Uncle Pai – the real jewel of India - A Review of the book ‘Uncle Pai, a biography’ by Rajessh M Iyer

Uncle Pai is a name that youngsters of today’s generations don’t know. They would probably shrug their shoulders when they hear his name. But those who were kids during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s would smile in glee at hearing his name. He was the one who brought joy into their lives, as they would wait every week to read the latest comic released under his stewardship.

We are talking about Ananth Pai, or Uncle Pai as he was famously known. The legendary founder of the Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle comics, Uncle Pai is an iconic figure in the world of comics. What he created was not just a comic but a treasure trove containing the best of Indian heritage, culture, science, and geography presented through stories.

It is a tragedy that today’s generation does not know about him. The only reason is that he did not get the recognition he deserved. Uncle Pai should have been given the Bharat Ratna, the highest recognition from the government. Sadly, he did not get a single award. This is the tragedy of our country that it did not honor a legend who made a mark in the lives of millions of children.

I am a great fan of Uncle Pai and had the honor of meeting him many times as a child. I have read virtually all the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics. I got a chance to meet him many times when he would conduct quiz programs in Bangalore. He would organize special interactions for select invitees (prize winners) the evening before the quiz, where he would give valuable advice on life with the session ending with delicious ice-cream at the Woodlands Hotel.

I was excited when I came across a post from well-known literary agent Suhail Mathur, which said that a book on Uncle Pai was going to be made into a movie. This surprised me and also made me feel bad that I did not know that such a book was written. I immediately bought the book. Reading it filled me with myriad emotions as it brought to life the great man.

The book is ‘Uncle Pai, a biography’ that takes us through the life journey of the great man who pioneered educational comics in India. This is the story of a great man who made a difference in the lives of many children during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The author is Rajessh M Iyer, a media professional who has worked at Amar Chitra Katha Pvt. Ltd.

As an insider and being someone who has met Uncle Pai’s wife, Rajessh Iyer, is the right person to have written this book. And what a wonderful job he has done. The research he has done is tremendous, and it shows in the results. What is wonderful about this book is the presentation.

Most biographies tend to glorify the person about whom the book is written. It glosses over the negative aspects of the personality. Rajessh Iyer has presented the perfect biography. It gives us a 360-degree view of the great man. His greatness, his personality, his struggles, his perseverance, his temper, his frustrations, his failures – there is nothing left untouched.

The book starts on a shocking note, something most people may not know. In 1994, there was a fire that destroyed all the two decades of work done at the ACK and Tinkle office. The incident explains how Uncle Pai took it as a challenge and recreated all the lost work. This shows his perseverance, one of his key traits.

The book then takes us to his childhood in Karkala, Karnataka and his student days. An atheist, his reading the Bhagvad Geeta inspired him and moved him to tears. The book takes us to his journey to Bombay and his marriage with Lalita, who would be his partner in life and his career.

His inquisitive nature, desire to learn and ability to question even though people frowned on him helped build his character. The book brings out all of Uncle Pai’s qualities in a systematic way through the narration of various incidents. His love for stories and how it shaped his future career is brought out well by the author.

His work at Times of India and the Indrajal comics helped him get into the world of comics. This formed the foundation for Amar Chitra Katha. The author neatly takes us through his career, explaining how his success with Indrajal comics helped him create the iconic Amar Chitra Katha brand?

Did you know that the idea of ACK came from the failure of school kids to answer a quiz question on who Rama’s mother was? Uncle Pai was distressed that youngsters were disconnected from our tradition and wanted to create a series of books in the form of comics. After a lot of struggles, he met the Mirchandanis at India Book House and the rest is history.

The account of how Uncle Pai convinced G L Mirchandani and joined IBH as a consultant is a spell-binding one. The story of how Uncle Pai assembled his team and created the first issue is really interesting. The growth of the comics, the struggle to build the brand, and then how he created other brands like Tinkle are engrossing.

Uncle Pai comes out as a true innovator, brand builder, and a good marketer. The way he branded Amar Chitra Katha as an ‘educational comic’ and made it a bestseller makes for great reading. It is not just his fans who should read this book, but every student of marketing. It is a great lesson on how to build and grow a successful brand.

As mentioned earlier, the other side of Uncle Pai is also brought out. The author does not hesitate to highlight these traits. The role played by Kamala Chandrakant and her feuds with Uncle Pai has been brought out well. It is surprising to know that Chandrakant left IBH after accusing Uncle Pai of mentally harassing her!

The book also shows how Uncle Pai failed to help his team members get the right remuneration for their work. This caused a lot of heartburn and led to his successful team slowly breaking up. The author then takes us to the 90s and after, where sales declined and the brand started failing.

When things are down, the true character of a person is revealed. The book has brought out very well how Uncle Pai did his best to sustain his brand amid changing market trends. The way he tried to create other brands, the successes, and failures have been brought out very well by the author. The book ends with how Uncle Pai rebuilt things after the fire and then suddenly ends with his death.

This is the only minor grouse I have with this wonderful book. The last years of Uncle Pai could have been presented in a little more detail. Other than this minor point, this book made for a fascinating read. It is the moving story of a great man whose life positively impacted millions of children.

The book ends with the sad reflection that such a great man went unrecognized. While talentless film actors and other ‘celebrities’ have won Padma awards, an iconic legend like Uncle Pai did not get a single award. We, as a society, have failed to honor the hard work and efforts of a genius whose life influenced many children.

The book has many fascinating facts. For instance, did you know that Russian President Gorbachev’s assistant called Uncle Pai to get the meaning of Sanskrit verses clarified? Such was the perception of his mastery of our culture and tradition.

Did you know that the Congress party commissioned him and IBH to create the comic series on the Independence struggle and the role of the Congress party? Also presented is the answer to why ACK started with comic No. 11 and what happened to the first ten comics. The book is a treasure trove of fascinating facts for fans of ACK and Tinkle.

If you have read ACK and Tinkle or have been a fervent fan like me, then this is a book you MUST read. If you haven’t heard about Uncle Pai before, please read this book because this is a person about whom everyone must know.

I sincerely hope that the leaders of this nation would read this book and realize how they have failed to recognise and honor a person who deserves nothing less than the Bharat Ratna. Uncle Pai has left us and his wife is also not with us. He had no children and there are no family members who will benefit if he gets an award.

But it is India that will benefit if he is recognised posthumously. The people of India, especially youngsters, need to know about this great man. That will make them read the comics and realize what a legendary institution he created. Youngsters of future generations must also read the comics, thus ensuring our connection with our heritage continues.

Just as our generations grew up with these comics and learned a lot from them, so should future generations. This is why Uncle Pai must be honored. This Govt. has been proactively recognizing little known achievers. Hope it now recognizes Uncle Pai’s contribution in some way.

The best way we can do it is by reading this book and letting people know about this legend. The more people know about him, the more will be the pressure on the Govt. to honor him. With a movie coming up, hopefully India will belatedly recognise one of its greatest ever sons.

Deepak M R is a professional writer and author, who has previously worked in academics, training, and consulting. He is the author of the novel ‘Abhimanyu – the warrior prince’ (Bloomsbury, 2021). He is also a contributing author in the anthology Unsung Valour (Bloomsbury, 2020) and a KDP e-book ‘Mahabharata Tales: Justice for Draupadi and other stories’. He is an avid fan of Hindi film music.

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