Hergé at Hundred

Any journalist would kill to have a job like Tintin's-- as an investigative reporter, Tintin travels the world (England, Russia, America, Congo, Japan, Belgium, Egypt, India, Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, England, Peru, Tibet and China at last count) and even the Moon, without ever having to file a report!

Tintin debuted in the most unlikely of places-- in the pages of a Catholic newspaper in Belgium, where he was serialised by Georges Remi (known to the world with his initials reversed, "RG" or Hergé) as being dispatched to the Soviet Union to discover the ills of Bolshevism. This first book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was out of print for many years and is strikingly different from the other Tintin adventures that generations have grown up with. Besides the fact that it was never colourised, it does not do justice to Hergé's eventual artistic talents, especially because of his awkward use of perspective. Born in this work, however, is Tintin's trademark tuft of hair as a result of racing in an open-air convertible in Germany, making his silhouette one of the most recognisable in the world.

A friend recently observed that Tintin reinforces cultural stereotypes with reference to his visit to India as a guest of the Maharaja of Gaipajama, where he meets an Indian fakir who is a snake-charmer, a palm-reader and prefers lying on a bed of nails. While this is true in the first few albums (Tintin in Congo, in particular, faces flak for popularising the existing prejudice that the white colonial had the inalienable right to rule over a poor black nation), Hergé soon wisened up to his responsibility as a popular story-teller and conducted meticulous research before putting anything down in print. By the time Tintin was to visit India again, en route to Tibet, Hergé had Indian street scenes down to the last detail, including a Nepalese porter shouting back at the white sahib in chaste Hindi in the Devanagari script. Last year, the Dalai Lama awarded Tintin in Tibet the "Truth of Light" award for Hergé's sensitive and authentic portrayal of Tibet and her monasteries.

Hergé's eye for detail and use of photographic reference helped him create a parallel universe for Tintin where imaginary countries like Syldavia (King Ottokar's Scepte) are complete with national dresses, cuisines and even travel brochures. In fact, Hergé visualised the landing on the moon over a decade before President John F Kennedy even made it a priority for America, and did it with such uncanny accuracy (with the exception of the presence of ice) that New Scientist magazine admitted "the considerable research undertaken by Hergé enabled him to come very close to the type of space suit that would be used in future Moon exploration".

Getting hands on a new Tintin, with its colourful cast of characters comprising his faithful dog Snowy, and friends Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thomson and Thompson (the twins also make a cameo in Asterix in Belgium) among others, is a thrill that cannot be explained to the uninitiated. I distinctly remember the amount of cajoling that led to my parents gifting me my first Tintin, The Blue Lotus, for my tenth birthday. The hardcover edition, or albums as they are called, provided the additional pleasure of trying to identify all the Tintin characters from the collage of frames in the endplates!

That is why I envy the Americans today-- having grown on a homemade brew of comic superheroes with superhuman powers, they have summarily dismissed the androgynous man-boy from their national ethos--who now have a rare second chance to revel in Tintin's magical world. On the eve of Hergé's hundredth birthday, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) announced a three-film series based on Tintin's adventures. If this doesn't make Tintin accessible to an entire country that have deprived themselves of his charms, then not even ten thousand thundering typhoons can.

And the two grieve
That that bright world, so just and splendid,
Of Haddock, Gorgonzola, Wagg,
Moon rockets, grog, Red Rackham's swag,
And foul-mouthed parrots could have ended
In adulthood, where truth and light
Do not win out as if by right.
Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate