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Do you remember Phantom cigarettes?

Here is the sort of question that you might not want to answer if you are reluctant to reveal your age:

Do you remember Phantom cigarettes?


I was sent a packet the other day and was tickled by this reminder of my childhood. On an impulse, I took a photo of the box and posted it on Twitter, asking the same sort of question I posed at the start of this column: “Do you remember these?”


   I could not have been more surprised by the flood of responses. As of this writing, the tweet has 230,000 impressions and that number keeps going up. Among the people who replied saying that they remember the ‘cigarettes’ were Omar Abdullah (who would buy them when he was in school) and Derek O'Brien (who made the point that we were giving away our ages). The modern Indian chef Atul Kochhar replied from London: “Do we remember this? Some of us have had only this cigarette in our lifetimes!”


   If you are too young to know what we are talking about, here is what you missed: Phantom cigarettes were little sticks of a sugary substance that was made to look vaguely like a real cigarette. I thought the ‘cigarettes’ were an Indian innovation but apparently, similar ‘cigarettes’ were in vogue as sweets for kids all over the world in the 1960s.


   They fell out of favour for the usual reasons. Parents were told how bad it was to let their kids eat so much sugar. More damagingly, they were also told that sweet imitation ‘cigarettes’ made smoking seem glamorous when, in fact, it was a terrible, unhealthy habit.


   I can see the point of both those objections. In the 1960s, nearly everyone smoked, in movies, in books and in real life. So, as we gradually became more aware of the dangers of smoking, anything that glorified cigarettes came under attack.


   On the other hand, I loved Phantom cigarettes and yet I have never ever smoked real cigarettes. But then, that’s the risk with all politically correct arguments: My own example works against most of them. I had toy guns as a child but no, I have never wanted to shoot anyone. I wore a cowboy costume but have never managed to ride a horse. And so on.


   Nevertheless, Phantom cigarettes remain a potent reminder of childhood for most of us. The chef Manish Mehrotra uses them as a garnish for one of his signature desserts because they trigger a nostalgic response in so many of his guests.


   While the reason most often used to explain the popularity of Phantom cigarettes is the seductive appeal of smoking to children (really?), in my case, at least, it wasn’t the cigarettes alone that did it for me. It was the link with the Phantom.


   You remember the Phantom, of course? (Oh dear, I think this may be another of those age-related questions.) The Phantom was the one costumed comic book hero that most Indians knew about. Mainly this was because The Illustrated Weekly of India (the country’s largest circulated magazine for many decades) ran the Phantom comic strip every week. Later (the early 1960s, I am guessing) The Times of India launched Indrajal comics which collected the strips (originally written to appear daily in American newspapers) so that each comic book contained a complete adventure. In those days, American comics (Superman, Batman, etc.) were not always easy to come by and were expensive. The Phantom comics, on the other hand, were relatively inexpensive and available everywhere. Soon they were translated into Indian languages.


 "Phantom cigarettes still remain a reminder of a more innocent era, when we were naive and knew nothing about racist connotations or the evils of smoking."

   So, the Phantom become the hero that Indian kids could relate to. But there were other reasons for his popularity. To fully understand Superman/Clark Kent, you needed to know what it was like to grow up in a small town in Kansas and then move to a large American city. Peter Parker’s teenage angst was entirely American in nature. And as for Captain America, well he was, by definition, totally American.


   The Phantom, on the other hand, did not live in America. He lived in a cave in Bengal.


   Yup, you read that right.


   Many decades ago, I interviewed Lee Falk who created The Phantom and he was clear that the comics were set in India. He had tried, first, to make the Phantom an urban American avenger with a secret identity, but when Batman came along (“it was just a total copy of the Phantom” he said) he had to junk the idea.


   So, the Phantom became a white man who was washed up, after a shipwreck, in a third world country. Falk had never been out of America when he created the Phantom so he based this third world country on his imaginary conception of India. He wanted his comic book to feature royals in turbans and leaping tigers to give it a little bit more than a simple Lord of the jungle air (Tarzan had already been created by then so Falk had to be careful not to tread on that path) and he wanted a more Kiplingesque setting.


   He called the land where the Phantom washed up on the shore Bengal (or Bengalla) because he wanted there to be something of the Bengal tiger about his hero. He needed memorable villains so he created the Singh brotherhood of pirates as the Phantom’s traditional enemies (Singh may have been the only Indian name Falk knew).


   And, though this sounds very racist now, he went with the idea, common at the time, of the white man being helped by adoring natives. Tarzan had worshipful monkeys and admiring Africans. So Falk gave the Phantom his own supporting cast of ‘Bandar’ pygmies. He never admitted that he knew that ‘bandar’ meant monkey in Hindi and my guess is that like Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan who thought that tigers roamed the jungles of Africa, Falk based much of the Phantom’s environment on the little bits of information and misinformation he picked up from Kipling and other dodgy sources.


   Over time, when it was pointed out to him that there were no pygmies in India and no skull caves in Bengal, he made changes to the story. Bengalla became Denkali in some versions. The location was now said to be Afro-Asia, a mysterious double-continent that existed only in Falk’s mind. The Singh pirates remained though as the big time villains.


   Of course, we did not realise any of this when we read the comics as children. But enough about the Phantom’s world seemed familiar enough for us to relate to him in a way that we could not relate to say, Spiderman. And, so, the Phantom became our favourite hero.


   As for the cigarettes, my memory could be playing tricks on me but I remember the original packaging as having a drawing of the Phantom. Now, the guy on the packets looks more like a member of the Singh brotherhood with added facial hair. Was there a copyright issue? Did they have to change the illustration? I wonder.


   But no matter. Phantom cigarettes still remain a reminder of a more innocent era, when we were naive and knew nothing about racist connotations or the evils of smoking.


   I have kept the packet I was sent as a memory of my childhood. But I wouldn’t dream of eating the ‘cigarettes’ of course.


   Nostalgia is a fragile sentiment. It shatters and dies if you try and bite into it.




  • Siddharth 09 May 2022

    Simply wonderful. My childhood appeared in front of me once again.

  • saikat das 09 May 2022

    Wow. So many memories and at the risk of sounding demented, for me it was actually the lure of smoking. I was always attracted to smoking and this was the closest i could get to a real one.

  • Biswajit Dasgupta 07 May 2022

    Old Jungle saying - "The Phantom has a thousand eyes and a thousand ears."
    He was probably the inspiration for The CIA.

Posted On: 03 May 2022 10:10 AM
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