When I watched V For Vendetta, I was surprised that it was adapted from a graphic novel. While the film didn’t shake me up so much, reading the graphic novel was a different experience altogether.
It shook me and stirred me. Not so much for the content, but for the form. That a graphic novel, after all just a fancy word for a ‘comic book’, could be an experience like that. I moved on to ‘Watchmen’ and the lesser known ‘Lost Girls’, and while they were two different genres, I am still bowled over by how much a comic can do.
I started reading Asterix around Class 9. It would of course take a few more years to understand all the puns. Everytime I reread an Asterix comic, I seem to understand something which I am sure I wouldn’t have understood the last time I read it. It’s like a Treasure Hunt in a book.
Tintin was always easier on the mind. I started reading Tintin in Class 7. They were beautifully crafted and every comic took you to a different place, like a magical journey.
But of course, like Coca Cola, these were foreign imports that came into my life much later.
Because you see, comics were just things that were bought while travelling on a train.
Whenever I would leave for my boarding school, my parents would buy me a Chacha Chaudhary comic. You can snigger at the amount of respect they gave to my comic reading habit, but you wouldn’t laugh if you saw the girl who was travelling with us. Her parents always bought her the 5 Rs. ‘Wisdom’ magazine that had a picture of a creepy smiling kid on the cover.
Those Wisdom magazines, like the name, had pearls of wisdom strung together with toilet paper and terrible pictures. The entire book looked a dull maroon, and there was just too much information on it, with too few pictures. There were anecdotes, facts, information about places, every page had a quotation at the bottom of the page. I always found the magazine stifling – like an adult is trying to shove some food into your mouth. Large morsels that you couldn’t swallow and hated in the first place.
No wonder the girl next to me cried.
But my parents bought me the Chacha Chaudhary comics and sent me to the school. After I had fought off tears so that my friends did not think of me as a sissy (“Ah! There’s something in my eye, let me wash it and come.”), the time to leave would arrive.
The train would chug off from the station, and after crossing the station, would be near the smelly slum next to the station. People would be shitting behind their huts, which was right in your face. Which made looking out of the window a little difficult. So I would settle down and open the comic.
And what shitty comics they were!
You know how we romanticise nostalgia? How everything that was a part of our past is glorified as ‘Those Magical Days’ and ‘We didn’t Have Video Games, We Played Real Games’ and all that?
I think some of that is bull.
Like, for example, I am glad we have other comics now. I was glad that Big Babool came into the market, ridding us forever of those 50 paisa coins that were so bad that when our teacher told us bubble gums were made from pigs’ tails, we believed her. They had to be, they were that bad.
Similarly with the comics. The comics I used to read were terrible, and I don’t even know where to begin.
First of all, the terrible illustrations. Every Chacha Chaudhry comic would have a cover that would somehow entice you into buying it (Like Sabu hitting a cricket shot), and then you would open it to soak in the disappointment. The cover had a brief introduction about the creator – Pran – and how he had won this award from Indira Gandhi for creating this outstanding comic.
Now, I am sure as adults they saw something deep and stimulating in the comics. Because as a kid, I didn’t see shit.
The illustrations were terrible. All the people looked the same, and their arms, legs, expressions, even their bloody chins looked the same. And the hands!
Pick up any Chacha Chaudhry comic, and notice- The Hand.
The Hand will be like that no matter what is the story, character, or scene in any page of the book. Character sitting on sofa? Creepy hand comes into play. Character bowling in cricket match, the hand will be there.
And it wasn’t just the illustrations, the comics screwed with my head. I remember reading them in Class 2, and feeling all warm and fuzzy when I read that Sabu is from Jupiter.
My science teacher in school, however, had other notions. She taught us how to mug up the names of nine planets so that we could vomit them in our examinations (My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets). She went on to tell us that there was absolutely no life on any planet (even Jupiter). But Chacha Chaudhry comics had stories where they went to Jupiter and everyone there is a giant like Sabu. I was confused, and shocked.
Now, I understand comics are supposed to be taken with a stretch of imagination. If it was possible for a young boy to go around the world solving cases with his dog and an alcoholic sailor, why was it unbelievable that a man from Jupiter lived with a man and rid the world of evil?
I am fine with that. Its just that the comics were terribly pieces of work. Everytime I finished reading one, I would feel crestfallen. Like a crack addict who is disappointed that he fell for the temptation again.
The comics neither had a great plot, nor any interesting twists. I remember stories where Chacha Chaudhry would outwit the opponent by pointing behind him and saying “Look!”. The person would look, and Chacha would hit him on his head and take his gun*.
[* Chacha Chaudhary’s brain works faster than a computer ]
When all the while there was this giant next to him who could pick up the culprit, dip him in hot oil and eat him up.
It was just bad comics – badly written, and badly illustrated.
I read the comics for a few years. There were other characters in the Diamond Comics stable too. Billoo, Pinky (who incidentally had a comic called ‘Pinky’s Pussy’), and Agniputra Abhay. The last one about a man who had every power known to man and his friend Abhay – a man who had a talking motorcycle that he called ‘Princess’.
Yes, things were that bad.
Fortunately or not, my mother had weird interpretations of the teachings of Sai Baba, whom we worshipped. She would listen to a discourse and infer that he was asking his followers not to wear jeans. In another, she inferred that comics were bad for children.
There was a blanket ban on comics. Those evil things that could encourage violence among children. Little did she know that it wouldn’t even encourage Garfield to pick it up and swat a spider with.
Comics were banned, and I could read nothing on the train. In those desperate times, I even contemplated getting a peek into ‘Wisdom’ magazines. I needed my fix, my next hit.
And then, peeping in from the darkness, came the ray of colour and shine.
Any guesses what they could be?
(To be continued)