By Suresh Pattali
In the golden age preceding the invention of the internet and the smartphone, Indians typically woke up in the morning listening to a cacophony of birds, interlaced with All India Radio’s (Akashvani) signature caller tune. Radio was our only window to the outside world, apart from a bunch of newspapers and magazines. That Akashvani melody based on raga Shivaranjini, composed in 1936 by Walter Kaufmann, a Jewish refugee living in India, energised hundreds of millions of people taking a plunge into the hustle and bustle of daily life. We savoured the Akashvani news with breakfast.
Our eldest sister worked in a local college. On Fridays, she would come home with a pack of books and periodicals, including the erstwhile Illustrated Weekly, Eve’s Weekly, Chic magazine as well as a few vernacular mags like Mathrubhumi, Manorama and Janayugom. There was an in-house ban on reading Manorama as its content were supposedly pulp fiction. But many battles had been fought among the kids jostling to grab the weekly from the sister. The smart ones among us walked a few distance from home to catch her before she reached home and ambushed her to seize the weekly — all for one reason: to look at its back page, where the comic strip Boban and Molly by VT Thomas Toms aka Toms appeared.
Toms was known among his peers as the man who single-handedly taught Malayalis to read a magazine back to front. More than 80 per cent of the weekly’s readers first turned to the comic strip on the back page. Born in 1929 in Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala, Toms had no particular desire to be a cartoonist though he attended School of Arts in Mavelikkara after his graduation. His entry to the world of cartoons itself reads like a storyboard. His four-acre homestead was a short-cut to school for two naughty siblings from his neighborhood who were scared of street dogs. After all his efforts to shoo away the trespassing kids failed, he made friends with the 12-year-old twins who started to drop in to watch him draw.
One day, the naughty girl, Molly, asked Toms, “Can you draw me, please?”
“It was easy to draw her, with her curly hair and round eyes. She liked the drawing and showed it to her friends in the school and thus became a heroine. Seeing this, Boban got jealous and asked me to draw him, too,” Toms says in his autobiography Ente Bobanum Mollyum.
In the following weeks and months, Toms instinctively sketched the kids in different actions in different settings. For no reason. “The drawings lay scattered all over my room. Once the vicar of the local church, Fr Joseph Vadakkummuri, happened to see them. He said this is my calling and asked me to draw a cartoon.”
‘Boban and Molly’ was thus born and became a household name in Kerala for decades. Toms started his career in 1950 through Sathyadeepam, a Catholic weekly, and Kerala Kaumudi. He joined Malayala Manorama in 1955 and ran the cartoon strip in its weekly for 1,560 consecutive weeks without a break till he retired in 1987. Boban and Molly was an instant hit among the masses for its unparalleled social satire and humour. It tickled people across all social strata irrespective of age and gender. However, Bobanum Molyum, an eponymous Malayalam movie based on the characters, failed at the box office in 1971.
Boban and Molly, the effervescent pranksters with a dog — their superego — always in tow, were a witness to all the happenings in their little pastoral world. Toms’s impish characters came down heavily on topical socio-political and religious issues and voiced popular sentiments, while the dog’s posture and gesture were more vociferous than the spoken words of the human beings.
Children hid the cartoon strip in their school bags and pockets and broke into peals of laughter as they shared the jokes in classrooms. Boban and Molly thus emerged, in a survey, the only magazine, next to Readers Digest, that sustained the unique trend of repeat reading.
Children unabashedly delivered dialogues from the cartoon to checkmate parents on exam grades, homework and house chores. Boban and Molly never fell victim to reader fatigue because of its powerful aestheticism and genuineness. We were all once upon a time Boban and Molly. Our parents were their parents. All other characters like panchayat president Ittunnan, Magistrate Mariya, Appy Hippy, Motta, Nethavu, Pothan Vakil, Ammachi, Unnikuttan and Mandoos were earthy, real-life people who lived next door.
After retiring from Malayala Manorama as assistant editor, Toms started to publish Boban and Molly in the rival magazine Kalakaumudi, against which his former employer went to court. A district court restrained Toms and permitted Manorama to continue publication of the cartoon serial. However, on an appeal, the Kerala High Court ruled that pursuant to the Indian Copyright Act, 1957, while the ownership of the cartoon strips drawn during Toms’ employment with Manorama would continue to be with the publication, Toms was free to own the characters Boban and Molly, and could continue to create cartoon strips featuring them and publish them at his will.
Thomas started Toms Comics as a monthly in magazine format and distributed it through the Malayala Manorama network of agents. It set a launch record in the history of Indian publishing with over 300,000 copies. Though Manorama finally won the case in the Supreme Court, they returned the copyright to Toms, and the cartoon started appearing in the comic magazine run by him. The New York Times extensively covered the copyright battle.
Never mind that Boban and Molly had spoiled our exam grades. Never mind that Boban and Molly had given our parents sleepless nights. Never mind that Boban and Molly were a headache to the people in power. They were the children of our times who lived among us. They are the Tom and Jerry of our generation who live in our hearts forever. Toms can rest assured in peace.
Suresh is senior editor. His philosophy is influenced by Ulysses