Prelude: My relationship with The Archies began when I was all of four, and till date I have no idea how those torn battered copies of The Archie comics happened to be at our place. Just like I have no idea as to how many times those three-four copies were read and re-read over the years till I had my first set of four brand new Archie comics when I was, well, twenty. At least those didn’t have cousins’ names scribbled all over the pages, and the puzzles already solved (In pen, too! And not in pencil so I could erase them and work them out all over again).
I guess the first time Archibald Andrews, or Archie, as we have it, made his presence felt in my life, was when I was in kindergarten and down with measles. For some strange reason, I had this aversion to getting myself washed and scrubbed during that time. I have a vague notion it must have been because it hurt like hell when Mom would take my chin between her hand and start rubbing my face vigorously. To work this out, my eldest cousin (the one who I mentioned in this post, the one who’s my hero even now) would shove a picture of the freckled Archie at my face, and yell at me, “You wanna look like him, with scars like his on your face? No? Then stop screaming and let me wash you up!” And I would take one look at those freckles (of course it wasn’t until years later that I got to know they are called freckles) and submit myself to him. I think I owe him, and Archie, one for life for this one. Courtesy them I escaped with just one poke mark on my left eyelid, and a faint mark on my forehead.
And so for years I carried those torn pages in my memory having learnt them by heart without even having to try, until one fateful summer I could not find those comics at our place anymore. Consoling myself by saying that I had finally outgrown them, I stopped giving much thought to those anyway. Cut to 2006, when I was in Guwahati pursuing my graduation, and lucky enough to be there for the National Book Fair that’s held every year. Although my meager budget didn’t stretch enough to buy me books I would visit the fair everyday (entrance was free for students with I-cards anyway) just to roam around the stalls, and feel the warmth each time I saw a familiar book peeking at me from the makeshift shelves. And then I would come out with a light bag in stark contrast to a heavy heart. Minus books, of course. Until it was the last day of the fair, and heavy discounts were being advertised on each stall. It was also the most crowded day, and D (he’d gone with me that day) had to almost steer me like a wheel just so I would not get lost in the crowd. Well, what followed I would always remember. It was a tiny stall in the last but one row (which meant it was pretty low in the hierarchy; the best shops were the ones with their stalls in the first row and so on), and not that crowded. Which was the only reason we got into it. And then my eyes fell on those four insanely thin Archie Digests (those were the only ones in the whole fair; amazing, but true) I almost bit my lip when the salesman casually said they were 75 bucks each (normally without discount, they cost 85), torn between wanting to buy them all, and having to choose one from them because I didn’t have the money. So my angel in human form came to my rescue, and D bought me all of them. They still have, “For the twenty year old kid who would have burst into tears had I not got her these” scribbled on the covers, but at least they also have my name on them. Well, maybe that was how much I had loved The Archies through all the years. I cherished them so much I wouldn’t go anywhere without carrying one of them along with me. Even though the well-thumbed pages were imprinted on my brain owing to an obscene amount of perusal.
So, two years later when I was trying to pursue my post-graduation (M.Sc Electronics) from Gauhati University, I had spent three hundred bucks on a book which had several blank pages and hence had to be returned. Without a cash refund. I had to make do with a tiny slip, which had 300/- written on it, with the seal of the shop. And I would visit every weekend to see if the book I had wanted (which was on Solid State Electronics, if you must know) had arrived, each time to be sent back with the promise that it would “definitely, sure shot” be available next week. This went on for about a month, by which time I had given up hope on both the book, as well as the course itself. Having decided to pack my bags and come back home to take a forced year long vacation, I went to the shop for the last time, demanding I get my moolah back. The salesman shook his head and said they wouldn’t give me back my money, but they would give me books worth that amount. And I had the whole line of shops to choose my books from. Back to having to choose again (why couldn’t I just buy the whole shop, sigh!) I went off to the best shop in that area, known for its updated stock of the latest bestsellers (people familiar with Guwahati would recognise Western Book Depot). And I craned my neck for half an hour trying to read titles of books from the shelves. Sidney Sheldon’s. Jeffrey Archer’s. More of my favorite Princess Diaries series. The few Erich Segals I hadn’t read. Three of R.K. Narayan’s I had been meaning to read for a long time. Ooooh! My own copy of “The Da Vinci Code”. So what did I end up buying? Three “Double Digest” Archie comics. A crazy hundred bucks each. And I guarantee a happier girl didn’t roam the streets of Panbazaar that day.
Being back to Tezpur didn’t help much in my love affair with The Archie comics. Afterall, I have discovered the joys that lie in flipkart and a debit card fairly recently. Even now though, each time I am in an airport I find myself being drawn to the book store like bee to honey. Maybe it’s just the smell of new books that does to me. And the prospect of finding an Archie comic book. I still find it amazing that out of all the books I have in my book shelf, the ones that I am the most reluctant to lend out are the ones I should have donated to younger cousins years ago. Which include those scanty number of Archie comic books that take place of honor in my study table. Invariably.
I somehow did not have the affinity towards the more popular Indian Tinkle Digest and neither did I find much pleasure in reading Pran’s Chacha Chaudhury comics. I am not being a snob here, believe me I am not. But my taste was attuned to Pop Tate’s and Riverdale High School right since the time I had just started learning to read. I knew what a hamburger looked like before I even knew what a pau bhaaji looked like. That I thought Hot Dog was just a weird name of Jughead’s dog and Jelly Beans Jughead’s sister’s, and it took me years to figure out the humor underlying these names, is a different thing altogether. Although a few things I knew even then:
That Archie was mean not to be with Betty all the time, since obviously Betty was the better girl, if being sweeter, simpler, unassuming, extremely loyal (she never cheated on Archie once!) counted, that is.
That Veronica was mean to Betty all the time, fighting over Archie. Although she’d dump Archie at one word from Reggie. And that while Betty didn’t deserve to be treated that way, Veronica didn’t deserve Archie.
That Jughead was the funniest of them all, although the way he could eat made me sick at times. I always envied his hammock, though.
That Moose was as strong as he was dumb, and that seemed to be the only reason Mitch was his girlfriend. I also found the way Moose would be jealous about Mitch extremely hilarious and immensely cute at the same time.
That Reggie was the one I detested, and had I met him face to face I would have given him a piece of my mind.
And then as I grew older and wiser, I learned my own pearls of wisdom from The Archies. Very practical too.
That the real life Archie’s always want to be with the Veronicas. Glamorous, rich, not easily available with that “I agree to bestow my company on you just for tonight” aura which makes guys run after them. The Betty Coopers don’t stand a chance when the Veronica Lodges decide to make the Archies fall for them.
That even the real life Archies are confused half the time about whether they really want the Veronicas once they get them or if they’d rather go back to the Bettys. And that kind of made me forgive the comic-book Archie. The character finally made some sense to me.
That Jugheads don’t exist anymore. They either get trampled by the devil of obesity, or get sent to rehab to cure their eating disorders. Even then they are an endangered species because they can never get themselves jobs since they sleep all the time.
That the world is full of Reggies. Heck, the world demands a Reggie in all of us. When it comes to cut-throat competition, you got to be the types who would admire their own reflection in a DVD, because otherwise no one would think you’re worthy of admiration. That even though at times you might get outsmarted by the less complex Archies, you got to win back that confidence by any means foul or fair.
Call it a comic book and laugh at my silly obsession all you want, but I guess what I learnt about dating and boyfriends at the tender age of five, nobody could teach me even much later. And since I knew I was no Veronica, I had decided on being the best Betty Cooper ever. Touch wood, though, this Betty’s got her Archie all for herself after all.