We did not have access to many books and magazines growing up. Having access does not guarantee reading but without access you cannot even complain. Telugu weeklies, Sportstar, India Today and a few others did exist. The cost for English magazines was quite high for us and they really did not cater to kids. Chandamama was an iconic magazine for kids but then by the age of 10 or 11 you outgrew them, at least I did.
My first brush with a glossy printed magazine was with the Sputnik published by the then Soviet Block. Because of our friendly ties with the Russians, we could get hugely subscribed books delivered right to the door step. They caught my eye because of the glossy print, the happy life stories. They might not look great for the current generation, but for us, who did not have a TV, theses magazines were manna from heaven. On googling, I found that these magazines went out of print in 1992.
They would talk about the different regions, their customs, their food habits. There were interviews with the normal people, the hair dressers, the factory workers etc. There was never any dissent any anger at communism or anything remotely representing negative emotions published. We hear about it in the newspapers mostly after Glasnost. It was pictured as one happy go lucky country.
The magazine also was a primer on geography, on the Soviet personalities, on the East block countries. The news papers articles on the Communist bloc made more sense because of all the background that was obtained thru Sputnik.
There was another phenomenon those days. There were two major communist parties then– CPI and CPM. The kids of the second rung leaders in the communist parties always went to Russia for higher studies. There were quite a few Russian returned engineers and doctors. The first rung leaders kids invariably went to the Americas and UK with the communist money. Of course as parents you would always want the best for your kids, so Capitalist countries it is for the leaders of Communism who can afford.
Such were the ties that visiting soviet dignitaries filled our news papers regularly. Nikita Krushchev, Brezhnev, Michael Gorbachev were house hold names. Contrast with the painfully few vists of the US presidents. So, our friends were Russians in contrast to the west was a mere acquaintance.
We knew Azerbaizan, Turkemenistan, Khazakistan in the eighties because of these books. That the capital of Georgia was Tiblis was known to the readers of the magazines then. Maybe I was one of the few who poured on these books for the pictures which induced me to read more.
One in every five people in India in the Eighties till the turn of the century would vouch for Readers Digest. It was iconic, had a cult following then. People would collect the old editions and boast about them. Actually we do boast about them even now. The language, the emotions, the stories – everything was perfect. Please note the “was” in the sentence. In my humble opinion RD has lost the charm but it still is quite good for an occasional read.
Readers Digest touches a emotional chord with many people. There were these genre of stories in which the protagonist was the underdog or had life threatening illness or a terrible economic condition. They would always triumph in the end. The “Chicken soup for the soul”, equivalent for our generation. Needless to say all these are tear jerkers. I would be wrong to say humor was not well represented. Humor in uniforn, was the best and a mere recollection of some those brings a smile even in the midst of a meeting.
Thanks to RD and Spunik and the occasional National Geographic, my world view grew leaps and bounds compared to the constraints or paucity of resources at that time. I get nostalgic whenever I see an old issue of any of the above books. In fact I had a huge collection of these books and my parents had to give them away, when my father retired and they had to move to a smaller apartment.