The year was 1952. Babu, my father, was posted in Shahjehanpur, a small town in western Uttar Pradesh. We – my parents and their three daughters – lived in a large, derelict redbrick house with a wild garden, and it served as both Babu’s office and residential quarters for his family.

Having been sent to school very young, I was in class three at the age of seven, a precocious child and a voracious reader of Hindi children’s magazines. It was at Shahjehanpur that Chandamama, a Telugu magazine printed in faraway Chennai, which we knew as Madras, in an almost brand-new Hindi avatar appeared magically in our house one day. (The Hindi version had been launched in August 1949.) The copy of this priceless treasure trove of stories was picked up by my mother from the AH Wheeler kiosk at the local railway station where she had gone to see off or receive a relative. It never occurred to her to buy us toys or sweets like most mothers and aunts we had. She spent whatever little she could save from household money, to buy us books and magazines.

After mother, my older sister and I – in that order – raced through the magazine and pronounced it to be the best we had read so far, my mother sat down with my father to mull over the feasibility of sending a large sum of Rs 8 for a two-year subscription. Finally, they decided to send Rs 4.50 to the Madras offices of Chandamama for a one-year subscription.

Window to the world

Books and magazines were hard to come by in our town normally. Within a year, my older sister and I ran a lending library of Chandamama and sundry Hindi books for children and I remember it included a wonderful compilation of children’s Bengali rhymes translated from Bangla to Hindi by Harindra Kumar Chattopadhyaya. The school we attended was run by missionaries and taught children of the poor, who were greater in number and who studied for free, and the not-so-poor who paid a negligible fee. The school, which was Hindi medium, was thus truly egalitarian but clean and well-run. Mother said that what we saved by way of tuition fee was best spent on books and magazines like Chandamama. She also encouraged us to loan copies of our storybooks and zealously-protected magazines freely to our classmates. These were carefully stacked in a battered old tin trunk and Abdulla, one of my closest friends and a fellow reader of Chandamama, whose father ran a small eatery by the wayside, helped create and maintain a register of sorts. Abdulla was a vigilant librarian and so defaulters were few and easily chastised.

Chandamama, with its attractive four-colour covers, its long-running, vividly-illustrated serials, its puzzles and jokes, and short tales from mythology, epics and old Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian classics, was soon a popular magazine offering great satisfaction to all of us involved in the venture. It added a new manner of knowledge, which differed from the stories in school texts. So, at home and among friends, we discussed the latest encounters between the wily Vetal and King Vikramaditya. In each episode, the king was meant to articulate an intricate moral puzzle or the Vetal would shout a warning that his head would fragment into a thousand particles – “Jo tooney jawab nahin diya to tera sar hazaar tukdon mein phoot jayega!” This dialogue attained a cult status of sorts and would be muttered in low tones to general merriment during classes when a stern teacher hurled a question at the class duffer.

Sound investment

Then there were the – now politically-incorrect – folk tales about some poor but witty Brahmins and rich and equally intelligent but ruthless Baniyas. The stories about a much-reviled mother-in-law being outsmarted by a docile but intelligent daughter-in-law may today bear feminist lessons in survival. In a particular story, the hungry daughter-in-law cooked forbidden curries when the mother-in-law left the kitchen to go bathe in the river. Then she hid the curry in her water pot with a large ball of cooked rice that she gobbled up in the temple of the village goddess. (The Hindi adverb used by the translator to describe her delightful chomping – “gabaagab khaya” – got associated in my mind forever with forbidden delicacies enjoyed surreptitiously.) The goddess was so moved by the spectacle that she changed her mudra (posture). This caused great consternation in the village the next day and so the daughter-in-law went back to the temple when no-one was looking and scolded the goddess saying, “You, too, are a woman and must have had a mother-in-law so what is there to express such exaggerated dismay?” The goddess – suitably chastised – resumed her usual pose and all ended well. This was wisdom lightly worn but brilliantly recounted not as literature or a moral fable, but as a family elder or an indulgent parent would tell a timeless tale to children at bedtime.

What would have happened, I wonder, if a Telugu magazine in impeccable Hindi translation had not introduced us – as children are not today – to the beauty and profundity carried within age-old Indian, Persian, Arabic and Greek tales? The conversations, carried out in our mother tongues, revealed individual personalities accurately, swiftly and incisively. Even our (relatively) stern parents had to let go of their objections to children reading about the tribulations in love of princes, princesses, conmen and apsaras. Sitting as we were in Shajehanpur, so far away from 30 Acharappan Street, Madras, Chandamama was the first to open up to us a whole new world of choices, values, possibilities, arguments and human lives the world over, sharing concepts that fit the world as we had experienced it till then.

“So,” Mother would ask at the dining table, pouring curries inaccurately and staining an already stained sheet, “are you happy you have such a great magazine in your hands?”

I told her in my most grown-up tones that I thought it was a sound investment.