20 Paise ka Bachpan

“Here, take 20 paise”, he says with a sense of urgency in his voice, holding out the coin. Glancing around the room furtively, his eyes stop at the open wooden box tucked into a corner of the room. Greed glazes over his eyes, and he licks his lips in anticipation. It is a while before he tears his eyes away from the box, and looks at me with an inquiring glance. His eyebrows rise, “May I?”

I grab the 20p and instruct, “You have to do it here. I will lock the door from outside.” He nods, already forgetting that I exist in the room. He doesn’t pay attention to me anymore as he moves towards the box in anticipation. “Is the next issue, ‘Shah aur Maat’ here?”, he wonders aloud, and starts thumbing through the collection of Super Commando Dhruv comics.

This was our ‘thing’ when we were kids. My friends and I lived in a small town, and when we were not attending school that was half a world away, or attending drawing classes, or playing games that involved beating stones will a ball, we collected comic books in wooden boxes.

I say ‘collected’ because that is exactly what we did – like a coin collector will scour the world to gather the rarest of the rare ones to add to his collection, we would spend hours at the local comic book store to find that one book that our friends will not have – and once we made up our minds, it did not matter if we had to spend our entire month’s pocket money to get it. It was after all, not only a collectible, but also a solid investment.

For these books, after we were done reading them, would find their way into our wooden boxes, carefully categorized by comic names – and with strips of paper attached to them, claiming the name of the person to whom the property belonged, and a price tag that ranged from 20p to Re 2. The box was our library. And the prices were our lending rates.

For 20p, you could only read the comics for thirty minutes at the place of the person who owned the library. For 50p, you could spend up to two hours there. For Re 1, you could take two comic books home with a promise to return them within two school days. For Re 2, which was probably the maximum anyone of us charged, you could take four books home for a weekend, one of which would be an absolute fresh-off-the-stands book, that none of the other libraries are likely to have.

So many afternoons during the summer holidays were spent in these rooms. For just 20p, we could leave behind the drudgery of school homework, and the scorching heat of the afternoon sun, to enter a fantasy land of superheroes and super villains, of large angry men from Jupiter and small, sly characters from earth with brains that worked faster than any supercomputers. From the exciting world of The Phantom, Mandrake and Flash Gordon, to the simple everyday life incidents of Suppandi, from the snake-host Nagraj to the unsuspecting antics of Shikari Shambhoo, wooden boxes in each house in the neighborhood would be spilling with stories that would enthrall and keep us captive for hours.

Today, as these wooden boxes lay gathering dust in the attic of the home I have since long left behind, I cannot help but wonder my little one, if you will ever know the magical world locked inside these. I wonder if you will ever hide a comic inside your English book and try to fool me into believing that you are studying for school. Will you wait till everybody is asleep in the night, and then switch the bedside lamp on to finish the ending to a story, even though you know it is going to be difficult to get up for school the next day?

Oh, I know the days and the times have now changed. The Nagraj and Chacha Chaudharies have been replaced by the oh-so-popular Elsa and Anna, the crazy speaking Minions or, cute and courageous Chota Bheem. But I wonder in this new age of internet and data, when all of us can access the latest episodes real-time on televisions and iPads, if scheduled screen-time will ever be able to replace the thrill of buying thirty priceless minutes with your favorite comic book, on a hot summer afternoon.

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The post had been written for the #BachpanWithFlinto blogger contest where it won the first prizeFlintobox creates award-winning discovery boxes filled with fun exploratory activities and games for children in the age group of 3-7. If you wish to gift Flintobox to your child, niece/nephew, or friend’s child, use the exclusive coupon code WELCOME to avail Rs. 250/- off.

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