Bal Narendra is a deeply dull comic book that I cannot imagine any child voluntarily reading

Courtesy Rannade Prakashan
28 April, 2014

Writing any sort of review of Bal Narendra: Childhood Stories of Narendra Modi is an act that seems unfair on many levels.

This comic book account of Modi’s childhood heroics was not written by Modi himself (it is to be hoped), and so any judgement about the man based on it would be wrong. It is a book for very young children, which means that any serious analysis would lead to conclusions being drawn that say more about the reviewer than the book. It does not claim to be completely true, or to be anything other than a hymn to Modi by Modi devotees and an attempt to inspire young people to be like him. Perhaps most importantly, it does not name its creators, so perhaps it is not even meant to be a book, more like a How To Be Like Young Modi leaflet. If not for the national obsession with the man and the need to feed trolls on the internet, it would probably have been completely ignored by any serious publication.

All that said, Bal Narendra is a deeply dull comic book that I cannot imagine any child voluntarily reading. Perhaps I know the wrong children, but this is the twenty-first century, and anything so slow, preachy and conflict-free is likely to tire out a child after the first few pages. I vaguely remember a birthday in the early 1980s when some well-intentioned relative had given me a similar book extolling the virtues of Young Indira Gandhi. YIG seemed nice and all that, but I really hated being told how good other children were, and the book was sadly lacking in treasure, monsters and fight scenes (though I suppose I could probably find them hidden inside the pages now if I were to re-read that book as an adult). It just didn’t work for me. And this was several decades before our current attention-deficit-disorder times.

Our pious hero, Bal Narendra, grows up in straitened circumstances, but overcomes them to become just the sort of young man every nation would be lucky to have leading them. In the process of doing so, he reads about Swami Vivekananda; cleans his house; takes care of his family; washes his clothes; cleans his new shoes with chalk; irons his clothes; wins at sports; kidnaps baby crocodiles (as one does), but returns them to their parents after his mother explains family ties to him; sprays ink on the shirts of bullies so his teachers can identify them (presumably he did not know their names); performs historical plays; fundraises for his school; wins at kabaddi; saves drowning friends (presumably from a different water body than the one with the crocodile family); bathes and clothes a sadhu; helps out at his father’s tea stall; feeds soldiers going to fight China; joins the National Cadet Corps; saves a pigeon and swims across a lake full of crocodiles (in the film version, the crocodiles will all be played by Sonu Sood); and writes a play that teaches people that the idea of untouchability is wrong, because Bal Narendra believes that “Everyone has the right to enjoy God’s world, no matter who they are or what their caste is.”

It is entirely possible, of course, that the real Narendra Modi was the kind of perfect young saint described in loving detail over the 47 pages of this graphic hagiography. But there are two clear inspirations behind Bal Narendra: first, another relic of the pre-liberalisation era, the Ideal Boy charts, which everyone of a certain age must remember. These are a series of single-page charts telling us what the Ideal Boy does—among other things, he loves his parents, prays, bathes regularly, performs chores, studies, performs acts of charity and, somewhat strikingly, joins the National Cadet Corps. Second, a form of Indian popular storytelling that has evolved in the current generation and is seen everywhere from Salman Khan blockbusters to squeaky-clean animation stories about young religious figures—a mostly plotless tale that consists of the hero smoothly triumphing over any obstacle laid in his path. It is the exact opposite of the dark, nuanced, complex narratives of old-school Indian folklore; even the stories of the Panchatantra, however deceptively simple, encourage conflict and debate rather than presenting a picture-perfect world full of Ideal Boys.

Bal Narendra has no such aspirations. But while it might contribute to the building of a Modi Nation, what it sacrifices in the process is any semblance of good storytelling. Why spend page after page watching Bal Narendra figure out how to iron his and his family’s clothes when the Ideal Boy chart got the message across with a single image decades ago? Bal Narendra isn’t a real comic—in a real comic, pictures and words both contribute to telling the story, building a meta-narrative that neither can achieve alone. These childhood stories are more like an airplane safety instructions chart: How To Be A Good Citizen in Modi’s India. Presumably it is in this form because there isn’t enough material to do a text-only book, and because comics appeal to children. The children this book is addressing must be exceptionally docile, possibly Ideal. But in that case, surely they don’t need this much convincing: the book is probably 46 pages too long.

Is this going to become a trend now? I do think an anthology of the youthful heroics of each state chief minister is something I would like to possess. The Adventures of Baby Jayalalithaa, Girl Mamata Strikes Again, Arvind and his Amazing Muffler—yes. Definitely yes.