Meet ‘D,’ a small, dusty man in a big, dusty market, obsessed with collecting Indrajal comics. Despite already owning the complete series, he’s always on the lookout for upgrades. He scoffs at other books, considering them boring. He even carries a list of issues he needs to replace. But when I helped him find a rare Hindi volume, he left Usain Bolt in the dust to claim it.
“A small, dusty man in a small, dusty room.” This is both the opening and closing sentence of Alistair MacLean’s thriller, “The Dark Crusader.” It is also the sentence that immediately comes to mind when I think of a certain gentleman I met at the Daryaganj book market in Delhi in 1989. Well, perhaps not a small, dusty man in a small, dusty room, but certainly a small, dusty man in a big, dusty market.
The gentleman, whom we shall refer to as ‘D’ for the sake of anonymity, was one of the smallest men I have ever met. Barely reaching 4’11” in his scuffed black shoes, he was invariably dressed in dark pants with a white shirt tucked in. Even when clad in brand new clothes, he gave the impression of wearing someone’s cast-offs. He was a weedy sixty-something with dirty grey hair, a pencil mustache, and very small feet. If his feet were larger and he walked with his toes pointing outward, one would swear it was Charlie Chaplin in the flesh. Instead of a bundle tied to the end of a stick, which was Charlie’s trademark, he carried an outsized ‘Aristocrat’ suitcase that had seen better days and was tied with string to prevent it from falling open.
My friends and family may think I’m borderline crazy due to my love for books, but I was not in the same league as ‘D,’ who was obsessive about them. His particular obsession was comics, especially Indrajal comics.
A Delhi man’s obsession in the Daryaganj market
Indrajal Comics was a comic series launched by the Times of India group in 1964, and along with “Amar Chitra Katha,” it was responsible for popularizing comics in India in the 1960s and 1970s. The series featured adventures of characters such as “The Phantom,” “Mandrake the Magician,” and “Flash Gordon,” and later included other characters like “Buz Sawyer,” “Kerry Drake,” “Garth and Corrigan,” and the first indigenous comic hero “Bahadur,” followed by other indigenous characters like “Dara” and “Aditya.” These comics were immensely popular and a staple for kids in the era before television, computers, mobile phones, and the Internet, providing them with their sole source of entertainment.
I first spotted him at the Daryaganj Weekly Book Market in April 1989 when I first arrived in Delhi. He was an elderly man with a small frame, carrying an oversized suitcase, swiftly navigating through the crowded market in quick, birdlike hops. It was evident that he was on the hunt for Indrajal comics, both in English and Hindi, which he appeared to collect. All the pavement sellers at the market knew him and referred to him as “Masterji,” thinking or getting the impression that he was a teacher at a school in South Delhi. Later, I came to know that he was actually a Laboratory Attendant at a school in South Delhi, but “Masterji” was the name he was known by, and even now, many sellers in Daryaganj remember him by that title. He had a sharp eye and could spot an Indrajal comic from a considerable distance. However, there was one instance when he passed by me while I was browsing at a store and didn’t notice a thick bound volume of rare Hindi Indrajal comics, partially hidden among a pile of books and magazines. These comics were from issues No. 101 to 120, dating back to 1970, and were quite rare. As a collector of Indrajal comics myself, but only in English, with a preference for American Gold Key and Dell comics, I caught up with him further up the street. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him in Hindi if he collected Indrajal comics. He gave me a suspicious look, as if questioning my intentions, but confirmed that he did. I then informed him that he had overlooked a bound volume of rare Hindi Indrajal comics at a stall just 50 meters down the street. He asked me for the location, and without another word, he dashed down the street at a speed that would have left Usain Bolt in the dust.”
Bonding over comics
I encountered him again the following week, and this time he greeted me with a smile and a nod. He expressed his gratitude, mentioning that he had acquired the bound volume I had recommended. He then proceeded to share his passion for collecting Indrajal comics in both English and Hindi. Despite already owning the complete series in both languages, he was always on the lookout to upgrade any copies that were in poor condition. I later learned that he wouldn’t let a single issue pass him by, even if he already had twenty copies of the same one at home. We engaged in conversation about comics, and I mentioned that I too was an avid reader of comic books, as well as an enthusiastic reader of books in general.
He quickly clarified that he was solely interested in comics, particularly ‘Indrajal’ and ‘Amar Chitra Katha,’ with ‘Indrajal’ being his first love. In fact, he expressed disdain for other books, considering them boring. He then pulled out a list from his pocket, scribbled with numbers in a hasty scrawl, which turned out to be a list of issue numbers that he needed to replace due to poor condition or missing covers. Upon reviewing the list, I noticed that he was in search of issue No. 46, a Mandrake story, which happened to be included in a bound volume of 20 comics that I had recently purchased from Karol Bagh. This volume also contained several other early numbers, such as 35, 37, and 40, which were reprints of Gold Key and Dell comics, along with some other issues from Gold Key, Dell, and Harvey.
His interest was piqued when he realized that I had issue No. 46 in my possession. He humbly asked if I would be willing to part with it, as his own copy was missing its cover. Delighted to have found someone with similar interests, I graciously agreed and invited him to my home for lunch the following Saturday, where I would hand over the comic to him.
As promised, ‘D’ arrived at my humble abode the following Saturday. He had lunch with my wife and me, but his attention was solely focused on my collection of comics. He barely spared a glance for the Gold Keys, Dells, Charltons, and Harveys, his eyes fixed on the Indrajal issues. At that point, my own collection of Indrajal comics mostly consisted of issues numbered over 100, and he already had multiple copies of all of them. When I presented him with the bound volume containing issue No. 46, he assured me that he would take it to a bookbinder to have the comic removed, and the remaining comics rebounded. True to his word, he returned the rebounded volume to me the following week in Daryaganj, with only issue No. 46 missing, removed with surgical precision. I later learned that he was a bachelor, residing in Munirka, South Delhi with his elderly mother, and he had rented a separate room in the area solely to store his extensive collection of comics.
A hilarious bidding war frenzy
As the weeks went by, we used to meet regularly and compare notes. He had nearly completed his collection of Indrajals and was pondering what to do next. Being a Gold Key and Dell enthusiast myself, he started acquiring a few of those, but after reading them, he dismissed them as boring and not a patch on ‘Indrajal’. However, his attitude soon changed. He began to see me more as a rival than a friend, as I too was an Indrajal collector. I couldn’t understand why this change had occurred, as he already had multiple copies of almost the entire collection. I’m no psychoanalyst, but apparently, he enjoyed the feeling of possessing something that others were also searching for. I could picture him perched on a mound of Indrajal comics, salivating like a miserly vulture.
To ensure that he would acquire any Indrajal comics that appeared in the market, he started circulating lists to all the sellers. These lists mentioned the prices he was willing to pay for mint copies. His offers ranged from Rs. 10 each for the volume issues to Rs. 40 each for the 400s, Rs. 80 each for the 300s, 100 each for the 200s, 200 each for the 100s, 300 each for issues between 51 and 100, 400 each for issues between 11 and 50, 500 each for issues between 2 and 10, and an almost unheard-of Rs. 1,000/- for Issue No. 1.
To say that these lists sent the sellers in the market into a frenzy would be an understatement. Indrajal comics usually sold for between Rs. 2 and Rs. 5 in those days, with the earliest issues going for Rs. 25/-. Suddenly, every seller was on the hunt for Indrajal comics for ‘Masterji’. I was approached by some who wanted to buy my early issues for Rs. 10 each, presumably to sell them to ‘Masterji’ at a princely profit. “You must have bought these for Rs. 5/- each, and since you’ve already read them, you can sell them to us at double the price,” they would inveigle. I used to reply that I did not sell comics and that if I ever wanted to part with them, I would give them to someone who would appreciate them. Suddenly, most of the sellers in Daryaganj became die-hard collectors, each with a sob story about how they loved these comics but were forced to part with their favorite issues to feed their starving kids. Now, apparently, they were better off and wanted to restart their collections. Upon hearing their sob stories, I would ask them if they had a copy of Masterji’s famous list. Defeated, they would slink off muttering imprecations.
I asked ‘D’ how he could afford to pay the sellers the amounts he was offering, sums that he certainly could not afford on a Lab Attendant’s salary. Once he let slip his guard and revealed his secret with a smirk. Apparently, he would buy the issues they came up with if he thought they were better than the ones in his collection. He would return the poorer copy the next week and take his money back by informing the seller that the copy he had was superior and so he didn’t need the copy he’d just bought from them. Alternatively, if he had damaged interior pages or covers, he’d replace the relevant pages or covers with those from the new copy, place the old pages/covers in the issue he had bought, and then return the comic to the seller and get his money back. Using this simple con, he had managed to upgrade his entire collection without spending a penny. However, what his lists did was to inflate the price of second-hand comics in Daryaganj tenfold, and it has never gone down since.
One hot summer morning in 1996, an incident occurred that was to end our tenuous friendship for good. I had reached the market early and chanced upon one of the sellers just when he was emptying a gunny bag full of comics on the pavement. Most of these were Indrajal comics, and since this was a new seller who was not in possession of the famous lists, he was selling them for Rs. 3/- each. I searched among the bundles and found quite a few I did not have, including several early issues. Among these was No. 146, a Mandrake comic, which was one of the few comics ‘D’ was searching for, as his copy had a missing front cover. When I picked it up, I decided to give it to ‘D’. I paid for the 40-odd comics I had picked up and put them in my backpack, which I had parked in a corner. Just as I was about to leave, a miniature tornado rushed up. It was ‘D’, and on seeing the Indrajal comics, he literally fell on them. He asked the seller how much they were and then hastily stated he’d take them all. On seeing that I was not making any move towards the comics, a thought occurred to him, and he inquired whether I had already picked up some. I replied in the affirmative and stated in an offhand manner that I had picked up several I wanted and that they were in my bag. He rushed over to my bag, opened it, and began pawing through the contents. I was standing nearby looking at some books, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him pull out a comic and thrust it under his shirt. He then walked crabwise to his suitcase, opened it, pulled out the comic from under his shirt, and thrust it into the suitcase and closed it. He then sidled up to the seller and began haggling with him over the comics he’d bought. I was dumbfounded. I knew he was obsessed, but I never thought he’d stoop to this level.
I approached him and inquired whether he had taken anything from my bag. He stammered out a denial. I had a strong suspicion that he had taken a particular item. I asked him once more, specifically, if he had taken No. 146, which I had just purchased. Once again, he denied it. I walked over to his suitcase, despite his protests, and jerked it open. There, right on top, was No. 146. I pulled it out and showed it to him. He turned red and started babbling about not knowing how it got there. I cut him short, put the comic back in my bag, and walked away. There was no way I was going to give him that issue now.
How ‘D’ Disappeared with the Ultimate Comic Stash!
In the following weeks, when we crossed paths in the market, he would try to start a conversation, but I ignored him. This angered him, and he began buying up all the comics he thought I would like, just so I wouldn’t have the pleasure of getting them. He started arriving at the market at 6:30 a.m. every morning, going through every seller’s items and buying all the Gold Key, Dell, Charlton, Harvey, Fawcett, DC, and Marvel comics he could find. He even started buying books that he had previously expressed disdain for, including vintage westerns, thrillers, mysteries, and historical fiction, knowing I had a fondness for them. My visits to Daryaganj yielded little, as ‘D’ filled his coffers with books and comics he would never read, deriving a perverse satisfaction from hoarding items he didn’t like or want but someone else did.
Then one day, the unthinkable happened. ‘D’ himself disappeared. His small figure, a fixture in the market for over 15 years, was seen no more. I knew he was a bachelor, and that his mother, with whom he was living, had passed away a few months earlier. He was already in his mid-sixties when I first met him and must have been over 70 by now. At first, I thought he might be ill, which explained his absence from the market. ‘D’ was a regular like me, and no minor ailment would have kept him away. As weeks turned into months, and then a year, I realized that the worst must have happened, as there was no way ‘D’ would have stayed away from the market if he was alive and well.
As this realization sank in, a new thought spread among the sellers in the market. Everyone knew about ‘D’s hoard of Indrajal comics, and attention now shifted to the location of this legendary stash. Indrajal comics were selling at exorbitant prices, and whoever stumbled upon ‘D’s treasure trove would be set for life. Sellers began inviting me for numerous cups of tea, during which they would subtly try to ascertain if I knew the whereabouts of ‘D’s comic treasure room. Politely, I professed my ignorance after hastily consuming the tea, and pointed out that if I knew the location, I would have gone there to get the comics for myself. This made sense to them, but for years thereafter, many of them scoured the lanes and back alleys of Munirka in search of the treasure, all in vain. ‘D’ had vanished for good, taking his treasure with him. It lives on in legend, and I’m sure there are still many comic lovers or sellers who try their luck, convinced that they will succeed where others have failed. Perhaps it is still hidden somewhere in the dusty jigsaw of alleys and by-lanes that is Munirka, tucked away among piles of old junk, a treasure beyond price.