The love for comics, the betrayal and the saga of losing a precious collection to a book thief.

Some of you may have read Marcus Zusak’s 2006 novel The Book Thief. If you haven’t you should. It’s a long, sad book set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death himself and will particularly resonate with book lovers. However, this write up is not about Zusak or his book. It’s about an incident that occurred almost 50 years ago in 1972. It was an incident that will again resonate with book lovers. It’s about a book thief, this time a comic book thief. I have been wanting to get this off my chest for a long time. Should have done it before 2006 when Zusak pre-empted me with the title. Anyway, here goes.

The relocation

My father was posted to Trivandrum in September 1972, the last posting before he was due to retire from the Army in 1974. We resided for a few days in the Army Mess on the tip of Cotton Hill. I enjoyed those few days because the Army Mess had a library with a small but eclectic selection of books.

Much too soon the MES located a house for us and we shifted to the quiet and scenic environs of Belhaven, situated just opposite the Governor’s Residence in Kowdiar. Although my mother hated the sheer size of the house, my sister and I loved it. Lots of space to run around and play in especially when friends came over. We gradually settled in.

I carefully unpacked one of the most important part of our possessions (at least according to me then), and gently placed in the cupboard in the drawing room. These were my treasure trove, about 20-odd Enid Blyton books, a couple of Malcolm Savilles and Biggles novels, a juvenile western called Gun Town Marshal by John Robb and my comics.

Precious cargo

My collection of comic books stood exactly at 50 at the time. They had been bought for me by my parents from the A.H. Wheeler or Higginbothams stalls at Mathura Railway Station and some had been gifted by family friends. Each had been read multiple times and were handled with utmost care, as if printed on spider web silk.

My mother was insistent that books and comics should be handled carefully and not lent out because that would mean that the book would either not return or return in a bruised and battered condition. It was made very clear to me that if I did not keep my books in mint condition, no more books or comics would be purchased.

Obviously I took the advice to heart and gently handled all my books. I had ambitions of increasing my collection of comics to the unheard of figure of 100. To realise this dream, I would need to ensure that I did not upset the Boss.

My comic books were mostly Gold Key comics from the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were a bunch of Tarzan comics with fabulous covers by the great George Wilson (though I did not know who the artist was at the time since Gold Key did not credit the writers or artists unlike Marvel and DC).

I also remember I had copies of the one shots ‘Freedom Agent’ and ‘G-8 and his Flying Aces’; a copy of ‘The Scarecrow’; one Lone Ranger comic in which, horror of horrors, the masked man is unmasked; and a couple of Porky Pig comics. There was a Super TV Heroes comic featuring Space Ghost, a MARS Patrol, a Green Hornet comic with Bruce Lee on the cover (I did not know who he was either, then) and comics featuring John Steele, Secret Agent, The Man from UNCLE and three of my favourite cartoon characters Wacky Witch, Snagglepuss and Baby Snoots.

A couple of Sad Sack and Hot Stuff comics from Harvey, an Aquaman, a Metal Men and a Superman comic from DC and an Archie comic, a few Indrajals, Classics Illustrated and Amar Chitra Kathas rounded off the collection. These were my best friends, my bosom buddies, my closest chums. Little did I know what lay in store for them.

A new beginning

Immediately after relocating to Trivandrum, my father took me to Loyola School and, after passing the obligatory test, I was admitted to the 5th Standard. I was apprehensive when I made my way to school in the school bus on a Monday. The bus was full of unruly boys, each trying to outdo the others in exercising their vocal cords.

On reaching the school, situated on the outskirts of the city, I timidly entered the classroom and immediately was the cynosure of all eyes. A more disreputable bunch of young hooligans is difficult to imagine. To quote Wodehouse, the faces that glared at me from all sides looked like a bunch of homicidal poached eggs.

I gingerly sat down on a bench in the second row as only two boys were sitting on the bench that could accommodate four. I kept my head down and tried to play dead hoping that the predators would deem me unworthy of their attention. I was successful in this as I was ignored by most of them. A couple did come up and demand to know where I was from. A short, fair Tamil boy appeared to be the friendliest of the bunch, and anyway he was so small he didn’t pose a threat.

The next few days passed without incident. Most of the boys seemed to pass the time throwing paper pellets when the teacher’s back was turned or passing notes to each other. The lunch break and the ‘sports’ period were used for impromptu games of ‘Seven Tiles’ or football. I hated sports and kept a low profile.

Hitting a jackpot!

A few days of this and I began to yearn for some more congenial company. Maybe there was someone here who liked to read. On Friday, in a break between classes, I remarked in an offhand tone that I had a collection of books and comics. The recipients of this remark did not cheer and crowd around me, like I had hoped. They just looked at me blankly and returned to sprinkling ink on the shirts of the boys unfortunate enough to be sitting in front of them.

Defeated, I was resigned to spending the rest of my school days friendless, afloat in a sea of illiterate comic hating, sports loving neanderthals. At around 2.30 p.m., in the break between periods I realised that someone was standing next to my bench. I peered suspiciously at him.

I could guess that he was not from Kerala, probably from the north of India. ‘Hi’, he said. ‘I am Baddy’. His name was not Baddy but it should have been as I would come to realise later. ‘Are you from Delhi?’ he continued. I replied that I was last in Mathura but had also been in Delhi for four years. To my delight, the conversation continued in Hindi, a language I was more familiar with than Malayalam at that point in my life.

‘Do you have comics?’ was his next question. I swelled with pride. ‘I have 50 comics’, I replied smugly. ‘Oh, really? I have over 100’ he replied. I was stunned. 100 comic books. It was unbelievable. ‘What comics do you have?’ I asked eagerly. ‘Oh, all kinds’, he replied. ‘DC, Gold Key, Charlton, Indrajal, Chandamama’ he went on. I was floored.

What a collection, I thought in my mind. I desperately wanted to be friends with this guy. ‘Where do you live?’ was his next question. I gave him the location of my house. Baddy was also from Delhi and his father was an army officer posted at Pangode. ‘Okay’ he said. ‘See you next week’.

I went home happy. I had made a friend, a friend who had comics. School suddenly did not seem all that bad. I was even looking forward to the next week.

The rude awakening

I had just woken up at 6.30 a.m. on Saturday when I heard my name being called in a penetrative treble. Rubbing the sleep out of my eyes I stumbled downstairs and walked up to the gate. It was my friend, Baddy. ‘Hi’, he said without ceremony, cutting to the quick. ‘I have come for the comics’. ‘What?’ I stuttered. ‘The comics’ he said impatiently. ‘Give me your comics. I will read them and return them on Monday’.

Lend my comics? It was unthinkable and anyway my mother wouldn’t allow it. On the other hand, I did not want to alienate the only friend I had made, that too the owner of a treasure that Long John Silver would give his remaining leg to possess.

‘My mother won’t allow me to lend the comics’, I said. ‘You can sit here and read them’. ‘C’mon’, he wheedled ‘I live close by in Jawahar Nagar, I will read them over the weekend and return them on Monday in school. Tell you what? I will get you my comics too on Monday’. That did it. I caved in like a pricked balloon.

‘Okay, I will get you four or five. Which one’s would you like?’. Baddy was persistent. ‘I want all 50. I am a fast reader. I will finish them over the weekend and return them along with 50 of mine, which you can read and return in a few days’.

I was caught between Beelzebub and the ocean. While I was reluctant to lend my comics, the promise of 50 in return was something I couldn’t dream of turning down. I wandered upstairs and told my mother it was a classmate and he wanted to borrow my comics. Her face changed expression. Strong men quailed and dived into the nearest storm shelter when she looked like that. I wasn’t a strong kid but I stood my ground, the lure of those 100 comics giving me strength. She looked even sterner when I told her the kid wanted all 50 comics.

I used all my powers of persuasion to make her agree. And she finally relented. I picked up my precious stash, carefully packed in three polythene bags, and took them downstairs. ‘Thanks’, Baddy said perfunctorily as he did a smart about turn and disappeared into the distance.

I couldn’t wait for Monday to come around. Dreams of the 50 comics Baddy was going to give me kept dancing through my dreams. I would read them all in one day and then ask him to get me the remaining 50. I hoped he had some Tarzans and Lone Rangers I had not read.

Awaiting the pot of gold

On Monday, I jumped on the bus and looked around for Baddy as he would have boarded the bus before me. He wasn’t to be seen. As soon as we reached the school, I rushed to my classroom casting about for a sight of Baddy with a bagful of comics. Funnily enough he was nowhere in sight.

The first period began and there was still no sign of him. I felt the first prickle of unease. In the break between periods, I asked a few boys where Baddy was. ‘Oh him…?’, one of them responded. ‘…His father was posted back to Delhi and he left with his family on Sunday’.

To say that the bottom fell out of my world is an understatement. I sat staring blankly ahead for the whole of the next period. My precious comics had disappeared, filched, purloined, stolen away by a juvenile confidence trickster who was an amalgam of Dr Moriarty, Fu Manchu and Mandrake’s opponent The Cobra.

Even worse, what was I going to tell my mother? I got off the bus that evening and dragged myself home. My mother knew, intuitively, that something had happened. She was aghast when I told her about the depths of Baddy’s perfidy. I expected an explosion but what followed was a deathly quiet. ‘I told you so’, she said in a grim tone. ‘That’s it. No more buying books and comics. You can join the library and borrow as many books as you want.’ ‘But the libraries don’t have comics,’ I wailed. ‘Serves you right’, was the unsympathetic reply. ‘Anyway you are too old to be reading comics now’.

And that was that. I joined the British Council Library, the Trivandrum Public Library and later the University Library but they didn’t have comics. Well, the Public Library did but you couldn’t borrow them. Of course, the good that came of the incident was that I was introduced to so many wonderful authors that I gradually got over the loss of my comics. Maybe not completely, but the wound grew scar tissue and lay dormant except for the occasional twinge.

I refrained from collecting comics until I moved to Delhi and discovered the book market in Daryaganj. Over the next several years, I rebuilt my collection and even managed to get most of the comics Baddy had swiped.

The group chat

Over a quarter of a century later, in the internet age, my schoolfriends from Loyola, who turned out to be much nicer than I initially assumed, had formed a Yahoo Group and were in regular touch online.

One of my friends posted on the Group that he had located Baddy online and would like to add him to the group provided all the other members agreed. I gave my consent but couldn’t restrain myself from telling the story of how Baddy had plumbed the depths of villainy. After hearing the story, some in the group decided against adding him and he disappeared from my life.

On second thoughts, maybe we should have let him join. I could have found out where he lived and could have paid him a little visit and let him know, in choice anglo saxon, what I thought about him. The world is a small place, maybe that day will still come.

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Vineeth Abraham calls himself a “complete, utter and unapologetic bibliophile”. He owns a large personal library and resides in Irinjalakuda, Kerala. In Shelf Life, Abraham writes about reading, books, and beyond.

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