Along a narrow, congested, traffic-choked street off Sarojini Naidu Road in suburban Mumbai stands Ganesh Laundry. A neat little affair that you could miss while you are trying your best not to get your clothes nicked by the jagged edges of the innumerable two-wheelers parked on either side of the street. Behind the laundry is tucked a nondescript one-room-kitchen apartment that houses the Joshi family, their eight cats and close to 8,000 comic books.
Twenty-two-year-old Aalok could pass for Clark Kent in the Metropolis he was born to occupy. By day, this son of a Bombay High Court advocate studies to be a dentist at Nair Medical College. At home, cats weave around his feet, assured of warmth and security. His alter ego is one of the best known comic book collectors and traders in India, owning 7,000 singles and 920 graphic novels.
It was his mother, Kirti, who had introduced a three-year-old Aalok to a world where a masked man in a purple suit lived in the jungle, rode a white horse named Hero, had a wolf — Devil — for a pet and a falcon — Fraka — to carry his messages. The love of comic books — Phantom and Mandrake for many beginners — is something that most children leave behind as they step into their teens. But Aalok didn’t leave that world behind even after his childhood innocence left him. Her son is not the only collector Kirti lives with; her husband Madhusudan collects DVDs.
The room that has been the Joshi home for 30 years has an old, battered computer, which sits next to a television, which sits next to an almirah, which sits next to yet another almirah. You will not be blamed if you failed to see what colour the walls are — there’s hardly enough of it even for a glimpse. And there are comics everywhere: In the cupboards, on the furniture, under the furniture, on the floors, on the lone metal chair, on any edge and gap available. And amid them are twisting furry tails and curious, gleaming green eyes.
And, behind the door, away from prying eyes, is where Aalok stashes the real loot. “Actually, that’s the place I would like to raid. It’s where he keeps his ultimate treasure: The old issues from DC Comics and Indrajal,” says Anniset Pareira, a comic book collector who has known Aalok for a few years and believes he has one of the best collections in the country.
The cats may be a coincidence. Or maybe not. The love for felines — and their mysterious, somewhat sinister and nocturnal lives — is common among collectors and writers of comic books. They even inhabit the lives of superheroes (Mandrake, for instance, had a cat called Nefertiti). Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, two of the best known comic book writers, are known to have several cats purring around them as well. But Aalok would not claim the cats as entirely his own. “My cats are basically my mother’s pets. But it is true that people who are into comics have a strange affection to them.” It is altogether a very common sight to find a row of upturned tails following Kirti around the two rooms as she goes about her housework.
But behind Aalok’s amiable appearance sits a trader who is as wily as a stock trader. He haggles, he negotiates, he drives a hard bargain and will not settle for a price he thinks is higher than what he has in mind (selling books that he bought from different places is, after all, his only source of income to feed his collection). On the other end of a phone conversation is someone in Bandra who wants to sell him his entire Spiderman collection. Aalok thinks he is being overcharged.
A graphic novel typically would cost between Rs. 600 and Rs. 900. A single issue of a comic book with 25 pages costs around Rs. 30. The big deals are the graphic novels or trade paperbacks and the challenge is to get them at half the price at which the retail books sell.
In his entire collection of graphic novels, Aalok has some 150 hardbound or “absolute essentials” by many authors. These are the really expensive deals that can go up to Rs. 2,000 or more. And it is not volumes that he looks for in a deal, it’s quality.
He is the kind who will walk two kilometres from his house for an ice cream because he thinks it’s a place with the best flavours at half the price; he will frequent Saat Rasta’s Sriram Restaurant — small, dingy, crowded — in central Mumbai at 11 p.m. because he thinks they serve the best puri-bhaji in the city.
Aalok’s prized possessions include the first Bahadur issue and many issues dating back to the 1960s and early 1970s. Each issue from the 1960s is now valued around Rs. 300 to Rs. 500. This makes his entire comic book collection worth around Rs. 25 lakh. It could fetch him even more in another few years, probably much more than what his one-room home would. “No. No. My place is going to be redeveloped. It will fetch much more.” And it had all started from a small patch of the floor, behind the door, on which he would stack his comics as a three-year-old.
The years through which Aalok nurtured that patch, from which the pile would eventually take over his entire house, saw him scavenge for good buys at second-hand book sellers along the pavements of Matunga’s King’s Circle or the innumerable scrap dealers he would haunt. “I got some of the Sandman issues at King’s Circle for less than Rs. 200 each three years ago. I had to bargain. That place is amazing. You just don’t know what you can get.” The pavements have thrown up some of his best buys, including Neil Gaimans and Alan Moores.
On the other end of the spectrum are wholesalers and comic book dealers around the world. His network, along which he is constantly exchanging notes, stretches within India from Mumbai to Kolkata.
Outside India, he has set up his contacts in the US, where he deals with wholesalers who are overstocked. The orders are mailed to a friend in the US who passes the books along with Indian friends visiting home. Some of Aalok’s best graphic novels have come from these wholesalers.
But buying comic books and graphic novels from Mumbai’s pavements is not as easy as it was three years ago. The number of people looking for the same issues is rising and it is tough to strike a deal when the demand is high. But this simply adds to Aalok’s edge: The value of his collection rises a little more.
The fact that there are more people taking comics seriously is evident in the setting up of Leaping Windows, a graphic novel library that held its first event recently at Cool Chef Café. Bidisha Basu and Utsa Shom, founders of the library, were holding a comic book auction at the Café, an old-world Worli Village bungalow converted into a restaurant to help young people promote their business ideas.
Bidisha and Utsa were not expecting a big crowd; just a bunch of Mumbaiites who loved and lived among their superheroes.
There aren’t many big collectors in the city. There is Rafique Baghdadi, a film critic and journalist; and an 80-something man in Bandra who does not like media attention and who nobody seems to have met; and then there is Aalok.
At the auction, people crowd in awed silence around the 200 books that Aalok has brought in two plastic bags. They leaf gingerly through the pages. His collection comprises everything from Spiderman and Guardians of the Metropolis to some old Batmans and Justice League comics. No one has the heart to outbid the other and the auction collapses into a second-hand sale.
Those present are not just amazed at the collection Aalok has brought along, but also the knowledge he brings with it. “The guy is amazing. I thought I knew everything about comic books till I met him. He knows his comic book universe like the back of his hand,” said Arjun Gaind, a comic book writer who had earlier written for Virgin comics.
At the auction-turned-sale, a journalist picked up two volumes of Art Spiegelman’s Maus for Rs. 600, a low price by any standard. The two books would have a price tag of at least Rs. 1,200 in any retail shop. Aalok had bought the volumes for around Rs. 200 from a scrap dealer near Sarvodaya Nagar in Mulund a few months ago. (The scrap dealer sits opposite this journalist’s house. He did not know it.)
The auction that evening was followed by a quiz. Aalok was soon politely asked to move out of it as he simply knew too much.
He left around 11 p.m., did a round of his favourite puri-bhaji and took a train back to his home and his cats.
Aalok may be a superhero among comic book circles, but, sitting on the grey mosaic floor of his house, he is just another fan. He picks up a kitten and looks it in the eye. He loves Gaiman’s The Dream of a Thousand Cats, a short story in the Sandman series. “Sandman is my favourite comic.”
But as far as superheroes go, for Aalok, Superman is the original.
(This article is excerpted from the latest Forbes India 25 February, 2011 issue which is now available at news stands and book stores. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com)