Cross Border Kathas

Retelling history through graphic fiction

Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s ‘A Good Education’ draws on his grandmother’s memoirs. TEXT AND DRAWING BY VISHWAJYOTI GHOSH
01 October, 2013

COMICS, in the last 20 years or so, have increasingly been used to tell stories about real-life wars, revolutions, and political upheavals. The first graphic novel—that’s what book-length comics are called even if they are non-fictional or autobiographical—that was taken seriously by English-language critics was the two-volume opus Maus (1986 and 1991) by Art Spiegelman. It was also the first graphic novel to be read widely in American colleges as literature, and the first to win a Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman won that acclaim by weaving his father’s oral history of persecution by the Nazis into a deeply personal present-day story of family relationships and tensions. Nine years after Maus came Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir, originally published in French, of growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran–Iraq war. This book, too, was widely acclaimed, and eventually turned into a successful movie. Then there is the comics journalism of Joe Sacco. His oeuvre includes Safe Area Goražde (2000), Palestine (2001), The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo (2003) and Footnotes in Gaza (2010). In these books, the author draws himself interviewing the residents of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Bosnia about their experiences under occupation and siege.

In Japan, with its more mature manga industry, this tradition dates back at least to 1973, when Keiji Nakazawa began writing Barefoot Gen, his loosely autobiographical account of surviving the bombing of Hiroshima. Art Spiegelman credited this series with being an inspiration for Maus.

These books use a mix of text, image, dialogue and self-portraiture to convey the experience of living through major conflict with a stark, brutal honesty, in a way that even the best prose journalism, television news reporting, novelisations, or films can’t quite manage. A comic—especially when one person acts as both author and artist, and when that person draws him or herself into the narrative—has an intimacy that is impossible for a video crew, with their different specialisations, to achieve. And, of course, a comic has the advantage over prose of being able to show us pictures—pictures that can be realistic or impressionistic or dreamlike, as the story requires.

However, when a work about historical events is based on personal accounts, its scope becomes limited in some respects. A conventional account of the Holocaust would be expected to discuss all of the concentration camps, explain the background to the German aggression, mention the Nazi persecution of minorities other than the Jews, such as the Roma people, and so on. Maus, on the other hand, is just a book about the experience of one Jewish family from Częstochowa, Poland. Spiegelman isn’t concerned with painting the bigger picture. Similarly, Persepolis, written from an upper-middle-class urban Iranian perspective, doesn’t delve too deeply into the popular anger against corruption that fired the 1979 revolution, or into the mindset of working-class or rural Iranians afterwards. As for Sacco, he has a more journalistic stance, but he still can’t be in two places at once, and it’s clear in most of his work that he’s already thrown in with one side. He’s not interested in exploring the psychology of Israeli insecurity, or that of Serbian nationalism. He’s focused on depicting the lives of the oppressed.

While this limited perspective isn’t ideal for a historian, it’s also what makes the books digestible for a global audience. As good as Sacco is at laying out a historical background, if his books on Bosnia went into exhaustive descriptions of the ideologies of all the different political factions of the Yugoslav Wars, few people outside of the Balkans would be able to understand them.

THIS SIDE, THAT SIDE: RESTORYING PARTITION, (Yoda Press, 336 pages, Rs 595) edited by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, is not intended to explain Partition to a global audience. It is a book written by and for South Asians. It is not a novel but a graphic anthology, a collection of 28 short pieces by over 40 contributors. There are no limitations of perspective here. Ghosh has clearly put a lot of thought and work into getting as many different angles as possible, and balancing them all carefully against each other. (In his ‘Curator’s Note’, he refers to the “subcontinental Rashomon effect”, a reference to the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film in which four individuals give mutually contradictory accounts of a crime.) There are stories here about migrations from India to Pakistan, from Pakistan to India, from Pakistan to Bangladesh, from Bangladesh to India. There are stories about Kashmir. There are stories set in 1947, in 1971, in 1999, in 2047. There are contributions from people based in practically every part of the subcontinent, as well as several based abroad, and the list includes some names that are new to comics, such as the musician Rabbi Shergill and the novelist Tabish Khair. The book is written in an English peppered with vernacular words and phrases, but there are also several translated pieces originally written in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali, which keep the anthology from falling into an Anglophone rut. A high level of familiarity with the history and cultural milieu of the subcontinent is assumed; there are no maps, no timelines, no helpful annotations for those who might not be able to identify Muhammad Ali Jinnah from just a sketched portrait and a quote.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. In fact, it’s a cause for great celebration that an English-language Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi comics collaboration is being published without a smidgen of concern for the Western market. Still, as I was reading it, I wondered if the book might not also function as a set of auditions for the role of Spiegelman-of-the-Partition. It would be wonderful to see one of these artists, or author-artist teams, try their hands at a full-length graphic memoir that could personalise the story of Partition for people unfamiliar with this history, the way Maus did for the Holocaust and Persepolis did for the Iranian Revolution.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh hints in the introduction that before he began the anthology project, he had considered writing a full-length graphic novel about Partition himself. He’s definitely capable of great things: the first of his two pieces here, ‘A Good Education’, is probably the boldest in the book, both artistically and conceptually. In it, he translates and illustrates the memoirs of his government-servant grandmother, who worked in Delhi in the camps for Punjabi and Bengali refugees, alongside vignettes of his own memories as a young child interacting with the inmates of the camps. His art is phenomenally good, a sort of mash-up of the styles of the famous Bengali printmaker Chittaprosad and the former Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer. Every image is striking. But the story is far from simple, and references to historical minutiae (such as the short-lived plan to locate the capital of the Indian Punjab at Nilokheri, or the American government’s aid pledge of unlimited milk powder to refugee camps) fly thick and fast. Ghosh—who also wrote Delhi Calm (2010), a graphic novel about the Emergency—is obviously a serious history buff, and he isn’t interested in doing a lot of hand-holding.

Not that it is easy to write accessibly about Partition. When I read the first volume of Maus, subtitled ‘My Father Bleeds History’, I was a 19-year-old college student in California. It was just before the summer when I travelled to India for the first time without my parents. The book had me all fired up to try to coax stories out of my eldest surviving uncle, who was born in Multan in 1932, and who left with his family for Delhi in 1947. I knew he had seen violence, but I didn’t know the details, and I wanted to get his story down on paper. (My father was three at the time, and doesn’t remember any of it.) My American friends, even the well-educated ones, were often pretty ignorant about recent Indian history, and I dreamed of a book that would capture their attention. (I can’t remember exactly how I planned to execute the book: I couldn’t draw then any better than I can now.)

‘Karachi-Delhi Katha’ looks at real and imagined migrations between three nations. TEXT BY SONYA FATAH AND DRAWING BY ARCHANA SRENIVASAN

When I did make it to Delhi and managed to get my uncle to sit down in his Pitampura apartment while I held a notebook and pen, I quickly learned that he was one of the most unreliable narrators ever, and a rather uncooperative interview subject. My uncle would describe scenes, entirely devoid of context, in which he fought off a gang of 15 machete-wielding, vampire-fanged Muslim youths by himself, holding only a penknife; or in which he carried his mother and two sisters stacked circus-style on his shoulders 50 kilometres through a leech-filled swamp. Then, when I gave an incredulous look, he’d offer me a Red & White Flake, light one up himself, and change the subject. It was impossible to get him to be serious.

There is one family Partition story that I am fairly sure is true, though, because it’s been mentioned to me by several relatives. In that story, my grandmother takes a bloody shirt that belonged to one of my uncles and burns it in the oven, so that it will not be found when their house is searched by the police. And I think I can understand from that story the reason my uncle doesn’t like to talk too seriously about Partition.

ENGLISH-LANGUAGE GRAPHIC FICTION aimed at adult Indian readers is still a small scene. As a publisher in that scene myself, I’ve worked with quite a few of the contributors to this book, so it was interesting to see what came out of the writer-artist pairings (often set up by Ghosh, on what he calls “blind dates”). There are writers here whose words have a new vibrancy now that I’ve seen them illustrated for the first time, and artists who seem to be unlocking new styles as they venture into unfamiliar genres.

I usually gravitate towards experimenters and artists who push boundaries, so I was surprised to find that some of the pieces I like best in this volume are the ones that follow comics’ conventions most closely. One such story is Sonya Fatah and Archana Sreenivasan’s collaboration ‘Karachi-Delhi Katha’. It’s a series of conversations between the author and her friends in two countries: a Hindu family based in Karachi, who are considering a move to India, and the maid who works in her Delhi flat, a Bangladeshi immigrant. (In a clever touch, the maid is drawn with a pixellated face until she receives her Indian ration card, at which point she becomes ‘legal’, and is drawn normally.) The characters are easily distinguishable, with clearly readable expressions, and the soft pencil drawings carry a lot of empathy. The story is told entirely in natural-sounding dialogue. After just a few short pages, I cared about these people, and found myself hoping that things had turned out well for them in the time since the comic was written.

My other favourites are the pieces that aren’t trying to be comics at all, but are more in what I think of as a Delhi art gallery mode. Bani Abidi’s minimalist ‘The News’ is a starkly funny look at the absurdity of Indo-Pakistani relations as seen on television. Mehreen Murtaza’s madcap collages in ‘Bastards of Utopia’ feature parachutists in the Himalayas, a pair of conjoined twins who appear to share the same brain, and a couple of boys riding a cannon perched on an exploding planet. Cybermohalla Ensemble’s ‘Make It Your Own’ is a strange little poem about time and travel, and the spare drawings that accompany it (by Amitabh Kumar) seem like important symbols from a half-remembered dream. The book closes with ‘Making Faces’, a series of haunting portraits by the virtuosic Orijit Sen, who seems to frequently get the last word in graphic anthologies.

In many of the ‘comics’ pieces, the story is told entirely in captioned text, rather than in dialogue. Sometimes it works, as in Mahmud Rahman’s ‘Profit and Loss’, a thoughtful memoir about growing up in Dhaka and Kolkata, illustrated by Pinaki De. Other times, I wish the authors had used standard comics tools like speech balloons and thought balloons to let their characters tell the story. Salman Rashid and Mohit Suneja’s story ‘I Too Have Seen Lahore!’ is an illustrated interview with an elderly Sikh man, now living in Jalandhar, recalling his childhood in Lahore and Rawalpindi and a nightmarish trip across the Ravi in August 1947. While the drawings are beautiful and the oral history is powerful, the characters would have been much easier to connect with if the dialogue had been drawn using speech balloons rather than appearing alongside the illustrations in quotes. Similarly, in Ankur Ahuja’s ‘The Red Ledger’, the author’s grandfather’s recollections of his final days in Bahawalpur before it became part of Pakistan might have been more powerful if she had drawn him telling them, rather than trying to relate them herself.

Conversely, Arif Ayaz Parrey and Wasim Helal’s ‘Tamasha-e-Tetwal’, about a reporter travelling along the Line of Control in Kashmir, starts off using only dialogue and silent frames; but six pages in, a first person narrator suddenly appears in a caption, a voice that probably should have been introduced earlier. It’s an off-key note in what’s otherwise one of the best pieces in the book. There’s a lovely scene in which a villager on the Pakistani side of the river throws a bag of mushrooms over to a friend on the Indian side, as both lament the younger generation’s rush to move to the cities; there’s a dog which may or may not be the one from Saadat Hasan Manto’s story ‘Tetwal ka Kutta’; and the young reporter’s interview subject, an old man named Haji Sahb, imparts some real wisdom while opposing loudspeakers blare propaganda in hand-lettered Hindi and Urdu over their heads.

I wish Indian comics artists would work a little harder at lettering. More than once here, great art is marred by a casual indifference to typography. Nina Sabnani’s ‘Know Directions Home?’, which has very interesting illustrations inspired by and incorporating the patchwork quilting traditions of Western India, starts off using one font for the narrator’s voice and a second one for dialogue. But halfway through the story, the fonts start to get mixed up, and this makes things very confusing. In many of the comics pieces, dialogue is set in rather clunky computer fonts; text breaks mid-sentence across frames for no apparent reason; the ‘crossbar I’ convention is flouted regularly. These technical details may escape the conscious notice of most readers, but they make the book more difficult to read than it should be. There’s a nearly century-long international tradition of comics lettering and grammar that has evolved to make things easy on the eye. Those rules are worth studying, even if you’re going to use a computer font. But there’s nothing like good hand-lettering to draw a reader into a graphic narrative, and I missed it in this book—as I missed it in Sita’s Ramayana (2011), and in Adi Parva: Churning of The Ocean (2012), and in practically every other Indian graphic novel of the last ten years. Everybody take a break and go read a few issues of Cerebus by Dave Sim, please!

‘Tamasha-e-Tetwal’ is about a reporter travelling along Kashmir’s Line of Control. TEXT BY ARIF AYAZ PAREY AND DRAWINGS BY WASIM HELAL

IT’S BEEN 66 YEARS since Pakistan was carved out of India and 42 years since Bangladesh was split from Pakistan. For most South Asians today, the borders between these countries are like strange heirlooms inherited from grandparents. On the one hand, they are fragile, and it is scary to imagine trying to change or break them, for we know they possess latent evil power. On the other hand, it’s 2013: you can fly all the way around the world in two days, hold a video conference with people on six continents, design an object and have it 3D printed on a distant island. The very concept of a nation as a geographical region contained by a border can seem like a ridiculous anachronism.

There’s a sense of lamentation common to all the stories in This Side, That Side, a sadness and frustration at the tragic wrong turns of history. But there are also rays of hope. This may not be the right book to explain Partition to a foreign audience, but it is a valuable conversation about shared pasts and possible futures, a collection of illustrated memoirs and artistic commentary to help us understand the roots of our petty nationalisms, and to transcend them. As Kaiser Haq writes in his poem ‘Border’: “You fly the universal flag of flaglessness. Amidst bird anthems dawn explodes in a lusty salute.”