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The gift of childhood memories

One of the architects of our childhood died on Wednesday. Pran Kumar Sharma created Chacha Chaudhary, a man who could solve any problem, as a comic character, but what he really was to us (at least three generations of children through the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s grew up reading him) is a friend; a constant companion through dark days of endless homework, teachers’ punishments, and boring tuition classes.

Pran, along with Anant ‘Uncle’ Pai and Aabid Surti, are the Holy Trinity of Indian comics. Uncle Pai gave us Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha. Surti saab gave us Bahadur, the son of a killed dacoit who was raised by a policeman to defeat crime in the badlands of India. Between these three, I have no idea how we completed high school and later, even college.

Pran Kumar Sharma  
Pran Kumar Sharma (left) created Chacha Chaudhary, a man who could solve any problem. Uncle Pai (centre) gave us Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha and Surti saab gave us Bahadur, the son of a killed dacoit who was raised by a policeman to defeat crime in the badlands of India

Like most school children of the 1970s and 1980s, my friends and I frequented circulating libraries to rent Diamond Comics, Indrajal Comics and Amar Chitra Katha. There would be frequent fights over who would get the latest issue of Tinkle first. Rajiv, an extremely close friend of mine, once stopped talking to me for several days because I lied to him that the school principal had called him after school.

The poor guy waited outside her office while I ran to the circulating library to pick up the latest Bahadur and Chacha Chaudhary. To be honest, he wasn’t upset that I lied to him; he was livid that I read the latest issues first. He then planted his doting mother at the circulating library for the next several fortnights. I never got to read the new issues first. He would invariably laugh at me the next day. I never understood then how he got the issues. Even schadenfreude used to be innocent in school.

Chacha Chaudhary and Bahadur taught us a lot. No, seriously, theirs were not just entertaining stories, they always taught us something without sermonising. And Amar Chitra Katha was possibly the best way we could learn history and mythology. I am yet to meet a person of my generation (or after that) who hasn’t learned about Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Sikh gurus and the story of Jesus Christ without reading Amar Chitra Katha first.

When Uncle Pai died in 2011, therefore, a part of our childhood died. Pran’s death has left a vacuum. We grew up with their creations, and even if they were some of the weirdest sounding characters — Suppandi, Tantri the Mantri, Sabu, Raka, Rocket the Dog, Shikari Shambhu, Chamataka the jackal, Kaalia the Crow, Doob-Doob the Crocodile, Nasiruddin Hoodja — we thought of them as nothing but friends.

Chacha Chaudhary entered our lives at a time when not many had seen a computer, leave alone used one. So when Pran told us that his brain worked faster than a computer, we were mighty impressed. When we were 11, Rajiv, the aforementioned friend, asked our English teacher whether Chacha Chaudhary’s companion Sabu came from the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. The tuition teacher did not know what the Great Red Spot was. Rajiv laughed so hard that he was punished with three raps on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. He later told me (and I still agree with him) that it should have been the teacher who should have been punished for not knowing anything about Jupiter, the planet where Sabu came from.

For us, though, it did not matter who came from where. The truth is, Chacha Chaudhary was a character of hope. He told us we could fight any crime, just like Bahadur and his expert-in-the-martial-arts girlfriend Bela did in Surti-saab’s comics. They defeated all evil. They made us believe that good people can win. In fact, Chacha Chaudhary did all that with just a stick. Bahadur, on the other hand, had a small police force and the disarmingly beautiful and strong Bela.

By the time my father began buying Bahadur, the famous astrologer Jagjit Uppal had taken over Bahadur’s scripting duties, but the hero’s charm and charisma remained. He looked a bit bulked up at times, but in those days not even Uppal saab would have known about steroids until Ben Johnson ran the infamous 100 metres at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. I used to be quite fascinated by Uppal because at that time (early to mid-1980s), he was the only famous personality I knew who could afford a full-time office at the Taj Mahal Hotel.

In Mumbai, my friends and I never got to see Pran, so he was always an enigma to us. So were Uncle Pai and Surti saab. Since there wasn’t much television or certainly no Internet, we never got to meet or interact with these geniuses who shaped our childhoods. It is only in the last decade or so that Surti-saab has taken to water conservation and it is because his work is being lauded the world over that we got to know him better.

It doesn’t matter much, though, that we never got to meet Uncle Pai and Pran. Because, between the three of them, they have left us with perhaps the greatest gift of all — childhood memories.

Sachin Kalbag is editor, mid-day. He can be reached at sachin@mid-day.com or on Twitter at @SachinKalbag

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