As part of the 1960s generation whose staple diet was largely imported comics, it took us some time getting used to Amar Chitra Katha. After all, most of us grew up on superheroes like The Phantom, Tarzan of the Apes, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers etc and were, overnight, transported to a new world of Krishna, Rama, Shakuntala and Chanakya.
It’s hard to figure out today if there was a certain snob value about our obsession with Western heroes but this quickly passed. The Amar Chitra Kathas were fun reading in their own quaint way and, thanks to them, we did not end up sleeping in history classes. The man each of us thanked silently was Anant Pai whose name appeared on the front inside cover of every issue.
It was always my ardent desire to meet him and, one afternoon nearly five years ago, I called Pai to break the ice. The first thing I remember was his enthusiasm and warmth while greeting another aficionado of comics. He began telling me about the Amar Chitra Katha journey which actually began in the mid-1960s when he discovered that most of us knew so little about Indian history. “That’s when I decided something should be done to change all this,” he said.
I confessed to him that The Phantom was still my top favourite to which Pai reminded me gently that he was actually part of the think-tank that brought Indrajal Comics (featuring The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician) to India. Apparently, surveys showed that The Phantom would click with the masses since it was being featured in the comic strips of The Illustrated Weekly of India and there would be a readymade connection. It did not, therefore, make sense to think of Batman or Superman as the first local offering.
“The first issue was The Phantom’s Belt way back in 1964,” Pai told me with authority. I gasped at his memory and told him that I had been trying to get a copy of this comic for years. Pai was not remotely interested in the subject and brought me back to the Amar Chitra Katha saga. This was clearly a subject that he was passionate about and the fact that these comics had proved to be so overwhelmingly successful was sufficient proof that his reader instinct was spot on.
In today’s age of the Internet and fashion, it is remarkable how kids are still tuned into Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle where Pai, again, was the guardian angel. In contrast, The Phantom or Mandrake have been relegated to the archives and do not strike a chord with the current generation.
I remember telling Pai during our telephone chat that I would catch up with him the following week to just discuss comics over coffee. It was my fault that the meeting never happened thanks to my chaotic work schedules and subsequent amnesia. Isn’t it tragic how most of us do not keep in touch as often as we should and end up regretting not meeting someone only after he/she has gone? Thank you, Uncle Pai, for bringing us so much joy into our lives.