My world was in a general state of despair.
Chacha Chaudhary had taken over the kingdom of Indian comics, releasing legions after legions of inane characters that would stand in a line and blast my senses. I stood there in front of them, waiting like a man who knew he could fight no more.
Among the litany of characters who came, were Mahabali Shaka, a He Man clone who gave up the forests to fight crime in urban spaces. All the while wearing a costume of a loincloth and a bob cut. Then there was Agniputra – Abhay.
Diamond comics used to give free audio cassettes with Agniputra Abhay comics, and I remember one of them describes Agniputra’s powers, and the entire clip lasted for about five minutes. If Superman met Agniputra for tea, Agniputra would boil the man of steel in a pot and sip on him, he was that badass. And Abhay was his sidekick, a guy who spoke in innuendos with his motorcycle. Depressing!
And it was on a train that I first glanced at them. Graphic illustrations, men with arms that looked like real Arms, albeit Shwarzenegger’s. Women with curves, revealing their cleavages and flying along with heroes.
A smile, some hellos, and a other niceties later, I was reading, for the first time in my life – Raj Comics. Those of you who haven’t heard of Raj Comics should look them up. They were India’s answer to DC and Marvel. Characters like Nagraj – the snake who charmed women and killed bad guys. Super Commando Dhruva – a fighter who could drive US Seals to suicide. The two of them, along with their friends flew, fought, and punched the daylights out of villains.
Also, the stakes were higher here. It was not just a case of a jewellery shop owner approaching Chacha and telling him a gold necklace was missing. Fuck that. Here, real shit was happening.
Evil villains were taking over the world. Villains who weren’t named Gobar Singh and Tingu Master. Here, villains could torment the hero, they were villains I wanted to see dead. Raj Comics was India’s first true graphic novel.
The illustrations were kick ass. Raj Comics kept away from the usual uni-sized boxes narrating the story like other guys who won awards from Indira Gandhi. Here, I had to follow the panels, look at the story. Nagraj’s punch would break out from the panel, blow my mind, and land on the villain on the bottom panel.
The only problem was that they were all in Hindi. It was rare to find a Raj Comic in English, and since we were taught Hindi by a Tamil teacher, my Hindi was practically useless. Yet, I read on, devouring each of the books like a hungry glutton. There were other characters I discovered.
Doga, on whom Anurag Kashyap has long wanted to make a movie. Tiranga, a patriotic superhero who fought for the country. Parmanu who did something related to science that I didn’t bother further researching on. Inspector Steel, who had balls of, well, you get the idea. These were all beautifully illustrated characters who looked like fighters, and spoke like fighters. They didn’t sit at home and enjoy Chachi’s parathas in the evening. Fuck you.
Raj Comics began as a dream.
And sadly, ended like someone poured a mug of cold water on my face and shook me awake.
A friend of mine had brought a comic from ‘foreign’, and I got to see heroes from DC and Marvel for the first time. I read Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and turned the pages in disbelief.
Every character that I had loved in Raj Comics, had been lifted. Some of the characteristics were subtle, some blatant.
My heroes, they didn’t even belong to their creators. They were mere bastardised versions of existing heroes. Not only were they blatant copies, they took plagiarism to Pritam Chakraborty levels. Tiranga was Captain America, Inspector Steel was Robocop, Iron Man was Parmanu, Fighter Toads were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Heroes, villains, characters, plots – Raj Comics left no stone unturned.
It was a heartbreak of gigantic, superhuman proportions. I don’t remember what I read in those days of depression. Probably Archies. Him with his stupid stories that weren’t funny, and which I could never, ever relate to. Here was a guy who would call two hot girls to the beach after school, and they would come dressed in bikinis. In India, we call it porn, thank you very much!
It was during this phase, that I found the friend I had dismissed and tossed away. Years ago.
The first teacher I ever had, was a Christian woman who taught me English. She was kind of scary to look at, but she had a sweet voice, and like all English teachers in the world, a heart of gold.
She would encourage me to read them, but I seldom followed her advice – enticed as I was, by Chacha and his computer se tez brain. There was too much text in the comics she was trying to make me read. I wanted more pictures. Somehow, things didn’t work out between us.
Back then, Amar Chitra Katha, though not technically a child of the 90’s, was fast gaining ground. Part of the trick was that most of the books were based on mythology. This meant that no one could object to us reading them, so there was more social sanction.
Again, while the stories were well narrated, the illustrations on ACK seemed limiting. Again, all the characters looked the same. The only way to tell the difference between the characters was that the gods would be blue in colour. All the women were curvy and had big eyes, and the elders all had the same flowing white beard.
I remember enjoying their Mega packs – Ramayan, Mahabharata, Dashavatar. But there is only so much you can read of Amar Chitra Katha as a child. After a point, you want real people, real roads, real heroes kicking real villain’s asses. Stories that you couldn’t predict the end of. Stories that had a bit for everybody – especially us underprivileged ashramites whose wardens would get a stroke if they saw the cleavage on those women in Raj Comics.
And like a Bollywood film, after the interval, the friend made a come back into my life.
The one image I have of our school warden is of her sitting and reading in the lobby.
She was a tall, frightful woman. She could make you piss your pants by growling at you, and she could punch like Muhammad Ali. And she would sit there in the lobby, a pen in the bun of her hair, smiling at this book.
Now, I know some of you are groaning. But put yourself in my shoes.
The shoes of a kid who has been disillusioned. Whose heart has been broken because he put his trust and love with someone, only to be devastated. Me and Tinkle did not begin as a torrid affair. There were other children’s books floating around, and so I was skeptical.
There was Champak, with Chiku, that joyless character who did stuff that was neither cute nor funny, in Champakavana. There was Chandamama, where there was one illustration for every 500 words. There was Gokulam, which was full of grammatical errors that would make me want to throw up even as a ten year old. So you couldn’t blame me for taking my time to warm up to Tinkle. By then, the rest of my class had actively gotten into Tinkle. They would share Suppandi stories with me, and I would simply smile.
It was only sometime around my Class 5, that I really started reading Tinkle. Tinkle took the best out of Amar Chitra Katha – the decent illustrations, and the penchant for not making grammatical and spelling mistakes, and carved it to make something new. The biggest trick, for me, however – was something else.
Tinkle did not have one single illustrator. There were specific illustrators for specific stories. While there was the brilliant Savio Masceranhas, there was the more traditional art of Ram Waeerkar too. Tinkle also had its own language. A set of sounds and expressions that you would only find in a Tinkle comic.
Like when someone came running, they would say, “I am coming *puff pant* from the palace *puff*”
Or if it was cold, they would say “Brrr it’s cold”. And if someone was drinking something, they would make a ‘Glug glug’ sound, or a *chomp chomp* sound if they were devouring something.
Tinkle probably got it right with their market research. There was truly bits in it for everybody. I know what you’re thinking: That comics shouldn’t appeal to everybody. They are crafted around a niche, loyal readership. But you forget this is India we are talking about.
Here, parents supervised what we read, sometimes going through the entire comic before giving it to us. And my mother had these ‘Censor Sensors’ that beeped like crazy when she suspected something was going to corrupt my pure, innocent mind. She had already thrown out an illustrated book that contained fairy tales by the Grimm brothers. Stories like Cinderella and Rapunzel that she suspected would make me fall in love. Little did she know that little boys don’t fall in love. They fall in lust. And I had already read the Nagraj comic where Sarpini makes an appearance. Whenever she frowned about me reading comics, all I had to say was that ‘Warden Aunty’ reads them too, and she had nothing to reply.
And so, I began to read Tinkle at home, without a fear of it being snatched from my hand and thrown in the gutter.
Tinkle, like I was saying, understood the market dynamics and produced comics that could be digested by the entire family. It was not just one story, but a series of different stories that were colourful and interesting, and if you didn’t like something, you could just skip to the next in the line. They didn’t give freebies like stickers and audio cassettes, probably because they knew that the comics were enough to hook us on.
I generally skipped the parts that had Uncle Pai explaining the wonders of science to some enthusiastic kids who spent their summer holidays with an old man in his laboratory. I also skipped the ‘It Happened To Me’ bits – some of them seemed made up, and anyway, they could be read when you were done with the rest of the book and before you passed it on to your friend. There were the others that I didn’t give too much attention to – like Little Raji and Ramu and Shamu, though I remember that Ramu – Shamu’s mother had big eyes, wore polka dotted sarees, and had a curvy body. But the stories were just one page long, and there was nothing in it for me.
I also skipped the ‘See and Smile’ and ‘You Said It’ sections – I thought they were just there for infants and very young children in the family.
You keep these out, and what you have, is a very good comic.
Tantri the Mantri, that man with the peculiar chin who for some reason reminds me of L.K. Advani. His misadventures in trying to attain the throne, and his indomitable spirit. Shikari Shambhu, that adorable hunter whose eyes I never saw, but I remember the bisons and deer that would be hung on his wall. They would smile when he entered the house, and frown when something was wrong.
I hated Kapish and Kalia the Crow. Again, stuff that you read before you passed it on. I mean, what was Kalia’s problem with nature? Why was he trying to fuck with the food chain? If Doob Doob and Chamataka wanted to eat rabbits, they should be allowed to. Why were these people interfering? And At least Kalia did something smart in every book, outwitting Doob Doob. What the hell was Kapish doing?
You rescue your friends my stretching your tail, man? Seriously? I understand we are a Hindu majority nation and all that, but why take it that far?
My true love, however, were the new stories that would come in every book. The ones that would be contributed by other children, people like me. If you waited till the Summer Vacations, Tinkle brought out this large sheet, thick edition of their comics called Summer Special. These were the ones I sought out.
My parents would never buy me a comic that cost more than 50 rupees, so the start of a new year at school always had on the top of its priority list hunting for Summer Special editions.
You spotted them being read on Sundays. You approached the guy, smiled, tried to talk nicely and ask it from him. Or, you approached the guy, smiled, snatched the comic and ran like hell. Either way, it ended up with you after some effort. I remember reading them in a quiet place, where there would be no distractions.
The Summer Special comics had adventure stories in them. Contributions of children that had children who went to their grandparents’ home in the summer and met this shady looking man with a stubble. There was always something suspicious about him, and all hell broke loose when someone noticed that there was a theft. There was no murder, of course (remember the family audience funda?), but the crimes were grave enough to run after. Especially if you were children in a Summer Special Tinkle who came to their grandparents’ house for the summer.
The children would follow the man, and he would often lead them to a secluded building, or a lighthouse. They would enter the building, but something would give in – their dog would bark, or someone would trip on a stone, and they would have to rush back. They would go back home, discuss the events, and hatch a plan. The plan was never revealed to us, all we got was the dialogue box going ‘psst…psst’.
The next day, they would execute the plan. The dreaded criminal would be on the verge of pulling off a dangerous job, and they would barge in with the police to save the day. The police would congratulate the kids’ parents for the smart children they have, and they would walk into the sunset, happy.
Not all stories were like this, of course. But they were always well written stories. Written by children like me.
If you zoom out and look back at the larger picture, Tinkle comics would be undisputed winner of Indian comics. They understood that it was all about loving your family, and published stories that you could read while loving your family. After all, they were going to give you the money to buy your next comic.
I remember trying to write a story that I would send to Tinkle. I would write down these stories and reread them. But then I would remember the exciting stories I had read, and doubt if mine would match up to them.
I never came up with anything to send to Tinkle, but I had the address written on my notebook all the time – just in case.
I doubt Tinkle will accept any of my stories now!