How Reena Puri’s Childhood Passion For Comics Became Her Profession

Reena Puri has been at Amar Chitra Katha for more than 3 decades, has worked with Anant Pai, and as editor in chief now has many plans.

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The executive editor of Amar Chitra Katha Comics, Reena I. Puri, has been writing and editing comics for the past three decades. While writing stories and love for animals came early in her life, her young sons urged her to write specifically for comics.

“At one point, I had to choose between two jobs – one at a business newspaper and the other at ‘Tinkle’ comics. My two young sons were big fans of Tinkle. They persuaded me to take up the Tinkle job. So, I decided to try my hand at writing for comics,” says Reena with a smile.

Reena worked under Anant Pai, the creator of the iconic ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ (ACK) and Tinkle comics from 1991 to 2005, and says he was more a friend and mentor than a boss. “I have been in the same job for three decades because I enjoy it so much. Where else would I be able to read and write comics for a job?”

Full of beans at 65, Reena talks about her favourite comics as a child. “I loved reading comics when I was a child. I would read ‘Beano’, ‘June and School Friends’, ‘Mandrake’, ‘Phantom’, ‘Batman’, ‘Superman’, ‘Archies’ and ‘Commando’. The first two were my favourites. How would I have known then that my childhood love for comics would translate into a full-fledged profession! A profession I love,” says Reena.

Rescuing animals is another passion of hers. Committed to caring for strays she, along with friends, set up an NGO in Mumbai called ‘Save our Strays’, which is big organisation now. Today, she lives in Bengaluru with four cats and a dog, all rescued strays.

Weaving stories as a child

Reena belongs to Kerala but grew up in Agra. “I would write four-line rhymes from a very young age. My parents encouraged my writing. I also had the knack of making up elaborate stories to get out of trouble,” she says with a mischievous glint in her eyes.

Reena started writing stories when she was about eight. She would sit on a tree or in the garden and write, setting her imagination free. She would look at the atlas to find places to set these stories. In school, she scored well when it came to creative writing.

Reena studied English literature at Indraprastha College in Delhi. She met her ex-husband during her college days. She completed MA from Delhi University and got married ten days later.

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“My husband would encourage me to write. He had more faith in my writing abilities than I had myself. I wrote my first story for BBC Radio when I was 21. I could not believe it when it was accepted and broadcast. Writing for magazines such as ‘Illustrated Weekly’, ‘Caravan’, ‘Femina’ and ‘Imprint’ followed,” she narrates.

Her mother, the first feminist she knew

Reena’s mother left Kerala when she was 15 years old to study medicine in Agra. The British were encouraging women to become doctors and giving scholarships. She didn’t know Hindi, and only a smattering of English. She was an example of courage and grit for Reena. “Use your hands for a good purpose, whether you are a writer or a doctor,” she would tell her daughter.

“My three favourite ACK comic protagonists are women – Anandibai Joshi, the first lady doctor in India, Rukmabai, also a doctor and feminist who helped frame laws on divorce and rights of women, and Pandita Ramabai, a social reformer who worked for the cause of widows and girl child education.  We don’t know much about them. Thanks to ACK comics, children and adults have become aware of their work,” says Reena.

One of her favourites among the books by the ACK group is ‘Women in Power’. It was a Ministry of Culture project. It is about the 15 women members of the constituent assembly, all outstanding women, she says.

Comics can be a stepping stone to books

For children, who do not enjoy reading much, comics are a stepping stone to books, says Reena. ACK was launched in 1967, while Tinkle came out in 1980. Indian folk tales, classical literature, mythology, historical figures, stories of freedom fighters, modern-day legends, and other biographies, form the content of ACK comics. There are over 500 ACK titles today. Mr Pai’s goal was to acquaint children with their heritage and give them a sense of identity.

Tinkle comes across as pure fun but there is learning too. Also, Tinkle is a comic for, by and of children in a way. The group gets several letters a month from children even today who share their story ideas.

English is the primary language of publication. But the group publishes comics in Hindi and other regional languages, as well as a handful of foreign languages. In spite of digital options, the print versions of the comics are still very much in demand.

‘Animals are individuals’

“Living with animals is what has shaped me into what I am today. For me animals are individuals with distinct personalities. Through Tinkle stories too I have tried to convey the message to children that it is vital to respect animals and coexist with them. And, how important it is to be kind and compassionate to them. In fact, Tinkle has won the PETA award for being the most animal-friendly magazine,” says Reena.

Another conviction is to inculcate gender and race sensitivity in children. For instance, the unlike the early Amar Chitra Katha books, these comics do not depict gods as fair and demons as dark. Women are not shown cooking while men read newspapers. The group has a young, sensitive team who keep a watch on these aspects.

Reena is very fond of music, especially listening to instrumental music, whether classical Indian or western. She also keeps up with reading. “My grand-daughter Ira is just three months old. I gift her books, though she is so little. Let all the clothes and gold come from other people. I only want to fill her library, I tell my son,” says Reena.

As a senior citizen, Reena says she is lucky that she is still working. “I am fortunate that my company still respects the work I do. To work as long as one can is the most important thing. Not just for the financial independence, but also the confidence it brings,” asserts Reena.

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Aruna Raghuram

I am a freelance journalist and write on parenting, personalities, women’s issues, environment, and other social causes. read more...

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