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.