Friday, August 1, 2003

The Search for  Bunter

By Sheila Kumar

The search began inconspicuously enough. Some years ago, I was at this party in Coonoor and the talk turned to books and further, to the books of our childhood. Someone said, ‘’My favourite books were the Billy Bunter series by Frank Richards,’’ and I heartily agreed. The books were a riot, dealing as they did with the hilarious shenanigans of the greedy Billy Bunter who studied in junior school at a typically British public school called Greyfriars. Bunter’s classmates included a sterling gang of characters called Harry Wharton, Johnny Bull, Bob Cherry, Frank Nugent, and an improbably named Indian boy of royal lineage, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.

Talk of the Bunter books had set my curiosity alight. Once upon a time, the books were to be found in almost all the lending libraries. A look around revealed that they no longer were. Appetite truly whetted now, I began asking bookstores in Bangalore at first, then Delhi, Mumbai, even Jabalpur… all in vain. Most had not heard of the series, those who had didn’t recall seeing the books around for ages. Next, I asked friends and that proved a convoluted process since many would say they remembered owning a book or two in the series. They’d start to look cursorily, then I’d ask to take over the task. Permission granted, I’d look long and hard, sometimes disturbing the dust of centuries from the shelves. Alas, no Billy Bunters was to be found.

I didn’t give up. The search now extended to second-hand bookstores and pavement stalls wherever I went. I’d find old editions of near extinct books and unknown authors but again, no Frank Richards, no Billy Bunter.

By now, I was beginning to get Bunter flashes, laugh in recollection of his abortive raids on other people’s tuck, grin at Hurree Singh’s atrocious English (‘’the awfulness of the ramifications is splificating, my dear Wharton’’), chuckle over the times the boys ran foul of the forbidding Form Master Mr Quelch. Was I doomed to be amused by recollection only, I wondered.

And then came a trip to Bunter’s mother country, England. It was like a shot in the arm; I was sure my search had come to an end. I looked in all the bookstores, in London, Oxford, Stratford, Bath; I looked in the gleaming glassfronted stores, the dusty discount ones, the musty antique bookshops.
I found veritable treasures aplenty but no Billy Bunter. One helpful bookseller told me the series had been out of print for the last seven years. Months later, in an anticlimax, I came across three Billy Bunter books in a second hand bookstore down Mirza Ghalib street in Kolkata. Thrilled beyond words, I bought them up and carted them home to read. Only to find there was a catch: somebody had cleaned up the books. Hurree now spoke excellent English and no one dared call him ‘Inky’ any more. And Quelch no longer had the boys bend over for ‘six of the best’. The politically correct Billy Bunter, alas, was no fun. And so, my search continues.


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