried once).

Uncle Pai also gave us Amar Chitra Katha. It all started out when he saw on DD, a quiz where the participants answered questions on Greek mythology but couldn’t name Lord Ram’s mother. We all owe our mythological stories to two sources – grandmothers and Uncle Pai. Say the name Ram and the first picture that comes to mind of anyone from my generation will be the yellow-blue-red-green shaded cartoons from ACK. I was a decent quizzer at college and won a quiz by answering a question on mythology, thanks to my copy of ACK.

Mind you, Tinkle got me into a lot of trouble. There were many a chiding sessions for reading it while on the dinner table, for spilling food while reading it on the dinner table, and for ignoring all other chores and errands while reading it. I remember getting scolded by my grandmother (a rarity) for reading it while my aunt was getting married in our house. What could I do? When you are ten years old, you are too young to be of use to anyone, and too old to be of entertainment value. You are hence a hindrance wherever you go.

After that fateful train journey, it became a family ritual. Whenever my feet touched the platform of any damn railway station in the country, I had to be bought a Tinkle. And I always got the fortnightly copy, since it was for ten bucks. Only after shameful begging and coaxing on the platform would the larger digest make its way into my hands. It was for 25 bucks you see, a huge amount to be spent on a kid in those days. I only recently gave away my old copies of Tinkle.

I will scour the cupboard this weekend and I’m sure I have some copies left.

I regret having never written a letter to Uncle Pai. I should have done so. Uncle Pai replied personally to most of them (from what I’ve heard). So here is a short one.

Dear Uncle Pai,

This is my first and last letter to you. Tinkle is what initiated me into reading and it's a habit that I will never change. Ever.

Thank you uncle for all that you have given us and done for us. Thank you for all those beautiful summers and those wonderful train journeys. Thank you for all the delightful stories that drove away boredom and taught us many valuable lessons. Thank you for all those times your magazines came to our rescue when we just wanted to escape annoying neighbours when they came over.

A big thank you for making Indian mythology cool, simple and entertaining.

But I have many unanswered questions. Will Tantri ever become friends with the Raja? Will Suppandi ever learn? Will Shikari Shambu ever get away from trouble? Please do answer these if you can. 

And thank you again for shutting me up.

A loving fan

PS: It was my little cousin’s birthday in December and I went to buy him a gift. Being the idiot that I am, I had no clue what to get them. Kids these days are so cool that I feel like a Neanderthal amongst them. So I decided on the safest bet. I got him a Tom & Jerry DVD.

It was a mistake. I should have bought him a Tinkle instead. Or an ACK.

Write in your thoughts on Tinkle and ACK. Do share this tribute if you like it :)


Arps said...

Wonderful tribute to Uncle Pai. I reckon he would have overcome with emotion if he read this blog. Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha have been a big part of my family's and my developing years. In fact, after I am done writing this comment, I am going to dig into my stash of thirty -something year old Amar Chitra Kathas (yeah, they were my moms, the dust is imbedded in the pages)!

Thanks for the wonderful tribute...

Anonymous said...

Amazing tribute. I could relate to most of your experiences and that made the post very special.

The reminiscence of the childhood days and the way you have sketched Uncle Pai into it not only echoed the thoughts of the kids but also semi grown adults like me.

Wonderful work!

Anonymous said...


Very nice post. I had written to him once and got a hand written reply. Also got some prizes - Tinkle goodies :)) The world will miss him.

Abhishek Mukherjee said...

Very well-written, mate. Brought back emotions from a time I'd give anything to go back to.

shikhar prateek said...

nice post...