Lunch be damned. At 2pm every day after school, we reached the nameless shop six streets away. In our hometown, it was one of the haunts of useless schoolboys like us. Puneet and I. It was where we met the only old man who understood us. Pran.
Signed beautifully in lazy-looking Hindi handwriting, the name was from a time gone by, from the generation of people called Ramesh, Subhash, Raj Kumar and some such. We were the generation of Rahul, Rohit, Anubhav, and even the odd Aryan. But this old man was our guy, liked more than any special lunch cooked by mummy, adored more than any pretty girl in class, followed more than any advice by papa, loved more than anything else in the world. At 25 paise each ‘comics’ if we read at the shop, 50 paise a night if we rented. The economy was tight, but we managed.
To our parents, Pran was probably just the namesake of a popular actor. To the world at large, he was a popular comic book artist who died this past Wednesday at the age of 75. To those who grew up in the last two decades of the 20th century, he was our favourite uncle.
We all knew Chacha Chaudhary was just a character. Sabu, too, was a make-believe giant; and Pinky did not really exist. Nor did we believe there could actually be a man named Jhapat-ji. We knew all that. Kids aren’t stupid, you know. But Pran was real, and he knew us, talked to us, cracked jokes, and gave us lessons, too, but no sermons. The nameless shop was just the meeting point. We actually talked in that little, quiet, triangular space formed by two sides of an open comic book and the bobbing head of an engrossed kid.
He used the characters to play with us. Chacha Chaudhary, the smart old guy, was the cool dad we all wanted, though not necessarily dressed like that. Sabu, that strong friend we all wished for, was the perfect counter to a school bully, though not necessarily undressed like that. Pinky was that irritating girl from the neighbourhood, or, in my case, three nagging sisters rolled into one. Actually, quite cute. Raman was funny, sometimes.
But it was Billu who was I. I was Billu. Some people liked Motu-Patlu a lot. But we had read somewhere that they were not Pran’s creation, so we stopped bothering with them. They were no longer family; just neighbours. The universe was one big mohalla. It changed sooner than we imagined.
When an ‘Archies’ gift shop opened in our town, we first heard about the American comic book character too. Some friends said Billu was actually copied from Archie. When Dennis the Menace started airing in its dubbed version on TV, people saw what might have inspired Pinky. (But wasn’t our natkhat Lord Krishna the original Dennis the Menace?) People always over-scrutinise.
Anyway, in due course, violence made its entry with Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv, Doga, all inspired from Spider Man, Captain America and possibly Batman. We grew up a little, and also got hooked to the violence. Angara was my favourite, perhaps an original. He spoke the way we did. But the English-medium kids made fun of him as well. We couldn’t make them understand. Archie was not I. I was not Archie.
In those sulking moments of inferiority complex, we just went back to that little, triangular space where Pran tickled us, and we laughed like babies.
On Wednesday night, I went to YouTube and heard him speak, literally, for the first time. In what perhaps was his last interview — a detailed one given to the government-run but brilliant channel Rajya Sabha TV — he sounded just as I had imagined all these years. Like us, he loved cricket, evident from a World Cup memorabilia cap he was wearing. Like us, he spoke very little English and his Hindi carried a heavy Punjabi accent. Like us, he could not answer complicated questions. Like us, he was fidgety, awkward. Perhaps to make up, like us, he smiled a lot.
Next morning, I asked my mother if we still had a Chacha Chaudhary comic book somewhere in the house. She knew exactly where it was. It was the one I had rented from that shop in my hometown, and never returned.