"It's like a treasure hunt in my house," John Seemon says, welcoming me into his spacious apartment on Begur Road, far from the madding crowd of Bengaluru city. As I walk into the living room, I discover I've already trespassed on the trail of 'gems' that make his home so special.
Before I can take in anything else, my gaze is arrested by three oversized glass cases on top of a wooden cabinet. Each of these structures houses an intricate miniature model built with Lego bricks, the centre-piece being a magisterial replica of the Taj Mahal.
I peer at it, admiring the stacks of tiny Lego pieces fitting in to create delicate arches and columns, holding the mini monument together with their infinitely subtle engineering system. Seemon, visibly pleased by my jaw-dropping wonder, gives me a guided tour of the rest of the house.
The place, it turns out, is a combination of two adjoining flats, the partition wall between them having been removed. Even then, there's just about room enough to display about half of Seemon's precious collection—and it keeps growing by the year.
Welcome to the home of India's largest collector of Lego.
As we walk around, Seemon apologises for the messiness of his "bachelor's pad", but contrary to his description, the place has an orderly look about it. I follow him into the open kitchen as he makes his morning cup of black coffee and my eye is instantly drawn to the models of three little birds perched on the kitchen counter.
A humming bird drinks nectar from a yellow flower. Next to it sit a European robin and a blue jay. Like many objects at Seemon's home, these too are made of Lego.
"Commercially, that's probably the most successful franchise Lego has ever had," he points at the models of Star Wars characters who occupy the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. "These are all buildable action figures that work on the same attachment process," Seemon says, "their only difference from standard Lego models is their playability. You can twist and turn their body parts to set them in different poses."
Leaving Darth Vader on his perch above the cups and saucers, we walk back into the living room.
John The Builder
In the niche world of Adult Fans of Lego (AFOL) in India, John Seemon is a legend of sorts. His name features in the Limca Book of Records for being involved in the creation of the biggest Lego structure in the country: an 8-foot-by-12-foot fire truck at the Phoenix Mall in Mumbai, built in 2011, with the help of some 1,500 adults and children.
Among retailers and collectors of Lego in India, Seemon is perhaps the most-sought-after troubleshooter. He is the go-to person to check with in case a robotics set is malfunctioning or to inquire about ways of procuring a crucial element that may have gone missing from someone's collection.
Given his expertise with the medium and extensive knowledge of robotics, Seemon is also in demand as a coach for the Indian chapter of the First Lego League (FLL), a globally-held competition to build Lego-based robotics models for elementary- and middle-school students. But Seemon takes on such roles with discretion.
Seemon's personal passion for Lego, however, outshines every accolade he's ever won. You can sense his excitement in his face, body language, the intensity with which he speaks about the little magic bricks that have brought joy to millions across the world for several decades.
Lego, which is manufactured by the Lego Group, had its inception in the workshop of a Danish carpenter called Ole Kirk Christiansen, who began making wooden toys in 1932. By 1934, he had called his company Lego, from the Danish phrase "leg godt", which means to "play well". In 1947, Lego started manufacturing plastic toys and, by 1949, an early version of the famous interlocking bricks, called 'Automatic Binding Bricks', had been produced.
Lego toys may be fairly popular, even reasonably affordable, in contemporary urban, elite India, but such wasn't the case always, more so in the 1970s, when Seemon was a young boy.
Born in Mangalore, he didn't even know of the existence of Lego until the 1980s. "I saw a Lego brick for the first time at a cousin's place," he says. "For me, the beauty of that first encounter is captured by the fact that the bricks have remained identical for the three decades that have passed since then."
The extraordinary perfection of Lego bricks is something he can't emphasise enough—with good reason too. A closely-guarded technique and the exceptional precision with which the bricks are moulded make Lego an inimitable brand in the world of toys.
There are imitators in the market—Mattel, for example, also makes toy bricks—but the products made by the rivals come nowhere close to the dream-like perfection of Lego, Seemon says. "To give you a sense of where Lego stands in the competition: as a single brand, it outsells over 70 brands of Mattel."
Those of us who have grown up in urban, middle-income families in the India of the 1980s are likely to have touched a piece of Lego at least once during our early years, but its real magic may have remained elusive to us.
Seemon wastes no time explaining to me the mysteries of a seemingly innocuous piece of Lego brick. He brings over a packet of loose green ones to the dining table—which he sometimes uses as a platform to build on—and pulls out a brick. He then proceeds to regale me with its hidden beauties.
"Measurement in Lego is usually done by studs," he says, pointing to the tiny grooves on the brick. "Each piece is precision-moulded with Lego's injection-moulding process to ensure that the space between the studs always remains constant."
The process is as revolutionary as it sounds. A single mould to create one kind of Leo brick typically costs between $180,000 and $240,000, Seemon tells me, and its cleaned every few days by a group of experts who have been doing the job for years now.
Having dispensed these insights into the cult-like set-up at Lego manufacturing plants, Seemon pushes one brick into another. We wait to hear that click, and when we do, both of us beam at each other.
"The clutch and the holding power of these pieces do not ever go away," Seemon says proudly. "Every Lego element built at any stage of history is interoperable with any other." He pauses for a moment, letting the weight of what he's just said to sink in.
Relationship Status: Committed
For someone whose waking hours, while he's not at his day job, are almost entirely filled with Lego, Seemon had a belated awakening into this "hobby".
The 42-year-old IT consultant started collecting Lego sets as late as 1998-99, after being introduced to the world of AFOL by a co-worker in the US. "I had seen a non-static Lego set of The Star Wars at the Singapore airport during my travels," he says. "When I mentioned it to this colleague, to my surprise, he said he was a big fan of Lego."
But that wasn't all.
One day, the colleague brought a Lego set from his collection to the office to demonstrate its appeal to Seemon. The two men skipped lunch, went into a meeting room, and pored over Lego bricks for the next hour, building the chassis for a robot.
Seemon, who is a computer scientist by training, was blown away, especially since he has always loved building objects with his hands. "I already knew Lego would become a part of my life," he says, though he didn't perhaps quite anticipate the extent to which this hobby would turn into an obsession.
For close to two decades now, Seemon has been buying sets of Lego, not only those that are released each year but also the rare ones, courtesy of the AFOL network and eBay. A large portion of his income, he says, is spent on buying new sets and the upkeep of the existing ones.
"I travel with very few clothes in order to pack in as many sets of Lego I can, which, I know, I'm anyway going to buy wherever I go—whether it's Australia, Singapore, France or the US," Seemon says.
Lego occupies the pride of place in his daily life too. His decision to live away from the bustle of the more expensive centre of the city is partly dictated by his attachment to the hobby. For not only are some of these sets, especially the robotics ones, pricey ("Easily ₹40K a pop," Seemon tells me), but it's also hard work to keep them secure from the heat and the dust of tropical climate.
The vitrine-like cases, which hold some of the most outstanding finished models, were all built by Seemon, DIY being the more economical option over having these custom-made. Still, the cost of keeping the hobby alive is such that only the most passionately committed can pledge their time and resources to it. The Taj Mahal, for example, not only costs a bomb but also took over 30 hours to build.
Since Seemon works evenings and into late nights, he spends a sizeable part of his days on Lego-building activities, usually leaving the weekends reserved for marathon building sprees, stretching over several hours. "Some days, I start building in the morning and only in the evening I realise I need to eat!" he says.
The evidence of his patient handiwork is strewn all around his home. Models of iconic vehicles (a vintage Volkswagen camper van, for instance, with exquisitely detailed interiors), a replica of the United Nations building in New York, streets in cities (where each building is made of 2,000-3,000 pieces of Lego), the Tower Bridge in London, Sheldon's living room in Big Bang Theory: the range and complexity of the sets have to be seen to be believed.
For someone with little interest in automobiles, I find myself staring at an unopened non-static Porche car set, which Seemon plans to build over the weekend and record the process on a hyperlapse video (which you can watch below).
Apart from the thriving, if small, AFOL community, the target consumers of Lego are primarily children and young adults. But whether you consider it a toy or a miniature engineering system, Lego is simply unparalleled for sticking to premium quality.
"It's never had a Samsung Galaxy Note 7-like moment," Seemon says, before giving me a lowdown on the recent history of the company.
Between 2005-15, Lego went through a phase of reinvention, innovating rapidly and smartly. It optimised the number of unique elements it was manufacturing each year and tied up with popular franchises like the Star Wars, which added to its mass appeal. With the addition of the Friends series since 2012, Lego also debunked the myth that its products were mostly meant for boys.
"The toy industry was never hit by the recession," Seemon pitches in with a personal theory behind the company's endurance. "Rather, as parents were forced to cut back on travel plans due to the economic meltdown, they had to invest in other areas to keep their children occupied during vacations. And among toys, Lego has always been a popular choice."
However, even for its younger fans, Lego is no longer only a plaything. The demand for robotics kits as well as the hunger to win FLL championships have escalated in the recent years. Those who can afford it hire coaches to train their children in making robots. For those who can't, there's John Seemon.
Some years ago, Shishu Mandir, a Bengaluru-based organisation that works with underprivileged children, got in touch with Seemon after reading about him in the papers. They were looking for a sensor to use at an FLL championship where the children were participating. Seemon had just the thing they needed, but the children failed to win that year. Soon Shishu Mandir got back to Seemon; this time, to request him to be their FLL coach.
"For me, this was an opportunity to give something back to children," Seemon says. With characteristic passion, he threw himself into the job. For over three-and-a-half months, the kids went over to his place every day to learn and practice coding. Furniture was shifted around to clear spaces and smooth surfaces were created for the robots to move about freely. Though the group still did not crack the FLL that year, their performance was a significant improvement over the previous year's.
For a man whose urge to give back to the community is so strong, Seemon can also be quite the recluse, with his gift of retreating into the cavernous depths of his house for hours on end.
He walks me through his bedroom, where stacks of plastic boxes stuffed with unbuilt Lego pieces lie about. Some of these are sets of World War II airplanes, I learn, waiting to be built to existence.
The last room of the apartment is Seemon's "workshop"—overflowing with pieces of board, wood, plastic, paint and sundry other materials he uses to create incredibly detailed miniature models of railway stations, with trains running on tracks, city squares and avenues.
"I spend hours putting these structures together," Seemon says, as we step across boxes of implements, treading on tip toe around the universe he has so painstakingly created. "Look," he says, pointing at a building, "these surfaces have all been painted over to make them appear weathered and distressed."
A few other miniature models Seemon has collected during his travels sit inside cabinets in the living room. I peer into a railway carriage, which he picked up from Japan, to discover Liliputian figures inside it, drinking tea out of Liliputian teacups. For a moment, I feel as though I'm in a comic book, a Gulliver towering over tiny men and women, living far from the fever and fret of our world, in a happy tea-time mood forever.
After several hours, as I take my leave from this fantasy land, Seemon walks me to the door. As we shake hands, he says, almost conspiratorially, "I haven't told this to many, but I've rented another apartment to put away some more of my stuff there."
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