While everyone was screaming in their pantries in glorious commemoration of that cosmos-upturning day 25 years ago at an English cricket ground, I whooped with joy on Wednesday on rediscovering a piece of the past that was as momentous as it is long dead and gone.
After running away from ‘Look-I’m-So-Cosmopolitan!’ Bombay, I found myself in the limitless confines of Koshy’s, the Bangalore institution that is a coffee house that doubles as a restaurant and triples as a bar. As I was expressing gratitude to a benign god for making a world in which there is Koshy’s trademark runny mustard-cum-mayonnaise to savour with batter fried fish, I was tipped off by a friend that Blossom Book Store, another Bangalore institution, was a stone’s throw away. With library-style shelves loaded with every kind of second-hand book lining the first and second floors, I was in felled-tree heaven.
But it was well into my two-hour adventure at Blossom that I chanced upon that given-up-for-lost object of my desire. It was an artefact from a time when Kapil Dev’s English was even worse than my acne; when Hum Log, India’s pioneering TV soap written by Manohar Shyam Joshi (whose brilliant dark tale T’Ta Professor is just out in English and has been reviewed a few pages later) made today’s Ekta Kapoor serial addiction seem like supari to its cocaine. From a pile of old Indrajal comic books shone the first desi comic book hero I had come across: Bahadur. Before my blinking eyes was Indrajal Comics No. 395, ‘The Dragons’, dated January 10-16, 1982, in near-mint condition. Looking like a young Ravi Shastri, with one hand on his trusted jeep’s steering wheel and the other brandishing a pistol, the son of dacoit Vairab Singh and adopted son of Police Inspector Vishal (the killer of Vairab Singh), Bahadur ordered me to publicly remember him 30 years after he first joined the Indrajal pantheon.
Yes, it was a pathetic nostalgia-drenched moment. But if India had been changed by the 1983 World Cup, Bahadur too had changed our perceptions about two things: first, that comic book heroes can be Indian and not necessarily from mythology; and second, that North India wasn’t on the dark side of the moon. Aabid Surti had created this plucky, deadpan character as a comic strip in late 1976. But it was from 1978 that Bahadur became a comic book series. By the time I had become a Bahadur junkie, Govind Brahmania had started doing the artwork and Jagjit Uppal the stories. It turned out that non-cosmopolitan, non-metropolitan India — with its Mukhia and Sukhia and, above all, its Bela and her fella — could be cool.
The issue I picked up at Blossom was a classic Brahmania-Uppal collaboration. The drawings are sketchy, almost lazy. And the storyline is as gripping as a picture book for pre-schoolers. But in that simple-mindedness, there’s something against the grain about it. If Amar Chitra Kathas were Bombay Hindi movies, Bahadur was parallel cinema. In ‘The Dragons’, Bahadur is not pitted against his usual adversaries: rustic dakus with handlebar moustaches or ‘foreign’ smugglers. Here he takes on a sophisticated, T-shirt-wearing ‘gang’. Bahadur’s girlfriend, the proto-Neetu Singh Bela, is kidnapped by this posh group of baddies called the Dragons — the ring leader, wearing a T-shirt with a dragon insignia on it, is a spitting image of (coincidence?) Sanjay Gandhi. Bela’s life will be spared only if Bahadur hands over the Rs 3 lakh donated by a travelling circus to his legendary CSF (Citizen’s Security Force) to the Dragons.
The Bahadur comics were never as sophisticated as the others from the Indrajal stable: Phantom, Flash Gordon, Garth (whose erotic encounters shaped much of my aspirations) or even Mandrake. But Bahadur had been the first person to give me a strong whiff of the India that didn’t lie directly under my nose. (Today, we call it ‘Real India’.) His Jaigarh eerily mirrors UP circa 2008; his CSF can easily be a rosy version of the Salwa Judum in Naxal-infested lands. Bahadur stopped when Indrajal Comics packed up in April 1990. My theory: the Mandal Commission killed the son of Vairab Singh. Vishwanath Pratap Singh pulled the trigger.