Thursday, February 24, 2011

Rest In Peace, Uncle Pai

For every Indian child, books would mean only one thing: Tinkle. My Grandma, cross at me reading 'comics' with small images and text that might harm my eyes, would scold me for reading Tinkle. And I would argue with her valiantly. Any criticism of Tinkle felt like a personal criticism. Excellent performance in exams, good behaviour would be rewarded with a special copy of Tinkle or Amar Chitra Katha. Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha made me fall in love with books and today, I cannot imagine life without books.

Uncle Pai, as he was known by every child and teenager (who wouldn't admit he/she still reads Tinkle but enjoyed it tremendously), is no more. After seeing that Indian children seemed to know more about Greek mythology than Indian mythology, Anant Pai launched Amar Chitra Katha, India's largest selling comic book series which told to a young India stories from its past. Mythology, history, fables, epics, the colourful pages of Amar Chitra Katha were the Indian child's guide to understanding India and her rich, vibrant past.  

One of the most vivid images I have of my childhood is of lounging on my bed and seeking refuge from the searing heat during summer holidays, through the way I knew best: flipping through the pages of Tinkle Summer Special. Anant Pai's Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha came to define many of our childhoods. A friend recalls how fashionable and important it was to possess a copy of the latest edition of Tinkle digest. 

Long-winding train journeys with noisy kids would usually be a nightmare for parents. But a copy of Tinkle, bought hurriedly at the railway book stall, would reduce tension for a couple of hours at the least. So addictive were these books that before every exam, my mother would confiscate my copies of the books. Only to discover more hidden editions of Tinkle every day. Tinkle was smuggled into school bags and kept between the pages of text books and stealthily read while a particularly boring Biology teacher droned on and on. 

A big hug and a copy of Tinkle was the best way to say sorry to me. My head was always immersed in a copy of Tinkle, leading my Grandma to scold my parents for spoiling the child by always getting her these comics. For all my love of Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha, I never really knew or read about the man who created these books. 'Uncle Pai' was just a name, a friendly name. I was more interested in reading the actual books.

Of course, at one point, it became 'fashionable' for me to read non-Indian authors. As I grew older, Enid Blyton and Carolyn Keene captivated me and my huge collection of Tinkle books was left forlorn. But no beautiful building exists without a strong foundation. Anant Pai's books were the firm foundation of my love for reading.  I would have never really become a bookworm if not for Mr.Pai.

To every Indian child who grew up reading his books, his death will be a personal loss. For several hours of glorious reading, for the unadulterated joy of running to the neighbourhood newspaper shop and getting the latest edition of Tinkle, for memories that were born out of reading Amar Chitra Katha, for the nostalgia-tinted thrill that sighting a rack of Tinkle books brings to me even now, I cannot thank Anant Pai enough. I am forever indebted to you, Uncle Pai, for lighting the spark of reading in me. Your books remain with us all, bound to be gifted from generation to generation of Indians. You shall always remain 'Uncle' Pai to me, the friendly uncle who helped a child discover books. May you rest in peace. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen - Syrie James

Rating: 5/10

I bought Syrie James' The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen because I had read several glowing reviews and I particularly liked the premise. I wanted to absolutely love this book, but as my rating tells you, I didn't. The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is by no means a bad book. It just doesn't, in my opinion, add much to the variety of Austenian books that are now abundant. 

The story goes like this: An old attic chest containing Jane Austen's memoirs is discovered, a remarkable treasure for Austen fans around the world. This book is, more or less, what Jane Austen wrote in her memoirs, with helpful footnotes added in by an 'editor'. What the memoir reveals is something that every Janeite would be delighted about: Austen who wrote with such insight on love and relationships but never seemed to have a significant man in her life, actually had a love of her life:  Mr. Ashford.

Syrie James has quite a challenging task at hand: she has to write as Jane Austen, an author who is known for her subtle wit, heavy sarcasm and fascinating observations on society. I think James is quite up to the task and brings across the feel and mood of our Austen and her era. But my major problem with the book comes from the fact that there's not a single thing in the book that an Austen fan wouldn't know. Therefore, the book is extremely predictable and gives you nothing special.

What irked me the most was the fact that so very conveniently, this book's Ms.Austen drew from her own life to script the life of her characters. But that's an understatement: James' Austen does not 'draw' from her own life. She more or less takes events from her life as significant plot lines in her books. Indeed Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, according to this book, were both inspired by Mr.Ashford and Jane's romance with him.

I didn't like the fact that there was no subtlety in explaining how her life inspired her work. Mr.Ashford's 'engagement' = Edward's engagement with Lucy Steele, Mr.Ashford = Darcy, Pembroke Hall = Pemberley, Mr. Morton = Mr.Collins, Mr.Wellington = Mr.Willoughby. It's like Austen never really created a world with her books. She just was 'inspired'! And when actual quotes from Austen's books seem to be presented as dialogues of the characters, I was annoyed. Sample this:
''Yes indeed, squire,' said Mr.Morton, 'I have given a great deal of thought to that very subject, and it is a matter of vital interest to me. I think it a right thing for every clergyman to set the example of matrimony in his parish...'

What I disliked was the fact that Austen seemed to vent her anger with the people in her real life by giving their traits to her characters. I just never imagined that the crux of two of her classics could be copy pasted from her own life and that seemed to trivialise, in a sense, the writing talent of Ms.Austen. Inspiration is well and good, but copy pasting plot lines seemed awkward to me.

With a deluge of Austen-related fiction cropping up, I think it is important for each book to have its specialty or unique value. Otherwise, it might end up drowning in the ocean of Austenian fiction, each overlapping with the other and offering little to the reader. Sadly, I think The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is such a case. 

But I seem to be in the minority in this regard. As honest as I have been about this book, I think it is important for me to point out that most of my fellow Austen fans and bloggers have loved this book. I wouldn't really recommend this book unless it is for a boring weekend, but you might thinking of  borrowing the book from a library just in case you might love it. 


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