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BW Businessworld

How I Almost Toppled Hallmark Cards

Cartoonist, children's illustrator and graphic designer Krishna Shastri Devulapalli on a satire on the Indian publishing scene

It was the ’80s when I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. I wonder how much it had to do with my then girlfriend Pappi’s crib about not being able to go to the dress circle in Safire on account of my limited resources.

Obviously, the time had come for me to make the leap from freelance illustrator to young tycoon. Either that, or reconcile myself to watching Pappi ride off with Sahasranamam, her forty-something neighbour – who had been biting his lower lip and giving her come-hither looks – on his new Yezdi Roadking to not just the dress circle but a meal at Chung King and god-knows-what-else later.

At this juncture, my muse appeared, reliable as always.

‘Greeting cards,’ she said.

That she looked like Nirupa Roy and spoke in T.M. Soundararajan’s voice didn’t faze me one bit.

Maybe she meant that I buy Pappi a rosy, heart-filled greeting card with a love poem on it but I interpreted it as her telling me to get into the greeting card business. I could draw a bit and write some. Why hadn’t I thought of it myself?

Apparently, my muse was second cousin to Lady Luck because, just as Sahasranamam began practising wheelies on Elliot’s Beach, my old friend Gulabchand landed up.

‘Remember my uncle, Ameerchand, the guy with the lorry business?’ he said.

‘Of course,’ I said, without the faintest idea. I didn’t see the harm in making the acquaintance of someone who could facilitate a hit-and-run of a motorbike at short notice.

‘Well, he wants customized greeting cards…’

Before Gulu could complete the sentence, I was in Ameerchand’s office in Sowcarpet.

‘Beta,’ the transport baron said, ‘Gulab tells me you’re an artist. I want you to make a special Diwali greeting card with a drawing of my late father … great man.’

I nodded violently. If the man’s father had been a mass murderer wanted in eleven states, and the card was one celebrating his hundredth decapitation, I would have done it. All I could see in my head was the disturbing image of Sahasranamam nibbling on Pappi’s delicate ear.

Before long, not only had I got the order to design, print and mail five hundred greeting cards to various parts of India but a hefty advance as well. I rang up Pappi and told her how our days of two-rupees-ninety-paisa tickets were over. She didn’t sound enthusiastic. I could have sworn I heard a bike revving in the background.

Those were pre-computer days, with no instant solutions. As firecracker shops began popping up in the city, I had hand-finished everything in the artwork except the ‘Happy Diwali’ line that was to come inside. Soon, the outer part of the card was printed. Despite being an artist, cut-and-paste was something I’d never quite got the hang of. So I’d got myself an assistant, a boy from Maduravoyal, who was in the business not so much for his artistic leanings as his predilection for sniffing the rubber solution glue that was part of the work.

As in the climax of all great stories, just as the inner section of the card was to go for print and we’d cut-and pasted the ‘Happy Diw’ part of the greeting on the artwork, I got a call. It was Pappi.

I looked at the addressed and stamped envelopes. The screen printer said he could get the ink to dry by morning using a special process. All that needed to be done was paste in the remaining three letters, print, post, and wait to become the toast of Elephant Gate. What could go wrong? As I left for what I didn’t know was my last date with Pappi, my assistant gave me a thumbs up.

It was only the following evening that I could make it to the screen printers. I had been weeping all night on account of Pappi having got engaged to Sahasranamam.

‘All done, saar! Five hundred cards, printed, folded and posted,’ my assistant said. He had the look of a man expecting his Diwali bonus.

‘Excellent,’ I said. So what if Pappi had left me, I’d become a businessman.

I opened the card and looked at it.

‘Happy Diwala,’ it said.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India