The comic book era
N J Ravi Chander
The comics and storytelling were our only escape in the pre-television era. My late father, M N Jayaraman, was a comic addict and weaned us on a healthy dose of fantasy, adventure, horror and humour.
Comic strips always fascinated us and were the first thing we looked up in the newspaper every morning, followed by the sports news. Politics was at the bottom of on the list, and least interested us! The sound of the newspaper hitting the ground with a thud after being flung by the delivery boy was music to the ears and the younger siblings and I would make a dash for it, turn to the sports page which carried a three-panelled comic strip and follow it with glee.
We were gobsmacked by the gorgeous illustrations and tried to trace them on a piece of paper with a pencil and crayon. The comic strips came in the form of a serialised story, and as die-hard fans, we kept our fingers crossed on what would happen next. While one English daily ran the strip “Tarzan the apeman” another local newspaper carried the equally popular “Phantom – the ghost who walks”. Dad dedicated a few minutes every week to snip the precious comic strips from the papers. He stowed them in a drawer to be bound later – separately for each episode.
An avid magazine reader, my father introduced us to the iconic “Illustrated Weekly of India” which cost just a rupee. It contained the fascinating comic strips, “Denis the Menace”, “Hubert”, “Flash Gordon”, and “Uncle Remus”.
In high school, we got hooked to comic books that we rented out from the local library. We went nuts over “Peanuts”, awed at “Richie Rich”, envied “Archie” who had the pick of the girls including Riverdale’s privileged princess Veronica and the girl next door, the demure and sweet Betty. “Mandrake, the Magician” was a different kettle of fish offering readers, magic, occult and the fantastic.
The Indian comic books, Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, Akbar and Birbal, Panchatantra, Champak and the Chandamama – to name only a few – helped create a magical aura. Stories of Tenali Rama, Vikram and Betal along with ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Cinderella’ were our other favourites, and we never grew tired reading or listening to them.
In the late evenings during school vacations, our parents enthralled us with stories from the Ambulimama – the Tamil version of the Chandamama. The stories narrated with ebullience, including gestures and change of tone, were delightful experiences and made our day. But listening to eerie tales (the family elders sometimes made them up)was the ultimate – it made our skin crawl as we sat huddled together near the story-teller.
The stories told with intensity evoked fear of the dark and the shadows that dwelt within it. The scary tales not only gave us the creeps but came back to haunt us in our dreams. Many of the stories not only brought vibrant characters alive and provided many a hilarious and fearful moment, but also transported us to a different world of make-believe. A look of woebegone was evident on our faces when the narrator ran out of stories. Unfortunately, the art of storytelling has lost its sheen, leaving today’s generation much the poorer.
(The writer is a former banker who has taken up writing as a pastime. He contributes to the Deccan Herald, The New Indian Express, The Tribune, The Hitavada, The City Tab, The Hans India and Kashmir Vision)