I was introduced to Tintin in Calcutta by a Belgian Jesuit who taught us Sanskrit. It was 1958, maybe ’59. English translations of the books were not available then. Jesuits were devilishly cunning. Like Miyagisan, the iconic Karate teacher in the movie Karate Kid, they would use any ploy to capture your interest and so instead of conjugating verbs, our teacher acted out Tintin stories in the classroom.
That was how I met Tintin.That was when I decided I would be a reporter and name my dog Milou. Both wishes were granted by fate.
On my first visit to Brussels, in the mid ’70s, I decided to try my luck and meet the maestro. Fortunately he was listed as Georges Remi in the phone directory. In the era before Steve Jobs, people used landlines and every city had its phone directory. Hergé picked up the phone and agreed to meet. And that’s how I got this interview.
I maintained my connection with Hergé and he eventually helped me to get permission for the Bengali translations in the children’s magazine, Anandamela. They would be the first translations of Tintin in any Indian language.
I notice on the hat racks in front of your office two bowler hats and two walking sticks...
Sshhh... They’re Thomson’s and Thompson’s. Do not disturb them. They are guarding us.
Blistering barnacles. From what?
Well, one never knows.
Could it be one of those crystal balls or even the flute darts from the fakir?
I see you are a fan. So you should know the dangers.
I have always wondered though why you are not under a more real attack?
But why? Who should attack me and for what? My works are entertainments. There is no sarcasm or irony in the humour.
Sometimes the humour belies an attitude. One notices, for instance, that you do not normally draw women. When you do, your women are no dolly birds. They are either volatile and neurotic like the Milanese nightingale Bianca Castafiore or helpless fragile creatures balancing jars over their heads in traditional burkhas, having knives thrown all around them in a circus ring, crying for help or fainting when people are being kidnapped.
Yes, it is true. But a woman has little place in my style of work (laughs). They sort of complicate things. But, don’t misunderstand me, I am no misogynist. Let me tell you, I have drawn a new woman character. Do you remember General Alcazar?
Yes, the South American dictator who, after abortive coups, took to knife-throwing.
You have a good memory. I have married him off in my new book. (He shows me the French edition of the book Tintin el les Picaros.) See the woman. Isn’t she terrible? Doesn’t it send shivers down your spine just to see her? I have put curlers on her head. She’s American, you see. She is very dominating. I think it is a good idea to find that a strong man like the General is afraid of his wife.
Well, aren’t we all? And then what do your woman readers have to say?
They may not like it, but it’s real. I first saw her on television. It was a programme on the Klu Klax Klan and this terrifying woman was being interviewed as a secretary of a chapter. I took my pencil and drew her at once straight from the screen. It’s not a caricature. It didn’t have to be.
That’s what makes it so chilling. But tell me, have you ever been criticised for your attitudes?
Well, let’s see. My first album was called Tintin au pays des Soviet. People told me I was anti-communist. My second album Tintin au Congo was regarded as racist. My third, Tintin en Amerique, was described as anti-American because it showed the plight of the Indians and all those gangsters in cities like Chicago. So you see I have been told all kinds of things by all kinds of people, but people misunderstood the basic purpose of my humour. I did not want to spread a message or even right a wrong. The world, as it is, is very serious. I merely wished to lighten things.
What about your latest album?
A left-wing French magazine says that I have shown sympathy for the Tupamaros. So now I am Left while previously the Left said I was Right while the Right has always maintained I am Left.
I always wanted to ask you about Chang. This is one character which you’d raw with extreme affection and care.
Well, I first introduced him in Tintin au Lotus Bleu. There’s a small history here. The book was being serialised in the Tintin magazine – a Belgian comic magazine which I founded and publishes all my work first. A priest from a nearby university wrote to me saying that I should be careful in depicting the Chinese. They are very touchy and I should not do anything to hurt them, they wrote. I wrote back asking if he could recommend somebody who could supplement my knowledge about the Chinese. He sent one of his students – Tchang. He was my age, so we soon became friends. After the war we lost contact. Since then I have searched for him everywhere but I have not found him. It was then that I wrote Tintin in Tibet – a sort of commemoration of our friendship. You remember how Tintin went all the way to Tibet and ultimately tracked him down in a yeti’s cave?
You did not think of putting in an advertisement in the papers?
Wait, I have not finished my story. One year back a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Brussels said he knew Tchang, who was a friend of his nephew’s. He got me the address. Since then we have written to each other. Tchang is now the curator of a museum in Shanghai. I sent him two of my books—Le Lotus Bleu, and Tibet—but the Chinese did not let them in. They were sent back with the stamp “forbidden literature”. Tchang also wrote back requesting me not to send such books.
Why don’t you do a book on India, say Tintin in Calcutta?
Well, let us see. It takes such a long time to do a new one. There was a seven year gap between Flight 714 and the new book Tintin et les Picaros.
I personally do all the drawings and the text. It takes time. I am no longer young.
But have you been to India?
Once only. In New Delhi. I was on my way to Australia. I will visit India next year on my way to China. I am going there to see Tchang.
Where did you get the details for the magnificent Delhi scenes in Tintin in Tibet or the Hindi abuses the sherpa in Kathmandu uses?
The Delhi scenes I got from photographs in the National Geographic magazine and the Hindi words were supplied to me by the Indian embassy in Brussels.
Republished with the permission of the author, courtesy Ananda Bazar Patrika group.