City of Joy Still Waits for Tintin

09 January 2005

Srinjay Chakravarti is a journalist, economist and poet based in Salt Lake City, and Calcutta, India. His poetry and prose have appeared in various publications all over the world. His first book of poems has received an award from Australia.

This essay is a modified and updated recension of an article Calcutta still waits for Tintin (1996) which was published in the editorial page of multiple editions of The Indian Express on September 16, 1996, in India. The text has been thoroughly recast and expanded in December 2004.

"That bright world, so just and splendid", in which "truth and light ... win out as if by right". —Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate

Himself a Calcutta-born boy, the renowned Indian poet and novelist has captured the enduring appeal of Tintin in his sonnet. At the same time, Seth showcases the reasons why the globe-trotting boy reporter is loved by children, teenagers and other youngsters-at-heart in this south Asian city of bizarre contrasts and incongruities. Tintin's adventures enable us to return to a perennial collective childhood in a metropolis which celebrates the joy of living in the midst of grim poverty, squalor and sorrow: Calcutta, the City of Joy.

Every few years, a new generation of Bengali boys and girls is introduced to that "bright world, so just and splendid", where universal values of courage, honour and compassion are eternised against a mise en scène of vivid (local) colour, brought startlingly to life with clear, dynamic strokes and amazing imagery.

While talking about the child born of his soul, Hergé once said: "I receive . . . a lot of mail from India. Here, in the office, are two letters from Calcutta. Now, what can there be in common between a boy in Calcutta and myself?"

But this is Dominique Lapierre's City of Joy, where triumph and tragedy are minted everyday as twin faces of the same coin. Tintin still remains the evergreen favourite here among all the comic strip heroes and role models of our childhoods. Hergé's stories are read time and time again, and the innocent humour and good clean fun always remain as fresh as ever.

Georges Remi's obsession with painstaking delineations of character and plot ensure that they throw up fresh nuances with every reading. Like millions of children all over the world, Calcutta's kids are magnetised, again and again, to bargain stores, book fairs and discount sales, where English and Bengali translations are snapped up, topping best-seller lists even today.

Bengali, after all, remains the only Indian language into which all of Tintin's books have been translated. Eminent poet and editor Nirendranath Chakraborty is said to have baptised Milou as 'Kuttush' when he made his first foray into the pages of a Bengali children's magazine, just as Methuen had christened the endearing fox terrier 'Snowy'. Thomson and Thompson became Ronson and Jonson and other characters, too, were renamed.

Tintin himself has been to India twice. He had spent a few hours sightseeing in Delhi on his way to Tibet and the Abominable Snowman. He had been here earlier in his career as well, when he had crashed his plane into the jungles of a princely state going by the incredible name of Gaipajama. 'Gaipajama'—the kingdom's appellation in Leslie-Lonsdale Cooper and Michael Turner's translation—would literally mean, in Hindi and allied dialects, 'Cow's Pyjamas'! But, then, hilarity has been the most delectable flavour of his books, as was Hergé's readiness to laugh at himself and his own creations.

The Tintin TV series is currently enjoying a re-run here on satellite airwaves, dubbed in Bengali and other Indian languages. Which only proves that his appeal transcends barriers of space, time, language or technology.

Hergé had anticipated today's phenomenon of globalisation when he provided a wide variety of exciting, exotic locales for the boy detective, in which he battled drug traffickers, gun-runners, slave traders, currency forgers and sundry other gangsters. He even saw to it that Tintin beat Neil Armstrong to the Moon by almost 20 years! It was the lunar 'terra incognita' which showed how the thin edge between fantastic speculation and actual discovery was blurred by Hergé's prescience.

In 1994, the Pentagon and NASA announced how the US probe Clementine had shown, with radar signature analysis, a lake of ice at the bottom of Aitken Basin, a gigantic crater on the far side of the Moon. The reports only confirmed what Tintin aficionados knew long back. It was only appropriate, then, that an asteroid discovered by astronomer Sylvain Arend in 1953—the year Explorers on the Moon was published—was named, in 1982, after Hergé on his 75th birth anniversary. This planetoid, somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, is said to be the destination for which Georges Remi left on March 3, 1983, but this time there was no hope of return. Like Tintin, he had dispersed into a forever of immortality in the hearts of countless votaries all over the world.

Hergé, it is said, had also planned a story set in Calcutta but was prevented by leukaemia, which claimed him while he was still shaping Alph-Art. This is difficult to confirm now, though Hergé would have loved visiting this cosmopolis with all its absurdities, as would have Tintin. But then, as any admirer of Tintin would attest, nothing is impossible for the intrepid boy reporter to achieve.

He has salvaged a meteorite near the North Pole. He has toppled a South American regime in a bloodless putsch. He has captured Al Capone in his Chicago lair. He has even hitched a ride in a flying saucer.

And, we're quite sure, he has certainly escaped from being turned into the museum sculpture that Endaddine Akass hoped to create by pouring liquid polyester on him. Though Akass has been unmasked recently with the newly discovered sketches, Hergé was denied the time to record the fate of Ramo Nash and his abstract exhibits.

So, for Tintin, it would be no big deal to step out of the pages of his albums straight into the dreary old streets of Calcutta. Who knows, I might one day run into a snub-nosed blond youth with a peculiar vertical quiff, accompanied by a snow-white dog, hot in chase after some gang of crooks or the other . . .