“Ananda Coomaraswamy!” said my friend Rohit on Twitter, “You haven’t heard of him? Read him! Dance of Siva is his best book!”
Over the next few days I got busy preparing to go home in five years. When I got home, it was Holi. In ma’s garden, the bougainvillea were in full bloom and the waxy leaves of the lemon trees buzzed with bees. One morning, I made my way to our tiny attic to put away old clothes. The faded smell of old books hit me as I opened the door. I knelt in the dust and raised the lid of the first trunk, to find armfuls on armfuls of old Hindi magazines tumbling out.
In the first few decades after independence, the newly minted nation saw frenzied literary activity. The hopes of an entire nation had been unleashed and poets commanded the same fandom and admiration as movie stars do today.
Most of their work found itself in general interest periodicals and monthly magazines which were in their hoary days in the 60s and 70s everywhere.
You could stroll to the barber’s shop and glance at a Mayapuri, with black & white photos of movie parties (the front page was colour). In still smaller towns, the local bookstall was festooned with Pratiyogita Darpans. Dentists kept Sarvottam, the Reader’s Digest’s Hindi version where, while getting a tooth examined and creating much fuss, I first read the word dasvidanya, said by the Russian peasant before he killed the moneylender and jumped off a cliff. In an older friend’s house, I’d find issues of Parag, the teen mag that serialized Babu Devki Nandan Khatri’s Chandrakanta. The Aiyyars wrote cheethis, made magic, carried effete purses & silken hankies that were the Indian counterparts of an intergalactic hitch hiker’s towel. Summers saw brisk trade in Madhu Muskan and LotPot.
But most of all, everything could be found in our home. My dad was an obsessive collector of print & several magazines continued from his bachelor days. Then, there was Champak for my brother, Nandan (in whose black & white pages, I first read of a magical city far far away, called Bangalore) and Parag for me, Femina for Ma and Dharmyug, Saptahik Hindustan, Sarvottam, Kadambini and Navneet for everyone. There was an English paper and a Hindi one whose juicy bits in the local pages my grandmother would go over with her satsang gang of girls. The most irredeemably boring magazine of the lot though was one in English, called India Today. Sharp nosed Kashmiri couples, drawn by Sudheer Dhar, dwelt in the back of Saptahik Hindustan. Dhabbu ji & Chhotu-Lambu, drawn by Abid Surti, with their simple wordplay, lived in Dharmyug. Bald Henry, called Gunakar in Hindi for some untold reason, strolled off the pages of comic books. Indrajaal comics traded hands, & as I grew older, Super Commando Dhruv and Nagaraj ruled the neighbourhood summer vacation lending library cum bookstall.
One of the most awesome features of this efflorescence in reading material, was the near outstanding talent leading it. Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena helmed Parag, and firmly believed that literature for children and young adults, is where the richest material should reside. Decked in trademark cat-eyed glasses, winged liner and sleeveless silk blouse, Sheela Jhunjhunwala’s approval made careers at the Hindustan Times group while Dharamvir Bharti did the same at Dharmyug. A whole new breed of empowered women writers poured their hearts out on these pages. Carefully observed social mores, changing cultural milieu, the minutiae of man-woman relationships, were all captured beautifully by skillful women like Mridula Garg, Mamta Kalia & Mannu Bhandari. The humourist KP Saxena’s refined wit was matched by the grinning Dr. Sarojini Pritam and Bhagvati Charan Verma to Jainendra to the doyenne of the genre Shivani, all pitched in to write luminous love stories or heartachy ones about latchkey kids. Forest Officers wrote about tribals in their locations, growing & drinking mahua, while wide-eyed guides wrote about boating in Nakki Lake.
The slightly racy magazines like Sarita and Grihashobha (modeled after Women & Home), carried what are now cultural touchstone columns, where ladies wrote in racy incidents that ended in embarrassment for them & unending titillation for (the silent majority of male) readers.
However, time was changing very fast. By the late 90s, these magazines were dying and with them died the genteel, erudite culture of reading in Hindi, too.
Back in the attic, I picked up a bunch of Kadambinis and Navneets. As a kid, I could still tolerate the latter, with its easy mix of literature, culture, travel, philosophy and humour. Kadambini was another cup of tea. Famed for its Annual *Tantra Mantra Visheshank*, a tome of astrology and complex related dark arts, a casual glance at one from 1989, reveals articles on a visit to Kashmir, corneal surgery, John Kojak, the Vedas, translated works of several famous regional writers & dire astrological warnings. In short, the world in your hands.
I brought the magazines down, dusted them, and sat in the lawn exactly where my dad used to sit with a rolled Navy Cut in hand, sipping tea and doing office work while our dog dozed by his side. He’d have understood little about his kid at that moment, from her work to the city she lived in to her life experiences.
I picked up a thicker Kadambini, Diwali special edition, that he’d have read on a quiet weekend home with his mother and sister. I kept turning the pages til an article caught my eyes.
The Message of the East, by the great artist & philosopher, Ananda Coomaraswamy, ran the blurb. I took a deep breath, and reached for my phone. Some surprises got better when they were shared right away with those who’d understand.
By – @TheSignOfFive