Eighty-nine-year-old Vaandu Mama, who has been writing for children for almost 70 years, takes us through his fascinating literary journey

Vaandu Mama peers at the paper through his spectacles. It has my first question for the interview —“Who is your favourite among the characters you created?” He reads it and gives a half-giggle. He smiles to himself as he writes down the answer — “Bale Balu, a character that made me famous. My son’s name is Balu — Balasubramanian!” At 89, the children’s writer’s ability to hear and speak has reduced. But the fire in him is as alive as ever. I write down question after question, to which he gives crisp, sometimes witty, answers. The interview, that took place on two consecutive afternoons, gives a fascinating insight into the master storyteller’s mind.

Vaandu Mama, the creator of Bale Balu, Samathu Saru, Annachami and Veera Vijayan — characters that were part of the imaginary worlds of children for decades, lives a quiet life in an apartment in Chennai. Words are in his blood — even today, he continues to write for children with his ink pen, sitting by a balcony.

V. Krishna Moorthy, who writes under the pen-name Kausikan for adults, and Vaandu Mama for children, is the son of a priest from Tiruchy. He lost his father at a young age, and was brought up by his aunts. As a little boy, Vaandu Mama “drew images of gods on the school blackboard with chalk during holidays”. “I wanted to become an artist,” he recalls.

Initially, Vaandu Mama worked as a commercial artist, while his hands itched to create masterpieces. He later got a job in Ananda Vikatan under cartoonist Mali. “I wanted to get familiar with the artists there — Gopulu, Chitralekha… But I couldn’t become an artist.” Vaandu Mama later took on the avatar of a writer with great success. He ran several children’s magazines, sometimes single-handedly; he took care of the content, editing, layout and design.

Overcoming odds

However, this success did not come easily. “The hurdles were many. But there’s a thrill in overcoming them and succeeding, isn’t it? A boxer knows no pain after he has won the match.”

The world Vaandu Mama created has charmed children across age groups. A little boy wielding a welding gun takes on a genie from a magic lamp, an eight-ft tall teenager saves a naïve raja from his evil minister… with Vaandu Mama, almost anything was possible. He wrote at a time when there were few writers for children in Tamil. “We too have to become a child to write for them. It is not easy to write about complicated matters in a way that children can comprehend and enjoy. Perhaps that’s why there are still very few writers for children.”

Vaandu Mama now prefers to write non-fiction compared to fiction. He has created books on birds, animals, insects, planets, machines, art and craft… He designs the wrappers for his books himself, and even designs the layout. The people and the imaginary realm he created continue to occupy his mind. “It is true that my characters talk to me. But now I cannot act according to their will, for I am old,” he says with a smile.

(Vaandu Mama ran a hand-written magazine called Bharathi when he was a school student. He has worked for magazines such as Sivaji , Kalaimani , Kadhal , Kalki , Gokulam , Kunkumam and Dinamani Kadir. He has run children’s magazines such as Vanavil , Sivaji Siruvar Malar , Kinkini (which he single-handedly ran from his home) and Poonthalir. It was cartoonist Mali who encouraged him to write and gave him the name ‘Vaandu Mama’. He has written over 65 stories and novels, 28 picture stories and 45 Science-related books for children, and six short-story collections and 10 novels under the name Kausikan)