At Tinkle, we called him unc

Published: Feb 27, 2011, 07:15 IST | Janaki Viswanathan |

It was eight years ago. The caller spoke my name and then introduced himself: "Uncle Pai here. You can work for us from Monday

It was eight years ago. The caller spoke my name and then introduced himself: "Uncle Pai here. You can work for us from Monday." My heart did a somersault. I'd bagged a job at Tinkle comics, and Uncle Pai, whom I had only read as a child, had himself called to announce the news. Typically, Uncle Pai became self-conscious after that one line, said no more and hurriedly handed over the phone to then associate editor, Reena I Puri, for details.

Late Anant Pai, or 'Uncle Pai', as he was known to scores of children,
comic book fans and ardent readers of Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha,
is seen here poring over some letters at his office

The excitement of that day stayed with me through the two years I worked for him. Uncle Pai or 'Unc' as we called him, to quote a former colleague, was one of the few people who didn't crush your starry-eyed ideals of how the world should be. Tinkle was as idealistic as we'd imagined and as steadfastly dedicated to the purpose of fostering the reading habit in children as we had believed. Above all, Unc believed in full participation by children in his creation.

Working out of an unpretentious office in Mahalaxmi Chambers and staying in an even more unpretentious home, he had single-handedly brought about a revolution in children's reading with Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle. And he never let it lose steam.

What was so special about working for Unc? He'd pore over every mail received from readers, every story we scripted, every quiz we thought up, every page before it went into print, and never appreciated it if we stayed a minute beyond office hours: 9 am to 5 pm.

Of course, he had his own set of rules. We weren't allowed to use any slang (no 'hi', 'yaar', 'dunno'), propagate anything that had a streak of negativity (once, a drug smuggling mystery story was changed entirely two days before going into print, because the culprit was the family doctor of the protagonist. 'Children hold their family doctors in high regard,' said Unc, 'we mustn't let our story erode that belief.') and above all, make sure we packed the edition with stories sent in by the children themselves.

Of course, we had our grouses against Unc. We thought him old-fashioned, and sometimes a tad chauvinistic, but he always indulged us, laughing merrily at our arguments, often reciting lines of shlokas to enunciate a point. And despite all of his micromanagement, most often, he let us have our way. 

The fun part of working for Tinkle? Reading through readers' letters. Children from all over the country would fill pages with original stories along with passionate pleas to get them published. Unc wouldn't have the heart to reject most of them and often, we would receive little notes by him saying, 'please give it a new twist and let's print it anyway.' He received hatemail too from readers who had been done the grave injustice of not being sent their prizes on time.

I remember one particularly angry letter scrawled by a boy who invited Unc to his home and promised to make him drink dirty water. These he'd read with as much dedication, and snigger.

The most admirable thing about Unc � he took great personal pride in how much his own employees had matured over the years. I remember the day I quit Tinkle and was expected to make a little goodbye speech.

My stutter has always been a cause of much fear in public speaking, and I dislike any attention drawn to it.

That day, I mustered up the courage and spoke three quick lines about how much I'd enjoyed myself at Tinkle.

Uncle Pai was the first to respond, as he said in his frank manner, "Ah, you got through all that without a single stammer. Well done!" It wasn't embarrassing or belittling � it was sweet.

Janaki Viswanathan was Sub Editor at Tinkle from 2002 to 2004.

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