An Excerpt from Uncle Pai by Rajessh M Iyer

Pai enjoyed working in The Times of India. Despite not being mainstream journalistic work, it was
enjoyable since the books division was brimming with multiple possibilities. Some of these possibilities would bear fruit in the years to come. And a few of them would have Pai’s personal stamp. One among them would be Indrajal Comics.

The Idle Printing Machines

Pai would, in the later years, joke about his indebtedness to the printing machines at TOI. After all,
those machines kick-started Pai’s association with comic books.

The management realised that their printing machines invariably stayed idle half the time. To
utilise them better, they decided to add to their publishing portfolio. They rejected the idea of a tabloid and a magazine. When they had exhausted the obvious options, the onus fell on the books division to come up with some solution.

One day, Pai was called by his boss, PK Roy, to his office. ‘Pai, you’ve heard about the printing
achines issue, isn’t it?’ Roy asked the moment Pai stepped inside the cabin. Pai, like others in the office, had heard about it, though he wasn’t privy to the details.
‘Yes, sir,’ was all Pai replied.

‘The management has decided to publish comic books and wants to establish a separate division
for it,’ Roy said. ‘Would you like to take it up?’
Pai wasn’t sure if he was being offered an appreciative responsibility or if this was a sign of him
being sidelined, since he had heard similar stories at other companies. option.’

Phantom: The Ghost Who Walked In India

Pai was still sceptical when two days later Roy and he held an extensive discussion on the subject. ‘How about printing Superman comics?’ Roy wondered. ‘They are immensely popular in the US and we can obtain publishing rights for India.’
‘Can I conduct a brief survey and find out a bit about the market before we decide upon it?’ Pai
asked.

‘Go ahead,’ Roy replied.
Suddenly, Pai felt charged up. He spoke to booksellers at various kiosks since it was from there that
they primarily sold comic books, more than the bookstores. Pai also spoke to his target audience—
predominantly readers in the range of seven to fourteen years of age—that included not only his nephews, nieces, and relatives’ children, but those in the neighbourhood as well. A surprise was in the offing.
‘Sir, we must opt for Phantom instead of Superman,’ Pai surprised Roy with his statement the
following week.
‘Comic booksellers were ambiguous in their replies. Though they did say they were fine with
having Superman comics, I found the responses rather lacklustre. But when I spoke to the young
readers, the majority of respondents named Phantom as their favourite comic book character,’ Pai
responded. ‘They already know about it as it appears in The Illustrated Weekly that reaches innumerable middleclass readers. Also, it appears as a syndicated strip in a few newspapers. This would aid us in
appealing to our readers.’
Although Roy liked the idea, it took him some time to convince the management to opt for
Phantom over Superman. What also worked in favour of Phantom—which Roy later confessed to Pai—was that it carried a lesser licensing fee as compared to Superman.

Indian Content

Consequently, the work began on Phantom comic books. But over the following weeks and months,
Roy realised that the young man was not just enthusiastic, but at times seemed possessed with the
work in hand. Every day, Pai would almost barge into Roy’s room with an idea to enhance the product, the majority of which Roy accepted. One, though, wasn’t to his liking.
‘Sir, I feel we must reserve only sixteen pages of the thirtytwo pages that we plan to print for
Phantom,’ Pai suggested a part of his plan to Roy. ‘We must incorporate our own stories in the remaining pages. Moreover, it makes sense to tell Indian children more of our stories than borrowed ones.’

Roy did not buy the idea. ‘Idealism isn’t ideal for business, Pai. What the management always backs
is what is likely to sell. Besides, the plan was to utilise the machines to publish something which doesn’t include unnecessary overheads. Your suggestion is to set up a full-fledged editorial team. It beats the entire purpose. The overheads will be so high that the management might allow the machines to remain idle than venture into something like this.’
Pai was dejected. However, deep down he was certain his idea was right. But he also accepted that
Roy’s counterargument made sense. Why burden the management with overheads? That’s when Pai wondered if he could come up with an idea of producing these comics like they did in syndications.

Approach a team of stringers—both artists and writers—and he himself could act as the editor. This would save the management of the burden of extra salaries and overheads. Roy was still sceptical and told an enthusiastic Pai to wait until he had discussed it with the management. Pai was a little disappointed. He knew the management would take days to respond and would have a hundred questions, most of which even Pai wouldn’t be able to provide answers to.

That same evening, Roy surprised Pai when the former ushered him into his room. Pai understood when he saw a broad smile on Roy’s face. The idea was approved!

Crucial Editorial Changes

Meanwhile, there were other murky areas that Pai needed to address. The work was cut out for him. As the incharge of the comics division, he performed multiple roles. He was the editor of the comic books, apart from looking after printing, sales, and distribution. But the supplementary work elated Pai. He wanted to have a free hand and knew that only with these extra duties could he execute what he wanted to do.

Since the Phantom story was only to be printed in sixteen pages, Pai needed to pore over hundreds of stories to finalise at least twenty-five stories that would be featured in the issues of the first few months. These also needed to be edited since none, in fact, fitted in sixteen pages. But Pai realised that it was the lesser of the snags. More substantial problems confronted him as he pored over multiple Phantom stories.

Phantom stories contained references and names that Pai immediately knew would not be liked by the readers. He wanted certain changes, and that meant interacting with the editorial team of King’s Features (the syndication firm that held the rights for Phantom comics) in the US . Pai’s objections were on the following counts: the prime forest in the original story was called Bengali. It was suggested that this be changed to Denkali since there might be objections from the people of Bengal as pygmies inhabited the forest in the comics. Next, the band of pirates needed a change of name as it was called the Singh Brotherhood; the alternative suggested was Singa pirates. Subsequently, the name of the character Rama was changed to Ramalu since this character was negative and was even the assassin of the twentieth Phantom.

The First Issue

It wasn’t going to be easy for Pai. Despite the approval, the budgets were still abysmally low. Pai developed a set of scripts for not only the first issue, but for a few more issues as well. In the meantime, he had earmarked and spoken to a few artists from art schools and some interns from advertising agencies since professional comic books artists—a tribe that was virtually non-existent back then— could not be roped in within their limited budget.

The first of such stringers was artist-writer Kavadi. Both Pai and Kavadi jointly developed a character named Kunju Pillay, a young boy who would travel across the world and chronicle his adventures. The series was called “Around the World with Kunju Pillay.”

Alongside, Pai commissioned two more series, “Guru’s Club” by Talwalkar and “What to do” by Chitnis. Pai fancied a comprehensive magazine for young readers that dispensed knowledge and not one that restricted itself to mere entertainment.

The first issue’s pagination—and, that of a few subsequent issues—was drawn. The first sixteen pages were reserved for the Phantom story. The remaining for “Kunju Pillay,” “Guru’s Club,” “What to do,” “Henry,” by Don Trachte, “Our New Age,” by Atheistan Spilhaus, and “Know Your Friends.”

The cover was created by B Govind. They were set for the launch. And in March 1964, the first issue of Indrajal Comics was launched. It came out in both English and Hindi. Though translated outside, Pai had monitored it since he was proficient in both languages.

Delusion Sets In

Indrajal became a runaway success across the country. So much so that in the subsequent years, Indrajal would publish more regional editions. Before long, practically every issue was getting reprinted. However, with success came the rift. By late 1965, Pai found the management interfering in editorial matters, even though he had enjoyed a free hand in the initial issues. Soon, the tussle began, with the management not only questioning Pai, but also overruling his decisions. The one that adversely impacted him was regarding issue number twenty-four. It was the February 1966 issue and it consisted only of a Phantom story. There was no Indian content.

When the management insisted that the subsequent issue too become a stand-alone Phantom issue, Pai’s discomfiture grew. He knew that putting up a fight was futile. The management had smelled success and they shared none of Pai’s idealistic thoughts about “Indian content for Indian kids.” Pai knew his association with Indrajal Comics wasn’t going to be a long one. He needed something else that came closer to his ideals yet was palatable to the publishers. A few sparks would promptly appear, eager to be ignited.

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