Monday, February 28, 2011

Uncle Pai ki Amar Katha

An integral part of my childhood-as that of nearly every Indian child of my generation- died last week.

Anant Pai, or Uncle Pai as we all knew him, shaped our knowledge of Indian mythology, classics, and history. An accessible 2.50 to 5.00 Rupees per comic when I read them, the Amar Chitra Katha series created a passion for reading in a whole generation of school children. The stories, set as they were in an Indian landscape, were much more easily adaptable for playacting than the decidedly alien Enid Blytons we otherwise read. We would trade them, read them, and play at them during the long summer holidays.

These comics are also where I learnt my history and my mythology. The personality and colour infused comics were much more attractive than the dry textbooks where we were supposed to memorize dates. The comics gave us a sense of the events, of the people behind them. Instead of the focus on a handful of largely male 'Heroes Of The Freedom Struggle' as our texts had, the Amar Chitra Kathas showcased the smaller struggles, the people in the supporting cast, stories that might otherwise be forgotten.

And its the same for the fiction. I grew up knowing the bare bones of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, of course. What I loved about the Amar Chitra Kathas is their focus on the little known figures in those stories.  Vali,  Abhimanyu, Prabhavati, Hidimbaa. They made accessible stories that would otherwise have never entered people's lives. The comics brought to english-only readers like myself versions of the great tamil classics ( Kannagi, Manonmani ) and the lesser-known sanskrit classics (Nala-Damayanti, Urvashi).

Possibly no single source has done more to shape the way we view our mythological figures than these comics have. Yes, it was Raja Ravi Verma who first gave them form..but how often does a nine-year old child in a little coastal town have access to Ravi Verma's paintings? The comics brought them to her doorstep..

This sounds like an advertisement for Amar Chitra Kathas; I guess I got a little carried away when I was thinking of the books I'd read. They were not all perfect. The illustrations, attractive though they were, are not historically accurate. My sis decided not to let them be a part of my nieces babyhood library because of they tend to ooze adultery, violence, deceit, jealousy, and lust. In the series' defense, its because Indian mythology, like the Greek, is an adults-only soap opera. What is a little less difficult to defend is their depiction of demons as dark and curly-haired, of villainous women as obese, of 'good' women as cloyingly submissive. And the history is a little simplistic.

But they are attractively illustrated, written, and presented little books. They never claimed to be archaelogical journals. They gave me much happiness during my childhood. I owe my interest in reading, in history, and in classical literature to the seed they had sown. I would still pick them up in a flash.
Thank you, Uncle Pai.

The illustration is from the Amar Chitra Katha website.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

One Year

Soppy romantics that we are, Mian and I celebrated our anniversary where we spent our honeymoon. It was perfect. We visited the places we had been to before (being us, these places were restaurants) and managed to do the sightseeing we hadn't done last year (again, restaurants and bakeries). And above all, we enjoyed just strolling hand in hand along the streets again.
The first time we visited, we were taken aback by the sheer beauty and courage of this vine. It seemed the perfect essence of Fontainhas to us..warm, breathtakingly and inexplicably lovely, hanging on despite the odds. We oohed and aahed over it, clicked a snap and then forgot about it.
Till we walked the same path this year. A more profound person than I am will probably find something apposite to say re the growth of this vine and of our marriage. Me, I can only smile goofily at it and hope we meet each other next year too.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Of Taxiwallahs

You know how excited I was about my trip down south. Bubbling over with happiness, in fact. Despite that, I began our holiday in a profoundly sad frame of mind.
The reason? The cab we had hired to take us from a friend's house to the railway station. It was one of the super-efficient, super-convenient radio taxis. We booked online, our cab was waiting for us 15 minutes before schedule, and we reached our destination in time for coffee and a leisurely settling in. The cab was superlative. The man behind the wheel? Noticeable because of his invisibility.
, I am used to the drivers’ personalities colouring the vehicle. The conversations, the music, the assorted deities and film stars stuck on the windshield. With the radio taxi, it was all different. We did not have a single conversation with our driver. When we entered the taxi, he pressed a button and a recorded voice welcomed us in. When we exited it, the same recorded voice thanked us, told us the fare, and reminded us to collect our change. No banter about the weather, no comments on politics, no enquiries about our journey, no philosophizing about how to end climate change.
I think I can guess the reason. The cab was directed towards an urban, globally travelled market. The driver was a young man from the banks of the Ganga. From the Dark, as Adiga calls it. He was necessary to manipulate the controls, but heaven forbid that his rustic odour taint the sterilized interior of the car. I imagined the training sessions, the emphasis on denying his identity. And that depressed me beyond belief.
It is soul-deadening to suppress all that makes you the person you are. It is not possible to kill just a part of one's character- Everything dies. It reinforces the feeling that you are not good enough. It is sickening, depressing, and a world that requires this is a sad place. Seeing other people as humans rather than machines might be good for their esteem; it is essential to my sanity. There are days on end when my only human interaction outside the office is the local sabziwallah. What would I do if he tried to suppress himself? The shoe-maker scolds me for protesting when he mends my shoes using different colours for each. What would I do without that laughter filled argument?

I lost my wallet in Pune. Seeing me hunt for it up and down the street, an autowallah stopped me. "Don't be afraid. Tell me where you live, I'll drop you home." He spoke in rural marathi, and his accent would have been unacceptable to a radio-taxi chain. Thankfully, not needing to suppress his words also allowed his kindness and generosity to exist.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Knight of Nizamuddin Railway Station

Its good to be back. I love that I feel warm and comforted the instant I enter our home.
And I would not have been here if it was not for the kindness of a stranger. Atleast, that is what he told me, and I fully agree.
When I arrived at Nizamuddin yesterday, I dragged me and my suitcase all the way from the station to the prepaid booth, queued up for 20 minutes in the rain, got a prepaid receipt, and then was told that I'd have to walk all the way back. It was during this walk that my fingers got rubbed raw by the suitcase, my socks got wet and muddy, and my jeans treacherously decided that they had had enough of this apple shaped woman and began slipping off. There I was then, transferring my bag from one aching hand to the other while pulling up my jeans between transfers. The one auto I managed to hail down refused to take me to the New Delhi station.
I didn’t have the gumption to argue and so hitched up my jeans and continued walking. A few metres down, I was stopped by a young man who was drinking tea with much style.

'Where do you want to go?'
'New Delhi Station'
'Why didn't you get into that one'
'He refused to take me!'
'Nonsense! Just get in!'
'He refused!' (high pitched yelp)
'Madam, this is Dilli. If you approach people so lovingly, you will still be standing here tomorrow morning! Here, come with me..and hide that chit you are waving around. Auto! Take madam to New Delhi. Madam ,you just get in and give him the chit when you get there. Let me take that suitcase'

I was dazed by all this activity, but thankfully recovered enough to lunge back out and thank him. Like some fairytale knight, rescuing women in distress was all in a days work for him, and he was now back to savouring his chai.