His telephone calls would come any time, day or night. Without preliminaries, he would begin, “This is Anant Pai, one small doubt. Which is correct – ‘He managed his family on a shoe string budget’ or ‘He managed his family on a shoe string?’ After some time another call, ‘I think I should bring out stories on the Chera, Chola and Pandya kings, who have been neglected by history. What do you think’?” Once he got his answers, he would disconnect at once.
To be acknowledged by Anant Pai, ‘Uncle Pai’ to millions of Indian children, was no doubt flattering. At other times, on the phone, he would tell me about a story session he had with school children in Meghalaya, his plans to develop his children’s magazine – Tinkle -- or how some of the more famous Amar Chitra Katha stories would soon appear on television. He seldom spoke about himself, only his work and his duty to educate and entertain Indian children on the richness of Indian culture. It was a mission which he accomplished with great success. Last week, Anant Pai, 81, died of a heart attack at a Mumbai hospital.
We became close during the early 1980s, when the success of Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) was at its peak and at least two new titles came out every month. It was just before the TV revolution which weaned away lakhs of Indian children from their story books and story sessions with their grandmothers. I was working for Reader’s Digest then, and did a story on Pai which turned out to be hugely popular even with my editorial bosses in New York. No wonder, Pai was pleased and often introduced me as the writer who had made him famous!
While researching the story, I spent long hours with him and came to appreciate his meticulous research, punctuality, punishing schedule and quest for excellence. Pai commissioned writers to do stories for Katha and explained in clear terms what he wanted from them. He and his team would then convert the story into comic book form. Pai felt American comics were good entertainment but failed to bring out the greatness of America and its outstanding leaders. Also, the U.S. did not have the culture or interesting history like India had.
He was proud to be an Indian.
Some of the outstanding ACK stories were on Mughul emperors who invaded India. Sticking close to historical facts, they lauded the positive qualities and achievements of rulers such as Akbar. Keen that the comic series should cover a wide range of topics, Pai produced stories not only from the epics and history but also from the Jataka Tales, folk material and comic characters such as Tenali Raman. “We must present India and Indians in all their varied glory,” he explained.
The post-TV era did divert his young readers but Pai was ready for the new challenges. He brought out deluxe volumes of the most popular stories (like the one on Krishna and the Ramayana) and targeted the NRI children who were brought up on Superman and Spiderman. The ploy worked, for many NRI parents on their annual visits home, brought dozens of these volumes, and even recommended them to their friends. Soon Indian children living abroad had their own collection of Indian comics.
As the ACK’s fame spread, students from foreign university interested in India enrolled to do a doctoral thesis on the comics. With great pride, Pai introduced me some of these young scholars from the U.S., Canada and Germany. “The Indian culture is wonderfully rich,” they said. “Uncle Pai has brought this out beautifully in the ACK comics.”
The rapport between Pai and his young admirers increased with the publication of Tinkle and its popular characters, the classic fool Suppandi, the cunning fox Chamantaka and the dumb crocodile, Doob Doob, Tantri the Mantri and the ace hunter Shikhari Shambhu. Young Tinkle readers wrote regularly to their beloved ‘Uncle’ Pai who always replied.
In whatever Pai did, one could see his love for children; he was the Pied Piper whom the children followed eagerly to the wonderful world of entertainment. His death has left behind a void that’s too difficult to fill. Personally, I will miss all those telephone calls. His zest for life was hard to match.