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]