(Published in Sify.com on 14 December, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/to-mario-and-uncle-pai-from-us-kids-of-the-1980s-news-columns-lmokaSaaaad.html)
This year has seen the deaths of two men who were constant presences in the lives of all of us who grew up in 1970s and 1980s India, and who live on in the bookshelves of the more anal of us, who refuse to part with the books that bound the written word to its accompanying art.
Of course we didn’t have computers or the internet or mobile phones, and most of us didn’t have colour TVs – leave alone VCRs – until we were a few years old, but those email forwards have told you all about that, so I’ll cut to the chase.
You see, all we had were stories. And what most of us have forgotten is that our parents couldn’t tell us a lot of stories, because our parents didn’t know those stories. They grew up in convents and mission schools, and were taught to turn their noses up at ‘Hindu mythology’.
So, when we watched Ramayan and Mahabharat on TV, and wanted to know what the fuss was all about, they bought us Amar Chitra Katha – the franchise started by Anant Pai, apparently when he watched a quiz programme where kids knew all about the Greek Gods, but couldn’t tell who Rama’s mother was.
We didn’t care about why he started it, though. To us, Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman, Vali, Sugreeva, Ravana, Indrajit, Kumbhakarna, Krishna, Karna, the Pandavas, Duryodhana, Kunti were all vibrant, dynamic characters, people whose faces we came to know through the pastel-coloured panels of those deliciously thick books with delicately fragile pages. They were an intrinsic part of our lives, and suddenly, the history that our parents’ schools had seemingly erased, was back.
But we wouldn’t know Uncle Pai until Tinkle came along. Along with Kalia the Crow, Kapish the Monkey, Suppandi the Simple, Tantri the Mantri, Shikari Shambu, Pyarelal and Lajo, “Butterfingers” Amar, the Defective Detectives, Nasruddin Hodja, Ramu and Shamu, and Chaman Charlie, we met ‘Uncle Pai’, who would patiently answer our questions about science, life and mangoes.
On many afternoons, I would write out neat letters and make neater duplicates in my best handwriting, convince one of my parents to post them, and wait anxiously for the next edition of Tinkle. Uncle Pai answered many of the questions I asked, but it turned out someone else had always had the same question at the same time, drat it!
Mario’s presence in our lives was perhaps more fundamental, but even less known. Our textbooks back then were ugly things with purple pages and cheap newsprint that would latch on to our faces when we fell asleep over them.
Worse, they were populated by annoyingly obedient girls called Anu and Priya who were always weighing vegetables and conducting scientific experiments in controlled environments. You knew these girls brushed their teeth twice a day, rescued animals, helped old people, carried little children, loved their baby brothers, won brownie points with Miss and Mummy, were the apples of their Daddy’s eyes, and spent their evenings with Grandma, Grandpa and God.
Somewhere along the way, Anu and Priya and Mummy and Daddy took shape in beautifully drawn sketches. And whoever was drawing them, you knew he probably found Anu and Priya as infuriating as we did. They had these blank expressions and oiled pigtails, and you got the feeling their cheeks were about to tear with their plastic grins. Their teachers glowered at them, their pets seemed to roll their eyes at them, their classmates smirked in the background, as Anu and Priya posed for the cameras.
And then, there were the real kids – the ones who looked terrified that they may miss the school bus, the ones who looked cheesed off that they couldn’t go out and play cricket when it was raining – and the mothers who looked less like Sharmila Tagore than like our own mothers.
And then, there were the animals – those wonderfully expressive cats and dogs with their raised eyebrows, those contented cows whom you could see munching the grass, not chewing the cud. Yes, this is India, dahrleeng. And even the buxomest socialites, with the largest tinted glasses, wore sarees.
It was much, much later, when a lot of those books had been consigned to the weighing scales of the men who came around yelling, “Papaaaaar!”, that we found out who their creator was. His greyscale illustrations in papers made an astounding contrast to the vivid plates of our childhood.
His characters were moody, and while some shut us out, some drew us in – some looked at us with a frown, as if to share a private joke about the fools they were sitting with. His political cartoons didn’t need thought bubbles or speech bubbles, but when they were put in, they made us laugh even louder.
His risqué caricatures of Goan beaches, where nude sunbathers shared space with bespectacled housewives, were offset by the fairytale-like paintings he made of wedding processions and marketplace crowds.
What Mario and Uncle Pai did, in their own ways, was to subvert our thought process. They were grown-ups who became our kindred spirits. And by being those favourite uncles of ours, they could make us realise our own sensibilities. They could make us go beyond their artwork. When Narakasura tore off Aditi’s earrings and Lakshmana mutilated Shoorpanakha, we heard their screams; as Luva and Kusha rushed to stop their mother from disappearing into the cracked earth, we felt their pain.
We came across both Uncle Pai and Mario around the same time, and we’ve lost both of them around the same time. We all know their work will stay with us, even though they’re gone. But the reason all of us in our late twenties and thirties and early forties are so saddened is that these two people were the ones who gave us our India – our stories, our laughs, and our imagination.
And that is why, even as all of us nod vigorously at each other’s tributes, we each feel compelled to write one of our own.