Celebrating Chennai: City’s Favourite Uncle Turns 60
I must have been 9 years old then, maybe 10. Growing up in Kanpur, deep inside the Hindi heartland, Madras was for me only a dot on the map — a remote place with which I had no connection whatsoever. No visits, no relatives living there, no dreams of going there after ‘growing up’. Yet, I was familiar with one neighbourhood of Madras: Vadapalani. And that was because I had written to Chandamama a couple of times — once to ask if they needed freelance artists, on another occasion to ask if they would take my stories. Once my name actually appeared, in the ‘Do You Know’ column — the first time I saw my name in print.
Thus began my affair with Madras. It is like falling in love with a voice — it could be the voice of a singer or an RJ or a mysterious woman on the phone. You love her voice so much that you like to meet her someday. But that ‘someday’ never comes and years pass and you forget her. Then, one day, you are face to face with a mature beauty, and she turns out to be the owner of the voice you were once in love with! That’s how felt when I finally set foot on Madras at the age of 30.
Ever since I landed at Chennai Central five years ago, I have been trying to match the childhood images of the unseen Madras with that of the Chennai I am living in today. Maybe that’s what has made my stay worthwhile.
And then, last Saturday, I was face to face with the Madras of my childhood. I spent two hours at the office of Chandamama, chatting with the editor, Viswanatha Reddi, or Viswam. The office is no longer in Vadapalani, but in a two-storeyed house in Ekkatuthangal. Labour dispute and family dispute stalled Chandamama‘s publication from May 1998 to December 1999, and forced it to move out of the premises in 2000.
Today, Chandamama sells two lakh copies (down from nine lakh during its peak in the 1980’s). There is a report that that Walt Disney will buy it out. Viswam dismisses the report as speculation, but he is open to strategic partnership with Walt Disney, wherein the American company can promote Chandamama in return for using its archives.
Viswam, who is the son of filmmaker B. Nagi Reddi, came across to me as a very nice man — very gentle and modest in the old-fashioned way. He has been the editor since 1975. The feeling I got after the meeting is that he does not like the idea at all of selling out to Walt Disney, but some other board members seem to be in favour of such a deal. So he might be faced with difficult choices once again. But the good news is that Chandamama will soon turn sixty — it is only a month older than Independent India. One hopes the occasion is used to strengthen the magazine that has served young readers for three generations.
At 35, I am not sure which generation of the readers I belong to — should it be second or third? But one thing I know for certain is that Chandamama was a pillar of my childhood. And looking back, I can add that Chandamama is also a pillar of Chennai — the city whose birthday we are celebrating today.