It is a Sunday morning in Delhi, and there’s only one place to catch Vineeth Abraham (1977): Daryaganj, home to one of India’s largest second-hand book markets. Vineeth has been visiting the weekly market every Sunday since he arrived in Delhi, in 1989.
I first heard of him four years ago when Rajiv Varghese (1977) told me of a Delhi-based batchmate who maintained a huge collection of books and comics. In July 2007, I contacted Vineeth for this blogpost and he suggested that we meet at Daryaganj.
“I am a great western fan and have currently got a collection of 3,700 odd westerns, almost 90% of them purchased from Daryaganj,” Vineeth wrote in an e-group four years ago. His other envious collection is of comics, which includes the first Indrajal comic: The Phantom’s Belt, published in 1964.
In January 2002, when Vineeth was invited to contribute to Outlook magazine’s Special Issue for Schools, he wrote an article ‘Thought Balloons’, where he described how comics grew on him:
It was Phantom who pulled me into the world of comics when I was seven. But it was only at the age of 15, when I read the Asterix books by Goscinny and Uderzo, that I began noticing new facets of comic books. They now had more complex characterisation and narratives. The old good-against-evil storyline had changed now and the whiter than white hero had begun to acquire shades of grey. Batman now began to show psychotic traits. The Incredible Spiderman was a super hero all right, but he also was an insecure, nervous and even neurotic teenager who I could totally identify with…Comic creators like Walt Kelly in Pogo and Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury were producing scathing satirical evaluation of political climate of the day.
At Daryaganj, as Vineeth moves from one bookseller to the next, it is clear that he is known in these parts. “Yes, when they get a ‘new’ old comic, they inform me on the phone,” Vineeth says. There are buyers and there are buyers.
Today, he has picked up two June and School Friend comics, a 1968 edition of The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, seven westerns, and four other books. For just Rs 107.
Not all the booty is for his collection; some of it is for book-loving friends he has met in e-groups. Vineeth is active in international e-groups and bulletin boards on comics and westerns, where fans converge to share story summaries, upload cover scans, clarify one another’s queries, and occasionally bump into the artists and creators of the comics. When members ask for books and information, Vineeth procures them to the best of his ability. “Without Vineeth’s help this whole web site would not exist and the joys of Indian comics would not be open to us all!,” writes Terry Hooper-Scharf of indopakbangcomic. Elsewhere on the web, Vineeth is thanked for his “amazing efforts” in preparing a publishing history in India of the Phantom, or for helping to compile a list of Indrajal’s Mandrakes.
Seeing is believing. So, we head for his flat in west Delhi.
Cartons of comics and shelves of books touch the ceiling. I wish to see the first Indrajal comic and he fishes it out for me in less than five minutes. In the process, out come a few others–Sherlock Holmes comics, Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which won the Pulitzer), the Pogo collection We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us (a famous quotation picked up by environmentalists), and Ompa-pa (who makes cameo appearances in Asterix but has a series of his own by creators Goscinny and Uderzo).
In Maus, Spiegelman depicted Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. In the world of comics, which character does Vineeth think is closest to a Loyolite? He replies, “Phantom.” What??? I know that Vineeth is a big ‘phan’ (that’s how Phantom fans call themselves), and that he lurks among the phans as Patrolman (his chosen avatar in the e-club), but I can’t hide my surprise. So Vineeth explains.
“Phantom is for the whole family to read. When he shoots, it is invariably to knock off a pistol or scare somebody, not to kill. Honour, truth, goody-goody. He is not a superhero, but an ordinary man who has developed his abilities fully. He has a treasure house in a jungle but uses it for the community, not for personal gain.” After I’ve taken down all this, Vineeth adds, “Not a realistic character, too good to be true.”
Even as Vineeth preserves the older comics in plastic covers, new comics keep arriving. The white packet on the table has just come from a collector in Australia, who has sent him the 1,500th issue of Frew Comics’ Phantom. It starts with a reprint of the first-ever Phantom comic, The Singh Brotherhood (1936).
Vineeth pulls out Phantom comics from different publishers (Goldkey, Charlton, Moonstone, Indrajal, Budget) to show me how the same story appears differently when published across time and space. Vineeth does not buy every comic that comes his way — the year of publication, and the artist matter. Sometimes, you judge a book by its cover.
Vineeth grew up on the reprints of foreign comics, which he says are more sophisticated in art and content than the Amar Chitra Kathas that came later. That’s why, despite having a decent collection of ACKs, he is not a fan as much as his juniors might expect him to be.
Cliched, but I have to ask. Favourite author? P.G. Wodehouse. “In the sixth standard, I was reading some pulp book in the Loyola library, when vice-principal Fr C.P. Varkey came by. He asked, ‘Isn’t this your games period? What are you doing here?’. I told him that I liked to read and I was not the only one not playing.” Fr Varkey picked a book from the shelf, handed it to Vineeth and said, “Read this, if you must.” That book, Right Ho, Jeeves, introduced him to Wodehouse. More than thirty years later, Vineeth tells me, “Anything that Wodehouse writes will have takers. Even his laundry list.”
Not surprisingly, Vineeth is a mine of information on comics: Dhenkali in Phantom comics was Bengali in the original foreign editions; in the Indian version of Spiderman, you will meet Pavitr Prabhakar (Peter Parker) and Meera Jain (Mary Jane); one comic in Vineeth’s collection is going for Rs 1,500 on the web…
Ah! Any plans to sell? His collection would be worth a few thousands of dollars, right? “No, not for sale. I never bought any comic or book with that in mind. I kept on buying because I liked reading, that’s all.” Vineeth’s wife Fisal says,”In Irinjalakuda [his hometown near Thrissur], he has stocked the almirah with books, instead of clothes.”
And is there an old school magazine in the Irinjalakuda racks? “Yes,” says Vineeth, “there is a copy of the 1972 magazine, the year in which I joined Loyola.”
This 44-year old desk officer in the central government is different from most Loyolites I know. He has built expertise over decades with dedication, focus and fun. While many of us, I suspect, do this in our professional area, excel at work and earn the respect of peers, Vineeth has done it outside the cubicle. With a hobby from his school days, Vineeth Abraham has created a world of joy outside the workplace.
The holy grail is Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, Dell comic, issued 1942. “Once I get it, I’ll probably retire on that.” It’s for sale on the web. A blog reader might gift it, I tell him. Vineeth smiles and says, “It’s selling for $10,000.”
Vineeth will pick it up from Daryaganj one day. For Rs 10.
Acknowledgement: Fred Gomez (1977) helped me get in touch with Vineeth. Joshua Newton clicked the second photo in the opening panel.
Update: A modified version of this blogpost was published in the Business Standard newspaper (subscriber login required).