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Reading Father: The Best Times I Never Had

Reading Father: The Best Times I Never Had
Gina Lollobrigida
Children go through everything that adults do: jealousy, pain, love, even lust. You could have asked any eight-year-old in Vidya Vihar what he thought of Miss DeCosta and watch him squirm with his phantom libido to confirm my theory. The one thing though that's the exclusive bastion of adults is nostalgia. And thank God for that. That is why children lamenting the passing of the old days, when they were microscopic swimmers in their dad's testicles, is a rarity. But, thanks to my father, I experienced what no child before me had — the best times I never had.

The '50s, when the family was living in Madras, had been a terrific time for my father by his own admission. It looked like my granddad's self-centeredness hadn't had any obvious side-effects. Dad had survived a childhood without formal education and emerged seemingly unscathed. He had a lucrative career going as a sought-after children's illustrator.

He was in his twenties, had his own money and could spend every last paisa of it on himself because Grandfather was happy taking care of things at home. Young men my father's age, whom he'd envied while they went to school and college, were earning a fraction of what he was after spending the entire day in a stuffy office.

If the blurb on his book covers was right, Dad was a pioneer in many ways. He was, it claimed, among the first comic book illustrators in India, the country's youngest children's book publisher, the first to win awards in three languages and so on. What the blurb didn't mention was that, in the conservative '50s, it's quite possible he was also the country's first serial consumer. Unfettered by responsibility, coddled by his father and powered by earnings that far exceeded anyone of his age or background, Dad indulged himself silly. He watched every Hollywood movie that came to town, flitting giddily between Casino and Minerva, and bought any English film magazine he could lay his hands on. He developed a taste for fancy clothes and treated himself, as he boasted to us so often, to a new rayon bush-shirt every week. He had owned fifty pairs of shoes and god-knows-how-many hair-care products. That he didn't get into "booze and broads" like the gumshoes of his staple entertainment must have been more an indication of our familial propensity for inaction rather than any inherent saintliness.

Then came responsibility in the annoying form of my mother and the three of us. Whether he liked it or not, baby food cut into his shirt budget. Dad realised that he couldn't magically turn into a bachelor every evening and disappear to a mmatinée with a friend. (Not that he'd stopped doing that entirely but had cut down to about once a week). So he did the next best thing. He continued to live in the '50s. Any conversation with him invariably led to the Golden Age of Hollywood. All we heard was about Lauren Bacall's voice, John Wayne's gait or Tyrone Power's profile. Every little fancy of ours, which naturally had to do with our now (the '70s), was pooh-poohed with a bigger, better, more beautiful '50s' example.

Dad: What are those ridiculous trousers you're wearing?
Sis: Bell-bottoms.
Dad: Only sailors wear bell-bottoms. Don't you remember Gene Kelly in On the Town?
Sis: They're in fashion now, Naanna. Everyone in school's wearing them.
Dad: Why don't you wear those dresses like Debra Paget in Ten Commandments? They look so nice.

Apparently, my father was under the impression that the Old Testament had unfolded in the '50s.
Dad was a terrific storyteller and, on the odd rainy evening, forced to stay indoors, he could be coaxed into telling us stories. While other kids heard of Krishna's love for his childhood friend Sudama or the brave exploits of Bhima from their grandmothers, we were narrated the plot lines of such movies as A Place in the Sun or Bad Day at Black Rock, sound effects and all.

Dad's jealously guarded library was a shrine to '50s pop culture. There were issues and issues of Picturegoer, Screen Stories and Photoplay arranged chronologically and maintained in mint condition. There were equally well-stocked sections of pulp fiction, pocket cartoon books and comic books. If Martians had blown Earth to smithereens and the only thing that survived was my father's library, they would have had a pretty good idea of what Americans were up to in the '50s — provided they could read English.

It was only natural, what with the running commentary on the fabled '50s, that I found myself drawn to Dad's collection of books. On weekends, after having learnt to jimmy the lock to the cupboards from a resourceful friend, I quietly disappeared with a stack of well-chosen mags and comics to the little room at the top of the staircase. In that little oven of a room, where the hot air of the entire house was trapped, I spent hours looking at Gina Lollobrigida's magnificent cleavage, Alan Ladd's fading good looks and publicity shots of a nineteen-year-old starlet on the verge of discovery called Joan Collins. I read the columns of Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper. I was mesmerised by the black-and white illustrations of Sun Comics featuring the adventures of a sanitised Billy the Kid. Somehow, American comic book manufacturers had turned the notorious real-life outlaw into a masked crusader of the poor and downtrodden. All by myself, I laughed out loud at the exploits of Tubby, Little Lulu, Iodine and Donald Duck. And though I didn't fully get the humour of the French cartoons, the topless women made it amply clear that they were all about the same subject. The variety of illustration styles on display was incredible, and I made it a point to note the names of the artists. Campaign's style was meticulous, almost sculpture-like; Hogarth's figures had lithe bodies and adopted near-impossible poses; Marge and Cavalli, the funny guys, used very few lines but their pictures were just as terrific, while Jimmy Hatlo seemed to enjoy drawing excruciatingly ugly kids. 

It's common for older siblings to pass on an old geometry box or a pair of trousers they've outgrown to a younger member of the family. Those can be put away in a dusty corner of your cupboard. But the hand-me-down fixation of an obsessive parent is impossible to discard. Maybe it was because I listened harder or maybe it was because my father was aloof and I wanted his attention. But it was I, far more than my sisters, who became his willing and enthusiastic slave.

Dad was my hero. He could draw, he was a walking Hollywood dictionary, and owned the best comics in the world. He was the King of Hep.

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