Little would a naughty pair of kids have known that jumping the fences of their neighbour, the unfriendly VT Thomas, would inspire the iconic comic series in Malayalam, Bobanum Moliyum. It was the 1950s and Thomas was spending time at home in a Kuttanad village. He had had an adventurous young life so far, running away from home as a 13-year-old to serve in the army for several months, bursting crackers on the midnight that India won freedom, getting expelled from the college hostel and so on. Back home after all the misadventures, the fence-jumping kids of the neighbourhood had initially driven him crazy, but they later became his friends.
He, who nursed a discouraged-drawing-habit, began sketching them until the drawings became a comic series in publication. For six decades he drew them, luring generations of comic lovers who loved the series despite the years that passed. This is the story of Toms's — that's the name he was known by — iconic comic and its undying influence on readers. After drawing the series for six decades, Toms died in April 2016.
"Some stories never get old. It's also to do with the raw innocence and pranks of childhood that every generation can identify with, from jumping fences to stealing dosa. Toms was able to capture that pulse," says Advocate Narayan Radhakrishnan, a comic collector and archivist.
An old Bobanum Moliyum comic strip / Courtesy - Narayan Radhakrishnan
But Toms had gone through a poverty of topics after the initial two years of drawing cartoons of Boban and Molly set mostly in their school and home, he wrote in his autobiography Ente Bobanum Moliyum. That's when he created other characters so he could comment on the political and social situation of Kerala. Toms nearly always picked his characters from the real life people around him. Sometimes this would land him in trouble.
Chettan, one of the prominent characters in the series, was based on a man called Unnittan. Toms made it Ittunnan for the comic, the man who belatedly got married to an older woman and then took part in a panchayat election. The wife in real life complained to Toms's mother when the caricature brought attention. So the name was removed, he came to be simply called Chettan (meaning elder brother in Malayalam) and his angry wife in the comic was called Chettathi (meaning elder sister).
Chettathi would often throw things at Chettan angrily, creating humour in the series. "The emotions were so clear even when it was in black and white. I love how easily Toms captured the emotions through simple drawings," says Tina, who runs Kokaachi Studio with Pratheek in Kochi, and has been an avid Bobanum Moliyum reader. Kokaachi publishes all sorts of graphic narratives, from comics to matchbox stories.
Story of creating Bobanum Moliyum / Courtesy - Toms' autobiography
The emotions that Tina mentioned came with help from family. At his Kuttanad home, Toms used to make his children pose to get some of those emotions right. Two of his six children are also called Boban and Molly, named after the comic. Bose, a son in between Boban and Molly, talks about how Toms used to make them do certain actions around the dining table, on which he worked. "We would twirl around or stand on knees and he would draw that. We were small celebrities in our school because we knew the story of the next comic before it came out and our classmates would be after us for it," Bose says.
But just like his dad, Toms too didn't encourage his children to take up drawing before completing their degree. In Toms's case, the strict father had also discouraged him from it, feeling sure it would drive him to poverty. Toms acknowledges in his book that he was one of the lucky few who could find fame with art.
But Toms had nearly missed it too, all those years ago. When he first drew pictures of Boban and Molly, he didn't mean it to be a comic. He simply 'made them walk, run and row boats' and left the drawings alone. It was a priest who visited him and saw these scattered drawings that persuaded him to do a comic. The former then sent it to a church-run magazine called Sathyapeedam and got it published first. Toms, excited to see it in print, began drawing more. But after four comics got published, the magazine said it was too expensive to do block-making for the cartoons. Toms then sent the comic to several weekly magazines including Manorama and Mathrubhumi. Everything got duly returned and he gave up and took up farming.
Unfortunately, or perhaps luckily for him, that year, the floods caused big losses to the farms. That took Toms to a village office to collect compensation. He was loudly complaining to a friend about the magazine rejections when a man overheard him and gave him an address to try his luck again. It turned out to be the editor of Manorama weekly magazine, Varghese Kalathil. The editor liked what Toms sent and asked him to make it an ongoing series.
Toms's autobiography Ente Bobanum Moliyum / Courtesy - Narayan Radhakrishnan
Toms drew for Manorama for the next three decades, the cartoon appearing at the back page every week. Narayan says that it must have been Toms who inspired the Malayali habit of starting a book from the back pages, to read the comic first before everything else.
As the years passed, more characters were created. Pothen Vakeel was featured as the father of the children in the comic, inspired by Toms’s friend Advocate Alex, who was also the real life father of the neighbourhood kids. When he drew Chettan, he didn't base the features on one person but several politicians he knew -- R Sankar's thick hair, CM Stephen's forehead, C Kesavan's nose, KM Mani's moustache, Karunakaran's teeth, Achuthanandan's chin and Vayalar Ravi's double chin. "Looked like a big criminal," Toms wrote in his book.
Another popular character is Appi Hippie, a satire of the then popular hippie culture. He's the long-haired guitar-wielding sun-glasses-wearing flirt of the neighbourhood. Toms based his features on a real life guitarist. When he wrote the autobiography in 2015, only the real life versions of Boban, Molly and Appi Hippie were alive. Others had died.
There was also the famous dog character in the comics, appearing in nearly all the frames, silently accompanying the children. It is referred to in movies like Summer in Bethleham, to talk about a character who is everywhere. Toms wrote in his autobiography that it was in memory of a puppy he used to have as a child.
The other characters like Motta, Ashan and Parikutty are however fictional.
Another old comic strip / Courtesy - Narayan Radhakrishnan
Real life Boban and Molly, the neighbourhood kids who inspired the series, are now grandparents living with their families in Ernakulam and Alappuzha respectively, Bose says.
After 30 years with Manorama, in the late '80s, Toms founded his own publishing firm Toms Publications to publish the comic. They created more comics — Unnikuttan, Mandoose among them. Unnikuttan, Toms wrote in his autobiography, is based on his grandson, who was at the time of the book, already six feet tall and studying medicine.
Another grandchild — Bose's daughter Diya — has taken after Toms and is now doing her Masters in Fine Arts in Chennai. She has already drawn some Bobanum Moliyum comics for spreading the message of following COVID-19 protocol.
Two films were made inspired by Bobabum Moliyum. The first film, under the same title, released in 1971, with Toms himself featuring in it, as the story takes shape from a cartoon he draws. The second in 1996, titled The President, starring Innocent, Jagathy Sreekumar and others, however, could not be completed. Kavya Madhavan, then a child actor, had played the role of Molly in the film.