Monday, June 03, 2019

'Don't be greedy' (and other strange lessons from reading Richie Rich comics in a plush penthouse)

[The latest of my Bookshelves columns for First Post – this one a nostalgia trip to 1987 Bombay in the company of a poor little rich boy]

The books we read often become inseparable – in our memory – from the circumstances and settings in which we encountered them. This is sometimes less true for a large series – or a number of works by the same author in the same genre – where the mind blurs many separate reading experiences together. But not always. For instance, I read many Agatha Christies as a child, but no memory is as vivid or scary as experiencing Murder in Retrospect (a.k.a. Five Little Pigs) in a dimly lit room during a Ludhiana trip when everyone else in the house was asleep.

Along similar lines, it feels like my entire brush with Richie Rich comics took place over an intense reading glut spread over a few days, and (though I didn’t realise it then) in a very apt environment: a luxurious duplex apartment on the top floor of a Bombay skyscraper.

There are many gaps in this recollection, but here’s what I know: sometime in mid-1987, my mother, her mother and I were in Bombay. (This may well be the last time that my mother visited the city she had been brought up in, and loved dearly, but that’s another story.) My nani being in the process of selling her Andheri flat, we stayed in the residence of a kindly acquaintance whom I was meeting for the first time (and whom, as far as I recall, I never met again) – a corporate heiress of some sort. I’ll unimaginatively call her Aunty A.

It was a lazy summer and much of my time was spent bouncing a tennis ball on the walls of our room, occasionally watching films like Qurbani and Insaaf Kaun Karega on VCR in the evenings, or following the progress of the little tortoise kept as a pet in a makeshift terrace pond. Then I discovered a guest-room the shelves of which were lined with around a dozen thick red bound books. Each of these contained at least fifteen 30-page Richie Rich comics – which, at a conservative estimate, means 5000-odd pages.

So I read and read and read, enthralled by Richie’s adventures with his resourceful butler, the dog with the dollar signs on its back, the robots and super-computers and brilliant scientists and absentminded professors and snooty cousins that populated the Rich Estate. There were enormous orange sweets in a jar in the guest-room, each of which lasted close to an hour if you kept them in your mouth and let them melt slowly; to date, if I think of a Richie Rich comic I feel the tangy sensation of those sweets. It felt like an endless dream, though it probably only lasted a week or so.

It was the plushest residence I had stayed in (was it Nariman Point? Pali Hill?) and there was something almost like self-parody in this endless procession of Richie Riches and nothing else to read (at least for a child). In my mind’s eye, Aunty A – plump, fair and smooth-skinned, seemingly always dressed in flowing kaftans, even when presiding over business meetings in her apartment – looks a great deal like Richie Rich’s mother, though I’m fairly sure I made no such connection at the time.

If you’re the sort who gets easily indignant – and worries about children being exposed to the wrong influences – the Richie Rich world has many things that can be objected to (notwithstanding its central conceit that the protagonist is a “poor little rich boy”, embarrassed by all the attention, happiest when having a good time with his “simple” friends). I wonder sometimes about the appeal – escapist or forbidden – that these comics must have had in a country with a soft-socialist history. They weren’t so much an unabashed celebration of capitalism as a goggle-eyed ode to a sort of demented-capitalism-on-drugs where one had so much wealth – in so many forms – that one couldn’t realistically do anything but arrange it in many pretty ways.

And perhaps the best example of this was in a comic I recently rediscovered, in which Richie and his parents go on a picnic to the “richest place in the world” – which, needless to say, is on their own estate, a short ride away by a special “heli-camper-yacht”. On reaching, the senior Mr Rich shows his gaping family exactly what makes this place special: mountains made of solid gold and silver, a volcanic oil well that also throws up gold nuggets, giant oysters that cough up giant pearls on the shore. They are about to settle down to eat (and I am half-expecting the sandwiches to have rubies stuffed in them) when a gang of robbers shows up and starts looting things.

But naturally, the thugs are done in by their own “greed”, being so struck by one wondrous sight after another that they can’t settle down with a bag of treasures for much time; there is always something more alluring in the distance. This leads to infighting, and eventually an avalanche of diamonds hastens their capture.

There’s probably a lesson here somewhere, a version of the Golden Goose story – or closer home, last year’s film Tumbbad, which uses the Gandhi quote “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” But it’s hard to see how that would apply to this story. Fact: in the delirious fever world of these comics, Richie’s family alone has enough to satisfy the whole world’s greed. Even if the robbers had made off with everything they could carry, in a hundred large trucks, it still wouldn’t make a sizable dent in the family fortunes.

So here’s the real takeaway: wealth isn’t good for its tangible benefits, it is best appreciated for its aesthetic value. It can even make the natural world look and sound better. It’s worth noting that at the end of the story, when the Riches do sit down to dig into their burgers and other picnic goodies, there is no idealising of the pastoral setting – no suggestion that the sound of a gentle brook (made up of water rather than wads of currency) might be a welcome relief. There is greenery, yes, and there are chirping birds – but even the nests are lined with emeralds. 


[Earlier Bookshelves columns here]


  1. So many of your recent posts, Jai, have a wistful - almost moving - quality marrying an odd sense of discomfort. Reading your piece, I was sad and couldn't tell why. For that lonely boy in the apartment, perhaps; or that corporate-type aunty in her kafkans; or the endearingly naive (harsh?) world of Richie Rich. But, the sum of what I took away is greater than these parts, a feeling best encapsulated by that wonderfully evocative final sentence "There is greenery, yes, and there are chirping birds – but even the nests are lined with emeralds."

  2. I recently came upon a "vintage" Richie Rich comic at a local garage sale and was transported back to my own childhood. Reading your story made me curious about who the Richie Rich aficionado was in this posh apartment. Who had bound 5000 pages of just these comics? So many questions.

    These days one can't look at these comics without thinking how terribly politically incorrect they were. Richie's mom didn't work. He didn't have any black friends. And so on. I don't know if you are much aware of Curious George (I only discovered him when I had children). They did a great job of updating the original stories on PBS, making the bald white Professor Wiseman into a young black woman and so on. It would be a fun thought experiment to bring Richie Rich into the 21st century.

  3. Many people tend to think of variants of ‘socialism’, or state directed/influenced economic models to be primarily geared towards poverty alleviation. Poverty alleviation is no doubt an extremely important goal in itself, but these modes of economic governance were more broadly adopted as the means to industrialisation, development and wealth creation. Almost every economically successful nation in the last three hundred years has adopted them, including the countries we most closely associate with free market capitalism in our minds, such as the US and Britain.

    When I was I high school student I was taught that the growth and prosperity of the US and Britain was principally facilitated by their embrace of small government, free trade and pure market economics: an assertion which is historically false. Both these countries protected their emerging industries from international competition through high tariffs and provided them with extensive export subsidies; whether in the context of 18th century Britain’s manufacturing industry, or America’s infant industries in the 19th Century. It was during these protectionist periods that Britain and the USA became major industrial power houses. Talk of free trade only came into vogue once these industries had already accrued all the benefits of having been nurtured and protected by the State in their formative stages, and after having had time to absorb modern technologies. After their industries became well-established and competitive, free trade then facilitated vast markets for their exports. Historically, these countries prospered through a hybrid model of centralised planning, export subsidies, protectionism as well as the presence of market incentives. As did South Korea, Japan, Taiwan etc. The governments of these countries didn’t ignore the market like the communist countries, but they did play an extremely important role in directing development and nurturing nascent industries. Neo-liberal market economics did not get these countries to where they are today.

    I know this comment is only tangentially relevant to your post, but in adopting the course it did post- Independence, India was attempting something very similar; it was seeking establish and develop its own industries. Ostentatious display might have been deemed unbecoming with such dire poverty everywhere, but the point wasn’t to deprive people of the good life. Imports of foreign consumer luxury goods were strictly regulated, but the point was presumably to ensure that scarce foreign currency was being used for purchasing industrial goods that the country needed. In South Korea, contravention of foreign exchange controls was regarded as a crime serious enough to warrant the death penalty! I don’t know what precisely went wrong in the Indian context and will have to read up more on this; corruption maybe? The gap between conception and successful implementation maybe? Also, Nehru also encountered a lot of resistance from within the Congress party in carrying out many of the schemes he envisaged; from people with vested interests or people with ideological and/or practical points of difference, he was only able to implement a small part of what he envisaged.

    I would also very strongly recommend the book "Bad Samaritans: The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & The Threat to Global Prosperity" by Ha-Joon Chang to all of the readers of this blog. It is an extremely illuminating read and it certainly changed my perspective on a number of things.