When I was about 10 years old, I discovered a magazine, that like many other good and beautiful things, died young. It was called Quest. Aimed at early adolescents, it was far ahead of its rivals in quality of content and design. Target, the only other comparable publication tried to talk to too wide an age group, and was frankly a little elitist. But its poetry and short-story competitions saw some of the best creative writing I have ever read. Many bound volumes of the magazine live on my bookshelf even today, and it is the winning fiction entries I find myself going back to again and again.
But I digress. This was about Quest. This little gem of a publication was pitched exactly right. It had none of the somewhat exclusive air that hung around Target. It included articles on computer technology (its column on Basic was responsible for my later adventures with C++), on underprivileged children, on disability, on wildlife (written by Preston Ahimaz, who unbeknownst to himself is responsible for some crucial career choices I made later), on music and art, oh on every single subject under the sun, managing to make them hugely engaging and not in the least boring.
Some of the people who contributed to the magazine are now well-known writers. Stories by Anita Rau Badami, now famous for her book Tamarind Mem, featured regularly. Aditi De was the editor. Among the many delights I was introduced to through Quest was Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s inimitable detective. The magazine serialised The Golden Fortress and I was hooked, buying and reading whatever other translations were available. Providing even more delight were Sukumar Ray’s gleeful nonsense verses, published with marvellous illustrations.
But what I looked forward to in each issue were two regulars: a humour column called Believe Me! by Kamala Ramchandani and a series of short stories by Sigrun Srivastav. Kamala, which is how I disrespectfully thought of her even all those years ago, is that rare writer who manages to produce laugh-out-loud humour for children, without clowning around and without condescension. Recalling her adventures with Petunia (if I remember right), a car with personality and some very decided opinions, still makes me giggle.
It was Sigrun Srivastav however, who made Quest so precious to me. The magazine reprinted stories from two of her anthologies, one titled A Moment of Truth and the other, Heroes Never Die. The first book was published by a small company in Delhi and the second by Penguin. The result was that Heroes Never Die was easily available in Bangalore where we lived, but Moment, to whose characters I had lost my 11-year old heart, simply could not be found anywhere. On a visit to Delhi one summer, I insisted on finding a shop that sold the book, a hunt that took us to eight bookstores across the city before I finally held a precious copy in my hands.
I have no idea how popular (or not) her books became, never having met anyone else who had read her. She seemed to have stopped writing after a while, for I regularly enquired at every bookshop I visited if had anything new by her, but they never did.
Hers were the first stories I read about children who did not solve mysteries that baffled adults, did not picnic on cake and ginger ale and worried about things other than poorly-filled tuck boxes. Instead, they were children I knew intimately, having lived their lives. Children who lost fights with bullies, who broke an arm and lay in a dreary hospital bed with only the sounds outside the window for company, whose parents worked on Sundays, whose fathers were afraid of bandits, who had disabled younger siblings, who moved to fast and fearsome cities that frightened them, who knew that gang wars did not belong only in films, who had fragile hearts and tender memories and who understood suffering, both animal and human. Children of a dusty, sweaty, raw, altogether real world.
Their imaginations spoke to me, their ghosts were mine. I still ask anyone I meet from any place west of Punjab, if they know a language in which Advia means medicine. I wondered if the lady waiting at my table that warm Sunday afternoon had a son yearning for his mother to come home. I even longed for a twinkling-eyed uncle who would tell me stories of bearded, turbaned dacoits.
Why she never wrote again, I do not know. Would I have liked her to write more? Perhaps, but then, some of the most precious things in life come in small doses. And are often best experienced that way.
That Quest recognised the quiet brilliance of Srivastav’s writing and chose to publish over a dozen of her stories, that it addressed middle-class realities without skimping on the magical and fantastic, that it had not a drop of glamour but plenty of laughter, that it did not create imaginary worlds, but illumined and coloured my ordinary one — that it created the most prefect mix any 11-year old could hope for is evident to me today. But back then, I just lived from one issue to the next, never imagining that the ride would end.