Way back in 1986,I wrote a question in neat cursive,using a pencil: What causes hiccups? I wrote my age,address and the name of my school,and made sure I stuck enough glue to the Re 1 stamp on the envelope. I remember walking with my mother to the post box to mail my letter to Uncle Pai,to get my question printed in Tinkle,copies of which were my most prized possessions. Cracking a snobbish group of five-year-olds is difficult,the requirement back then was at least 10 copies of Tinkle (I was safe,I had saved over 30). The question would be printed in the Tinkle tells you why section. I was nervous,and I am sure I prayed every night for Uncle Pai to read my letter. It was a big deal. Tinkle,with its panels of cartoon characters such as Pyarelal,Suppandi,Raja Hooja and Tantri the Mantri,Shikari Shambu,Kaalia the crow,was a saviour for us entertainment-starved kids of the 80s.
Train journeys were eagerly awaited ,so that we were closer to the A.H. Wheeler stalls,the mother-ship that held spanking new,crisp copies of the 20-odd page Tinkle. It was a ritual when I got my monthly copy of Tinkle,each story was savoured slowly,each panel scanned for the bits of grass at the bottom of the tree,the white clouds w-ed in the sky and the v birds in the distance. Tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were brightly illustrated with the queens and apsaras adorned in transparent veils,and proud moustachioed kings. The evil guys were marked with an eye patch or a missing tooth. Like our childhoods,everything was perfect,nothing was grey.
Anant Pai,who started Tinkle in 1980,gave us the world for Rs 10. Uncle Anus club,another series in the same comic,explained fundamental science,the one-pager with the quick-witted Nasrudin Hodja or Suppandi with his large head and an infuriated master ordering him around was a fun read,and a conversation-starter for most of the under-ten crowd. Shikari Shambu was the portly,lazy hunter who barely moved an inch,yet managed to snare a runaway circus lion,thanks to some help from a plate of idlis (yes,it could get as random as that) it was always fun.
The stories always began with a panel with the title of the story,the name of the illustrator and the name of the contributor,mostly a child,his or her address with a pin-code printed below the name. This has now been replaced with e-mail IDs. No kid will now share her postal address,but back then we knew the names of roads in Guwahati and Chennai,thanks to the tiny box. We would imagine having friends from all over the country. Each issue of Tinkle was a journey we took over and over again. We had Tantri the Mantri sharing his devious plans to displace Raja Hooja,which fit in with our own little white lies and childish cruelties,though Tantri always managed to mix up sleeping potions so they were consumed by everyone but the king,or somehow end up with an arrow in his behind when a hired sharp-shooter mistook Tantri for Hooja. It was a riot.
But the most priceless bits in the comics were the middle sections,with the infotainment pages,something that Uncle Pai introduced himself with a paragraph addressing millions of us as if we were his own. He would write about Indias rich history and in little neat squares down the page,we were told to match the following images of the Qutub Minar,the Charminar,and the Taj Mahal were lined up,and eager readers were asked to match them with the names. It was decades later that I actually saw the Qutub Minar,but I was first introduced to it in a little box. Tinkle now has illustrations that looked Photoshopped,the mythological figures have rippling muscles maybe now the kids may even know what a Botoxed queen is all about. The answers to a question about hiccups can be found easily on the Internet,and Shikari Shambu is way too slapstick for any five-year-old today. But in a time when finding a pen friend was a big deal,even writing an It happened to me (entries from seven-year-olds on how they sipped castor oil mistaking it for a bottle of juice,or how they took hold of a strangers hand in a crowded market,and realised later it was not their father,but the kind stranger got them home) is all in the past now.
But we were glad Anant Pai gave us Tinkle.
My question never got printed,but I got an envelope,saying thank you for sending it across. I didnt mind. I had a letter from Uncle Pai and it meant the world to me. It always will.