My reading started with comic books.
There were not many available in those days in India. The most popular publishing houses were Gold Key, Indrajal Comics, Harvey Comics and the Classics Illustrated Junior series: and later on, Amar Chitra Katha. Gold Key published all the American favourites: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear et al. Indrajal comics brought us Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom. Amar Chitra Katha was Anant Pai/ Mohandas team’s answer to Western comics, to teach Indian children their own heritage through a familiar medium, dealing mostly with Indian history, mythology and legends: even though the art and narration sucked in the beginning, it soon became much more professional.
The very first book I remember reading (and I still own it!) is a Donald Duck story where “Unca” Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie go in search of the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, sent on the mission by Donald’s billionaire uncle Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge’s arch nemesis, the witch Magica De Spell is also after the booty which complicates matters.
From the first read onwards, I was a confirmed fan of the bad-tempered, cowardly, boastful Donald – on hindsight, I guess there’s something inherently endearing in his flawed personality which is not present in Mickey Mouse, who is a hero all through. I was never a great fan of Mickey – though I liked Goofy. Donald fails by pretending to be something he is not, while Goofy accepts his idiocy and always falls on his feet somehow.
But the one which takes the cake from the entire Disney pantheon is Uncle Scrooge, in my opinion: the miserly billionaire without a single saving grace, but one can’t help admire his financial acumen. The biggest disappointment of Scrooge McDuck’s life is his “idiot nephew” who refuses to change his wastrel nature. The most enjoyable stories are where Donald, Scrooge and Donald’s super-clever nephews all star – their contrasting personalities always guarantee great stories.
I loved all of Walt Disney’s creations – Donald, Mickey, Goofy, Scrooge, Pluto, Daisy, Minnie, Grandma Duck, Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose, the Beagle Boys, Chip n’ Dale, Scamp… the list is nearly endless. I used to get them at the old Pai & Company bookstore at Broadway in Ernakulam, and the Higginbotham’s stalls at railway stations – the books were cheap, even by the standards of those days (each costing a rupee or less). I can still recall the smell and feel the glossy covers, with the “Gold Key” emblem (the publisher) in the corner – oh, the sweet smell of nostalgia!
Apart from Disney, Gold Key published many other famous cartoons. Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, the Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety & Sylvester et al and the numerous cartoons by the prolific Hanna-Barbera team: Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Beep Beep the Roadrunner, Magilla Gorilla… I liked them all, even though not as much as the Disney favourites.
Of these, Tom & Jerry in book form were nowhere near as funny as the animated series. Woody was a pale reflection of Donald. I liked the Warner Brothers team better, especially Bugs and Elmer Fudd. Also, I remember Yogi fondly; and the Flintstones had an interesting premise, a Stone Age community living like a modern-day neighbourhood of America: with everything including the TV and the car built out of stones and with a dinosaur for a pet. The Road Runner stories had much more meat in comic book form than the animated shorts, with the birds given more personality – but Wile E. Coyote was still the villainous star.
The “Classics Illustrated Junior” published fairy tales. This was where I first encountered all the favourites from Grimm Brothers and Hans Andersen. Now I realise that many of the tales had been doctored to remove parts considered “unsuitable” for children (like the evil queen in Snow White being forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes); however, it opened up a whole new world to me, and must have triggered my lifelong interest in myth, legend and fairy stories.
Harvey Comics was totally different. Most of its stories centred around the denizens of Enchanted Forest: Casper the Friendly Ghost, Spooky, the “tuff” ghost who is not so friendly; Wendy, the good little witch and her three horrible aunts; the little devil Hot Stuff et al. Moving away from the woods, there were also the perennial favourites Richie Rich and Sad Sack, and Baby Huey the baby giant. Harvey’s stories were much wilder and full of magical elements than the Gold Key favourites, and surprisingly contained very few animal protagonists. The stories were also much longer.
From these, I “graduated” to the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and Flash Gordon, published by India’s own publishing house, “Indrajal Comics”. The paper was of a lower quality (mostly newsprint) and the colours were duller than the foreign item, but these stories were really adult! For the first time, I knew what hero worship was as the Phantom bashed up the baddies and left the skull imprint on their jaws, and Mandrake “gestured hypnotically” and knives turned into bananas! (For a long time, I thought mass hypnotism was possible.) Also, these stories featured violence and death, and skirted playfully around sex –which was exciting for an adolescent. Diana Palmer and Princess Narda were my first crushes.
Last but not least, there were the Amar Chitra Katha books, which introduced me to Indian history. The mythology they published was rather well known to me – however, later on, I came to appreciate the minute details and unknown stories they unearthed from our culture. The language was very ponderous, though!
I still have many of these books – about 20+ bound volumes, very much treasured. And I still read them once in a while, on lazy afternoons… when the years slip away, and once again I am in that ageless garden of childhood.