By Jug Suraiya
If my sister Hemu had been around today she might well have been at the front of a cortege mourning the untimely demise of Archibald Andrews, longtime resident and foremost citizen of the idyllic small town of Riverdale, USA, who was shot dead by a homophobe while trying to protect his gay friend, Kevin Keller. For Hemu, older than me by 10 years, was one of the myriad Indians of the 1950s who was an ardent fan of Archie, the redheaded, freckle-faced, all-American teenager hero of the eponymous comic book series that made its debut in the early 1940s.
So taken up was my sister by Archie and his group of high school buddies – the glamorous and super-rich Veronica Lodge, the blonde girl next-door, Betty Cooper, the slick-haired and scheming Reggie Mantle – that she shortened my given name – Jagdish – to Jug, itself short for Jughead Jones, Archie’s sleepy-eyed, needle-nosed best friend whose skinny frame belied his insatiable appetite for hamburgers. Thanks to Riverdale, I became Jug, and have remained so ever since.
The series was created by publisher/editor John Goldwater, written by Vic Bloom and drawn by Bob Montana. While some of the characters were said to be based on real life people Goldwater had met during his travels in the mid-west looking for jobs, Archie himself was reportedly inspired by the popular Andy Hardy Hollywood movies starring the young Mickey Rooney. The comic series was to become an enduring success in a post-World War II America which would soon start living its own dream, yet to be scarred by the trauma of Vietnam.
By the 1950s, America was the envy of the world, its growing influence as a cultural ‘soft power’ helping to sanitise its brute military strength as exemplified by the twin mushroom clouds that had bloomed with terrifying toxicity over Hiroshima and Nagasaki scant years previously.
For middle class, urban Indians of the time, America seemed more distant and, for that reason perhaps, more fascinating than the surface of Mars. America was the land of super-abundance, a cornucopia of tail-finned Cadillacs and kitchen cookie jars that miraculously refilled themselves the more they were raided by mischievous young hands; socialist India was the land of seemingly endless shortages, of droughts, and famines, and the conspicuous austerity that it wore on the sleeve of its Nehru jacket.
The real America – if there were such a thing, apart from the image it had created for itself – was unreachable. For one thing, passports which you needed to travel abroad were almost impossible to get, as was foreign exchange, unless you could provide a very good reason, such as business or study, for wanting to go overseas. When my uncle, Madhubhai, became the first person in the family to get a passport, a special dinner was thrown in his honour and the prized document was passed reverentially from person to person and subjected to awed scrutiny.
We couldn’t go to America, but America could come to us. A hand-me-down America was available on the dusty pavements of Calcutta’s Park Street, where roadside vendors sold three-month old copies of Screen Stories and Photoplay, with all the Hollywood gossip, which was only slightly stale. My sister would take me to buy these glossies, along with Archie comics.
The comics were a magical gateway not only to a mythical America but also to a thrilling new terra incognita called adolescence, with its acned angst and its exuberant ecstasy.
There were no Indian teenagers then; there were children who overnight became young adults, with no intervening rites of passage. There was no TV, no Facebook, no Twitter. There was little or no locally produced fiction, of any form, for young people. No dreamscape for the young mind to occupy. From pre-pubescent Enid Blyton you progressed to tumescent Harold Robbins, with no transit stop.
Riverdale, as portrayed in the Archie comics, provided the transit stop, with its ice-cream sodas, and its prom dances, and its rituals of going on dates, and holding hands beneath a butterscotch moon, and occasionally exchanging kisses, but no more than that. Riverdale was romance not at the time of AIDs.
It had to change of course, and it did; innocence is the ultimate self-destructing device. Along with the rest of the world, Archie grew older, and, if not wiser, at least more aware of the ways of evil. Yet his self-sacrificing death at the hands of a sexual bigot could be seen as a new beginning, a regeneration not of lost innocence but of the imperative of tolerance in all its forms, social, political and sexual, in an increasingly embattled and strife-torn world.
Archie dies so that tolerance might live. Will it? If Hemu were here today, while shedding a tear for Archie, she’d be the first to hope so.