Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Interview with Meenakshi Lekhi (National Spokesperson-BJP)

Politics is something which forms the crux of our country. Like it or hate it, there is no ignoring it. Over the past few years, since I took up to writing seriously, the urge to write something related to politics has passed my mind on multifarious occasions. I did attempt a few write-ups related to this genre, but they were more of light opinion pieces. To be honest, I wasn’t much into politics in my growing up years and even now it isn’t really one of my favourite subjects. However, there is no denying that as a citizen of the country, it is imperative that I keep a tab on the politics of our country as much as possible. After all, it is us, the people, who make the country, choose the politicians to power and demand better services.

It was somewhere after 2002, that my real interest in politics took birth. When a certain individual called Narendra Modi had earned the ire of the media, it made me curious. I wanted to search for answers and what I learnt over the years, and am still learning, is that he is one of those rare breed of politicians with whom I really have some genuine hope from. However, this post is not about him. Someday, soon enough, I shall be elaborating further on my views on him; when I have deserved the credit for that.

Meenakshi Lekhi
The time I began searching the answers for my questions, I keenly followed television news. The debate shows on these programmes would present spokespersons from different national parties. For some reason, I would feel genuinely irritated by listening to the drawl of many of them; especially the ones from the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). I supported the party’s ideology, but seeing some weak party spokesperson carrying on with their indolent discussions made me want to shake them up. The years following those, I used to switch the channels each time I saw a BJP spokesperson speaking on TV; purely to avoid feeling annoyed. It all changed when I came across Meenakshi Lekhi – the current national spokesperson of the BJP.

The 46-year old Supreme Court advocate from Delhi is a firebrand spokesperson and has taken to her job like fish to water. Rarely have I seen someone from the BJP (apart from Narendra Modi) taking on the hounding, biased media cronies word for word. Eloquent, clear in her thoughts, well-versed on the current affairs, and not one to take things lying down, Mrs. Lekhi is everything and more that I had hoped to see in a political personality. It hence comes as no surprise that today, Meenakshi Lekhi is considered one of the most popular BJP leaders only after Narendra Modi.

I thus consider myself privileged enough to have got the chance to interview her. It was the first time that I had interviewed a political figure and surprisingly speaking to her was quite easy and refreshing. Over the course of the interview, Mrs. Lekhi elaborates on the roles of a spokesperson, the biased media debates, her views on the Congress party and of course Narendra Modi. Read on. 



Excerpts from the interview:


Q. Tell me a little bit about your career. How and where did you begin?

Meenakshi Lekhi (ML): I am basically born and bred in Delhi. I did my graduation from Hindu College, Delhi and then went on to study law from the Delhi University. A few years after that, I began practicing law from 1990 onwards from the various courts in the country.

In 1992 I got married to Aman Lekhi (renowned senior advocate). Over a period of time, I began working with him. Gradually, life took its course and now I am the national spokesperson of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and greatly relishing my role.

Q. From law to the spokesperson of a national party? Isn’t that a rather different field to choose?

ML: Yes and no. The Lekhis are always known to be rather argumentative (laughs). Our entire family has very strong opinions on all the issues going around; from mundane to the serious ones. Ever since I got married, my life has been around books, courts, the vision of India and similar things. I haven’t known any other way of living really. So you can imagine I did not really need any training in my professional field. Being a spokesperson I guess, came naturally to me.

Q. So when exactly did you start considering being a spokesperson as a serious career option?

ML: I have been active on the fringes since 1996-97 by being closely associated with various social NGOs and by giving my legal inputs to these. From there I began working for the ‘Swadeshi Jagran Manch’ (an economic wing of the Sangh Parivar). When Nitin Gadkiri became the party president of the BJP a few years back, I was called on to join the party and become the Vice-President of the ‘Mahila Morcha’.
My career profile was such that even while I was into law, I had to address the media on various cases. Hence, they were quite familiar with me. The seniors of the party then gradually felt that I would do well as a spokesperson and hence I was taken up as one this year.

Q. How different is the job of a spokesperson to that of a normal 10-7 one per se?

ML: It is completely different. It is a 24/7 job. Even as I speak to you, there are calls coming in from various media channels to attend their TV shows. A spokesperson doesn’t really have a social life to speak of. There is no time to attend parties, weddings or anniversaries. It has happened on many an occasion where I had a family event planned and had to cancel it because of some urgent press meet I had to attend. You have to be there for your party all the time.

Q. Doesn’t that affect you mentally? How do you motivate yourself?

ML: It does of course. After all I am human and there is a need to have a social life. But then, I motivate myself thinking that I am doing my bit for my country. That in itself is the biggest boost. And then again, if I am not there when needed, my party might get affected. I cannot allow that to happen.

Q. Can you please elaborate as to what does the job of a spokesperson constitute of?

ML: See, firstly, a spokesperson has to be aware of everything happening in the country; political or non-political. The awareness level has to be absolutely profound. Then you are reading about 10-12 newspapers thoroughly; English and Hindi both. You also have to actively keep watch on the social media. But most importantly, you have to keep a sharp eye on where the media is taking the debate to on certain issues. The media, especially the TV media, more often than not, moulds the issues according to their convenience and presents it in a different way to the public. A spokesperson thus has to carefully interpret on what agenda is the media setting. However, the most important thing for a spokesperson I believe is to be instinctive. You should know how to react to many tense and adverse situations on the spot. And for that you cannot be trained. Either you have it or you don’t. 

Q. So if I wish to be a spokesperson today, and have the above mentioned qualities in me, would that be enough?

ML: Those and a few other things as well. To be a good spokesperson, you have to be academically sound as well. You should have a good knowledge of history, politics, geography, art and culture, and economics. You should also keep studying on more subjects as much as possible. Other than that, learning on the job actively should serve you well.

Q. Being a party spokesperson, you attend a lot of TV debate shows. Many of these debate shows, as we all very well know, are quite biased towards a particular party or an agenda. Don’t you feel angry or infuriated while attending such shows?

ML: It’s true that certain debate shows by some media channels are biased and they always try and set their own agenda. However, if they have their agenda, I have my own. If I feel infuriated and refuse to go to these shows, then somebody else will turn up and say certain things that would create a mess for my party. I cannot allow that to happen. My simple thought is that I should present my point of view in such a manner that the audience should be able to gauge as to who is correct and who isn’t. They should be able to connect with me and my party’s views. The audience today is pretty intelligent; they very well know the biasness of these media houses. But like I said, if I connect my views to my audience, my job is done.

Q. Have you ever felt any amount of nervousness while attending any of these TV shows or while addressing the media on any particular issue?

ML: No. Never. One becomes a pro at it pretty soon. Moreover, I am not made like that. I can safely claim that no one from the media can ever say that they have got the better of me on any occasion. And it’s bound to stay like that. (Chuckles)

Q. As a spokesperson, you go to a lot of TV shows. However, how many people watch these shows? There is only a certain percentage in the country who actually watch them. What about the people in the country who do not have access to television sets? Doesn’t your role adhere to them as well?

ML: It most definitely does. See besides attending TV shows, as a spokesperson, I have a lot of other things to do. My job is not just limited to airing my views on television, but to connect to people; wherever they might be. I have to go to a lot of places like Kerala and Chennai, whose language I do not speak. In such places, I speak in English; but my views are aired by the local media in the regional language. Through TV news, newspapers and even radio, my views reach to vast corners of the country. So there is a deep people to people connect. Furthermore, on many occasions, I also have to speak on the stage on varied places; thus the connect with the people comes into effect there. That is my primary job; to put my party’s views in front of the public and make sure I connect with them.

Q. If I were to ask your views on the Congress; not as a BJP spokesperson, but as a normal citizen of the country, what would they be?

ML: As a normal citizen of the country, I feel enraged to what has been going on for the past many years. In fact, it was my apathy towards the Congress’ misgovernance that made me join the BJP. The last nine years (2004-2013) has undoubtedly been pathetic from them, but I am looking much beyond that. They have given us absolutely noting since independence. I don’t want to go into names, but many of these people have completely destroyed our country from the core. You think of people before the independence era like Subash Chandra Bose. If he would have been there with us after independence, do you think our country’s situation would have come to this? Those heroes from the pre-independence era never got to rule the country. And what we have today is downright disgraceful.

Q. On the same vein, what so you feel of Narendra Modi; as a normal citizen of the country and not as a BJP spokesperson? 

ML: As a person having average intelligence and being a rational citizen of the country, I feel that the man has delivered; and delivered big time. I can easily see through the media in cahoots with a certain party trying to malign him desperately. But that is not going to work. People today are clever enough to understand all this. The speeches nowadays are easily available on the internet for people to gauge as to what really is the truth. Moreover, my question is, if not Modi then who? The answer is no one; zilch, nada. Nobody matches up to the delivery, the charisma, the confidence and wherewithal to handle any situation like Modi does. And this is a rational person saying all this.

However, I must also credit the media for making me pro Modi. I am a person with reasonable intelligence and when I saw the media propaganda against him, I could easily make out that he was being unfairly targeted. I did my research and study on the facts and understood that what was being presented by the media is completely opposite to the truth. And hence came in my genuine support for Modi. I am quite certain there are many more like me with the same theory.

Q. You must have met him a few times. What are your views on him as a person?

ML: I have met him a couple of times and whatever little interaction I have had with him has been very good. I find him to be a very pleasant and down to earth person. He is someone who will ask you “Ghar me sab thik hai?” Despite all the name he has made, he is still very warm and grounded.

Q. I read a report in a newspaper that Meenakshi Lekhi is the second most popular BJP personality after Narendra Modi. What do you feel on that?

ML: Oh I feel really embarrassed on hearing this. I really do. However, at the same time I feel honoured and proud too. I feel I must have done something right to get that label.

Q. Lastly, your tiff with Arnab Goswami on a television debate has become quite a hit online. The way you took him on has made many people your fan. Your views.

ML: I think a lot has been made out of it unnecessarily. I had gone there to speak on a certain issue and some things were said which I didn’t like. When you push me to the wall, I will retaliate. That’s it. These are professional hazards and we have to take it with us in our stride. It happens. I am humbled that people appreciate my personality. But let’s not get carried away with it. Whatever happened was in the past and let it be there. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Aroma of leather and a flavour of Indo-China fusion in Kolkata’s nostalgic lane

Being tall has its privileges. However, it has myriad disadvantages as well. Having unusually tall feet is one of them. I come from that breed of people who have suffered throughout their lives for being ‘extraordinarily’ tall. As I touched my teens, getting a good pair of shoes was such a massive hassle that it’s difficult to explain in words. Shoe shops in my city generally tend to keep shoes that have sizes ranging from 2 to a maximum of 10. Blessed as I am with my wonderful height, my feet, unfortunately, had reached the 11 plus mark by my late teens. And thus, finding shoes of my size was next to impossible in my city.

I have endured terrible embarrassments because of this. Whenever I would enter a shoe shop, the staff there would just look at my feet and give me a smirk which would denote to them saying something like this: “We keep shoes for humans sir, not ogres.” I have also tortured my poor feet by forcibly putting on shoes of size 10 on them for a fair period of time in my life; as it was the maximum size that is available in most shoe shops. It resulted in me coming back home with terrible feet pain. There have been times where I felt like rushing back home just because of the uncomfortable pain the shoes would cause and would really envy my friends who easily brought swanky shoes and showed them off pompously. I had lost all hope. I thought that I am destined to a life of feet misery.

And then I found Sen-Fo.

Located in the nostalgic neighborhood of Kolkata’s Bentinck Street, Sen-Fo is one of those rare shoe shops (if not the only one) in the city which houses shoes and sandals that range from size 11-14, apart from the usual ones. The entire lane of Bentinck Street, in fact, has many shoe shops that have been there for several decades and are a vital part of Kolkata’s nostalgia. It is only Sen-Fo, however, that caters to the need of people like me.

I remember coming here with my father in my school days to get my school shoes. That was a long time back, but even then there was something about the shop that captivated me. The friendly ‘Chinese bhaiyas’ who worked here perhaps made me feel rather at ease. Over the years, I moved on in life and forgot about the shop. But perhaps it was fate that has made me rediscover Sen-Fo and its exclusive charm.

Myself in conversation with David Chen at his shop's back office
The shop, which has been in existence for more than 75 years, is quite small as compared to the other more renowned ones, but still keeps sufficient variety on its shelves that attracts customers from around the city. However, it is the large-sized shoes that really makes Sen Fo unique; at least for people like me. The shop’s owner, David Chen, is a happy-go-lucky and amiable person who elaborates further on why they keep these large sized shoes. “It was my father (the previous owner of the shop) who actually started keeping these shoes that ranged from size 11-12. When I took over, I too realized that there are people who are struggling to find large sized shoes. Hence, I continued the tradition to help the need of the ‘deprived section’,” says David with a smile.  There was also an instance a few years back where a backpacker from Germany had visited Kolkata and was in dire need of a size 14 shoe but could not find it anywhere. Having lost all hope, he tried his luck at Sen-Fo and David got his shoe specially made. “He was elated at getting the shoe and even though I wasn’t there when he received the shoe, he had promised to spread the good word about my shop in his country,” chuckles David.  

David got into the shoe business at an early age; after his father expired in the late 80s and he then took over the shop’s reigns. Since the shop had been operated by his family through generations, David didn’t take much time to excel at the business and establish goodwill. But didn’t he have any intentions to modify the business to something else? “Not really,” he says matter-of-factly, “Shoemaking is an art. It requires proper study and thankfully there have been many people in our community who are very skilled at it and hence it has passed on from generations. I thus thought of nurturing that skill and expanding it.” He further states, “If somebody comes with me with a special request for a shoe, I just can’t say no to him. I take it as my responsibility to serve him.”

Apart from the aroma of leather, there is another flavor that you can savour at Sen-Fo; the unique feel of Indo-China fusion. The 52-year-old David Chen is an Indian with Chinese descendants. Born and brought up in Kolkata, David’s family moved in from the Canton province in China to the city about eight decades back. He still has a few relatives in China whom he visits sometimes. However, he considers himself a true-blue Kolkatan or ‘Khaati Kalkatiya’ as he likes to say. “I might have Chinese looks, but I am as Indian at heart as anybody else from here,” says David simply. Incidentally, most of his staff- the friendly ‘Chinese Bhaiyas’- too are like him, Indians with Chinese descendants.

David claims that he has more Indian friends than Chinese and he likes it that way. He is one of those rare individuals who are privileged to enjoy the flavours of two vastly different cultures. He relishes Indian food like Butter Chicken and Sambhar-Dosa with as much gusto as he enjoys the Chinese delicacies like Noodles and Fried Rice. Today he has imbibed a lot of the Indian culture in him and wishes to take some of the finer things he has learned here to his own culture. “I wish people from my community looked at death differently. We tend to take it as a bad omen which is sad. We should learn to respect death. I wish I can change that,” adds David a little philosophically.

David Chen at his shop
It is these simple yet sensible traits in David that you will find striking.  He is at complete ease with his staff and the customers alike as he looks over their needs. The shop, however, is not a mean for him to mint money. It has provided for his and his family’s needs but David hasn’t let it become the focal point of his existence. He enjoys the smaller pleasures of life and hasn’t thought what the future holds for his shop. “Perhaps my daughter may close down the shoe shop and use this space for her own needs. I am open to it,” says David before getting into a deep conversation with one of his staff.

As I placed another gleaming black leather sandal on my feet from the shop’s racks, I pondered over David’s last words. What if he really closes down the shop? I wondered. For me, an honorary member of the ‘deprived section’, Sen-Fo is like a haven and heaven at the same time. It has given me the pleasure of shopping for and wearing trendy shoes and sandals when none other could provide for it. Coming out of my thoughts, I noticed that the sandal fit perfectly. Yet another of my prized collections from Sen-Fo!

As I bid David adieu, I wondered if I would ever find another shop that would house shoes catering to my size. Perhaps yes. But it would definitely not have the unique blend of Indo-Chinese flavour in it. And neither would it have those friendly Chinese Bhaiyas.


Monday, September 23, 2013

In conversation with Pran Kumar Sharma- The Legend of Indian comics

Whenever I used to pick up a Chacha Chaudhary comic book in my childhood, there was one face that I had got very familiar with apart from the comic characters themselves. It was the face of a smiling, benign looking man, clad in a dapper suit and tie whose face would be displayed on the front page of every Chacha comic book. That man, of course, is Pran Kumar Sharma.


Even without intending to, Pran had become a part of my life. When I realized that the wonderful world of comics I am so besotted with is created by this man, I began idolizing him. I and my brother were both quite fond of the world of Chacha Chaudhary and thus Pran slowly became a household name for us. We wondered as to how he managed to create such an enchanting world in those comics. Of particular captivation for us were the drawings of the world these characters lived in; the houses, the lanes, the trees, the clothes of the characters etc. Then there were the chaste Hindi dialogues, the absolutely bizarre names of characters; it was all so alluring. We understood then that the sole credit to all that goes to Pran and our admiration for him thus grew manifold. We would always wonder as to how Pran must be like as a person, how would his voice sound like and what would I say if I ever met him? Pran had thus undoubtedly become a childhood hero for us.




As years passed, I was consumed by other more significant issues to attend in my life and thus Chacha Chaudhary and his world took a backseat. It would resurface every now and then, but would again go for a brief hibernation. However, as I had mentioned in my previous post, the world of Chacha Chaudhary has come back to infatuate me with renewed fervour. As I sat on my bed at night and leafed through the pages of my newly purchased Chacha comics, my eyes once again went to the man’s face on the front page. The picture was not the same. The man was the same, though; only a little older. Lying there I wondered where Mr. Pran Kumar Sharma must be today; would I ever be able to speak to him? The question was asked by the child in me who is still in awe of his childhood hero. But then my journalistic instinct took over. I suddenly got the inspiration of interviewing Pran Kumar Sharma.

Though the idea was great, the execution took a lot of toils. Over the past few weeks, I searched extensively for any way to contact Pran, but kept failing continuously. It reached a point where I had almost given up. But just the thought that I ‘can’ talk to my childhood hero recharged me again. At long last, my efforts bore fruit and luckily I got the contact number of Pran’s direct line. With shaking hands, I dialed his number; not knowing what to expect. The call connected and a husky, tired voice picked up the call at the other end.  My mind was a little blank and the heartbeat had risen quite a few notches, but I still managed to introduce myself. “Am I worth it?” was his question when I told him about the purpose of my call. I laughed nervously. But he was very friendly and eased my nerves. I then somehow convinced him for a telephonic interview for the coming Sunday afternoon. The fact that he agreed to the interview made me feel like walking on the clouds. Over the next few days, I pompously declared to anyone who would listen about my ‘achievement’. I felt like the child who had got the autograph of his favourite film star.    

The day of the interview was a monumental achievement for me; it would go down as one of my biggest career highlights, no matter what. I had ceased all my other tasks to dedicate my concentration solely towards this interview. I knew very well that there would not be another moment like this. It felt surreal, almost bizarre that I would be interviewing the man who had provided for innumerable of my memorable childhood moments. When I made the call, the first thing he said was, “I was waiting for your call.”  Wow, I thought. The legend of Indian comics was waiting for my call. This is crazy! Before I could begin the interview, he asked me politely, “Paani pee loon thoda?” (Can I drink some water?). I smiled and waited patiently for him to finish. And then began the interview.

Over the course of the next two hours, I cleared my heart of nearly all the things that I had always wanted to ask Pran. Fortunately, he obliged me. I feel he almost enjoyed the interview as much as I did. Almost.

Now I will let the legend do all the talking.

Excerpts from an interview

Q. The one thing that many of your fans are concerned about these days is that do you still make new comics at this age?

Pran: Yes of course. The day I stop creating comics would be the death of me. I will make comics till my last breath. Yes, I have adapted with the times now. I do not make as many as I once used to because of old age. But I do have a couple of assistants with me now who help me out. I give them the cartoons and dialogues and they colour them digitally. That does help a lot.

Moreover, I have also adapted in the stories of my comics with the age. Previously, the themes of my stories were very simple. But today’s kids are very smart. Hence, I have introduced computers, mobile phones and things like Facebook in my stories now. Kids like that I guess. And I enjoy the fact that I can bring smiles on their faces.  I will keep enjoying making comics until my end comes.

Q. How did your interest in cartooning take birth?

Pran: I was always interested in drawing cartoons from my childhood, but never really thought of it as a career option in my early days. Like every other youngster, I too wanted to establish my career first. Hence, I did my M.A. in Political Science. But even after that, the cartooning bug was always there inside me. In those days, there were no such special cartooning courses. All the legendary cartoonists of India like R. K. Laxman and K. Shankar Pillai were self-taught. I too got inspired by them and then started considering cartooning as my career option.

The fact that many of my cartoons had already been published in some of my college magazines, made me eager to get many more published across many other platforms. Hence, I put my foot down and declared to my family one fine day that I am going to be a cartoonist. They were shocked. They wanted me to take up a government job as that was very popular in those days. But my mind was made up. The cartoon bug in me had risen like a storm and there was no looking back ever since.

 Q. Why did you specifically choose comics? There are so many other parts of cartooning that you could have taken up?

Pran:  Cartooning has basically three branches- social, political and comics. The last one is my area of interest. See, the thing is, in the late 60s there were many legendary Indian cartoonists, but all of them focused more on serious topics like politics and social issues. I thus wanted to attempt a different genre of cartooning.

Moreover, in those days, whatever comics we had were imported from western countries like Spiderman, Superman, Dennis the Menace, Phantom, Mandrake etc.  I wanted to create comics completely and solely rooted in the Indian sensibilities; which would have characters and issues which our children would be able to directly relate to. And in doing so they should also have fun. Hence I started creating diverse comic characters which thankfully people loved and many of which have stayed on even now.

Q. Tell us about your career progress in your initial days.

Pran: When I had made up my mind that I would be a cartoonist, I then started approaching different newspapers to get my cartoons published. Those days, the concept of comic book wasn’t there, so I had to rely on newspapers. I struggled initially, but soon enough a couple of newspapers showed interest in my cartoons and published them. As my cartoons got published, other newspapers too got interested. Punjab Kesari, Navbharat Times, Karamveer and many other newspapers published my cartoons and my name thus started getting popular.

Back then, I used to make my own cartoons and post them myself to the local newspaper houses riding on my bicycle. I didn’t get much for those cartoon strips in the newspapers; around 10 Rs. for each strip. It was a struggle. But it sure was fun.

Q. How did your association with Diamond Comics begin?

Pran: It was in the 1980s when these two guys from Diamond Comics (DC) came to my residence to meet me. They were keen to compile my comics, which had been published in the newspapers and magazines like Lotpot, into a book form. I immediately agreed as the fact that my comics would come out separately in a book was a huge motivation for me. Plus the money they offered was good; I was taken in.

I initially gave them content for two comic books, which they published as 45-paged comic books.  Luckily the response was so good that all the prints got sold out within two weeks of their release. There was no looking back after that. The DC guys kept coming back to me for more and I kept creating the comics with passion. I slowly became a household name.  It also gave me a stable income for survival. There is no denying that DC gave me a platform to be famous. And now I have more than 600 comics books in my name.

Q. Was there anything particular in your mind when you created your characters?

Pran: I wanted all my characters to be connected to the Indian middle-class sensibilities. Hence you will find all my chrachters facing similar issues and problems to tackle in their everyday lives. My world was simple- the lives of the people, the houses they stayed in, the buildings in the background; everything was very simple and hence people connected to it. Moreover, I never wanted any of my characters to do anything unnatural; like I made sure they should never fly or crawl up the walls. Children relate to these things very quickly. I hence did not want to show them any unreal things and instead wanted to tell them that our world can be fascinating even in the simplest form.

Q. How did Chacha Chaudhary’s character come into your mind?



Pran:  In those days, we did not have any Indian comic character to relate with. Even if someone came out with something, people would label it as a copy of western countries. I was thus determined to make something entirely unique and Indian. Hence Chacha Chaudhary took birth. He is not handsome or strong like other superheroes, but his entire strength is his common-sense. He wears a turban, has a walking stick as his weapon and still solves the problems of the world. He is our very own Indian hero with whom everyone can relate to.

Q. What made you form Sabu’s character?

Pran:  Chachaji was having to face a lot of issues you see. Tackling goons, solving mysteries was fine but the issues started getting graver. Things like terrorism and bomb blasts started taking place. I thus thought that Chachaji should have an able companion with him to tackle all these. Hence Sabu took birth.

He is a massive and powerful man from Jupiter. Everyone in his planet is strong and tall like him. One day he was flying his spaceship and happened to land in India. He was instantly mesmerized by the beautiful scenery; the snow clad mountains, the crystal clear water. He then met Chachaji who took him home and the two then instantly formed a friendly bond. After Sabu drank Chachi’s lassi, he then decided to stay here for the rest of his life. Sabu became like a family to Chachaji; the two are inseparable now. If Chachaji is Lord Ram, Sabu is like Lord Hanuman. Chachaji is the brain and Sabu is the brawn. Together they are the perfect heroes that our society needs.




Q. Talking about Sabu. Correct me if I am wrong, but in my childhood, I remember reading an episode where Sabu was a genie. Is that correct?

Pran: (Laughs loudly) No one has ever asked me this question ever in my career. But you are correct.  I really admire your memory.

When you create a character, it goes through many shades. Yes, there was just this single episode where Sabu was initially introduced as a ‘Jinn’ who came out from a lamp. However, when I saw the print, I did not like it. Furthermore, I realized that I should not be showing something totally unrealistic to children. Hence I changed his character and modified him to be from Jupiter. That has stuck ever since.

Q. Was the idea of keeping ‘Rocket’ as a vegetarian dog deliberate?

Pran: Yes, I like to keep things in my comics a little different. Rocket too was born out of that. He is not an expensive or beautiful dog. He is a very simple dog that can be found in any lane. Chachaji once fed him some milk and since that day the dog has been with him. I kept him vegetarian deliberately so as to not let the crooks feed him meat or bones when they want to commit any wrongdoing. Thus Rocket too is an able companion of Chachaji and is like his family. He also helps him solves mysteries and takes on many bad guys.

Q. The villains in your series were generally pretty funny and goofy. However, the character of Raaka took the series to a different level, isn’t it? He was the first really violent character in your series.

Pran: I wanted to create a completely different character that would take everyone by surprise. Hence Raaka the dacoit was formed. He is unabashedly violent and kills for power and pleasure. When he grew immortal, there was no stopping him except Chachaji and Sabu. People fear him, but in the end, he is always packed off in some far off and desolate place. The idea was to be innovative and not get repetitive with the stories that I came out. Raaka’s stories take my comics to a different genre; while certain sensibilities about good and evil remain the same.

Q. The names of your characters are quite funny and unique.

Pran: Again, the idea was to be different and unique. I did not want to borrow names of normal people but create ones that are unheard of and sound funny at the same time. That too does take a lot of thinking though. I had to sometimes sit for hours to come up with names. I am happy people liked the names that I created.

Q. You created so many characters, but Chacha Chaudhary was the most famous. Was there any other character before Chacha Chaudhary that had become well-known?

Pran: Actually Chacha Chaudhary became famous in the mid-70s. There was another chrachter of mine which was extremely renowned in the early 70s- Shrimatiji. I can’t tell you how popular she was; especially amongst the females (laughs). The Shrimatiji comic strips first appeared in the women magazine Sarita. Within just a few weeks, its popularity really soared and people just loved her. Later on, Shrimatiji started getting published from the magazine Manorama because I had some dispute with the Sarita owners. Shrimatiji ran quite succefully in Manorama for several yers until the magzine was closed down. Nowadays, apart from the usual standalone comics of Shrimatiji, its comics strips also appears in Gujarat Guardian Daily (Surat) as well as Sudha Weekly(Bangalore).

The reason Shrimatiji's character became so popular was because she is like the very average middle-class married woman. She is always on the look-out for the street-side sales and would find out other ways to curb her household expenses. Plus, people really enjoyed her constant banter with her husband.


Q. Any particular character from the many that you created that is your favourite?

Pran: I created all my characters with equal love and passion. They are like my own babies. I can never be partial towards any one. I love them all equally.

Q. There was a TV serial that was made on Chacha Chaudhary.

Pran: Yes, it was in 2005 I guess when these Sahara guys contacted me for the want of adopting Chacha Chaudhary into a serial. Those days Subroto Roy's Sahara TV was quite popular. It was Roy's son Sushanto Roy who was primarily interested in this adoption of the series into the serial. He was the one who sent for me to meet them at their Mumbai office. He told me their wish and I had no issues. The money was good and they seemed genuine people. My only problem was with royalty. I told Sushanto that companies don’t generally give me royalty and at this age I won’t be able to run after you; so if you can provide me the royalty I will be happy. Within minutes Sushanto asked his accountant to pay me my royalties and I was thus content. The serial too was quite good.

Q. You started way back in the 60s.What difference do you find in the cartooning style of today and the yesteryears?

Pran: It has changed a lot. In my initial days, drawing comic strips took a lot of effort; sketching the characters, making the backgrounds, filling it with vibrant colours and giving dialogues to the chrachters. It was really a tough and time-consuming job. Now, things have become comparatively easier as mostly people like to take the help of computers and make cartoons digitally. I, however, still prefer to make my cartoons on paper. It takes a lot of hard work. But it is fun.

Q. From what I have come to know, you were invited on many cartoon conventions from around the globe. Can you elaborate?  

Pran: Yes, after more than 20 years in the field, my name had reached to different corners of the globe. In 2006, I was invited by the Cartoonists Society of America in Chicago to deliver a lecture there on the subject of comics. It was an enriching experience as the audience there loved to hear my views. I also got a chance to meet some of my idols from the cartooning field like Mort Walker (the creator of Beetle Bailey) and many others. A few years later, I was also invited by the Cartoonists Club of Great Britain; that too was a landmark. There were many other places after that which kept inviting me like Australia, New Zealand, Moscow and different countries from Europe; I had become a known name. More than anything else, these tours gave me the chance to relive my childhood dream of visiting foreign lands. It was my passion, you can say, which made me achieve that. At first my friends and relatives would mock me for being a cartoonist, now they are proud to be associated with Pran!

Q. What would your message be to aspiring Indian cartoonists of today?

Pran: Perhaps I should not say this, but I find a real lack of originality in our Indian cartoonists today. They tend to get inspired by western countries and concepts and try and emulate their characters. Most of the Indian comics and graphic novels that you find in the market today are modified versions of western comic characters. I thus want to tell young Indian cartoonists to please be original. If you make Spiderman wear a dhoti, he will still be a Spiderman. He will not be Indian. These cartoonists should take inspiration from Indian sensibilities and emotions. There are innumerable stories and characters that can be taken out from our country.

Furthermore, to be a good cartoonist you should have a very deep sense of humour and good intellect apart from having a balanced and good drawing sense. These are the most vital ingredients one must have if they desire to be a good cartoonist.

Q. You have often been quoted talking about the need for a comics museum in India. Please elaborate.

Pran: Places like America, England, Australia, many countries in Europe and even many smaller ones around the globe have comics museums. They know how to respect their legendary cartoonists. But unfortunately, our country does not have a single genuine comics museum. The need for such museum arises as they can preserve some the gems created by the legendary comic artists of any country which we can show to our children.

Our country too had legendary cartoonists like R.K.Laxman, Kutty, K. Shankar Pillai and others who have even contributed in our independence through their cartoons. They had themes which showed our plight during those days and ignited the patriotic passion in people. But where are those cartoons? We need to show them to our children and a museum would have been the best option to display these cartoons of our legends. I hope someday soon our country too realizes the need for this.

Q. You must have received endless praises from your fans over the years. Any particular comment that has stuck with you?

Pran: It’s really difficult to point out any one. My fans have been very generous on me. I am overwhelmed with their love for me. However, I would like to share a recent incident.

I was at a hospital, undergoing surgery for some intestinal infection I had been infected with. The day before I was admitted to the hospital, the legendary actor Pran had passed away. I was sitting in my hospital room and reading the newspapers which carried this news, when the doctors came in. I looked at them and said in jest, “Looks like it’s the turn of the other Pran to go as well.” The head surgeon however held my hands and told me, “Pran ji, I will never let anything happen to you. I have grown up reading your comics. You are my hero.” I was extremely touched by that.  It is moments like these which make me realize that my life has been worthwhile after all.

Q. You are an inspiration to many. Have you got inspired by anyone?

Pran: Oh, of course. Many people inspire me from different fields. Currently, though I am a big fan of Indian cricket team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. He is a real inspiration for every one of us. Just look at the way he has risen from a small place (Ranchi) and has become a world-renowned face. We are all so proud of him today. And that is not just luck; he has put in a lot of hard work, passion and dedication into it. Though, I am nowhere as close to him in success, I can relate to him as well because I too have reached where I have because of a lot of hard work and dedication.

Q. What would you say has been your biggest achievement in life?

Pran:  I can’t call this an achievement but I guess I have contributed something towards the society; even if it is very small. I guess I provided the people of India with a ‘sasta’ entertainment. The fact that I could bring smiles on the faces of different people, made them forget their troubles for a few minutes, gives me the greatest satisfaction. That I could say is my biggest achievement in life. My fans are the ones who keep me alive even today and would do so even after I am no more. Without them I am nothing.

                                                                                                   ***************



I generally finish interviews with the last question itself. However, since this was Pran, I wanted to sign off in my own way.

This is not just an interview for me; it is a monumental career achievement. If I wanted, I could have probably ‘sold’ this interview to renowned media houses. However, I have too many emotions attached with this one and hence wanted it to be completely and solely mine.

One of the primary reasons for me to do this interview, other than my fascination for Pran, was the fact that I could not find anything comprehensive written on him in the online media. Furthermore, in the making of this interview, I spoke to many fans of Chacha Chaudhary. All of them still fondly recall the comics, but very few of them know about the man behind them. I thus thought that it was my responsibility as a journalist to present this interview to the fans of Chacha Chaudhary. It is essential that they know about Pran. They deserve this. He deserves this.  

There will never be another Pran in our lifetime. Hence, this is my way of saying ‘thank you’ to my childhood hero. That is all I can give him in return for making my childhood so delightful and memorable.

This one’s for all of us. This one’s for ‘our’ childhood.


Concluded


(To read the first part of this post click here.)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The World of Chacha Chaudhary and I

Comics. This world itself has some magical potency in it to tingle certain strange sensations inside me. No matter wherever I might be, and whatever I might be doing; hearing this word always gets my attention. The reason for that is just one- my connection with comics since my childhood has been an extremely deep and emotional one; something which goes beyond the realms of childhood fascination.

Over the last two decades I have had the pleasure of gorging through multifarious comics; ranging from Lotpot, Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, Archies, Tinitin, Asterix et al. However, there was one particular comic and its characters that for some strange reasons attracted me the most. Chacha Chaudhary and his many friends occupy such a special place in the cupboards of my memory that it is virtually impossible to even think of forgetting them. And curiously, somehow or the other, there keeps coming instances in my life where I in some way repeatedly get connected to these friends of mine. Presently, I am going through one such phase again where all of a sudden I have had this increasing urge to dive into the world of Chacha Chaudhary and his friends. Hence, a few weeks back, I searched out a local shop that keeps these comics, happily brought a dozen of them and have been gorging on them ever since.

The reason for writing this post is a little different though, and not just to share my association with Chacha and his friends. The post comes from the fact that I had the privilege of interviewing the creator of the Chacha Chaudhary comics- Mr. Pran Kumar Sharma. But hold on, this is about the only thing I will divulge on the subject; for now that is.

I considered that since I have interviewed such a gigantic legend of Indian comics, it would perhaps be injustice on my part to merely present the interview in one post and get it done with. The interview with Pran ji is not just a story for me; it has unparalleled emotional significance. But more on the legend of Pran in the next post. I have hence concluded that it would be prudent to set up a base for that interview by first presenting my insights into some of the famous characters he created, and the effect of the world of Chacha Chaudhary and his many friends on my psyche.

The characters:


Chacha Chaudhary: The wise-old man of our comics. His ‘brain works faster than a computer’ and he can solve the complex of cases ranging from terrorism, dacoity, varied mystery and many more. He is more than 50 years old, wears a red turban, carries a walking stick, is bald and thin, and yet is a superhero for the society in his own right. Goons fear him, police look up to him for help and children love him. You can be rest assured that no matter what problems you are facing, Chachaji would save the day in the end.



Sabu: The superman from Jupiter, Sabu is more than just a sidekick to Chachaji. This gigantic and muscular ‘alien’ is as Indian as one can be and is like a family to Chachaji. If Chacha is the brain, Sabu is the more than ideal brawn. His character is chiefly responsible for bashing up goons and dacoits with one swipe of his hand. And you better not make this guy angry because, “Jab Sabu ko gussa aata hai, tab kahi Jwalamukhi fatta hai”.

Bini Chaachi : Chachaji’s better half, Bini Chaachi might not be a prevalent figure in all the episodes of the series but she sure packs a punch; quite literally. She has an imposing figure and can take down the meanest of ruffians on her day. However, her primary role in the comics is to chide Chachaji for being jobless and provide ‘lassi’ for Sabu.

Rocket: This forever faithful companion is probably one of the simplest of dogs one can have as a pet. But for Chachaji, Rocket is family. He also plays crucial parts in solving out mysteries and taking on the bad guys. And like many of those unusual things in the series; Rocket is the only dog in the world who is a vegetarian.

Dag-Dag: Though he is just a vehicle, Dag-Dag too is a vital chrachter of the series. Despite the fact that his tyres are bandaged, window panes are damaged, and that he emits a lot of smoke, he remains another faithful friend to Chachaji in times of need. Oh, and by the way you can never steal or cheat him as he is ‘half-human’ and can think for himself.

Gobar Singh and Dhamaka Singh: Although the series has a wide array of bad guys up its sleeve, these two are the most consistent ones. Both desperately try to rid Chachaji from their path to make their criminal life easier, but unfortunately their plethora of schemes never succeed.

Billoo: This street-smart teenager doesn’t exactly feature in the Chacha Chaudhary comics, (except for a few episodes) but is connected to the same world. He loves cricket and always manages to infuriate his arch-nemesis ‘Bajrangi Pehelwan’. He is the representation of the average teenager of today.

Pinki: Another character who is related to the world of Chachaji but has her own standalone series to speak of. This fiver-year old ‘pocket dynamite’ is an incessant chatter-box, has a lot of friends and continuously gets on the nerves of her neighbour Jhapatji. She always gets others into trouble while walking away guilt-free. She also has a pet; a squirrel named ‘kut-kut’, who accompanies her in almost all of her (mis)adventures.

Raaka: The only serious character in this world, Raaka is a dangerously vicious criminal who is a great threat to the society. He kills for power and pleasure and the only ones who can stop his reign are of course Chachaji and Sabu. The unique thing about Raaka is that he is immortal, and is gigantic and muscular in size. This happened courtesy the elixir of life he drank, made by a doctor called Chakramacharya. Fortunately for the world though, he is always disposed off into some remote places like space, sea or volcanoes courtesy Chachaji and Sabu. One can be rest assured that he will return though. Always.

                                                                                          ************************************

There are of course many more characters that Pran has created, but these are the few of them which I have connected most deeply with. Why am I so besotted with them has its own significance.

From a very early age, when I was perhaps 6-7, I had become obsessed with Chacha Chaudhary and its world. The simple drawings they had in their comic panels made me feel like visiting those very places and losing myself inside them. I remember waiting eagerly for every new title in the Chacha Chaudhary series once I got to know if it. The storyline of these comics would not be the greatest, but they had a simplistic charm about them that simply cannot be found in any other comic book. The funny names of the characters, the chaste Hindi dialogues, the total buffoonery in the stories and homely surroundings of their world, made me fall in love with them.  I even had this strange habit of keeping these comics beside my pillow before I went to sleep. It was like having a protective friend around you; which made me feel safe. I almost felt like no matter what I was going through, somehow or the other Chachaji and Sabu would save the day.

As I grew up a bit, I started collecting all the ‘exclusive’ Chacha titles I had with me and kept them safely stacked in my personal 'library'. I took them out during the summer and Puja vacations and no matter how many times I might have read a particular comic, it would always be a special feeling to leaf through their pages with no worry in the world. Life indeed was blissful back then.

Those days however, I could not buy these comics directly from bookstalls. My only source of purchasing them was at the railway stations. The Wheelers and many more like them used to keep a fair bit of these comics and every time I would enter the Howrah station, my first instinct would be to look for a Wheelers stall. Before I boarded my train, my first mission would be to get hold of a bunch of Chacha comics. It would be nothing short of an achievement to acquire even a couple of good titles like Chacha Chaudhary – 10 or Chacha Chaudhary aur Raaka ka Inteqaam. Furthermore, the train journey in itself was a perfect setting to read through the adventures of Chachaji. I loved reading those in the dim light of the chugging train; it was (and still is) a fascinating experience in itself. At every station where the train would stop, I had the habit of peeking out of the window and look at the book stalls in the hope of getting hold of a new Chacha title.

Even now, whenever I visit a railway station, my eyes automatically starts searching for a Wheelers book stall. I go there and always leaf through a few pages of the new Chacha comics. The feeling is akin to saying hello to your old friends; like revisiting those golden days of your life!

Life has of course changed manifold now. But certain things will remain the same. My fondness for Chacha Chaudhary and his world is one of those things. I might not read them as ardently as I once used to; but the love for them still remains deep. Perhaps that is why, even today, sometimes I keep a Chacha Chaudhary comic book close to my pillow. In the hope that no matter what tough times I might be going through, maybe just maybe, Chachaji and Sabu would save the day yet again!!

                                                                                                                 **

It was like walking in a dream; a dream that I had visualized innumerable times since my childhood.

The store was dingy and had many book racks. I enquired with the shop-keeper about the thing I wanted and he directed me to the corner shelf of the shop. One look at the shelf and I knew I had entered a dream world. The shelf was replete with hundreds of titles of the comic series that I wanted. I was stunned. I was mesmerized. I had never seen so many of these comic books at one place. My heart pounded in excitement. I then noticed a little 6-7 year old boy sitting near the extreme end of the shelf; surrounded by many of these comics. I however did not have time to pay heed to him. My only concentration was devoted to this plethora of comics in front of me, and I thus started picking many of them one by one. I leafed through their pages, touched them, and inhaled the smell in them; wanting to drink in every moment of this. The people in the shop looked at me curiously; perhaps thinking what was an adult like me doing in a comics section. But I did not care. I was in heaven.

I finally selected a dozen of them, albeit with great difficulty, and proudly strutted towards the cash counter. The lady there looked at me with raised eyebrows. But I was in a different zone then; nothing could bother me. As she computed my bill, I looked back at the book-shelf one last time and my eyes then once again fell on the little boy at the corner. His head was bowed; deep in reading the comics safely placed on his lap. Something about the boy seemed odd; he looked uncannily familiar. His hair was oily and fell down to his forehead. He was lanky and had a ‘nazar ka tika’ etched on his temple. He then suddenly looked up. Our eyes met and I realized I was looking back at my reflection from 20 years back. Before I could react, the lady at the counter said, “You bill sir.” I had briefly forgotten that I was in the shop and then hurriedly paid my bill. As I safely put my prized collections in my bag, she kept looking at me with her raised eyebrow. It almost felt she was asking me a mental question, “For your young nephew these aren’t they?” I zipped my bag shut and smiled at her, before answering her mentally as well. “Nope…” I said and looked back at the young boy. He smiled and waved at me. I waved back at him and finished my sentence, “This one’s for my childhood.”


To be concluded


(To read the second and final part of this post click here.)