By Sushmita Bose
A couple of months ago, when I was in Kolkata for a family wedding, I’d visited a mall. There was a bookstore my nine-year-old niece and I discovered, tucked away on the third floor. Intending to introduce her to Enid Blyton, I wafted down the aisles only to stop short at a display counter showcasing comic-book copies of Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha (let’s call the latter ACK from hereon). Enid Blyton temporarily forgotten (I eventually managed to get to her “corner” an hour later), I pulled across a couple of beanbags, plonked myself and my niece down on them, and started rifling through the offerings.
My niece was intrigued. “What lovely drawings — and such nice stories! Look, there’s a man called Shikari Shambu… and Kalia the Crow!” she picked up the thread, but I was too far gone down memory lane.
As a kid, both Tinkle and ACK were de rigueur. I used to pick up copies whenever we visited my grandparents (which was at least once a month) — who lived in the burbs — and we had to catch a fast train from Kolkata’s Sealdah station; the station bookstalls used to be full of them; while my mother and aunt would pick up film magazines to keep them occupied through the one-hour journey, I’d grab as many Tinkle and ACK copies as I could.
So, what was so great about them?
Short answer: cultural context.
These were Indian comic-books. In English (there were/are translated versions, but I only read them in English). In one sweep, all my (nascent) intuitive associations about my identity were transposed into a graphic novel format. If Archie and Jughead ate burgers and milkshakes, Tinkle characters — in a yet-to-be-globalised India — tucked into samosas and lassi with equal relish. Batman’s Batmobile was rather cool, but I preferred Krishna’s chariot in ACK’s Mahabharata.
Tinkle followed the Archie template; same size, a digest that packed in stories, puzzles, games, and a host of characters with their adorable quirks, but where it deviated (and which, I suspect, is the reason why my parents were so encouraging of my obsession) was that a lot of content was educational.
The founder of Tinkle and ACK was one Anant Pai — aka ‘Uncle Pai’, aka the Walt Disney of India. The story goes, sometime in the 1960s, he was horrified to learn that young, urban Indians were keenly “connected” with ancient Greek and Roman mythology, but knew very little of their own country’s treasure trove of such stories. That’s what motivated him to start ACK — a series of comic-books that told stories culled from Indian mythology, folklore, fables (like the Panchatantra) and history; it also re-interpreted Indian literary classics.
I remember getting hooked to (Indian) history after graphically learning about Akbar (loved his snatches with Birbal), Rani Laxmibai, Shivaji, Maharana Pratap etc. If I got bored with my school textbooks, I’d simply turn to ACK to get myself back in the groove.
Tinkle was launched in 1980, aimed at schoolchildren, but obviously it had/has a legion of adult fans (including me, circa 2018). Foolishly, I’d somehow imagined that Tinkle and ACK had become footnotes in history, so I am ecstatic to learn that not only are they alive and kicking, there’s also an online site (www.ack-media.com) where you can look up — and subscribe to — new issues/titles (as I write this, I’ve just finished reading Shikari Shambu’s exploits with a leopard cub).
Also happy to note that, since 2015, Tinkle has a female superhero: Mapui Kawlim (aka Wingstar). Mapui is 13, hails from the northeast Indian state of Mizoram, and her powers are “super flight and super strength”, derived from “gadgets developed by her inventor-father”. She’s actually a regular kid, who’d rather play cricket than fly around or flex her muscles, but you know what it’s like, right?
The bookstore at the Kolkata mall made quite a killing at my expense. I picked up an awful many Tinkles and ACKs. I told my niece I was buying for her, but I had one condition of offer: that I’d read them first.
She agreed readily, and said she’d, in the meantime, get cracking with Enid Blyton while I did my stuff.
I devoured them in record time… so good to get reconnected with Shikhari Shambu, the cowardly hunter who the rest of the world believes is almost as brave as Jim Corbett, country bumpkin Suppandi (I looked them up online immediately and was most chuffed to find individual Wikipedia pages on both!), clumsy boy Butterfingers, the whole cool gang — it was like a reunion with old friends!
When I had to finally hand over ownership to my niece at the end of the reading spree, I managed to sneak one Tinkle into my suitcase (yes, I pilfered!). It travelled back with me to Dubai. Yeah, I know Tinkle is for kids, but it gets my childhood back to me when I re-read it on days I miss times gone by.
Sushmita is editor, WKND. She has a penchant for analysing human foibles