Amar Chitra Katha’s final chapter

By Dev Nadkarni

For millions of Indians like me, our acquaintance with India’s incredibly rich history, mythology, folklore and culture would have been so much the poorer without Amar Chitra Katha, the legendary comic book series, whose visionary founding editor Ananth ‘Uncle’ Pai passed away this week.

I had the good fortune of not just having been raised with a growing library of Amar Chitra Katha since I was five but also realising a childhood dream of actually working with Uncle Pai on the celebrated comic book series and its sister publication Tinkle for a few years – that, too, as my very first job in my writing career!

Uncle Pai was a legend in his lifetime.

He was the google before Google. His knowledge was colossal and his memory prodigious. Be they chapters from the Bhagwad Gita or long verses from the Guru Granth Sahib and be they Kabir’s Dohas, lengthy shlokas from the Upanishads or Tagore’s Bengali poems, he could reel them off effortlessly to drive home a point – whether at work or in the course of his wonderfully engaging extempore speeches.

We would walk into his office anytime and ask him any question: a date in history, a place name, the sequence of a dynasty – anything. And we would have the answer in seconds.

He knew eight languages – he could read, write and speak in each of them and had even authored books and magazine articles in some of them. He would often converse with me in our native Konkani even in the office.

He was a scholar cast in the classic old mould of pre-independence philosopher-statesmen like Dr S Radhakrishnan. But unlike them, he was able to explain the most abstruse of concepts to young children in an amazingly interesting way. That was his gift.

Though he didn’t have any of his own, children were Uncle Pai’s be all and end all. His dedication to regaling them with books, stories, anecdotes, quiz contests, running nation wide clubs and playing mentor, career guide and friend was consummate.

Children from Srinagar to Thiruananthapuram and from Dwaraka to Gauhati adored him and on a typical day in the Amar Chitra Katha offices, as many as three hundred letters would be opened and read by a dedicated staff tasked only with reading and replying to children’s letters and filing away contributions for future publication.

“Nothing encourages a child as much as recognition and nothing discourages as much as the lack of it,” Uncle Pai would say insisting that every letter was acknowledged – and he replied to many of them personally, with great fondness. Remember, that was before the age of computers and email – so it involved dictating to stenos, typing, mailing, filing, keeping written records …

I know of several people who have still saved the replies they received from Uncle Pai to show their own kids.

His day would begin at 4am and he would be in the office at the crack of dawn. As well as attending to the voluminous correspondence, he had to pore through script ideas for future Amar Chitra Katha titles, edit scripts, guide illustrators, supervise production and oversee distribution besides looking after the publishing company’s other children’s publications like Tinkle.

Publishing for children was the brilliant chemical engineer’s passion from the very start. Having failed to run a children’s magazine in the 1950s, he joined the publishers of the Times of Indian in the 1960s and was asked to come up with ideas to fill the idle capacity of the newly imported colour printing plant that was used to churn out the prestigious Illustrated weekly, Femina and Filmfare.

Uncle Pai saw this as a great opportunity to indulge in his passion: of starting with Indian illustrated classics for children but the publishers didn’t share his excitement. He struck a deal with New York based King Features and converted Phantom and Mandrake comic strips into 32 page books published monthly and then fortnightly.

In comics with shorter stories that finished in 28 pages, he inserted what could well be India’s first-ever regular comic book feature – Around the world with Kunju Pillay, which catalogued the eponymous character’s bicycle journeys around the world.

Having successfully launched the comic series, which was published under the banner “Indrajal Comics,” Uncle Pai began to scout for publishers to back his Indian illustrated classics project. That’s when he met with G.L. Mirchandani, the founder of India Book House who said he would back the project as long as Uncle Pai would not charge for his own labours until it went into print and recovered the expenses.

Uncle Pai took up the challenge and scoured hard to find a good illustrator. He found Ram Waeerkar to illustrate the first script, “Krishna.” Waeerkar remained with the project for several decades his death a few years ago – and “Krishna” remains the most reprinted title in the series having sold several million copies in nearly 50 languages around the world.

The first half a dozen titles took long and made it to the newsstands quite irregularly. It took a few years and a team – comprising Kamala Chandrakant and Subba Rao besides about a dozen illustrators and a production set up – before Amar Chitra Katha began to roll as a successful enterprise.

Uncle Pai won many accolades in his long career with Amar Chitra Katha. While leading that great enterprise, he also rang a syndicated feature service, Rang Rekha Features, which he later sold and a personality development system based on Indian values called Partha.

I know of several Partha graduates around the world who have greatly succeeded in their professional and personal lives and who look back at Uncle Pai and the “Partha Institute” with fondness and gratitude.

After the Mirchandanis sold Amar Chitra Katha to a private equity enterprise, the new set up stopped publishing new titles instead leveraging the creative and intellectual capital that had been created over the decades by launching a series of products based on the series. Both Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle though are still published and are highly successful as a series of repackaged products from their earlier avataars.

Though the new set up continued to employ Uncle Pai and looked after him well, he had little to do in the last years of his life. For a man who put in 18 tireless hours a day to create products like Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle for much of his life, such a void was hard to handle, according to those close to him.

The 81-year-old had a fall about ten days ago, which necessitated surgery to his hip. He passed away after a massive heart attack while recovering quite well from the fall. He is survived by his dear wife Lalitha, several nephews and nieces – and of course by millions upon millions of Indians who will remember Uncle Pai’s immense contribution to their early lives.

Uncle Pai – a very personal tribute

By Dev Nadkarni

I am from that generation of Indians who were among the early ones to grow up in nuclearised families in big cities – without the indulgent presence of grandparents to tell you stories from India’s epics, Puranas and incredibly rich folklore.

For me, as for the millions of Indians growing up since the 1970s, Amar Chitra Katha filled that onerous role. By the time I was 6, I was hooked on to the series, waiting eagerly for the next title to hit the newsstands and reading it over and over again until I knew each word and frame like I knew my multiplication tables.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have not only been raised on a diet of Amar Chitra Katha but also to have had the opportunity to work with the series editorially – and that too as the first job in my writing career!

I had to postpone starting on my first job after graduation because of my father’s serious road accident that required me to tend to him for about six months. He encouraged me to take up a post-graduate course in journalism that had classes only in the late afternoons.

At about that time, my mother spotted an advert in Mumbai’s afternoon newspaper Mid-day asking for a part time editorial assistant at India Book House, the publishers of Amar Chitra Katha. I called Uncle Pai. He asked me to “come down for a chat.”

Fifteen minutes into our exchange, he offered me the job. But it wasn’t to do with Amar Chitra Katha. “We’ve got a new magazine called Tinkle – that’s what I’d like you to work on.” Tinkle was new and hardly known. My heart sank, somewhat. But a quick tour around the office where I got to shake hands with Uncle Pai’s fantastic editorial colleagues whose bylines I’d read and admired so much in so many Amar Chitra Kathas elevated my spirits.

The thought of working with Kamala Chandrakant, Subba Rao and Nira Benegal excited me. Nira (noted film director Shyam Benegal’s wife) was Tinkle’s associate Editor and my supervisor. Uncle Pai, Kamala and Subbu would be my guides in those first few months.

Working with Uncle Pai was an incredible experience. His knowledge was immense and his powers of recall unbelievable. He was a human Google. There was no subject he did not know anything about. His mastery over as many as eight languages including Sanskrit and Pali struck awe in me. He enjoyed building teams as much as he enjoyed leading them from the front.

Though I busied myself writing up stories for Kalia the Crow, Shikari Shambhu, Tantri the Mantri, Suppandi and Tinkle’s many features, Uncle Pai never forgot that I always wanted to write Amar Chitra Katha titles. About a year and a half into the job – by which time he had already elevated me to the position of associate editor alongside Nira – he asked me if I wanted to do a title.

I was excited and thought he would pass on something nice and easy like Panchatantra or Birbal stories for me to try my hand at. I was wrong. Something had convinced him that I could take on heavier stuff. “How about doing a title on stories from the Upanishads? There are good stories there but make sure their underlying philosophy comes out in a way that kids can understand,” he said.

So there I was reading through Upanishadic texts and stories and writing and revising in the highly precise and concise comics format such abstruse concepts as being and non-being through the stories of Shwetaketu and Nachiketa.

An even more challenging title was writing “Tales from Zen Buddhism.” Scripting Zen concepts for illustrated comics without losing their spontaneity and wisdom was one of my most fulfilling tasks ever.

The point is that Uncle Pai had it in him to not only extract the best out of people but also give them both the confidence and the chance to push their own boundaries even when they had no confidence to do so themselves. There is much that I learned in those few years at Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle.

When it was time to leave Amar Chitra Katha, Uncle Pai advised me: “If ever God wants to destroy you, He’ll appear in your dreams and urge you to start a magazine.” I am indebted to him for that advice, which has guided me throughout my media career, helping me to ignore God when he appeared in my dreams every so often. To that advice I owe being the contented man I am today.

Over the years, I kept in touch with Uncle Pai, meeting him whenever possible. He shared his wedding anniversary with that of my parents, so that was always a day we would speak to each other every year for many years.

One day in the 1990s I decided to bind my entire collection of Amar Chitra Kathas – some 375 of them – for posterity and carried them to my office. For some reason they remained there long enough for one of the cleaners to think of them as being of no consequence and selling them off as junk for Rs 22.

Unfortunately, I discovered it a couple of weeks later and a round of the junk shops around Mumbai yielded nothing. Many of the titles were never reprinted and were lost forever. I thought of calling Uncle Pai and asking him to help me out to compile a new set.

Eerily, it was Uncle Pai who called me. Just the week before, his offices had been consumed by fire and all his record copies had been lost. I had read about the fire in the papers but did not know Indian Book House too was gutted. “You are my last hope. I am sure you have a whole set intact,” he said. When I narrated what happened to my collection, we were both beside ourselves with frustration and disbelief. There was nothing we could do.

Uncle Pai will always have a special place in my life. I am indebted to him for inculcating in me a love of knowledge, the highest respect for India’s infinitely diverse culture and heritage and the love of a vocation dedicated to spreading that word.

NZ media falls into the stereotyping trap – again

By Dev Nadkarni

For all its pontificating about media ethics and criticising media practice in the developing world, the west’s mainstream media persists in applying double standards in how it reports and comments on non-mainstream and overseas issues.

The Pacific Islands and Pacific islanders – including those living in New Zealand  –have borne the brunt of insensitive reporting and editorialising along with other migrant minorities for some time. And the trend continues – as two recent instances showed.

Last month a family of Fijian nationals of Indian descent was involved in what appears to be a case of extreme family violence. The badly burned body of the woman was found on an isolated rural road. Investigations found that her husband had fled to Fiji with the couple’s son. Following good coordination and swift action by the Fijian police, the man was apprehended and put in custody.

The New Zealand media fuelled wild speculation around the incident about the act of violence being an honour killing. This has been hyped on such a scale, that the New Zealand Police had to publicly clarify that the crime was being treated as a homicide and not a case of honour killing.

The communication from the head of the investigation team stated, “There has been reference by some media about an ‘honour killing’, I want to reassure our Indian community, Police are investigating a homicide enquiry.

Honour killings are certainly prevalent among the South Asian subcontinent’s communities – and these are reported from around the world from time to time. There have even been successful films based on real life incidents. But not every violent and heinous crime involving women of the subcontinent’s ethnicities can be dubbed an honour killing unless it is proven to be. This is exactly what the New Zealand media did.

Fuelling wanton speculation that this particular case could be one of an honour killing even as the police from the very beginning have been saying that it is being treated as a homicide was therefore insensitive – if not downright mischievous, which it could well be according to a conscientious media insider.

Would the New Zealand media have indulged in similar speculation if the incident were of a more mainstream nature – one that looked, sounded and felt more New Zealand than migrant?

Would reporters have phoned a clutch of experts to ask their opinion and broadcast them linking them to the news story even before the investigations were complete? Would they make speculative assumptions contrary to the investigating authorities’ specified line of inquiry (in which case clearly was stated as homicide)?

Highly unlikely that this would have been the case. Journalistic ethics would have been applied more rigorously – even perhaps with considerations of political correctness.

But honour killings, bride burning and the like is culturally a foreign issue – so it’s okay to speculate in cold print and over the airwaves, as it were. Even when the police say that it is being treated purely as a case of homicide – at least as of now.

Reporters went into overdrive to reinforce the speculation of the honour killing angle and contacted members of the Indian community for their reactions. The exercise was totally pointless. The Sharmas are from Fiji, where there is no record of honour killings in the manner that there is on the South Asian subcontinent.

But that did not matter to the media, which seemed determined to push the honour killing angle and keep talking about it at full blast. Not to be outdone, TV3 roped in Amnesty International to reel off statistics of honour killings around the subcontinent and how the malaise was following migrant settlements across the world.

Every major news outlet played along with the honour killing angle, interviewing ethnic Indian workers of women’s and social organisations to record their general statements about honour killings and linking them to this case.

New Zealand TV channels dropped their reporters parachute style into Fiji as they have done every so often in past decades and persisted with the honour killing spin though by then there was enough being said in other media that the phenomenon did not exist in Fiji.

Writer and Auckland University researcher Ruth DeSouza commented: “The reporting on this deplorable and heartbreaking story of a life brutally taken away resorted too quickly to cultural explanations for the crime.

“This has two negative effects. Firstly, the issue of family violence is sidelined; secondly, a stereotype is reinforced which ‘insider’ commentators have to fight against in order to have such a crime treated based on available evidence.

“Culture becomes something fixed and concrete, the efforts of ethnic community members to address family violence (endemic in every community with subtle variations) is hidden or pathologised. Surely responsible journalism could find out some more about this sad story before reaching for cultural explanations?

“While the desire to seek ‘answers’ after a death like this is understandable, when the media reduces complex cultures to stereotypes, it fails in its mission to inform.”

A veteran journalist who obviously appreciates inclusive reporting and journalism said, “You would be surprised that there is a kind of secret code to dismiss those who say no to the stereotyping. I’m off in a box labeled eccentric cynic. Somehow younger journalists who know this kind of labeling is wrong must be empowered … but [they] cannot fight it [entrenched attitude of their seniors].

A few months back, because of his derogatory remarks about New Zealand’s Governor General and the deliberate mispronunciation of the last name of an Indian minister who was in charge of the Commonwealth Games, the television host responsible had to resign after a raft of complaints to the broadcasting standards authority.

As of writing this, Indian community leaders in New Zealand were in the process of considering options if the reporting in the present homicide case merited another complaint to the authority.

One would expect the media to try to break stereotypes, not reinforce them.

So, in New Zealand, when Indians are not running dairies, liquor stores, driving taxis or cooking curry – and getting mugged or shot in the bargain – they’ve now got a new activity: they’re burning brides and killing for honour.

First appeared in Islands Business, February 2011