Georges Remi created his first-ever Tintin cartoons, in black and white, as a weekly insert for the rightist Roman Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, in 1929. The young reporter’s adventures took him around the world with his faithful fox terrier, Milou (Snowy), but he found a special home in Bengal and, especially, Kolkata.
In the 1970s, Bengali was the first Indian language in which Hergé’s works reached the subcontinent. Serialised in the popular children’s fortnightly magazine Anandamela, Tintin and his dog Kuttush soon became a household name. “For children growing up in the 1980s, a time before the internet, Tintin was a window to the world,” says Mahafuj Ali, 33-year-old landscape architect and self-taught cartoonist. Last year, Ali reimagined Tintin in Bengali clothes, cutting a cake in the backdrop of the iconic Howrah Bridge, an illustration which went viral last year and was even shared by the Embassy of Belgium, New Delhi. This year, Ali took them on a tour to picturesque Darjeeling on a toy train!
In an interview, 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?” One such boy was Anindya Basu, an architect by profession, who in 1979 sent a card drawn with Tintin characters to Hergé, saying how much he loved the books. He got a signed Tintin cartoon in 1980 as a reply.
“Growing up in Nidaya, a tiny village in Nadia, and reading Tintin by the light of a kerosene lamp, was like travelling the world. I landed on the moon with him, dived into deep seas and climbed to Tibet. The comics gave me more knowledge than my textbooks,” says Ali.
He is not the only homegrown artist to reimagine Tintin in Kolkata. Rhiddhiraj Palit, a 22-year-old graphic designer by profession, grew up reading the Tintin comics translated by poet Nirendranath Chakraborty for Anandamela. “I once read that Hergé wanted to visit Kolkata when he knew about his fan following here. He thought of creating a ‘Tintin in Kolkata’ series, but that never happened. So I wondered what it would be like if Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock really arrived here.”
In 2016, he sketched the Belgian reporter roaming in Shyambazar. His ‘Tintin in India’ series in 2017 coasted on the internet’s popularity, too. The panels he made last year add more anecdotes. “There is Satyajit Ray on a billboard, Kuttush as a fish-lover and a bangla mowd (country liquor) bottle in the hands of Captain Haddock!” he says.
But if you had any doubts over Kolkata’s cred as Tintin City, head to the Tintin and the Brussels Club, a restaurant that specialises in Belgian cuisine and is inspired by the intrepid reporter.
“In 2016, we visited Belgium for the first time and visited the Hergé Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve. As Tintin fans, we were mesmerised. When we decided to open a restaurant in March last year, it had to be centred on Tintin,” says Barnali Sen Sarma Ghosh.
The restaurant has rooms dedicated to Professor Calculus, Tintin and Captain Haddock, a library stacked with Tintin comics in both English and Bengali, as well as puzzles, posters and figurines collected from the Tintin museum in Belgium. It is also the home for a newly formed Calcutta Tintin Fan Club, where around 30 members plan to meet every couple of months to celebrate their hero. “When I see young children, I try to introduce them to this magical world, maybe not with a book from our library but a Tintin puzzle,” Ghosh says.
The comics are still a bestseller for Ananda Publishers, who have the Bengali rights; second-hand book stores in College Street also see brisk sales. “People still read, discuss and continue to hoard trivia about Tintin’s adventures,” says Indrani Ganguly, of the Calcutta Bibliophiles book club. “I set one of the hardest quizzes last year to test people’s love for the comics. Questions about even the minute details and hardest tidbits from all the 23 books were answered. The participants were as young as six, and as old as 60,” she says.
This article appeared in print as ‘Yo Ho Ho, and a Bottle of Bangla: Hergé’s characters live on in Kolkata’.