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Table of contents :
List of illustrations
Introduction: the graphic turn in Indian writing in English
1 Graphic history
Public history, personal stories
The documentary and the aesthetic
Postmemory and graphic history
2 Urban graphic
Spaces of desire, spaces of vulnerability
National character and the urban Gothic
3 Cultural graphics
Culture, in and beyond the panel
The tableau vivant
Parergons and cultural margins
Stereoscopy as cultural commentary
4 Drawing (on) other histories
Multiple temporalities, intercultural histories
Reframing the archive
Visualizing the unspeakable
5 Graphic satire
Laughing with graphic contrasts
The destruction of personae
Conclusion: the graphic narrative and critical literacy
THE INDIAN GRAPHIC NOVEL ‘Pramod Nayar’s analysis of nationalism and Indian graphic narratives is an insightful and valuable contribution to the growing field of comics scholarship. The rigor of his approach and engagement with a range of theories facilitates an important understanding of the medium.’ Jeffrey Brown, Department of Popular Culture, Bowling Green State University, USA, author of Black Superheroes: Milestone Comics and Their Fans. ‘The Indian Graphic Novel comes to its subject from a rich grounding in the historical and literary specifics . . . analytical concepts informed by a broadly conceived Cultural Studies and important recent work. . . . Nayar has produced a fine grained reading of the Indian graphic novel.’ Ian Lewis Gordon, Department of History, National University of Singapore, Singapore, author of Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890–1945 and co-editor of Film and Comic Books. This book is a detailed study of the Indian graphic novel as a significant category of South Asian literature. It focuses on the genre’s engagement with history, memory and cultural identity and its critique of the nation in the form of dissident histories and satire. Deploying a nuanced theoretical framework, the volume closely examines major texts such as The Harappa Files, Delhi Calm, Kari, Bhimayana, Gardener in the Wasteland, Pao Anthology, and authors and illustrators including Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Durgabai Vyam, Amrutha Patil, Srividya Natarajan and others. It also explores – using key illustrations from the texts – critical themes like contested and alternate histories, urban realities, social exclusion, contemporary politics and identity politics. A major intervention in Indian writing in English, this volume will be of great importance to scholars and researchers of South Asian literature, cultural studies, art and visual culture and sociology. Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad, India. His most recent books include Citizenship and Identity in the Age of Surveillance (2015); Posthumanism (2014); Frantz Fanon (2013); the edited collection, Women in Colonial India: Historical Documents and Sources (Routledge, 2014) and Writing Wrongs: The Cultural Constructions of Human Rights in India (Routledge, 2012).
THE INDIAN GRAPHIC NOVEL Nation, history and critique
Pramod K. Nayar
First published 2016 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2016 Pramod K. Nayar The right of Pramod K. Nayar to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record has been requested for this book. ISBN: 978-1-138-96244-6 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-315-65943-5 (ebk) Typeset in ITC Galliard by Apex CoVantage, LLC
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List of illustrationsix Prefacexi Acknowledgementsxiii Introduction: the graphic turn in Indian writing in English
1 Graphic history Humanizing history 14 Public history, personal stories 21 The documentary and the aesthetic 24 Postmemory and graphic history 38
2 Urban graphic Uncanny spaces 50 Spaces of desire, spaces of vulnerability 61 National character and the urban Gothic 72
3 Cultural graphics Culture, in and beyond the panel 80 The tableau vivant 87 Parergons and cultural margins 89 Stereoscopy as cultural commentary 96
4 Drawing (on) other histories Multiple temporalities, intercultural histories 111 Reframing the archive 122 vii
Graphic dissonance 130 Visualizing the unspeakable 135 5 Graphic satire Laughing with graphic contrasts 156 Graphic commentary 161 Graphic contradictions 172 The destruction of personae 174
Conclusion: the graphic narrative and critical literacy
191 201 211
Figures 1.1 Sarnath Banerjee, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, New Delhi: Penguin, 2007. 9. 1.2 Nina Sabnani, ‘Know Directions Home?’, in Vishwajyoti Ghosh curated, This Side, That Side. Restorying Partition: Graphic Narratives from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. New Delhi: Yoda, 2013. 107. 1.3 Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Delhi Calm. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2010. 177. 1.4 Syeda Farhana and Nitesh Mohanty, ‘Little Women’, in Vishwajyoti Ghosh curated, This Side, That Side. Restorying Partition: Graphic Narratives from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. New Delhi: Yoda, 2013. 265. 2.1 Sarnath Banerjee, Corridor. New Delhi: Penguin, 2004. 91. 2.2 Amruta Patil, Kari. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2008. 98. 2.3 Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Delhi Calm. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2010. 182. 3.1 Sarnath Banerjee, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, New Delhi: Penguin, 2007. 9. 4.1 A Gardener in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty. Story by Srividya Natarajan, art by Aparajita Ninan. New Delhi: Navayana, 2011. 11. 4.2 Orijit Sen, The River of Stories. New Delhi: Kalpavriksh, 1994. 48. 4.3 A Gardener in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty. Text by Srividya Natarajan, art by Aparajita Ninan. New Delhi: Navayana, 2011. 67. 4.4 A Gardener in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty. Text by Srividya Natarajan, art by Aparajita Ninan. New Delhi: Navayana, 2011. 17.
35 57 64 74 91
4.5 Pratheek Thomas (story) and Rajiv Eipe (art). Hush. Bangalore: Manta Ray/Studio Kokaachi, 2010. Unpaginated. 4.6 Malini Singh and Dhyuti Mittal, ‘Cooper’s Camp’, in Vishwajyoti Ghosh curated, This Side, That Side. Restorying Partition: Graphic Narratives from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. New Delhi: Yoda, 2013. 247. 5.1 Ambarish Satwik and Pia Alize Hazarika, ‘Hindus and Offal’, in The Pao Anthology of Comics I. New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. 118. 5.2 Gautam Bhatia, with Shankar Lal Bhopa, Birju Lal Bhopa and Ghansham, LIE: A Traditional Tale of Modern India. Chennai: Tranquebar, 2010. 51. 5.3 Samit Basu, ‘The Dept of Surplus Emotion’, in Sarnath Banerjee, The Harappa Files. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2011. 55. 5.4 Sathyanarain Muralidharan-Mihir Ranganathan, ‘Foodchained’, in The Obliterary Journal, Vol. 2. Chennai: Blaft and Tranquebar, 2013. 225. 5.5 Sarnath Banerjee, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers. New Delhi: Penguin, 2007. 110. 5.6 Appupen, Moonward®: Stories from Halahala. Chennai: Blaft, 2011. Unpaginated. 5.7 Appupen, Moonward®: Stories from Halahala. Chennai: Blaft, 2011. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2014. Unpaginated.
170 178 185 187
Plates 1 Amruta Patil, Kari. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2008. 3. 2 Sarnath Banerjee, The Harappa Files. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2011. 72–3. 3 Sarnath Banerjee, ‘Tito Years’, in The Pao Anthology of Comics I. New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. 199. 4 Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand, Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability. Art by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. New Delhi: Navayana, 2011. 48.
103 104 105
Unlike my other books this book began in a revivalism, specifically, the revival of what I thought was a now-dead interest in a medium that fascinated me in childhood: comics. Having grown up on the ubiquitous Amar Chitra Katha (which introduced gods, demons and assorted life forms into my thinking), Commando (which offered me my first insights – such as they were – into war and a whole new vocabulary of ‘Jerry’ and ‘Tommy’ and ‘Spitfire’), Archie (the entry-point into ‘American culture’), Phantom (muscled man in mask and tights), Tarzan (muscled man in animal skin), Classics Illustrated (the access into Shakespeare) and of course the great superhero (muscled men and women in tights and swirly cloaks) canon, I returned to this some years ago. The discovery that comics and graphic narratives continued to assert their glossy grip on my mind was both frightening (indicating that I had not evolved much from the IQ of a seven-yearold, as Wodehouse would phrase it) and energizing. Since this undoubtedly Freudian return to the preferred medium of my childhood I have, bizarrely, been devouring graphic trauma narratives, from Maus to autopathographies/graphic medicine. Having occasionally lectured on some of these texts, and the frequent demands that I offer a course on the graphic novel from students, the hobby took a serious, academic turn, and the result is this book. It was also inspired by the bewildered expressions and politely phrased queries from colleagues about my reasons for reading comics in office (I have not put these queries into speech bubbles though: wait for the autobiography!). Thus a short chapter on comics had appeared in my Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis, Politics (2004) and work on Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin), Joe Sacco, superhero comics and others intermittently in The Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, Nebula, Mediterranean Journal of the Humanities, IUP Journal of American Literature and elsewhere. But the idea of a full-length study of the Indian graphic novel emerged from an exchange with an American publisher who
was hoping to persuade me into thinking of a book in popular culture. This is that book, which of course, unlike my other ones, didn’t go West. As the field and variety of the medium grows faster than one can keep up, I have narrowed the focus of this book to the Indian graphic narrative although much of my insights into the medium and its genres, I freely admit, come from reading a transnational range of graphic narratives. It might seem awkward to make this admission in purely subjective terms within a scholarly work: I wrote this as homage to the years of fun reading comics in childhood. And, I am delighted to announce: I have had the same, if not more, quantum of fun writing this book on a favourite medium. May the panels flourish. PKN Hyderabad April 2015
[for those who occupy the panel with me]
Routledge India responded to a query about a possible book on the field with unmitigated enthusiasm – so much enthusiasm that, in fact, I wondered if I had rushed in with little preparation! I am very grateful to Shoma Choudhury for her enthusiasm, regular correspondence, frequent phone calls and the discussions. It is a privilege to be able to acknowledge the generosity of the many individuals who shared their materials. V. Premlata sent me massive encyclopaedias of comics. Saradindu Bhattacharya shared his collection of Holo caust narratives and critical materials each time he added to it. Rahul De, whom I have still not forgiven for picking up a copy of V for Vendetta at dirt price, contributed dozens of comics and graphic narratives. Raghavi Ravi sent me key texts in graphic medicine. Tanmay Tathagat added massive volumes to my collection, and meticulously labelled and filed these on my external hard drive. Anna ensured that my Sandman collection is complete by gifting me the missing volumes. Ron (aka Runsi) compiled several texts as well and continues to welcome the comics I send her. Nandini stumbled across Sin City volumes and quickly grabbed them all. This book’s origins also lie in the chapters I have written on the Indian graphic narrative for various occasions and publications, incorporated here with expansion and revision: ‘Toward a Postcolonial Critical Literacy: Bhimayana and the Indian Graphic Novel’, Studies in South Asian Film and Media 3.1 (2012): 1–22; ‘The Gothic Turn in the Indian Graphic Novel: Paranoiac Aesthetics in Amruta Patil’s Kari ’, Dibrugarh Journal of English Studies 21 (2012): 15–21;
‘The Rhetoric of Silence/ing: Hush’, Margins 3 (2013): 32–44; ‘The Indian Graphic Novel and Dalit Trauma: A Gardener in the Wasteland’, forthcoming in Judith Misrahi-Barak and Joshil Abraham (eds) Dalit Literatures: In, Out and Beyond, Routledge India; ‘Postcolonial Demo-graphics: Traumatic Realism in Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm’, in Pia Mukherjee and Binita Mehta (eds) Postcolonial Comics, Routledge, New York. I am grateful to the publishers and editors for allowing me to use sections of already-published work in the present book. But it also lies in the work I have done on the medium elsewhere, which has not been cited here, but remains the scaffolding on which I hang this book: ‘Popular Culture and the Ecological Gothic: Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns ’, Nebula 6.1 (2009). http:// nobleworld.biz/images/Nayar_p.pdf; ‘Haunted Knights in Spandex: Self and Othering in the Superhero Mythos’, The Mediterranean Journal of Humanities 1.2 (2011): 171–183. http://mjh.akdeniz.edu.tr/tr; ‘The Visual Turn: Affect, Autobiography, History, and the Graphic Narrative’, The IUP Journal of American Literature 2.3–4 (2009): 58–72; ‘The Biotechnological Uncanny: Frank Miller’s Ronin’, The Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 19.1 (2013): 135–146; ‘Graphic Trauma and the Spaces of the Other: Art Spiegelman’s Maus, The Four Quarters Magazine December 2013. http:// tfqmagazine.org/issue/singing-the-past-state-december-2013/ pramod-k-nayar/. I am grateful to the commissioning editors of these anthologies, the editors of the journals and the reviewers for their incisive comments on the submitted work. I would like to thank the artists and publishers who have granted permissions to use their work here, both for purposes of analysis and as scenesetters and motifs at various key points in the book. Interlocutors play a significant role in the shaping of books, if one may state a truism, and this one is no exception. Nandana Dutta, whom I persuaded to turn ‘demotic’ and start reading Maus (sadly, she still resists superhero comics), shared ideas about
representation, ‘showing and telling’ and the visual organization of narrative – for all of which I am very grateful. And of course her ‘you should write about it’ is flattering in terms of the confidence she reposes in me. For her encouragement and unfailing affection: ‘thank you’ seems woefully inadequate as an expression. In an entirely different context, to the audience and the inspired interaction at my talk on ‘Bhimayana and the New Graphic Novel in India’, hosted by the Bowling Green State University, Ohio, USA, on18 October 2012 as part of the Popular Culture Colloquium (made possible by funding from the Stoddard and O’Neill Endowment for Studies in Popular Culture, the India Foundation of Dayton, Ohio, and a travel grant from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and co-sponsored by the Popular Culture Scholar’s Association and the Department of Popular Culture) – many thanks. To Susana Pena, Kristen Rudisill and Matt Donahue at BGSU, a special thanks. My support system that bears the brunt of my schedules and projects, battles bravely on. To begin with, as always, my parents and parents-in-law who remain committed to me. Pranav queries with deep-seated curiosity about the graphic text I am reading at the moment, and occasionally (i.e. once a month) inquires if he is old enough, having ploughed through much Batman, Maus and assorted texts, to start on Sandman, Arkham Asylum and the auto/pathographies. He, of course, comments adversely on my taste in reading. Nandini ensures I don’t overwork – she does not, admittedly, succeed, not often – and stay reasonably healthy: truly a laudable effort! To Jeff Brown and Ian Gordon, I owe much – for their own incisive analyses of the medium that has enabled me to read it better, and for their willingness to write endorsements for this book. Friends and well-wishers who enquire, enthuse and entertain in their own distinctive ways, and to whom I am truly grateful: Neelu (without whose stream of jokes WhatsApp would wither away), Ajeet, Josy, Molly (who never fail to sound the encouraging note), Noelle from across the seas, Debjani (who does not mind my writing for other publishers), Ibrahim (in his monthly call from the USA), Ron (who has of course abbreviated my name in her address!), Soma, Saraswathy and Haneef (the 5 AM WhatsApper). It shouldn’t surprise anybody that Anna Kurian read this manuscript as well, as she has been doing since 2002–3, but that she did so in the midst of her own writing makes her effort a very special one. This book is the better for her astute reading, the commas and prepositions gently corrected and the numerous insights she offered in our conversations on these topics. As always, to my First Reader, my unquantifiable gratitude for a loyal friendship and unstinting affectionate support.
Professor K. Narayana Chandran directed me towards Mary Ann Caws’s work on visuality. But more than the sharing of bibliographic information, ‘KNC’ represents a form of altruistic scholarship that has given me not just insights into narrative, visual codes, ways of reading, reception and dozens of other topics, but into the nature of academic work as well. To the guiding light of his immense reading that unremittingly brightens up anything I am working on at the moment, I owe an irredeemable debt.
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Introduction THE GRAPHIC TURN IN INDIAN WRITING IN ENGLISH
What kind of visual-verbal literacy can respond to the needs of the present moment? – Marianne Hirsch (2004: 1212)
To the category of realist fiction, the fantasy – most recently characterized as ‘Bharati fantasy’ (Varughese 2014) – the ethnographic regional novel, the urban satire and other popular forms of Indian fiction in English one now adds, with pride, a brave new medium and genre: the graphic novel. The present book makes a case for the graphic novel as a form that generates the kind of visual-verbal literacy that Marianne Hirsch, a leading theorist of trauma cultures and prescient commentator on the graphic memoir, claims is needed today.1 The ‘needs’ that Hirsch sees as demanding new forms of literacy are elaborated by a leading commentator on the graphic medium, Hillary Chute, in her essay ‘Comics as literature? Reading graphic narrative’ (2008a): What is the texture of narrative forms that are relevant to ethical representations of history? What are the current stakes surrounding the right to show and to tell history? What are the risks of representation? How do people understand their lives through narrative design and render the difficult processes of memory intelligible? (462) While the dominant focus in both these commentators seems to be the representation of history in the graphic medium, we could in the Indian
context ponder over the appropriate form in which to satirize contemporary India or examine contentious issues such as child abuse and casteism. Let me clear the ground for this study by sorting out the definitional problems in ‘comics’, ‘graphic novel’ and ‘graphic narrative’.2 The tension between comic strips, cartoons and the graphic novels determines their content, consumption-reception and politics of production. Thus, examining the Superman comics of the World War II years, Ian Gordon notes how the comic strips pushed the limits of Superman’s moral code in ways the comic books avoided. In part, this was most likely because of the perception that comic books were more for children and comic strips were read more by adults. (2015: 5) Comics, writes Scott McCloud in his cult Understanding Comics, are ‘juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer’ (McCloud 1993: 9). Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith describe the comic book as a ‘volume in which all aspects of the narrative are represented by pictorial and linguistic images encapsulated in a sequence of juxtaposed panels and pages’ (2009: 4). They ‘might be defined as a hybrid word-and-image form in which two narrative tracks, one verbal and one visual, register temporality spatially’ (Chute 2008a: 452). Like Robert Petersen (2011: xv), I see the term ‘graphic literature’ as inadequate due to its emphasis on words – ‘literature’ – and I definitely do not wish to use the term ‘comics’ due to the emphasis on the ‘cartoony’ or ‘funnies’ that the term is semantically loaded with. The term ‘graphic novel’, often mocked by practitioners of the form like Frank Miller, is the extended version of the comics, and mainly fictional in scope and theme. Eddie Campbell writes: First, it is used simply as a synonym for comic books. . . . Second, it is used to classify a format – for example, a bound book of comics either in soft- or hardcover – in contrast to the old-fashioned stapled comic magazine. Third, it means, more specifically, a comic-book narrative that is equivalent in form and dimensions to the prose novel. Finally, others employ it to indicate a form that is more than a comic book in the scope of its ambition – indeed, a new medium altogether. (2007: 13) However, the graphic novel in many cases is a serious misnomer. Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith see the graphic novel as a comic book, but for
publishers, they claim, these are ‘longer than the typical comic book and most often contain self-contained, rather than continuing, stories’ (4). To return to Hillary Chute again, a better term would be graphic narrative, where ‘the substantial length implied by novel remains intact, but the term shifts to accommodate modes other than fiction. A graphic narrative is a book-length work in the medium of comics’ (2008a: 453). Elsewhere she writes: I use ‘graphic narrative’, instead of the more common term ‘graphic novel’, because the most gripping works coming out now, from men and women alike, claim their own historicity even as they work to destabilize standard narratives of history. Particularly, there is a significant yet diverse body of nonfiction graphic work that engages with the subject either in extremis or facing brutal experience. (2008b: 92) I also take my definitional cue about the medium from a comment Miles Orvell makes about KrazyKat and Maus. These two texts, says Orvell, embody a seriousness of purpose that goes against the essential lightness of the cartoon mode, for both are attempting a literature that bridges the political and the personal and establishes an exemplary posture toward twentieth-century history. (1992: 111) ‘Graphic narrative’ as a descriptor and label references both the visual component of the medium (‘graphic’) as the crafting and telling of a story (‘narrative’). Whether the comic book and graphic novel constitute Literature at all has been itself the subject of considerable, acrimonious debate (Versaci 2007; Chute, ‘Comics as Literature’, 2008). My own position finds its resonance in Rocco Versaci’s inventory of features that brings comic books in almost exact alignment with that form of imaginative writing commonly understood as Literature. Versaci’s inventory is as follows: If one characteristic of good literature is that it challenges our way of thinking, then comics’ cultural position is such that they are able to mount these challenges in unique ways. . . . . . . the self-consciousness that lies at the heart of comics’ ‘graphic language’, which always prevents us from ‘escaping’ completely. . . . . . . their graphic language operates with a unique poetics. . . . Like Literature comics contain written narrative and dialogue, and they employ devices such as characterization, conflict, plot, and all of those components of well-written fiction. . . . (12–13)
Hillary Chute writes in defence of the graphic narrative as Literature: Graphic narrative has echoed and expanded on the formal inventions of fiction, from modernist social and aesthetic attitudes and practices to the postmodern shift toward the democracy of popular forms. In the graphic narrative, we see an embrace of reproducibility and mass circulation as well as a rigorous, experimental attention to form as a mode of political intervention. (‘Comics as Literature’, 462) Thus Chute sees the graphic narrative as a postmodern reworking of traditional literary forms, a reworking that utilizes a mass medium for its purposes and where the innovation is itself a political statement. Another commentator, David Ball, writes: The contemporary graphic narratives’ characteristic ambivalence about their status as popular cultural productions repeats modernist anxieties about literary value that reemerge precisely at the moment graphic narratives are bidding for literary respectability.3 (2010: 103) Whether the medium has literary respectability or not is a question that cannot be answered as yet in India at least, but this present book forwards the claim that the medium possesses enough formal and thematic complexities, not to mention political edges, to deserve the same (if not more) sustained academic attention as traditional genres in IWE. Thus, while the title of this book uses the more commonplace term ‘graphic novel’ the book itself opts for ‘graphic narrative’ as a narrative that uses visual and verbal text in order to address serious themes and issues. As a consequence it does not deal with the iconic comic book series, the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), or the numerous reworking of mythologies we see today in the form of the Adiparva, Devi, Ramayana 3392 comic books. It is not because, let me hasten to add, that comic books are less serious or apolitical. In fact, commentators on ACK have discerned, even in this so-called children’s medium and genre, serious concerns, politics and representational strategies (Pritchett 1995; Chandra 2008; McLain 2009; Sreenivas 2010). In studies of the most established of the comics book genre, the superhero comic, likewise, the politics of intercultural borrowing and adaptation have been documented, for example in Suchitra Mathur’s prescient essay on the ‘Indianization’ of the American superhero (2010), in her work on Spider-man (2013) and Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories (forthcoming). This present book looks at adult graphic narratives offering
political commentary, cultural analysis of sexuality, child abuse, urban life and satire. This book treats the Indian graphic narrative as increasingly central to the canon of Indian Writing in English (IWE). It sees the graphic narrative as adding to the existing corpus of texts in IWE a new representational mode that re-invigorates the canon, the form and the themes. The Indian graphic narrative demands a new literacy, a new pedagogy and a new interpretive frame. Further, the graphic narrative takes the tensions, dilemmas and concerns of traditional IWE and discusses these in a popular medium, offering, therefore, not only a democratizing of forms of socio-political commentary but also a democratizing of the language of cultural analytics. The book also assumes the texts that have appeared so far, from Orijit Sen’s The River of Stories (1994, perhaps the first graphic narrative in India) through the work of Sarnath Banerjee, Appupen, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Amruta Patil, the anthologies (The Obliterary Journals, volumes 1 and 2 at the time of writing, The Pao Anthology, volume 1 at the time of writing, This Side, That Side), Gautam Bhatia, Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand, Natarajan and Ninan, and others, have significantly contributed to the public cultural practices of the nation. The texts have debated history and historical events like the Partition, social issues such as caste, development and child abuse, documented lives and satirized contemporary Indian culture. The graphic narrative, in the English language in India, is thus constitutive, like Indian literature, of Indian urban social imaginaries among the English-speaking classes to which it offers alternate readings of Indian history, draws attention to the lacunae and follies of our cultural practices and makes visible hitherto taboo subjects. But unlike Indian literature in the vernacular, for instance, the graphic novel represents a far more elite – sophisticatedly produced, expensively priced – medium, catering to a small percentile of the population. The Indian graphic novel possesses all the qualifications of a literary text (the construction of self-contained worlds, character development, plot, metaphoric use of visual and verbal language, among others) but adds the visual dimension to the narration. My contention is that the graphic medium as a narrative form adds to the variety of forms of representation available in IWE to discuss child abuse (Hush), violence against women (Drawing the Line), caste discrimination (Bhimayana, A Gardener in the Wasteland), traumatic memories (This Side, That Side). It adds a new dimension to narrating such events, contexts and conditions – the visual – so that multiple ways of telling are available on the same page: the documentary and the aesthetic, the satiric caricature and the traumatic realist. IWE has been until recently overdetermined in its representational modes by the social realism inaugurated by Raja Rao and R.K. Narayan, developed by Kamala Markandaya and Bhabani
Bhattacharya, given a twist in the psychological realism of Anita Desai and Shashi Deshpande till it reaches its traumatic realist mode in Rohinton Mistry and Arvind Adiga. The linguistic innovation of an Arundhati Roy and the dizzying experimentation of a Salman Rushdie in later trends have been tempered by the more conservative ethnographic realism of an Amitav Ghosh (especially in the Ibis trilogy) or the quotidian realism of a Chetan Bhagat and Anuja Chauhan. In the nation’s longing for form, the graphic novel represents a whole new formal apparatus that mixes and matches multiple strategies. One senses, for instance, in Gautam Bhatia’s and Appupen’s satires or the collection This Side, That Side, a greater freedom in speaking of trauma, social evils and dogma because the visual adds a layer to the social commentary, where the author can even dispense with words to convey the critique. For this freedom of representation, for taking the process of critique into a medium associated with just entertainment, for its opening up an array of story-telling strategies and for its insistence on tackling more complex social commentary and cultural critique of the nation’s and society’s lacunae or flaws, the graphic novel heralds a major shift within IWE. If the medium also deploys fascinating rhetorical and representational strategies in both the visual and verbal narrative schemes that make up the graphic narrative, as I contend earlier, just in the same way as we study literary texts, we need to study the formal, aesthetic and thematic properties of the Indian graphic narrative in order to uncover its politics. This book therefore pays considerable attention to the form and language – the grammar – of the Indian graphic narrative. It hopes to show how politics, critique, reform or satire now has a new language available to the Indian author: the image-text of the graphic narrative. The graphic narrative, with its verbal-visual and critical literacy, is the medium India needs to address contemporary concerns and provide a politically edged cultural critique. ‘Critical literacy’ embodied in the graphic narrative enables us to see texts as situated within unequal social fields of caste, patriarchy, capitalism and demands that the reader becomes alert to the position he or she takes vis-ávis not just the text but the social domains represented in it. That popular culture is a domain where political issues are cast in new and interesting ways is now a truism, especially in the wake of Cultural Studies. In this sense, the book is premised upon a task Lawrence Grossberg, the Cultural Studies scholar, sets for the discipline when he asks: ‘How do we create questions, vocabularies, and concepts that sufficiently capture the complexity of forces, technologies, and struggles operating in the midst of numerous struggles over, and transitions among, different visions and formations of possible modernities and alternatives to modernity?’ (2012: 289). It is within an entirely new medium (the graphic narrative), representational modes (imagetexts) and burgeoning experimental genres
(comics journalism, graphic medicine or autopathographies and graphic biographies) that we can create these questions and vocabularies. The critical literacy that the graphic narrative forces us to acquire goes a considerable way in offering new social and cultural imaginaries within which we rethink the present and the future, especially in terms of aspirations, social injustices, human rights, cultural identity and national belonging. Opening up history, cultural identity, modernity, Indian political systems and processes and consumer capitalism to examination, satire and critique, the graphic narrative, if we are attentive to the form, makes us ask the questions traditional Literature and Literary Studies have always provoked us into asking. In this sense the graphic narrative continues to generate critiques of, say, the nation or labour, but in an entirely new format where we are to pay attention to the visible expression of suffering on the face of an ‘untouchable’ (GW) or shame in the abused (Hush). In this mode, the documentary film is merged with literary fiction so that our immersion in the medium into the world depicted, is far deeper than if we were to be consuming just one of the two. The literacy in the demotic register of the graphic narrative brings complex social issues into visibility. My interest in the demotic register used to address complex, even horrific, social realities, humanitarian crises and corrosive histories (initiated, as I would think for many others, by my revisiting Maus) was piqued when Thomas Doherty in an early essay on Maus signalled the kinds of literacy – he did not use the term though – called for by the text. Doherty wrote: Spiegelman’s medium is associated with the madcap, the childish, the trivial. By its very nature, it seems ill-equipped for the moral seriousness and tonal restraint that have been demanded of Holocaust art. But – also by its very nature – the cartoon medium possesses a graphic quality well-suited to a confrontation with Nazism and the Holocaust. (1996: 71) In its conflation of the popular with the critique (or the critique within or as the popular) the Indian graphic narrative enables the cultural legibility of contentious social issues, and bestows upon concerns about human rights, which are otherwise debated mainly in the realm of the legal-juridical, a cultural legitimacy. In its uncovering of historical wrongs, social inequalities, the silences of the victims and the follies of the age, the graphic narrativeengendered critical literacy alerts us to the need for human rights, the historical abuse of certain social groups and the urgent need for reforms. This is, to reiterate, best articulated in the demotic (by which I mean the language
of older forms of the ‘funnies’, cartoons, comics and such vibrant and commonplace genres catering to a wide audience) register of the graphic narrative. The graphic narrative is an adaptation of a popular form – the political cartoon, the comic strip in newspapers and eschewing the language of socalled serious literature – and thus ‘demotic’, but paradoxically is a highend consumer product with high pricing and catering primarily to an urban audience. The critique too, therefore, targets a very narrow audience. In order to demonstrate the critical literacy called forth by the grammar of the Indian graphic narrative, this book examines five key thematic concerns of the medium: history, urban life, cultural identity, other histories and satire. The graphic novel as (i) literature and (ii) as a means of initiating critical literacy constitutes the largest frames under which I organize the book’s examination of the medium. In terms of analysis, the study moves constantly back and forth, from theme to form, both in order to emphasize the indispensability of one to the other but also to highlight the literary qualities of the medium that offer social critique and engender critical literacy. The study opens (Chapter Two) with the Indian graphic narrative’s representation of history. It argues that the visual dimension of the graphic novel contributes substantially not only to our understanding of history but also to a larger question: how may history be represented? It examines how history is humanized, the merging of public and private-personal histories, the thematic of memory and memorabilia, and the mixing of the documentary and aesthetic modes. Chapter Three studies the spaces of urban India as portrayed in the graphic narrative. Focusing on urban spaces as Gothic, with the sense of uncanny foreboding, doubling, trauma and secrecy, this chapter appropriates the idea of cultural anxiety to speak of these spaces. Cultural anxieties of various kinds, such as those over globalization’s consumer utopias and the earlier era’s moral economy of thrift, the chapter proposes, are manifest in the graphic narrative’s detailing of the psychogeography of Calcutta/ Kolkata, Bombay/Mumbai and New Delhi. In Chapter Four, the graphic novel, it is found, examines the family, education or the everyday as embodying a diverse range of cultural markers of the new and emergent India. These markers are about values, attitude, governmentality and ambitions, and may be read as offering subtle critiques of shifts in Indian attitudes and value systems. From Chapter 5, the tone of the book performs a swerve, so to speak. The focus now is on alternate histories, counter-stories and discontent around the ideas of nation, family, ambition or urbanism of modern and contemporary India.
Chapter Five examines how the genre makes visible hitherto ignored and marginalized histories, whether of Indian pasts or contemporary histories of caste, class or gender. Chapter Six turns to a potent weapon deployed by the graphic novel: satire. Making pointed political critiques and commentaries through various modes of satiric aesthetic representation, these narratives work to reveal the follies of Indian culture. In the conclusion I elaborate the argument about the critical literacy demanded by the Indian graphic narrative. * The study does not seek to be the definitive examination of the entire gamut of themes in or formal properties of the Indian graphic narrative. However, it offers a few ways of looking at the diverse and exciting texts in a thus-far relatively small but what I take to be a significant canon. The explicitly political commentaries existing as subtexts of, or even more overtly expressed in, most of the narratives suggest that these texts need to be taken as seriously as any text in the Indian literary canon as commentaries on modern India and its historical pasts. So, in a modest sense, this book welcomes the graphic turn in Indian Writing in English.
Notes 1 It is important to note also, in terms of discipline and domains of cultural analytics, that Hirsch’s question was articulated in her Editor’s note to the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (the PMLA), whose interest has always been in the expanding frontiers of literary studies and cognate areas. 2 I do not wish to rehearse the history of the comic book, or graphic narrative, in any way here. McClain, Sreenivas and Chandra offer brief surveys of the tradition of the Indian comic book. For the Western canon see Kunzle’s two-volume A History of the Comic Strip (1973–1990), Roger Sabin’s Adult Comics: An Introduction (1993), Robert Harvey’s The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History (1996), among others. 3 While several of the studies of the medium focus on the cultural production of comics – McClain, Sreenivas, Chandra expend vast narrative spaces discussing the production of ACK, and seem to (overly) rely on their interviews with Anant Pai, their founder, and the artists-writers themselves – the present book eschews this approach, preferring instead to examine the textual apparatus of the form itself.
1 GRAPHIC HISTORY
This book is inspired by history, but not limited by it. – Epigraph, Sarnath Banerjee’s The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (2007)
In this chapter I focus on what is perhaps the most persistent theme in graphic narrative studies: its representation of History.1 Ever since Art Spiegelman’s genre-defying and field-defining Maus (1986, 1991) the graphic narrative has been the subject of discussion for its ability, or lack of it, to deal with History. I take my cue for reading the graphic narrative’s contribution to not just historical representation but the debates about how the medium can call attention to the problem of such representation from Hillary Chute writing, expectedly, on Maus: The form of Maus, however, is essential to how it represents history. Indeed, Maus’s contribution to thinking about the ‘crisis in representation’, I will argue, is precisely in how it proposes that the medium of comics can approach and express serious, even devastating, histories. (2006: 200) My contention, in line with Chute’s, is that the graphic narrative’s representation of history must be read not just in terms of themes but also in terms of the form. Due to this dual attention, mandated I would say by the medium, this present chapter, like the rest of the book, constantly oscillates between and is organized around the technicalities of form and the content. The grammar of the text is integral to its theme and politics, and by shifting back and forth between the two I hope to highlight the constituents of the critical literacy the texts demand of the reader. In the graphic novel it is the contest, conflict and conflation of visual and verbal texts that generate critical literacy, even as these add, like in any literary text, the alternate voices, the metaphors and the subplots.
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Further, I argue that the visual dimension of the graphic novel contributes substantially not only to our understanding of history but also to a larger question of how history can be represented. That is, it is within the graphic narrative medium with its potent mix of the visual and the verbal that we are made aware of the many loopholes, storylines, black holes, dead ends and labyrinths of history. We are made aware that what is (re)presented to us in the panels is often the marginalia of history, the outsiders, visitors and witnesses alongside the main protagonists. Finally, I also propose that graphic narratives such as the ones this chapter studies might be read not as mere comic books but as oral histories because they ‘struggle to represent, in pictures and in writing, spoken memories’ (Staub 1995: 34). They are ‘narratives that rely on the immediacy and authority of oral encounters with members of persecuted and oppressed groups’ (Staub 1995: 34). In many cases in the works I study here the speaker-narrator is telling us a story he or she has heard from a member of the family or community. What constitutes the text of the graphic narrative is a re-telling of this (hi)story. In a later chapter (Five) I shall return to the graphic novel’s obsession with History but for a different purpose. In that chapter I shall examine several of these texts, and others, for the ways in which they recuperate another kind of history, of the repressed and the unsaid. This organization, where the chapters ostensibly dealing with the same theme, of History, in the graphic novel are separated by a third, is intended to draw attention to the reworking of History in more radical and social-critical ways in some of the texts.
Humanizing history Spencer Clark argues that history gets humanized in graphic novels when we see the impact events have on the lives of people and their agency (2013: 498). This process of graphic humanization of history, as we can think of it, is achieved through specific modes of depicting agency. The graphic novel’s representation of humanization demands both, its attention to a textualization of historical processes and a visual schema by which we might locate the individual participant or spectator’s ‘view’ of this history as it unfolds. If the textual dimension delivers one aspect of the story, the expressions of characters and their location in the panels nudge us to paying attention to how individuals perceive and receive events as these happen. The former moves the plot of the literary text along. The latter generates the critical literacy by making us aware that history had witnesses who responded in different ways to the events, whose emotions writ large on their faces should convey to us the scope and nature of the events and thus alert us to the subjects of that history, the social and individual dimensions of the larger historical process.
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Panels, positionality, agency In the opening pages of ‘The Dark Armpits of History’, the second tale in Sarnath Banerjee’s The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (hereafter BOWC), Banerjee chooses to focus on the ordinary English soldier in three out of the five panels. One shows an aristocratic/statesman-like figure, and one panel depicts the Reverend [James] Long (3). The tale itself opens with a page consisting of two large panels (instead of the usual six, common to comics), both depicting death in eighteenth-century Calcutta: one shows buzzards outside European mansions, and the second shows Christian gravestones in a burial ground (2). Then, before introducing the main theme – Philip Francis’s duel with Warren Hastings – Banerjee focuses on the ordinary life around 1780s Calcutta: the horse carriage with the driver in silhouette (4), the man watering the grounds (5). When the panels move on to depict the English duellers prior to battle – Philip Francis dressing for the event in a single panel covering the width of the page (5) – there is the punkahwallah, the valet and the man fetching tea. Francis’s famous duel with Warren Hastings has to wait for several pages to make its appearance. After the dinner scene with Madame Grand, we have a series of panels on the servants in a British household (8). Arguably, throughout Banerjee’s frothy tale of colonial Calcutta, there is as much emphasis on the silent, unknown actors of the supposed main story as there is on the English protagonists. Are these marginal characters in any way a part of the historical narrative? Occupying as much space within the visual narrative of the graphic form, how do we ‘read’ them in the story? Writing about the historical agency of actors as presented in graphic novels Spencer Clark has argued that the manner in which an author positions the actors vis-á-vis the historical events helps us, the readers, determine the constraints placed on an actor’s agency (502–3). The speech of the actors and their nonverbal reactions help us understand this positionality (502). Ben Lander writing about history in comics says: ‘Comic histories tend to revel in the minute personal details of everyday life, which receive their due respect because of their personal or symbolic weight within the lives of the characters and the narrative that is being constructed’ (2005: 117). What Banerjee’s narrative makes clear is that the history of British India, metonymically represented here in the form of colonial Calcutta, involved both British and native actors at every stage. Lurking in the corners of panels are Indian soldiers, servants, valets, stable boys, barbers, tailors and cooks. These are the minor characters in history, with no agency and who bow to the inevitability of history, but the graphic novel takes them and by forcing us to pay attention to them causes us to take a fresh look at history. Take a panel like the one on page 9 of Banerjee’s tale. It is a full-width panel
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showing an Englishman seated on a toilet puffing away at a hookah while gazing at the spire of a church outside. At his foot crouches an Indian servant working the mechanical contraption of the hookah. The text reads: All the company officers, known as the white nawabs, had their personal huccaburdars. According to Reverend Long, ‘Smoking was one of the grandest whilers away of time in the society, the greatest compliment an officer can pay another is by offering to smoke from his hucca.’ I will have reasons to return to the nature of the commentary, dialogue and verbal texts in the graphic narratives but for now what I wish to underscore is the humanizing and concomitant dehumanizing aspects of colonial history. This is achieved by Banerjee’s brilliant deployment of space in the panel. The Englishman is seated on his toilet and close to him is the Indian servant working away at the hookah. The window is exactly in the middle dividing the space of the panel equally between the master and the servant. But it is also organized around the exposed situation of the Englishman whose gaze, when he is doing his business, is fixed firmly on the outer world, and the Indian servant’s on the hookah. What we see is ‘exposure’. Exposure here is defined as the making public of intimate moments, and,
Figure 1.1 Sarnath Banerjee, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, New Delhi: Penguin, 2007. 9.
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as Daniel Solove puts it ‘we are vulnerable and weak, such as when we are nude or going to the bathroom’ (2000). But the panel’s visual representation makes it clear that the native servant does not ‘see’ the Englishman in a state of exposure: the Englishman’s exposure, so to speak, is invisible in a wonderful arrangement of detail. The native is not entitled to look at the Englishman in this state of vulnerability; he must fix his eyes firmly on the hookah. Further, the Englishman himself does not notice the extremely awkward state of the crouching native servant, so close to the toilet bowl, because his own gaze is fixed on a distant object. The right to look, or to look away, is that of the Englishman alone, in whatever situation he might be in. What Banerjee alerts us to is this viciousness of racialized spatial arrangements as well as the agency of looking. There are other examples of such careful positioning of actors that enable us to see the human side of history. In the case of ‘An Old Fable’ in This Side, That Side (TSTS) Tabish Khair and Priya Kurian depict the events leading up to the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Using the fable of the two women, the infant and Solomon’s wisdom as the ur-narrative the panels depict two women crying over the rights to the baby lying in the middle. The panel is spread across two pages to show expanse, metonymically the expanse of the subcontinent under the shadow of a division. In the panel beneath this one, also spread across the two facing pages we see faceless crowds – presented in silhouette fashion – shouting, hands raised in demand or protest. Some are clearly Muslim men. The ‘King’ offers to hear their petition (19). On the next page the panel in the top half shows the men again, with speech bubbles all around, but with no text in these bubbles. Is it that the natives lack cogent speech that might be represented? Or is it that their speech is silenced? The narrative leaves it open for us to decide the point. The panel below shows the British officers ‘wri[ting] down the crowd’s complaints in convoluted petitions full of legalese’ (20). The expression on the faces of the English is smug. Later pages show transcripts of the petitions sent up (21). Then the King rules that the baby/ country shall be divided ‘in the name of Reason, Science and, above all, Law and Order’ (24). References to mythic Islamic, Hindu and Christian tales of great ‘judges’ – Daniel, Suleiman and Harishchandra then occur (26–8) – thereby linking the English decision to native traditions of jurisprudence, as though there is a continuity. The Indians are portrayed in the panels as petitioners (20, 21), weeping (18–19, 25, 26) or angry (25). The only ones smiling through the tale are the English, and the smiles are clearly smug. When not smiling they are thoughtful, as in the portrait of the ‘wise’ King (23). The King looms over everybody else, towering into a full-page portrait (with Elizabeth II’s portrait in one corner, 22). This kind of portraiture where the King exceeds everybody else in size occurs
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thrice in the tale: when pondering what to do about the situation (22), when delivering his judgment (24) and when watching the women after the declaration (26). In this last portrait, he is cast as Rodin’s Thinker, the women have shrunk in size. But what is also important is that all personages occupy a black-and-white floor that resembles a chess board. The King is astride the chess board, to one side are the English, singing praises of his wisdom, to the other are the two weeping women. The King’s leg neatly divides the women spatially. Through this tale Khair and Kuriyan show how the natives were pawns on the chess board, their movements determined by the English players. The diminishing size of the actors brings home to us readers the relative insignificance of the natives in the shaping of their destiny at the Partition. While the story opens with crowds of natives there are only the two women and the divided baby at the end of the tale. The spatial arrangements – positionality – and the dialogue humanize the historical narrative because they foreground visually the human impact of English judgements, and the loss of agency of the native (human) actors in the events. The visual vocabulary is at the heart of the narrative’s theme, and we are made to see how this momentous event of 1947 was brought about. The spatial organization of panels and characters might be read as the metonymic equivalent of the stage of history itself. There is one more point to be made about actors and agency in the graphic narrative. Narrating the story of Francis and Hastings is Abravanel Kabariti, a Sephardic Jew from Syria, who makes his appearance in various panels of Sarnath Banerjee’s The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers. At one moment he says: ‘I am the impartial timer, truly impartial because I have no fondness for either gentleman. Particularly not for Francis’ (Banerjee 2007: 17). Supposedly the person who is witness to the events being recorded, Abravanel foregrounds his own unreliability with these words. Banerjee therefore alerts us to the tension at the heart of the narrative: if Abravanel is unreliable and the Indian witnesses do not speak about what they saw, then how do we know what story to believe? Other artists and storytellers of the graphic narrative seek to embody history differently, and call attention to this process of embodiment. This Side, That Side is printed on yellowish-tinted paper made to resemble parchment and old archival records. This engenders a critical literacy in the competent reader. The competent reader is made aware of the reconstruction of a historical event as being achieved through the examination of the archival footage. History rests on documentary and material evidence, often frayed and damaged, like old photographs, from the past. This meta-commentary on history-writing and the construction of collective and cultural memory in This Side, That Side is made possible by its brilliant deployment of a particular materiality – the parchment-type paper, the grainy texture – of form,
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its theme of documentary history, and its theme of the subjective, affective dimension of history. This last is, of course, made available again through documentary ‘evidence’ but evidence that captures emotions and expressions on the faces of the subjects of history. This Side, That Side, therefore, is at once an attempt to add to the literature of the Partition but also a text that cautions us, through its invitation to critical literacy about historywriting, against an easy assumption of access to History. Nina Sabnani in ‘Know Directions Home?’ (TSTS) dispenses with the traditional panels. Narrating the story of the Indo-Pak war of 1972 and the forced displacement of people in the border area of Adigaam, Sabnani opts for dotted lines traversing the pages dividing and regrouping people into segments, populations and places. The pages are crowded with these figures representing people. It is also important that the voice that tells us the story opens with a ‘we’. This narrative then is interspersed with a woman speaking about herself and her family: ‘I don’t know why they were fighting . . .’ (100), ‘my husband . . .’ (103), and so on. There are also occasional individual voices, muted: ‘I don’t believe him’ or ‘Why is he talking so much?’ (105). When the tale ends, we have a name and full postal address of this woman (111). Sabnani might be offering an individual voice here, but what strikes us is the large number of people crowded into trucks, camps and tiny clearings in the forest. The absence of panels makes it impossible for us to read the story in any kind of temporal sequence although by virtue of our comics literacy we might read it top to bottom, left to right. But there is something else at work in her depiction of history. Writing about abstract comics Andrei Molotiu has called ‘iconostasis’: the perception of the layout of a comics page as a unified composition; perception which prompts us not so much to scan the comic from panel to panel in the accepted direction of reading but to take it at a glance, the way we take in an abstract painting. (Cited in Tabulo 2014: 39) This is different from the ‘sequential dynamism’ (of ‘normal’ comics), defined as the formal visual energy, created by compositional and other elements internal to each panel and by the layout, that in a comic propels the reader’s eye from panel to panel and from page to page, and that imparts a sense of sustained or varied visual rhythms. (Molotiu cited in Tabulo 2014: 38) But Tabulo argues that sequential dynamism is not necessarily at odds with iconostatic perception (38–9). Sabnani’s graphic narrative, I propose,
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Figure 1.2 Nina Sabnani, ‘Know Directions Home?’, in Vishwajyoti Ghosh curated, This Side, That Side. Restorying Partition: Graphic Narratives from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. New Delhi: Yoda, 2013. 107.
undertakes just this kind of mix of techniques. On the one hand the sequential dynamism, albeit not divided into panels with linear and chronological movement, induces us to move along to the next ‘event’ in the lives of the
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displaced. At the same time the borderless and panel-less pages demand an iconostatic perception of seeing the entire set of events spread across the page as a ‘unified composition’. I suggest that the historical event of the displacement of people as a result of the war is embodied in this dual narrative strategy of sequential dynamism and iconostasis. The entire event of horrific abuse and displacement is made available to us on every page. Note especially the one where the refugees are camped in a forest area, and their speech is surrounded by sounds of wild animals (107). The frenzied movement of displaced victims across these pages (105–7) delivers to us a sense of the violent history of events and their massive scale. The iconostasis causes our eyes to be riveted on the small-scale humans writ large across the page of this large-scale history of violence, disruption and trauma. Our eyes are drawn to these tiny figures scattered across the pages so that we record, at one glance, the victims trapped as insignificant creatures, or playthings, in a larger movement of historical events (the resonance with Hardy’s great visual image of ‘a fly on a billiards table of infinite length and breadth’ should be clear to readers of literature). I will have reason to return to these marginal/minor actors in panels in a later chapter, making a case that they are parergons to the main work (Chapter Four).
Public history, personal stories Hillary Chute (2008b), Ben Lander, Spencer Clark have argued that one of the most consistent features of the graphic narrative is its exploration of the intersection of collective histories and life stories. Ben Lander proposes: ‘Comic histories tend to revel in the minute personal details of everyday life, which receive their due respect because of their personal or symbolic weight within the lives of the characters and the narrative that is being constructed’ (117). Lander then praises Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003, 2004) for generating ‘narratives that juxtapose public and private events’ (120). The graphic narrative interrupts the public history of events like the Partition, war or the Emergency by shifting the focus on to the everyday lives of people. It is not trauma on a macro-scale that haunts the pages of graphic narratives such as TSTS or Bhimayana or Delhi Calm, but the impact of the national trauma on common lives. This also means that the mode of narrating public history within the medium is also of a different order. Take ‘I Too Have Seen Lahore’ (Salman Rashed and Mohit Suneja, TSTS). The tale opens with the Pakistani narrator and his wife Shabnam wandering through the streets of Jalandhar looking for her father’s home (208).
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Then the story shifts away from this quest to the story of Darshan Singh, a boy who came over to India at the Partition. After listening to the story the narrator wishes to photograph, back in Pakistan, the house Darshan Singh remembers. But the house is gone. Gone too are the childhood friends of his memory. When I return to Jalandhar, I will not have the promised photos of the double-storeyed house that Darshan Singh remembers in Klasswala. (219) This is followed by a centrally positioned figure: of a middle-aged, bald man with a camera slung around his neck, identifiable clearly as Salman Rashed (whose photograph, along with Suneja’s, is printed before the story begins). The narrative strategy here is fascinating. If photographs constitute irrefutable evidence of history then the story speaks of how such a narrative emplotment of history fails. It is only in memories, individual memories, that we can find the true history of the Partition. I here adapt Michael Chaney’s work on African American graphic narratives. The graphic biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Chaney argues, ‘disrupts photography’s presumed optical truths and claims to objectivity’ (2007: 180). Chaney goes on to say: But rather than simply rival the historical photographs as records of historical truth, King proposes an alternative methodology that posits value based on a fundamental codependence between the archival images comprising King’s life and the graphic novel’s mechanics for re-circulating, re-framing, and re-animating them. King not only recollects the photographic ‘facts’ of King’s life, it also lays bare the processes of public memory and hagiographic memorialization that constitute these images as facts at all. More than the sanctity of the life of King, it is rather the sanctity of photographic documentation and of the historical itself that this biography calls into question. (180) Here the graphic narrative disturbs our notions of how history might be recorded and circulated. It reframes the events in terms of not public memory or acceptable ‘emplotment’ in the visual narrative of photographs but in terms of personal recall and sentimental narratives. There are no ‘objective’ visual records in the case of several personal stories of the Partition: all
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we have, the story suggests, are the teary-eyed memories. And, in this case, the faces of individuals, wide-eyed with terror. In lieu of the artifactuality of the photograph, we have the animated sketches of cowering individuals (Rashed and Suneja 213). In some cases it is the artifactual photograph that allows the multiple temporalities of the graphic narrative’s history-writing. Maria Litwa’s ‘Welcome to Geneva Camp’ opens with a panoramic view of the camp, spread across two pages (250–1). Beneath these are small panels devoted to three photographs and a map of the subcontinent. In cinematic fashion we see therefore the close-up, cutting to these details. The photographs include one of an identity card of a refugee, an Urdu notice board in the camp and one of three Muslim children in festive costume. In contrast to the Rashed-Suneja story which eschews the use of photographs, Litwa makes the photograph the narreme, the basic unit of her narrative. The verbal texts accompanying the photographs are words supposedly pronounced by the refugees, Rina, Shabnam, Putul. There are no illustrations or visuals other than the photographs, except for the map at the beginning and another depicting, crime-scene-like, the site of two humans shot dead, complete with blood and injury. The subcontinent’s map and the crime-scene map are drawings; the rest are photographs from the camp. I would now like to link the drawings with the photographs. The drawings, on the first page of the narrative and the last page and nowhere else, represent the metonymic abstractions of historical events – whether the geopolitical contexts of the Bangladesh war and subsequent repatriation/ migration or of the massacres of people. The photographs represent the embodied history. By bringing the two visual registers together Litwa forces us to see the maps and the humans in a set of new contextual relations. The maps represent abstract public memory, drawn by governments and the state, while the photographs are lived, private/personal experience of actually suffering-bodies. I propose that the visual rhetoric of Litwa’s text calls us to link these two to demonstrate how history might be read. The text shows two worlds in collision, or as contiguities: the world of abstract public and official memories that will be consumed as standard histories and the world of lived personal experiences that will remain private. By juxtaposing the two Litwa re-frames each, the official maps need to be read as memorialization alongside the embodied histories of real people. Once again, the graphic narrative allows the author to demonstrate the process of history-writing and meaning-production around historical events. The photograph disrupts the official maps, and animates them into a fresh context, just as the map is the contextual frame within which we see the ‘bodies’.
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The documentary and the aesthetic Hayden White points out that it is no longer possible to think of only the documentary as the reliable form of history-writing. In his ‘The Burden of History’ he writes: Or we should recognize that what constitutes the facts themselves is the problem that the historian, like the artist, has tried to solve in the choice of the metaphor by which he orders his world, past, present, and future. (1978: 47) Elsewhere, writing about Maus, White speaks of the powerful ‘stylization, figuration, and allegorization’ Spiegelman performs in order to convey the horror of the Holocaust (1992: 41–2). In this section I situate the aesthetic strategies of documenting history in the graphic novel.
Paratexts, metalepsis and history Delhi Calm (DC), Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s graphic narrative about the Emergency years, inserts signs, slogans, banners, protestor-signs, placards into the panel’s visual and verbal text. The signage works as a distraction at first sight but, as I shall argue, on careful examination points to something else vis-á-vis the narrativization of any historical event. Indian urban space is almost everywhere populated with signage – slogans, speeches, banners and posters. Such signage constitutes what might be called the unobtrusively intrusive genre – essentially the white noise we are used to in India. It organizes our spaces for us in silent but effective ways. Ghosh makes use of this feature of Indian everyday public space in a very effective manner in DC. Just as the signage of urban space organizes our experience of that space, the signage in Ghosh organizes the space of that panel. Ghosh’s barbaric spaces – the panels – have numerous signs from the Emergency that seem to form the backdrop to the experience of everyday life in New Delhi. My argument here is that the signage of the state embodied in the visual rhetorics of Emergency regulations informs (i) the experience of the urban space for the nation/people (demos) in the panels and (ii) our readerly experience and cognition of the panel when we see the dynamics of the visual elements of state and nation. That is the signage of the nation or everyday exists in tension with the signage of the state or the extreme within the panel and renders it a barbaric space. This signage of the state that seems to organize the lives of the demos around it is what I shall term ‘call-ins’. I use this term deriving it from the ‘callouts’ of comic books. ‘Callouts’ are paratextual features, according to
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Gerard Genette, and use systems like numbers, letters or symbols within the text to designate information presented extratextually, such as statistics, tables or figures (Genette 1997: 321). Notes, which rely on such callouts, ‘extend, ramif[y], and modulate rather than comment on’ the main text (328). By intruding into the panels and the lives of the people depicted therein, they modulate and amplify the semantic scope of the everyday life so that the extreme is made visible. In Ghosh the call-ins, usually embodied in the form of textboxes, signs – primarily verbal texts rather than visual ornamentation – embody the visual rhetoric of the state. Taking the form of banners, slogans, notices, posters and speeches, they are instantiations of the dictatorship and the authoritarian regime. When travelling on public transport VP wonders why a fellow passenger stares at him (Ghosh 8). Roads, buses and coffee houses have new décor: signs announcing silence and conformity (5). Intruding into public spaces are the regulatory, regimenting and disciplining call-ins such as ‘do not guess’, ‘do not think’, ‘punctuality is next to spirituality’, ‘an ideal family is made of four, don’t even think of more’, ‘no bargain in the times of emergency’, ‘no talking politics’ (99, 151, 181, 207). Within the space of a panel Ghosh manages to demonstrate through this powerful strategy of paratextual intrusions the impinging and impact of the state into everyday life. This of course returns us to the argument already made: that the graphic novel blurs public and private histories in its mixed-up and mixed-in panels and rhetorics. The banners, signs and paratextual elements also serve a metaleptic function in some cases: they provoke the reader into moving across time zones and narrative levels. In traditional interpretations (Genette 1980), metalepsis indicates the shift between the world of the story and the world of the reader. In Iram Ghufram and Ikroop Sandhu’s ‘The Afterlife of Ammi’s Betelnut Box’ in The Pao Anthology of Comics I we are introduced to the house of Halima Kirmani, or Emu. The house is ‘old’, has an air of ‘disgruntled silence’ (150), and is ‘showing signs of fatigue’ (152). And later: Each monsoon, seepage made strange patterns on the walls. They dried only by the following summer. Aiysha’s favourite pastime as a child was to sit with Emu and read stories in the patchy discolouration of the walls. The cast of characters would include mythological creatures and legendary heroes, with a few Kirmanis thrown in for familiarity. (152) The pages of the entire tale have yellow patches, completely random, discolouring the pages so that they resemble the walls being described in the tale. As we read Emu’s story, we discover ghosts, djinns, magicians and
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marvels. The preceding passage tells us of these mythical and real ‘characters’ that Emu ‘read’ in the walls. The diegetic levels of the narrative get mixed up – Genette tells us that in metalepsis ‘the world in which one tells, [and] the world of which one tells’ are mixed up (Genette 1980: 236) – as readers we see the yellowed pages (walls) with odd shapes made possible by the visual of rising smoke from a djinn’s magic lamp, no less (150, 158 and elsewhere). Here the story of Emu’s house and family is at one diegetic level and the physical pages on which this story is inscribed is at the reader’s diegetic level. But by virtue of the medium itself we are arrested by the physical texture/appeal of the page (what Katalin Orbán is writing about Spiegelman’s Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers termed ‘haptic visuality’, 2007) even as the story moves us along a different level. However, metalepsis also achieves something besides forcing us to move between narrative levels. They reveal the constructed nature of all history, and often add a dose of irony to the ‘serious’ narration of a historical event. In other words, metalepsis can undermine, subvert or reinforce the main storytelling in a panel. The advantage the medium of the graphic novel offers is that the metalepsis intrudes unobtrusively, as part of the panel itself, but then contests the visual or verbal narrative of the panel. It is through such a metalepsis that we, as readers, come to know of the narrative construction of history. Let me return here to Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s DC. This graphic narrative about the Emergency years introduces the state’s rhetoric, as already noted earlier, that offers one view of the history of that period, which then has a contentious relationship with the remaining narrative. Take a look at the narrative on page 177 of this text. We have the standard nine-panel arrangement of the comic book here, although the panels are smaller in size. All of the panels consist of a visual and a verbal text each, again fitting the standard comic format. But this is where Ghosh departs from the expected. Every panel is essentially a poster announcing a state slogan. Thus the borders of the panels are the borders of the propagandist poster. This, I propose, constitutes an interesting merger of diegetic levels: the story (the content of the telling, the events and situations told) and the narrative (the discourse, written or oral, that narrates the events, Genette 1988: 13). Second, the lettering on the poster/panel is in formal font, in upper case and is drawn in thick lines. We are drawn (in)to the heaviness of the lettering that is suggestive of an officialese through which one kind of history is being crafted. The poster-panels are made up of various pronouncements: THE NATION IS IN DEEP CRISIS! EMERGENCY IS NOT A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY BUT A MEASURE TO SAFEGUARD IT!
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THIS IS THE TIME TO SOLVE THE SOCIAL, POLITICAL, ECONOMIC, MILITARY PROBLEMS. EMERGENCY IS THE ONLY ANSWER TO THE ANARCHY SPREAD BY THE PROPHET EMERGENCY BROUGHT PROGRESS TO BENEFIT THE COMMON MAN & WOMAN OF INDIA! TODAY I CAN SEE A DYNAMIC YOUTH READY TO TAKE CHARGE! I WANT AN INDIA OF PEACE, HARMONY, PROGRESS! AND YOU? SAVING . . . FROM THE GOONS THANK YOU MOTHER MOON! (177, upper-case lettering in original) But as we read the eye-catching posters with the official narrative of the Emergency we are also alerted to a dissonant narrative within each of the panels. The square verbal textbox is the equivalent of a speech balloon: but there is no identifiable speaker of the text. Therefore this verbal narrative that undermines the visual narrative of the panel-poster serves, I argue, as a metalepsis. Here the metalepsis is not just a shift between narrative levels: it is about the different versions of the history of the period itself. The visual narrative of the panel-poster gives us the official, state history as the story, that is, content, of the panel, which I designate Story 1. The narrative of this story, however, also includes the verbal text, that I designate Story 2, that subverts, or gives the lie, to the content. Within the narrative therefore we have two conflicting stories, 1 (the state history of the Emergency) and 2 (the non-official, or vernacular history of the Emergency). I see this as a metaleptic manoeuvre on the part of Ghosh because we cannot read one story without immediately shifting to the other one. Let me now place the stories as they are arranged on the page. The texts in square brackets here are the texts of story 2. THE NATION IS IN DEEP CRISIS! [Instill fear] EMERGENCY IS NOT A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY BUT A MEASURE TO SAFEGUARD IT! [Rationalize] THIS IS THE TIME TO SOLVE THE SOCIAL, POLITICAL, ECONOMIC, MILITARY PROBLEMS. [Add mystique] EMERGENCY IS THE ONLY ANSWER TO THE ANARCHY SPREAD BY THE PROPHET [Find a scapegoat] EMERGENCY BROUGHT PROGRESS TO BENEFIT THE COMMON MAN & WOMAN OF INDIA! [Be populist] TODAY I CAN SEE A DYNAMIC YOUTH READ TO TAKE CHARGE! [Give it a voice]
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Figure 1.3 Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Delhi Calm. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2010. 177.
I WANT AN INDIA OF PEACE, HARMONY, PROGRESS! AND YOU? [Be persuasive] SAVING . . . FROM THE GOONS THANK YOU MOTHER MOON! (177) [Bring in the people’s voice]
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In sharp contrast to the lettering and inking of Story 1, the letters of Story 2 are in cursive lettering and in a smaller font. The alternate story that gives the lie to the main one, Ghosh visually demonstrates to us in this metaleptic move, is very often the ‘small voice of history’. The alternate story is doomed to be smaller-voiced, as symbolized in the graphic narrative’s smaller font. It is cursive, demotic, as opposed to the upright, hard-drawn state speech. With such a metalepsis Ghosh draws attention to the narrative foundations of the history of Emergency: the many stories, the discourses, the tensions and conflicts within the stories. (Although there seems no particular advantage to having the metalepsis achieved through verbal texts alone, given the nature of the medium, Ghosh seems to favour this mode.) But Ghosh makes one more move. At the foot of the page we see a spokesman for the state and the two protagonists. Their heads are inserted into the last row of panels, suggesting their immersion in the narrative, and history, of the period. The spokesman has laid a patronizing hand on VP’s shoulder and says: ‘This way everything is democratic, constitutional’ (177). Besides the verbal texts in the panels this is another dialogue box (there is one more, wherein VP’s friend says ‘VP, I think you’re being called. Let’s go!’). The spokesman’s speech is in the same lettering as Story 2, but the content of what he says is an extension of Story 1. Ghosh seems to be suggesting, via the visual cues (of the lettering of the panel-poster and the spokesman’s speech), that the language of the people has merged with the language of the state: that the masses now speak exactly like the state’s propagandist posters. This suggests that eventually it would become impossible to distinguish between the official history and the non-official one of the events. While the metalepsis draws our attention to the different, contestatory stories within the same narrative of the panels, it also ends with this ironic condition of a failure, or at least imminent failure, of one of the two stories. Michael Schuldiner writing about metalepsis in Maus argues that metalepsis is always ‘paradoxical’ (2002: 110). He continues: Of course, one can always make a kind of ‘sense’ out of the pairing of even the most disparate images, but certain conventions within certain media allow explanations for some pairing to come more readily to the mind of the reader. (110–11) As readers we are aware of such a paradox in the narratives of the Emergency when we pay attention to the speech balloons from panel 1 through to the spokesman’s. Here the metalepsis that sustained the two stories through
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the nine panels collapses, revealing something paradoxical: that the registers of pro- and anti-Emergency stories could possibly be, or become, the same! The metalepsis is therefore a narrative strategy that draws attention to the constructed nature of history, indicating the modes through which a deconstruction of this construction might occur and the undermining of this deconstruction as well. The entire metaleptic manoeuvre might be read as a special feature of the graphic narrative because it is in the combination of visual and verbal texts or registers that the two stories, and two worlds (the state and the masses), that we can discern the construction of historical accounts. Marianne Hirsch writes of as the ‘incongruity necessary to any writing or teaching about the Holocaust’ (1992–3: 16). We could substitute the word ‘History’ for Holocaust, as represented in the visual-verbal texts, and the argument would stand. But within such accounts as Ghosh’s, so totally conscious of its own constructed nature and the features of the medium, we are also made aware of the caricature, the grotesquerie and the very clear ‘cartoony’ nature of the characters and events represented. To return briefly to Hayden White’s arguments cited earlier, the question often raised has been about the language proper to a representation of events like the Holocaust, whether documentary realism should be preferred over aesthetic figurations and stylizations. The question for writers like Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Sarnath Banerjee and the artists of graphic novels being discussed in this book is: what form would suit the history they seek to narrate?
Mimetic approximation Andreas Huyssen writing about Maus has argued that Spiegelman’s text embodies not mimesis but mimetic approximation. Readers have to get past the ciphers (mice and cats) to the people behind (the Nazis and the Jews). Through this mimetic approximation, graphic texts seek authentication rather than authenticity (Huyssen 2000). Huyssen is, I believe, responding to questions of form: what forms suit the Holocaust? Do we need exact representations – mimesis – that recall the events and the people? Would anything less than mimetic exactitude be dismissed as inaccurate, inauthentic and in poor taste? I agree with Huyssen here about the importance of mimetic approximation, because I believe that this strategy forces the reader to read more closely the visual-verbal text than a realist representation would. Thus, I see the use of caricature, animal images, stylization and figuration as ensuring a critical literacy among the readers. Here I appropriate Rocco Versaci’s argument that in an age where ‘we are repeatedly forced to become used to more and more graphic representations’, we tend to lose the ‘essential humanity of the people’ in the photographs (2008: 98).
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Versaci argues that in comics the creative use of images ‘emphasize[s] the humanity and the stories of the victims rather than overwhelm these features, as realistic representations – especially of atrocity – are wont to do’ (98). He therefore proposes that the aesthetic most relevant to the comics form is not realism but ‘impressionism’ (102). Ghosh’s DC relies upon other texts such as newspapers, broadcasts, pamphlets, slogans and banners, and ‘familiar’ historical figures and makes a larger theoretical-narrative claim: all history is mediated. Relatedly, through this mimetic approximation, we have a text where authentication rather than authenticity is sought. The montaging of various intertexts in DC is an instance of this process of authentication. This also quietly but effectively erases the visual estrangement that might be produced by the caricature mode. The smiling masks worn by politicians and Emergency activists throughout the text serve to illustrate the point that we are looking at mediated history and extended role-playing by the individuals concerned. By drawing upon a traditional theatrical device, Ghosh underscores the dramatic nature of the events and the people concerned. DC is thus a dramatic text interested in the drama of Indian history, with all the role-playing, pretences and staged action. We recognize several of the call-ins as platitudes towards development, progress, nationalism and national identity in the sloganeering all of which are now a part of our cultural memory, even as we see how these became subverted within the processes of the Emergency – and this is precisely the critical literacy made possible by the visual-verbal medium where we see distress and read history, and vice versa too. What, in short, I am proposing is that Ghosh draws attention to the use of media, representations and rhetoric within the machinery of the Emergency while simultaneously telling us that we cannot know the events of History outside the mediated representations. When he exposes the hollowness of the representations through the irony or even the crude symbolism (the blade, representing vasectomy procedures), he is offering a mimetic approximation of what happened during the period. The masks are also excellent examples of such a process of mimetic approximation. For readers of graphic novels they immediately recall the masks of Frank Miller’s classic V for Vendetta (1988). For others they convey the staging of normalcy in the midst of crisis as well as the staging of hypocrisy, cowardice and conformism. People in DC’s barbaric spaces wear the smiley-mask to pretend there is nothing wrong, either in the everyday or in the nation. The smiley-mask conceals the horrors being perpetrated on a regular basis. The masks are state features imposed upon the physiognomy of the nation in Ghosh’s caricature. That all masks look alike also serves as an ironic take on the ‘all-people-are-equal’ ideal of democracy.
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That is the masks that distort physiognomies are mimetic approximations of the distortion of democracy. They capture the myth of a happy nation under the Emergency and at the same time draw the readers’ attention to the masking of a deeper malaise. They simultaneously approximate to conditions of normalcy and the make-believe world of efficiency that the Emergency was known for. The mask is what we, the readers, see through. Ghosh, as noted before, shows how the Emergency pitted the state against the nation. This state/nation dichotomy is visually reinforced for us through the speeches and slogans. I have already argued that these speeches, banners and slogans situated in the corners of panels (verbal texts that are essentially paratexts) intrude into the everyday and bring home to us readers the conditions under which daily life was led then. I would like to elaborate this argument now by way of addressing its technique of mimetic approximation. The speeches and slogans inscribed across Delhi and the everyday lives of its subjects all claim greatness for the nation even as it issues orders for curbing speech and fundamental freedoms. The state, supposedly speaking for the people who constitute the nation, claims that the oppressive rules are essential for the nation’s well-being. In other words, what we see in Ghosh’s narrative strategy of introducing paratextual elements, often in very crowded fashion, symbolizing the state is a mimetic approximation where the speeches are authentic enough – as Indian readers would know from their cultural literacy of political rhetoric – for us to recognize the state’s voice. Moving on from this recognition of the state voice we also recognize the contradiction where the rhetoric of national greatness is contingent upon curbs on the nation, where the price of freedom is freedom itself. Mimetic approximation here is the authentication of a political rhetoric that posited the greatness of the nation but masked the state’s antagonistic relation with the nation (people). The historical trauma of the Emergency can be conveyed only through such strategies of mimetic approximation where popular-everyday forms such as slogans and political propaganda speeches call attention to the darkness at the heart of state political rhetoric. That the caricature and the mimetic approximation lends a certain unreal air to the telling is itself a critical comment, for it seems unbelievable now, in retrospect, that India went through such a crisis of democracy. The crowding of panels serves the purpose of showing us the impact of the Emergency in everyday life: one could not escape the signs of the state. In fact, I would go so far as to propose that Ghosh’s strategy works brilliantly in the panelling because it suggests that the individual life was crowded with state signs to such an extent that there was no individual left anymore, given the constant bombardment with the white noise of orders, injunctions and threats. In other words, I am arguing that the individual is
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subsumed under the state’s voice and signage, squeezed into a panel with these signs so that his or subject-formation is essentially in conditions of incarceration by symbols and signs. The graphic narrative is perhaps the one medium in which this sense of enclosure and the carceral by signage alone can be made so directly visible. Mimetic approximation and strategies of authentication are also served brilliantly in DC by the visual ellipses – I morph the idea of ‘dramatic ellipsis’ by visual theorist Terence Wright, who defines it as ‘events essential to the plot [that] take place off-screen’ (2008: 71) – of the text. There are only a few direct and mimetic representations of the violence perpetrated upon the people. But what we do have are symbols and instruments of torture such as the policeman’s stick and the blade used for vasectomy and family planning programmes (70, 149, 172, 197). A child in school uniform is stopped by a man – metonymically represented by a hand wielding a lathi. The schoolboy hears screams ‘spare me’, presented in a speech bubble with ragged edges, suggestive of pain and anguish. In the middle panel, broader in dimensions, we see the same schoolboy on the left side, and to the right a blade, a syringe, a silhouette of a baby, an IV apparatus (or it could be the reproductive tubes) all placed over a poster on which we can discern sections of a text announcing an ‘ideal family’ (149). The boy’s innocent query ‘Uncle, what’s happening inside?’ is replied to by the man, who we now see has a smiling mask: ‘Nothing, child! Just a health check-up for the teachers. . . . Now go out and play. Good boy!’ (149). The horror of the historical event that the representation of the stick, the razor blade and the poster mimetically approximate to – the forced sterilization campaigns of the Emergency, the custodial tortures, the police action – is made available only through the visual ellipses. The reader has to apply the closure: it is up to ‘us to connect those moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality’, in Scott McCloud’s famous argument (1994: 67). The actual horrific event occurs between panels, between the moment of the boy arriving at the sterilization centre and the man telling the boy to go away and play. History gets ‘done’, so to speak, in the pauses and breaks of the conversation. In Ghosh’s mimetic approximation of what we now know happened, there is no need for detailed descriptions.
The indigent sublime Many of the texts in TSTS seek, it goes without saying, to represent the trauma of the Partitions of the subcontinent (1947 and 1971). Adapting the work of David Lloyd on representations of Irish hunger (2005) I argue in this section that ‘haunting is the afterlife of that shock [Partition] and it emerges . . . in the collective and individual memory of those
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who live on . . . ghosts of the unlived and unworked-through past [that] appear in oblique and unexpected ways’ in the everyday that is ‘marked in largely unacknowledged ways by catastrophe’ (156). By my use of the term ‘indigent’ I mean to gesture at the impoverished state of refugees in the narratives, whose poverty might be traced back to the dislocation of 1947 or 1971, but also to the impoverishment of memories in many cases. The indigent sublime is an aesthetic of catastrophic haunting that mimics past trauma by drawing attention to its continuity, even as it self-consciously draws attention to its own strategies of representing the unrepresentable. Amiya Sen and Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s ‘A Good Education’ in TSTS offers a crowd of East Bengal/Bangaldesh refugees in one particular visual spread across two pages (152–3). The individuals are all packed together, and the entire ‘shape’ of the group seems to be that of the subcontinent itself. The witnesses – including the narrator – stand to the sides. Film-like strips cut swathes across the crowd, thereby rendering some ‘whiter’ than the others. Throughout the text such a gauze or film encases some of the refugees in shade, and leaves the others in the open. In some cases mother and son have such a strip across them, symbolically cutting them up as well (155). I propose that the gauze-like patch or strip running across the refugees symbolizes the shadow cast by the displacement of the Partition. These ‘shades’ constitute the veil or film of the past that casts a shadow, both literal and metaphoric, over the present identities and lives of the refugees (the tale is set in a refugee camp). The sublime was traditionally, in European tradition, the aesthetic of awe, magnitude and expanse. David Lloyd turns it on its head by proposing an indigent sublime of the ghostly revenants of the past catastrophe haunting the present and thus suggests that the awe and anxiety is the impoverished condition of a refugee. The impoverishment is the veil, the very nature of a refugee-existence. Ghosh’s graphic on one page shows two mothers, sitting in the shadow of a small wall, with empty vessels in front, playing with their emaciated – clearly starving – children. One woman tells another the story of how Rama, the Hindu god, had also been exiled, to which the other responds: ‘Then, I guess we are a privileged lot’ (154). The indigent sublime is the aesthetic of catastrophe that represents haunting pasts. The reference to mythic, scriptural tales, such as the Hindu Ramayana, lends the present state of the refugees a certain respectability but, as the readers quickly recognize, retains them in the shadowy world of the ‘refugee’, haunted by their traumatic pasts. The irony, of course, is that the women take refuge in the stories of the scriptural tradition as a way of compensating for their real pasts. The indigent sublime operates here as a sublime of haunting, of memories too vast and too deep to be re-lived, as the refugee shifts memories away from lived experiences to the mythic.
Figure 1.4 Syeda Farhana and Nitesh Mohanty. ‘Little Women’, in Vishwajyoti Ghosh curated, This Side, That Side. Restorying Partition: Graphic Narratives from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. New Delhi: Yoda, 2013. 265.
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Syeda Farhana and Nitesh Mohanty amplify this indigent sublime in ‘Little Women’ in TSTS. Panels show a woman contemplating some skulls, carrion flock around a semi-barren tree, and paperboats float/flit across a page depicting the woman’s family (and others) migrating after the 1971 Bangladesh war. The narrator mentions how the rest of the family was supposed to take the next boat, but this one ‘never arrived’ and so those remaining ‘never departed’ (265). In the first ‘panel’ (I term it a panel because there is a vague, thin border around the picture depicted) we are shown a small boat packed with people. At the bottom left are two paper boats, with the tip of a third barely visible. The panel’s border is broken by two other paper boats, with the border merging into, bending into, the boats. In the middle panel there are seven boats on the left with the group/family photo in the middle. The bottom panel shows a solitary paper boat resting on the shore of a river with some trees – possibly the other bank of the river – in the distance. The paper boats running across all three panels on this page are ghosts of the boat that took away their family, broke it up, but also reminders of the boat that never came for the rest of the family. Thus the paper boats are at once metonyms for a past and the reminders of a future that never arrived. The boats are symbols of continuity (the one motif that ‘unites’ the various branches of the family is the boat – one took some away, one was awaited) and of fractures. The boat theme will recur, this time to symbolize the break-up of a larger symbolic-material entity: the nation itself. On page 269 is a visual with Kar Sevaks atop the Babri Masjid, breaking it down, and to the left of this panel is, again, a boat. The text for the panel reads: When my grandfather finally closed his spice shop, Akbar, our neighbour, pointed out how a family that stayed together in 1947 now breaks apart in 1992 with the breaking of the Babri Masjid in India. (269) The break-up of an idea of India, symbolized in and by the silhouetted image, but not contained within it, of the December 1992 acts, is accompanied by the symbol of the boat which is a marker of the break-up of the narrator’s family. Such stories represent the unrepresentable nature of horrific and traumatic memories. Characters scarred by their memories find their presents constantly hostage to their pasts, their contemporary impoverishment – and almost all the refugees are depicted in varying degrees of impoverishment – only compensated, ironically, by the richness, magnitude and searing intensity of their memories. The indigent sublime is an aesthetic of catastrophe, but a catastrophe remembered, revivified in the present because the
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catastrophe is still the foundation of their existence. It is only the language of haunting that serves the purpose of explaining the present state/lives of the refugees. History is literally the nightmare from which they are trying to awaken. Their contemporary lives remain as much under a shadow as their horrific pasts were. In this sense, the indigent sublime is also an aesthetic of never-ending, borderless continuities: that the displaced can no longer see a major change or improvement in their conditions between past and present and their presents are rendered or impoverished by their haunting memories, whether of starvation or of victimization, of departures or of arrivals. One of the most amazing depictions of history within the aesthetic of the indigent sublime occurs in Parismita Singh’s ‘The Soldier’s Story’, one of the stories that make up The Hotel at the End of the World. The soldier’s story is narrated by one of the hotel owners. In this tale the soldier’s spirit haunts the inn: ‘he’s been around for a while’ (77). The soldier’s story starts with the Japan attacks in Northeast India during World War II (81). The visuals depict war scenes – mostly in the dense foliage of the jungles between Burma (now Myanmar) and India (81–3). Homesick, the soldier contemplates hara-kiri (89). But then the narrative turns: he is now a ‘soldier of god’ (89). We are told that he ‘fought through whole ages’ and is involved in numerous wars (World War II) and he is still in wars being fought forty years later (91), until one day he discovers that there are no more wars, his regiment has disappeared and there are no British soldiers he remembers fighting (94). This was not ‘his war’ he thinks (94). Now the storyteller through whom the soldier’s story is being narrated is drunk, and at the end of the telling falls asleep in a drunken stupor (96). The listeners disbelieve the entire tale, thereby angering him (96). But to only register this is to miss the indigent sublime in operation. The soldier is the ghost of many such soldiers, their spirits wandering the hills far away from home. The larger theme here as depicted in the visuals of fighting and the ghostly soldiers is that of the wastes of modernity. If, as Avery Gordon argues (1997), ghosts are reminders of the uneven and exploitative social processes, the soldier represents the immeasurable and interminable ghostification of the soldier who is always fighting what is ‘not his war’. As ghosts of political processes and decision making, the soldiers represent the haunting past of the entire region. It is a region populated by such ghosts from the wars that shaped the place, and the subjects of that place. When Singh depicts the multiple wars fought by this soldier (90–1) she eschews the square panel in favour of slivers or wedges, wide as the page itself, and arranged to fit exactly with horizontal gutters. Instead of the gutters representing the passage of time, Singh’s narrative shows us slivers of time, each wedged into the next so that in one page we see multiple moments of history all fitting into each other. We read top to bottom, not left to right and then downward. We take
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the events as piled on top of each other. It seems to suggest the weight or burden of history coming down on the soldiers depicted in the panels. The sublime, one recalls, is marked by the absence of borders, and is indicated further by a sense of indefiniteness and expanse. In Singh’s arrangement what we are impressed by is the sense of space (of the sliver-panels) in which the soldiers really are small in comparison with the mountains, valleys or open lands. The landscape is full of moving figures (although Singh does not use the polyptych style). The uniforms of the soldiers change, as does the landscape, but the overall effect remains that of human insignificance in the face of vastness. The soldier is lost in the wars, moving from battle to battle, scene to scene, as the battles merge in his life. The indigent sublime is the sublime of local hauntings, of a history that is sketched into the history of the place. The hotel-keeper perhaps is condemned to tell the soldier’s story in an unending repetition – a feature of the uncanny, and of the sublime – of the same. The visitors who come to the place know it as the place of the dead (undead?) soldier’s ‘haunt’. When the hotel-keeper says he has seen ‘jawans, colonels, brigadiers’ (74) even before narrating the story of this soldier, he is proposing a region marked by many soldiers, who then perhaps merge into the one whose story he narrates.
Postmemory and graphic history Marianne Hirsch has offered us key modes of examining how traumatic history is received and written by individuals with no direct experience of the events themselves – ‘possessed by a history they had never lived’, in Helen Epstein’s lovely phrasing (cited in Hirsch 2008: 109) – but who have inherited memories of the events. Christening the phenomenon of received memory as ‘postmemory’ in influential essays and works (1992– 3, 1997, 2008), Hirsch argues that for people writing after the traumatic events there are certain ‘pre-established forms’ (Aby Warburg’s term, cited in Hirsch 2008: 108) in which to speak of the past. Photographs, notes Hirsch, constitute a major form in this work of postmemory, especially photographs that have to do with the family. Arguably, one of the most powerful expressions of a recent postmemory artefact would be the collection This Side, That Side, which includes numerous stories recounting their family’s and others’ experience of the Partitions of 1947 and 1971.
Family/memory Hirsch makes a crucial distinction between the kind of memory individuals inherit and transmit as a result of a familial connection with the historical events (individual and family/group memory) and the memory that gets
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institutionalized as a social practice through ritual and performance (cultural memory, also called political, collective or national memory). Hirsch elaborates the mechanics of the transmissibility of memory: The ‘group memory’ . . . is based on the familial transfer of embodied experience to the next generation: it is intergenerational. National/political and cultural/archival memory, in contrast, are not inter- but trans-generational; they are no longer mediated through embodied practice but solely through symbolic systems. (110) Postmemory in graphic narratives works best in tales about family histories, proposes Hirsch. But there is another dimension to postmemory. Postmemory is often also the processes of recall in a context marked not by the absence of participation in History but a form of displaced participation when the individuals experience the trauma history has wrought upon the family and its elders. Thus it remains transgenerational in Hirsch’s terms, but is not simply inherited memory. What the narrative conveys is the second generation’s memory of how their elders had been during the events: the recall of a facial expression, for instance, from that time. In retrospect they recognize the trauma when engaged in acts of ‘memory citizenship’ with the rest of the family. I am proposing here that we need to see ‘postmemory’ not simply as memory transmitted to a later generation but as a late recognition, via memory citizenship and recall, of how the family had articulated its experience of trauma. If trauma is by definition beyond narrative and must yet be narrated then children kept away from the family’s trauma recall and recognize it years later. When Vidrohi and Tina Rajan (in TSTS) tell us the story of Noor Miyan who migrated to Pakistan with the Partition, they do not begin with the Partition and the history of the subcontinent. The individuals who were children at the time of the Partition do not understand the magnitude of the events, nor the trauma. But this does not mean they remain unaware of events in a highly personalized way. The events of the Partition are available to the second generation only from their recall of their grandmother’s expressions and anguish. When Noor Miyan, the surma supplier, provides the surma on a regular basis, The old woman’s eyes would surge like rain clouds, And dance like the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, They would become infinite oceans In which we children could behold Our entire world. (Vidrohi and Rajan 2013: 61)
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Birds fly into and around the clouds over the garden (61). Here the power of the medium is given full play: the expressionist mode of depicting facial gestures or emotions dovetails neatly into the story being told in the verbal text so that it becomes impossible to foreground either the verbal or the visual text. The grandmother’s participation in the games, the narrative suggests, was dependent upon the surma supplied by the Muslim dealer, Noor Miyan. She ‘call[s] blessings on Noor miyan and his surma’ (61) because, as the old lady puts it, ‘it’s thanks only to Noor miyan’s surma that I roam about like a young girl in this old age’ (62). Clearly this is a fantastic narrative, where the memory of childhood games with the grandmother is overlaid with a fair amount of magical elements. But this is only the preliminary moment. The next page shows Noor Miyan giving the old woman surma, but the panel’s upper section has a cloud ranged directly over his head – but a cloud in a birdless sky this time (63). Also, the lower section of the panel depicts a set of footprints leading away from Noor Miyan, and the text announces ‘this was Noor Miyan, and then he went away to Pakistan’ (63). When we next see the grandmother, she is flying upwards on a carpet or a prayer mat, rising towards the clouds, as the text at the foot of the page informs us ‘my grandmother returned to where she came from’ (65). The child scatters the ashes – we discover that this is a Hindu family now – into the river, on the banks of which his grandmother had married years ago. ‘And in this way, for one last time, I applied Noor Miyan’s surma to my grandmother’s eyes’ (67). On the river there is a paper boat cresting a wave. Overlooking the river and the child’s action is a watchtower towering over the fence that separates India and Pakistan. The ashes of the grandmother become, symbolically, the surma furnished by her long-time supplier, Noor Miyan. I propose that the tale also demonstrates acts of postmemory and memory citizenship because the memory of the Partition is available to the second generation only through memories of how their grandmother was affected by Noor Miyan’s displacement. There is no reference to anything else about the Partition, and the entire narrative is focused on the family and its relations with Noor Miyan. The child-narrator through whose eyes we ‘see’ the Partition can only convey his anguish at his grandmother’s sorrow, deterioration and eventual death. He participates, at one remove, in the tensions and tragic consequences of the Partition through his personal memories – even fantastic – of his grandmother. Postmemory here is the work of memory citizenship that inserts the child-narrator into the grander narrative of the family’s and subcontinent’s history when he recalls his grandmother’s surma-driven charm. As another instance of postmemory as essentially memory citizenship, let me turn to Arundhati Ghosh and Appupen’s ‘Water Stories’ in TSTS (2013). Several narrative features stand out in this text. The child-narrator’s words are outside the panels, as a running text underneath the visual: the visual
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text’s borders are the panel’s borders. The father’s speech is also arranged at the foot of the panel and only rarely in speech bubbles inside them. When the narrator reports her father’s stories, this verbal text is placed in quotes. This creates the impression of commentary rather than an integrated verbal-visual narrative of the events. But it achieves another kind of integration. The absence of clear boundaries between speakers – the speech bubbles of the standard comics format that helps us track each dialogue to the individual – means that the father’s story flows into the speech of the daughter. Unless the reader pays careful attention to the tiny marks, the shift in enunciation can be troubling. This narrative strategy reinforces the point I am making about postmemory as memory citizenship. The flowing of speech from father’s enunciation into the daughter’s, and the flowing of stories in similar fashion, is a metaphor for the transmission of memory qua stories. Another feature of this story is the form of the panel itself. When it is the father’s story, the panel is wavy in its frame, and reminds one strongly of flows and undulating terrain or, more specifically, water. This is also one of those texts that foreground storytelling as memory transmission. ‘In all her father’s stories about the land he came from, there was water’ – this is the first line of the verbal text (130). Later panels show a train chugging through water, and the flowing of the river waters becomes the lined face of the father (131). The memory of the river is embodied in his face now. He is still a citizen of the memory of the river. It is important to note that we never see the father’s eyes through his spectacles: what we see most often is a river flowing (131, 132, 133). It is almost as though all he can see is the river. And all we can, as readers, do is to ‘see’ this river reflected. But the link with history only comes two pages into the story, when the father tells the girl: ‘It [the river Padma] ate her up. My beautiful mother. She went into the river one afternoon and never came back. I think the Padma knew we were leaving for another land. She stole my mother’ (132). The imminence of the historically determined inevitability of displacement, suggests the father, had killed his mother. But after this supposed irrational tale, the young girl is told further: ‘Maybe she [the river] cursed your mother too’ (133). This is where the story turns. The girl objects, and says with a scrunched up face: ‘Come on baba, ma was ill for some time. The river had nothing to do with it.’ The father’s response runs like this: ‘The river came through my memory and entered your mother’s heart, freezing it in her chilled embrace’ (133). The narrator, who seems to have grown up in the course of this telling, comments: ‘He kept going back to the past and returning to the present, mixing up her mother with his mother’ (133). (On page 132 there is the visual of the narrator waiting outside an ICU room, and the text tells us her mother had been ill for some time and then died.) Through a device that recalls Maus where Artie constantly
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draws attention to his father’s telling of the Auschwitz experience, Ghosh and Appupen clearly foreground the act of storytelling. By rendering the teller (the father) an unreliable narrator we are cautioned: postmemory work relies on unreliable memories, and the second generation of victims and survivors can understand histories (of their families) only through the limited recall the first generation has. Now a young woman, the speaker ponders if the river, ‘still angry at those who left’, has rendered her barren (134). The river serves as a metaphor for lineage and the flow of ‘curses’ (according to the father, and something the woman begins to believe in, eventually). But the river is also a metaphor for memory and its transmission. The daughter is linked to her family not only through a blood line but also through the so-called curse of the river that has become, in the father’s words, ‘memory’. But the memory of the river and what it did to his mother, we are told by the old man, killed the narrator’s mother by ‘freezing’ her heart. The story suggests the power of memory of how the memory of distant (distant in space and time, in this story) deaths can still be powerful enough to determine the subjectivity of the third generation. That is, postmemory work is constitutive of her very identity. The ancient curse to which is ascribed the death of the grandmother has now rendered the present narrator also ‘barren’. The narrator’s memory citizenship is the effect of her participation in the act of recall by the father: when he tells her of the flow of memory he transmits this memory to her and suggests to her that her whole being is connected to the river. What renders the narrator barren is not, perhaps, the curse of the river, but the memory of what happened to her grandmother and her own mother. That the father is unable to distinguish between deaths (of his mother and his wife) suggests an entrammelling of memories, like the river’s waters that swirl across his face (131). When the story ends, she has visited the river in ‘the other land’ (134). The last visuals show how this narrator woman ‘became the river’ (135), just as the river became her father’s face, just as her grandmother was claimed by the river, and just as the river supposedly claimed her mother as well. Postmemory’s memory citizenship here is the transmission of trauma – the death of mothers – and the transmission of supposed causes of three deaths, of women: the river’s curse. It also becomes memory citizenship because the narrator is now irrevocably linked to the sin of her ancestors, which is narrated to her in the form of the fragmented story of her father, and the ancient river. When she journeys to the river in the other land, she is actually reclaiming the physical manifestation of a memory, and this embodies the citizenship she has come to occupy. The narrator by drowning (literally or symbolically, we are not very clear) in the river gives life to the memory of the river’s curse. She therefore vivifies a memory and demonstrates her active memory citizenship. The river as a generative life force
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leaves the women – also symbolic of generative and nurturing powers – barren and eventually ‘kills’ them. Whether barrenness is itself a form of death is left uncertain in the tale, but one cannot escape thinking along these lines. Postmemory, although Hirsch does not define it thus, is the incarceration of people within memory citizenship but also the revivification of certain memories in the embodied subjects of that memory, as the preceding story demonstrates. The story constitutes the young woman in the telling, and it foregrounds the relationship between storyteller and listener, as much as between father and daughter. The final visual of the woman merging with the sea resonates deeply and powerfully with the father’s face becoming the river and the cycle of history repeats. Stories and rivers are both constitutive of the subjectivities of the family after the trauma of the Partition.
Photography and artefacts Postmemory also works its way through the later generations, Hirsch argues, through the family photograph. She writes: the key role of the photographic image – and of family photographs in particular – as a medium of postmemory clarifies the connection between familial and affiliative postmemory and the mechanisms by which public archives and institutions have been able both to reembody and to reindividualize ‘cultural/archival’ memory. (2008: 115) I extend Hirsch’s argument to propose that artefacts of various kinds constitute a materiality of memory that is far more potent in inculcating memory citizenship than a two-dimensional photograph. In the Indian graphic narratives about traumatic historical events of the Partition, for instance, the photograph is one of many artefacts that ensure a postmemory.2 In Ankur Ahuja’s ‘The Red Ledger’ in TSTS (2013) we are given a detailed account of the ledgers the narrator’s grandfather was fond of: its colour, its thread, its material and its provenance. The visuals are, however, in black and white. The grandfather writes down the accounts of the day’s business transactions in Urdu, ‘a language that no one else in the family could read’ (170). For the narrator the ledger is not just numbers and an alien language: ‘it was his personal diary filled with stories of his adventure lurking under his stoic character’ (170). The ledger is the artefact that the narrator most often and prominently remembers. The materiality of the ledger which is impressed upon the narrator’s mind links him to his grandfather’s more prosaic side (that of a businessman) and a more romantic side
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(that of an adventurer), at least in the narrator’s mind. It serves therefore as a mnemonic device, alongside the sewing machine. In order to show a continuity of life despite the disruption of the Partition, and its accompanying displacement from Bhawalpur to Delhi in 1947, the narrator depicts the grandfather with the famous red ledger under his arm. Alongside the paratexts of slogans and official cards such as the notice from the government (172), we have the red ledger. The ledger is the link between the grandfather who would have read the government notice and the next generation narrator who can only recall the ledger. When the story ends, we have a document from the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation bestowing an identity upon the grandfather: as a refugee (175). But giving us another side of the dehumanized official story embodied in this document is a coat on a hanger: the grandfather’s jacket. The narrative of officialdom is undercut, or perhaps humanized, by the materiality of the jacket. The jacket, in the visual arrangement of the scene, literally cuts into the ‘frame’ of the letter – which occupies the entire page, incidentally. In postmemory the jacket occupies a small but significant corner. It is the jacket that offers the materiality of the memory, a device through which the later generations recall their family’s history. But the location of the jacket in this visual does convey the sense that the family’s history as it is remembered by later generations will be dominated by the letter. Postmemory here is memory citizenship in the face of official identification, as a family of refugees, that is the artefact. The speaker is an ‘adoptive witness’ (Hirsch 2008: 107), adopted into the past and its horrors through the ledgers and the jacket. The jacket and the ledger provide us readers with an intimate and personalized history of an individual rooted in his family’s traumatic history. A strange artefact that recalls the past – or perhaps we should say allows the past to erupt into the present – is the battle tank in ‘The Girl’s Story’ in The Hotel at the End of the World. Cleverly blurring present and past Singh’s protagonist in this tale, the young girl slaving away in the hotel goes into the woods to fetch water. In the woods she hears the ‘dhuk dhuk’ of soldiers running through the woods (131. We should recall that the previous stories such as ‘The Soldier’s Story’ had described the wars in the region.) Scared, the girl charges deeper into the woods, and encounters an abandoned battle tank. She gets into it, perhaps to hide from the soldiers. The next visuals show the tank firing over the hotel and into the distance – perhaps the girl has operated the tank, since there is no other war in the vicinity. The guests at the hotel think of the firing as ‘lights’, all pointing in one direction. Just then a message on their thus-far ‘no-network’ mobile flashes out: ‘go east . . .’ The lights, they believe, indicate the route they need to take to find the ‘floating island’ (136). Singh positions the tank, a leftover artefact of the war and therefore of the past that intrudes into the
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present, and the mobile phone, a sign of the contemporary, in symbolic conjunction. The tank supposedly fires in the direction the guests need to go in this day and age, and the mobile phone seems to say the same thing. The voice (or sign) from the past embodied in the tank seems to be working with the phone to direct the travellers’ present. Pema, the hotelier’s wife, declares when the mobile phone comes alive with the message ‘it’s a sign’ (136). What we see here is the embodiment of postmemory: the girl child in the story revivifies the past when she fires the tank (there is no clue that it is anybody else). She is adopted as a witness to the events described in previous stories through the materiality of the tank. The tank ought to be ‘dead’ by now, and just a rusted artefact from the war. But the girl brings it alive, at the very moment that the contemporary device of the mobile phone comes alive. Postmemory here is the multiple temporalities that come together through object relations, literally in this case the relations between objects. The relation of past to present is mediated by the tank that seems to be resonating with the mobile phone. The mobile phone completes what the tank sets out to do – it links the past with the present, and enables a certain furthering of the sustaining myth that drives the travellers: the floating island. The tank and the mobile are devices of transmission – of the past into the present and of fantasies that connect the present with the past. I have one further point to make on the question of postmemory. Hirsch (2008) quite rightly distinguishes between familial and affiliative acts of postgeneration. She identifies a difference between an intergenerational vertical identification of child and parent occurring within the family and the intra-generational horizontal identification that makes that child’s position more broadly available to other contemporaries. Affiliative postmemory would thus be the result of contemporaneity and generational connection with the literal second generation combined with structures of mediation that would be broadly appropriable, available, and indeed, compelling enough to encompass a larger collective in an organic web of transmission. (114–15) Ankur Ahuja’s ‘The Red Ledger’ would be a tale of familial postgeneration, while ‘The Girl’s Story’ in Parismita Singh’s The Hotel at the End of the World would be of the affiliative kind. In the first the child, removed from his family’s history, is co-opted into it. In the second the postmemory of war is something that adopts somebody unconnected (in terms of family) with the immediate war or its consequences as witness, thus suggesting a collective
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or cultural ‘memory work’. If photographs, in Hirsch’s formulation, mediate between public and personal memory by ‘reindividualizing’ the former, material artefacts, as I have demonstrated, play a similar role. In the case of ‘The Red Ledger’ the jacket and the ledger mediate the historical memory of the Partition but only through the family line. In the case of ‘The Girl’s Story’ the tank mediates between public and personal memory but does so by adopting an ‘outsider’ to the events and the immediate family. I consider this second form, of affiliative postgeneration, as far more effectively deployed in the graphic medium because, as we saw in the case of the second story, the objects inserted into panels immediately signify multiple (i) temporalities (present, past), (ii) events (the present-day quest for the floating island, the war in the past) and (iii) subjects (the girl, the two travellers, the soldiers from the past ward). That is within the space of a panel postmemory affiliates several individuals to multiple histories. * This chapter has explored the ways in which history is represented in graphic narratives. More than the literary texts on traumatic events such as the Partition or complicated histories of colonial India, the graphic novel helps us see through the macro-stories and locate the individual anguish, distress and sadness. Expressionist language such as that of the graphic medium thus visualizes for us the exact locus of a historical moment: the human face. History, we could say paraphrasing William Blake, has a human face in the graphic medium. The emphasis on marginal characters from history, on the merging of public and personal (hi)stories, the quest for approximation and resemblance rather than realistic representation and the modes of articulating postmemory through the visual-verbal medium render the graphic narrative a phenomenally powerful mode of not only delivering history but also calling into question how we read this history. Thus when the speakernarrator tells us/recounts the story he or she has heard from elders and others we see the oral history of the historical, nationally significant and officially documented event narrated to us from the specific vantage point of the family. This brings the historical event into immediate proximity with both the contemporary time frame and location. The Partition of the Punjab or colonial Calcutta might be read into the present-day refugee family or the spaces of Kolkata and Delhi, given the critical literacy generated by the text. In doing so, history in the graphic narrative gets repoliticized. The graphic narrative does so by pointing to the historical marginality of some lives, limiting the sweeping macro-histories of the Partition, of colonial India or of the nation itself, and yet universalizing, through an insertion
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of individual stories into larger histories and the marginal itself as proposed in the section on postmemory and affiliative postgeneration. By making multiple temporalities and stories equally visible in the panels the graphic narrative shows us how public and private, macro and micro supplement each other, but leave both unfinalizable.
Notes 1 I am excluding the ACK series here because, as commentators have pointed out, in this series and medium, there is ‘no easy divide between the sacred and profane, mythological and historical’ (McLain 18). McLain writes: ‘Just as Hindu gods can descend to take on human incarnations like Rama and Krishna, so too can humans like Shivaji and Subhas Chandra Bose be elevated to take on god aspects’ (18) – an argument I endorse unreservedly. I opt, therefore, for less ‘heroic’ histories and stories. 2 Megha Anwer looking at lynching photographs comes to a different argument about memory. She writes about the camera: the camera’s embeddedness within the cultural logic of lynching is that it could not have functioned as a neutral, detached, ‘objective’ agency à la the journalistic myth. On the contrary, it was an actor in the catastrophe, one that provoked into being, or at least actively normalized, a prolonged ritual of violence. (2014: 20) Thus the photograph from the scene of the violence or catastrophe functions in very different ways from the ones Hirsch is examining here.
2 URBAN GRAPHIC
What the map cuts up, the story cuts across. – Michel de Certeau
In the preceding chapter I examined the theme of history in the Indian graphic narrative. This history is, of course, played out in multiple spaces: the home, the region, the city and the nation, in addition to cultural spaces. In what follows I study the thematic of space, especially urban space, in the Indian graphic novel. The choice of urban spaces seems more or less automatic, given the large number of texts that situate their stories in metropolitan India. The spaces of urban India as portrayed in the graphic narrative are often spaces of haunting, of revenants, traumatic pasts and uncertain presents, especially in Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers and Amruta Patil’s Kari. These are spaces of contesting temporalities as the past, or genealogy, impinges upon the present in numerous ways. They are spaces of trauma and alternative desires, doubling, of secrets and secrecy and of violent undercurrents. The urban spaces in the Indian graphic narrative approximate, this chapter proposes, to a Gothic mode. The Gothic is the expression of a cultural anxiety, of a globalized/ing India and its colonial pasts, of middle-class aspirations driven by globalization’s consumer utopias and the values left over from an earlier moral economy of thrift.1 The Gothic in the Indian graphic narrative expresses, further, anxieties about traditions that clash with the contemporary. The Gothic finds its clearest articulation in the Indian graphic narrative, this chapter demonstrates, in the psychogeography of Calcutta/Kolkata, Bombay/Mumbai and New Delhi. The city is a version of the traditional castle and manor houses of canonical Gothic texts. Elizabeth Ho in her work on Alan Moore’s graphic narrative about Jack the Ripper, From Hell, adapts Iain Sinclair’s definition of psychogography
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as ‘ “a grid of energies” . . . an “occult mapping of the city”.’ The map is ‘anchored by sites and icons of violence, mysticism, or “ancient taint” that “still exercise . . . a powerful influence on any imagination that allows itself to float over the streets in a willed discrimination of archetypes” ’ (Ho 2006: 109). Ho argues that psychogeography can be a useful mode of examining the constructions of cities because it ‘draw[s] attention to the violence and trauma out of which sanitized tourist locations are forged’ (110), the subtexts of excess, secrecy, mysticism and even the supernatural that are ignored and ‘remapped and reconstructed by the officials of history to contain secularized tourist landmark’ (111). It is these subtexts to the urban graphic that I wish to bring to the surface in this chapter. The psychogeography of urban India might be read along specific lines.
Uncanny spaces An astonishing uncanny moment occurs at the very beginning of Amruta Patil’s Kari. It opens with a scene of doubling, and of togetherness. The biomedical imagery contributes to the uncanny effect as well for it recalls conjoined twins. The Indian graphic narrative is full of such uncanny moments and spaces. The uncanny, as Sigmund Freud famously argued (1919), is a feature of perception, where resemblances and similarities between apparently dissimilar things cause cognitive tensions. It is about the dialectic between ‘home’ and the ‘unhomely’.2 It is the perception of doublings and haunting. In the Indian graphic narrative the spaces of the city are represented as offering, to the sensitive and discerning flaneur or inhabitant, layers underneath the surfaces, where very frequently the surface is an architectural and demographic palimpsest for an older city underneath it.
The antiquarian uncanny Robert Mighall writing about urban Gothic texts persuasively argues that ‘for the urban Gothic this meant the criminal past haunting the civic present’ (2007: 55). He adds: ‘The premise of Gothic fiction, dividing the civilised from the barbarous, the progressive from the retrograde or anachronistic, is here located in the metropolis of the modern world’ (55). It is this ‘incongruity’ (Mighall’s term, 55) of the worlds in the same ‘space’ that induces terror. The ‘incongruity’ is what I am identifying as the ‘antiquarian uncanny’ in the Indian graphic narratives. Mighall then elaborates: So what makes the urban Gothic? For Gothic of a city rather than just in a city, that city needs a concentration of memories
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and historical associations. Ideally these would be expressed in an extant architectural or topographical heritage, as these areas provide the natural home for ghostly presences of imagined/projected meanings. (57, emphasis in original) Nicholas Royle proposes: ‘Uncertainties at the origin concerning colonization and the foreign body, and a mixing of what is at once old and longfamiliar with what is strangely “fresh” and new’ (2003: 12, emphasis in original) is at the heart of the uncanny. And elsewhere: ‘[the uncanny] might be construed as a foreign body within oneself, even the experience of oneself as a foreign body’ (2, emphasis in original). There is, therefore, something alien, atavistic, unexpectedly out of time at the heart of the uncanny. Sarnath Banerjee’s The Harappa Files (THF) opens with the ‘Greater Harappa Rehabilitation, Reclamation and Redevelopment Commission’ whose files have to be made public now to address the problems of ‘postliberalized India’. The files ‘are an examination of the near past and attempt to resurrect, examine and catalogue cultural, human and material relics’ (15, emphasis added). That is contemporary India needs to be tethered to its past in some way. In the opening image of Corridor, a large panel occupying the top half of the page (3) shows Connaught Place with its massive Corinthian pillars. This historic piece of architecture now houses ‘Sri Lankan’ and ‘Royal Jordanian’ airlines. The second visual on this page is the DNA’s famous ‘Double Helix’. The texts of these two visuals are themselves fascinating. The first image is accompanied by the following text: You need the soul of Chengiz Khan to survive a June afternoon in Delhi. The second image, of the DNA molecule, is accompanied by: The streets are empty save a few hard core urban warriors. When Brighu, one of the protagonists of Corridor, is introduced, it shows him, first with the backdrop of CP and second, leaning against one of the famous pillars (3). The text says: I am hunting for a book . . . life seems to depend on it. Numerous things stand out and collectively inaugurate the theme of the antiquarian uncanny here. Most notably there is the idea of the architectural palimpsest, with CP’s old and famous pillars, with some parts chipped off, housing the iconic
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signage of the contemporary: airline adverts. The DNA molecule seems to capture the essential ‘hard core’ of the Delhi inhabitants: with Banerjee’s subliminal pun on both ‘hard’ and ‘core’, with the ‘hard’ descriptor going with the ‘warrior’ image and ‘core’ referencing DNA as the core of life itself. The juxtaposition of the DNA molecule, arguably the most recognized biomedical sign of the twentieth century, with the remnants of the colonial past – CP – and the term ‘warrior’, evoking an age of knights and warriors reinforces the idea of the architectural and cultural palimpsest that is Delhi. Brighu’s characterization of his quest for a book as a ‘hunt’ reiterates the ‘warrior’ theme, even as ‘life depends on it’ resonates with the immediate preceding text and image of the DNA. The DNA itself is often described as the ‘book of life’. In the space of three panels, I propose, Banerjee has introduced the archaeological-antiquarian uncanny: bringing the past into conflict and contest with the present in such a way that the city cannot be separated into ‘old’ and ‘new’. Following Anthony Vidler’s work (1992) on the ‘architectural uncanny’ it is also possible to see how the new age’s signs defamiliarize the familiar landmark of Connaught Place, and the city itself. The signage is at temporal odds with the architecture, where the first (signage) gesture at a globalized India connected with the rest of the world through huge systems of mass transportation (international air travel), and the second (architecture) forces us to acknowledge the continued intrusion of the past into the present. More interestingly the rhythms of contemporary globalized life (travel, mobility, high-speed connectivity) are essentially polyrhythmic where the structures of the past house the processes and flows of the present (Gibas 2012). This sense of the antiquarian uncanny that determines the life of Brighu is underscored on the second page, where the scene shifts to Bangalore city. We are given a visual of Brighu and his friend driving through ‘the old parts of Bangalore’ and looking for an antique pen which he eventually finds ‘in a shop selling second-hand stuff, in the Cantonment area’ (4). Nothing else of Bangalore is given to us: the city is the space through which the antiquities collector, Brighu, journeys into the past, literally and figuratively. Haunting the ‘old parts’ of a city that, since the 1990s, is seen as the hub of the IT-led ‘smart city’ of the newly globalized India, and finally entering the colonial era Cantonment, Brighu inscribes the past over the city’s present. We are then told that Brighu is a collector of old pens, ‘rare LPs of forgotten musicians’, comic books, a camera and even his grandfather’s gallstone, among others. His bedroom is a place where artifacts are ‘stashed’ (5–6). Among his collections, significantly, is a collection of Phantom comics, of which one volume is missing (6). Brighu then declares: ‘On good days I feel like Ibn Batuta, on bad days I don’t’ (25. This line will
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be repeated later in the narrative, 106). Ibn Batuta, ancient traveller from Morocco, figures more prominently in Banerjee’s BOWC. Here the panel shows Brighu with a cup in hand, and an inset panel shows Brighu this time with a massive hat symbolizing an ancient traveller. While on the one hand it might be possible to read Brighu’s comment as just a commonplace analogy to the ancient traveller it is also possible, in the light of Corridor’s obsessive examination of the persistence of the past, to treat it as an instance of the residual foreignness that Brighu feels inside him: of himself as containing a foreign body or soul, as Nicholas Royle described the uncanny. The structure of the panel, with Brighu/Ibn Batuta as an inset of a larger panel, is analogous to an uncanny moment where the Other (Ibn Batuta) is incorporated into the self (Brighu). Brighu perceives a traveller inside him, an alien and alienating influence, inside him and the panel’s organization calls the reader to make this transition as well. That Brighu uses the term commonly associated with affect and sentiment (‘I feel like Ibn Batuta’) suggests the uncanny in another way as well. The uncanny is a state of perception, of the problematic cognition of something strange as familiar and vice versa, which then induces a certain anxiety and emotional disturbance. The familiar repeats in the strange (repetition is central to the uncanny). But for us to recognize the foreign we need to have already had some sense of the foreignness of the foreign. That is we cannot recognize a ghost of a person unless we have some prior acquaintance of that person, or ghost.3 For Brighu to recognize the Ibn Batuta inside him, he needs to have had some cognizance of the ancient. Recognition renders himself and the present foreign, and therefore as an uncanny repetition of the known, familiar past, to Brighu. The first pages of Corridor inaugurate a psychogeography founded on the antiquarian uncanny. For Brighu the past lives on in the present in the form of such material absent presences, absent because he seeks to ‘complete’ his collections (5) and presences because these objects shatter the smoothness of everyday life in uncanny ways. The quote from Jean Baudrillard, the theorist of simulacral postmodernity, accompanies the image on page 7 where Brighu is shown tumbling down alongside a large number of objects, including boxing gloves, radios, roller skates, posters of Hindi superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s blockbuster Deewar, etc. The image suggests an identity founded on ‘object-relations’, where material objects are not simply prostheses to identity but constitutive of Brighu’s identity itself. If, as he puts it, his ‘life depends’ on finding an antiquarian object – an old book – then, Banerjee suggests, his life hinges on the presence of the past. The psychogeography of Delhi or Bangalore might be located in the tremendous emotional
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investment Brighu makes in the absent presences of books, lost books and antiquities. The materiality of the objects draws attention to the forgotten pasts, and informs his (postmodern) present. The ‘antiquarian uncanny’ is the haunting of the minds of protagonists, and of spaces, by remnants of the past in the form of material objects. It involves secrecy, burial, excavation and quests for specific reminders, remainders/ remains and remnants. Gabriel Moshenka elaborates this dimension of the archaeological uncanny: ‘The uncanny [is located] not in the property of burial but in the process of excavation and revelation’ (2012: 1199). David Punter and Glennis Byron addressing the postcolonial reworkings of the Gothic tell us that the postcolonial Gothic ‘represents a specific view of history . . . as history written according to . . . a logic of the phantom, the revenant, a logic of haunting . . . [where] the attempt to make . . . the nation in a new form is inevitably accompanied by the traces of the past’ (2004: 55). As a result, they note, there is an ‘insistence on the memorial’ (56) in these texts. But there is more to the architectural-antiquarian uncanny in the Indian graphic narrative’s approximation of the Gothic. Brighu searches for an elusive and old book and booksellers have to dig through, literally excavate through stacks, to see if they have a copy (10). The bookseller goes lower and lower into the heap of books till we cannot see anything of him except a hunched back and a hand as he flings up book after book. Eventually the back and the hand also disappear behind the books. Another character, Shintu, does not seek an antique but an aphrodisiac. When he reaches a native healer’s business, the healer, Hakim Gulabkhus Peshawari, is described as having ‘an air of old-world patriarchy, decadent yet reassuring’ (57). And after a detailed (graphic!) lecture on masturbation and sexuality, he offers his ultimate illustration of how bad sex habits/lives can bring ruin: ‘And remember the fall of the Roman Empire was brought on by syphilis’ (68). The next healer listened to Shintu’s problem ‘with an ancient patience’ (77). His solution, an oil made from ‘the bile of rare lizards’ (78) which would ‘restore his [Shintu’s] original role as hunter-gatherer’ (78). In each of the stories in Corridor, Banerjee proposes a link of the present with the past. In metropolises, one is never far away from the past – sometimes literally, as in the panels where we are shown scenes from Old Delhi (46–8). In Kolkata romances are conducted in the shadow of Queen Victoria’s statue at the famous Victoria Memorial (98). Dr DVD Murthy, the forensic and autopsy specialist who cannot get rid his body of the smell of the operating room, discovers a solution to his problem in the form of a Marks & Spencer perfume, Isis, represented in the image by the iconic and ancient Sphinx (109). In addition, cultural practices, such as the hakims Shintu consults, are from the ancient past, and contemporary India, modern and
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rational, continues to be involved with these pasts in problematic ways, suggests Banerjee. Hyderabad Graphic Novel project’s Come You Lost Atoms has a young researcher, seeking to work on the poet Ashfaq, being rejected for a PhD by a professor at the Arts College, Osmania University. The opening visuals situate the temporal and spatial frames with considerable verisimilitude on the University Campus and in the midst of the Telangana agitation (2009– 2014). The professor tells the candidate: ‘Unless you find new sources of information’ (about the elusive poet’s life and times) there can be no project (unpaginated). In the course of the tale the young man finds himself transported to the Hyderabad of Ashfaq’s time. What makes this ‘old’ city of Hyderabad uncanny to the man’s eyes is that he is at home even in this past age. For instance when he enters a tea shop – that ubiquitous ‘chai’ place – he thinks: ‘My money was useless here but I knew the ways of the chai-khana.’ In some way the old city is still contemporary, a simulation of the present. He informs the waiter in the shop: ‘I would like to pay with a poem.’ To which the waiter responds with: ‘we accept all major poetic forms, including quatrains, couplets and blank verse’. The simulacra of the contemporary, or the merging of past and present histories in that place, make the hotel a chronotope of urban India. The man is aware of his timeshift into the older era, and yet seems to be perfectly at ease there because the old world is not an unknown or unknowable one. Antiquity – sorcerers, princesses – meets the contemporary, such as the man’s cell phone, for example in yet another instance of the antiquarian uncanny. But the antiquarian uncanny is also about the ghost-towns and architecture of the cities that seem to brood over the past, even as their present is an attempt to inscribe fresh meanings over this past. In Corridor the first direct referencing of such an architectural uncanny where urban spaces seem to be threatening occurs when Kali, Brighu’s girlfriend, is walking. The comment that appears in the textbox above Kali’s head says: ‘One in the morning, South Delhi looks like a ghost town’ (79). The man who stops his car and offers her a lift is presented with a wolf-face, reviving the stereotype of male sexual predators as wolves (79), and thus effectively merges two features of the uncanny: a sense of haunting and a sense of frightening familiarity. The city seems deserted and the man takes on the qualities of a predator on the deserted streets. The wolfish look is something that we register from the perspective of Kali: the man addresses her from the car and looks out at Kali/us from the car’s window and the panel itself. So it must be assumed that Kali is the one who sees the wolf beneath the human head. This mimetic approximation of the wolf-face is a device of authentication, rather than a sign of authenticity. For the solitary woman in Delhi, at 1 AM, the man offering her a car ride is a wolf.
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The ghost town throws up its creatures of the night, and in typical Gothic fashion, the lonely woman is under threat. One of the oldest images in the world – of the besieged woman and the predator man – brings the antiquarian uncanny of the metropolis into the present. A second instance of this architectural-antiquarian uncanny occurs in the Calcutta/Kolkata metro in Corridor. Petr Gibas writing about the Prague metro notes: The metro is full of (hidden) spaces taken over by technology or inhabited by unseen inhabitants – escalator technicians, electricians, cleaners, station managers, platform guards. . . . Passengers usually do not think about the necessary existence of vast technological spaces in the backstage of the metro, or they ignore them. . . . The glimpse of backstage metro spaces or of dimly lit tunnels leading seemingly into infinity can arouse uncanny feelings. The metro is not a haunted house, but it is uncanny as testified by all those horror movies set in an underground metro that acquire their emotional weight from it. (2012: 493) In the novel Brighu enters the metro station and is the only passenger waiting for a train (91). The platforms are empty. He purchases a ticket from a counter (not an automated machine), but we are not given a glimpse of the ticketing manager at the counter. There are two panels devoted to Brighu’s descent into the underground, and in both cases the visual depicts two escalators that seem to frame the stairs on which Brighu is the only human. The panels convey a sense of immensity also because the visual shows Brighu facing us as he descends: we see him coming down the vast stairs in four panels on this page. The frame of the last wider panel on the page showing Brighu on the stairs hemmed in by the escalators positions him inside what might even be a gigantic maw. On the train there is only one other passenger, a woman, who seems interested in Brighu (94). Throughout the trip, from the moment he enters the station till he gets off, Brighu is introspecting about the relations between men and women (91–4). The entire metro stretch then becomes the space where he confronts pragmatically his dilemma vis-á-vis Kali. In the underground space of the metro (the underground, buried beneath the city, is itself a space of the uncanny) we witness rationalization and systematization of a very high order (Gibas). Signs of this rationalization and systematization are everywhere: numbers, instructions, destinations and the ubiquitous advertisements (92–3). Brighu reaches greater heights of ratiocination and argumentation (with himself) in the depths of the isolated underground
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in a sort of inverse proportioning. We, like Brighu, do not encounter any other humans in there. It is almost as though the vast spaces of the underground – and these are some of the few visuals in Corridor that are truly
Figure 2.1 Sarnath Banerjee, Corridor. New Delhi: Penguin, 2004. 91.
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panoramic – enable an entry into the spaces of the mind. The descent into the caverns of the metro is also symbolic of Brighu’s descent into the recesses of his mind to consider how he feels about Kali and relationships. The emptiness of the metro station and its environs echoes the emptiness of Brighu’s emotional self – he is now able to deal with the separation from Kali in very pragmatic, indeed non-emotional, terms. The clean-cut, sanitized, aseptic underground – the lines are straight, there are no curves, except the ends of the escalators – becomes, therefore, an uncanny space that echoes the space of his mind. If there are people in the metro station, we do not see them in any image. The people who operate the trains are also, strangely, missing: it is a ghost station. This too echoes Brighu’s mind because it is devoid of the attachments that tether him to people. Devoid of people in the physical realm the underground empties the people from Brighu’s head as well. Thus, deep beneath the surface lies the underground, and the more pragmatic machinations of the mind. The antiquarian uncanny is the repetition and recurrence of the past in various material forms in the present. The space of the metropole is transformed into a space of the experience of this uncanny, of spectres, ghosts and terrifying emptinesses that then call for a close scrutiny of the mind. This combined form contributes to the Gothic sense of a text like Corridor because it suggests a subtext, very often a threatening one, to the ‘modern’ Indian city. In other cases, such as Come You Lost Atoms, the present is indistinct from the past in crucial ways, just as the past might only be read as anterior moments of a future city. The uncanny doublings in this text enable the authors to offer alternative histories of the city. A case in point would be the story of the famous ‘fish medicine’ for asthma patients administered annually in Hyderabad city in the month of June, by members of one family. In this text the rejected PhD candidate who has been transported to Ashfaq’s Hyderabad runs into a roadside healer. The medicines he serves are to be first consumed by a bear standing next to him. The patients then have to eat the bear. As a result of this prescription he has few customers. The young man from the future tells him: ‘Forget the bear, bring on a fish.’ The antiquarian uncanny is at once an echo of the past in the present as much as an anticipation of the present in the past. Garbled and messy histories of cities are the effect of such an uncanny: each of these texts suggests that there is no other history possible.
Spectral geographies of the self The antiquarian, however, is only one of the modes through which the Indian graphic narrative maps the psychogeography of the contemporary city. In other narratives there is no attempt to return to the past, to excavate
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and reveal the material remnants of the past. Instead we have spaces where the self disintegrates. ‘Spectral geography’ is my term not for haunted landscapes but spaces where the self seems to lose its coherence, its self-hood. The body, to adapt Kelly Hurley’s study of dissolving bodies in Gothic fiction (2004), might or might not dissolve but the sense of self appears to blur, turn ghostly. A text that gives us such a spectral geography and the dissolving self is Amruta Patil’s Kari. Set in Bombay/Mumbai, some time in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century, Kari does not have ancient castles or labyrinthine passages. But there are crazy heights, surprising roads, alleys and darkened avenues, and threatening spaces. The first image in Kari is one of Kari and her lover, Ruth, their hearts connected via shared arteries, but with Ruth having snapped off a link, so that the blood is pouring out of the artery (3) (see Plate 1). The text accompanying this medical Gothic image reads: ‘There are two of us, not one. Despite a slipshod medical procedure, we are joined still’ (3). Ruth is the foreign body haunting Kari and vice versa. If the uncanny is the sense of the foreign at the heart of the self, at the origins (Royle 2), then Kari experiences herself as double, as Ruth’s double but also as having herself doubled, repeated. The opening line, ‘there are two of us, not one’, becomes then an attempt to exorcise the other: to claim a selfhood as unitary, as one, not two or doubled. Soon after this we have the panel with the heroine, Kari, jumping off a high-rise immediately after her lover, Ruth, has jumped from the opposite building (4). Ruth apparently survives due to the safety mesh in the building, (5) and Kari ends up in the sewer. The image following the suicide panels throws up the urban Gothic theme: the crowded city and the crowded plane on which Ruth leaves the city (6–7). The image is an aerial view so that the high-rises are all flattened out, and Ruth is shown in an inset panel looking down at the city she is leaving behind for good. She floats above the city, like a ghost or guardian angel. Thus on all three pages Patil deploys space, especially the dizzying verticality of space and its emotional correlate (psychogeography) – of Ruth and Kari’s heightened, dramatized passion reflected in the hyperbolic statement ‘the person who loved you the most’ (4). Ruth survives due to the safety net. Kari lands in the sewer and emerges stinking. The visual shows her crawling up an embankment towards a landscape of high-rises that look at once anonymous and threatening, with so many windows/eyes looking down at her (as opposed to Ruth who is looking down at the city). Kari – who is narrating the story – says she was ‘saved by the stinking river of effluents that snakes past’ her neighborhood. She wishes she had ‘lingered within its loving coils’ and drowned. Instead, she ‘crawled’ out of it and into a ‘landfill’ and ‘into the fray’ which is the city
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(8). The urban Gothic is inaugurated in this spatial discrepancy between up and down: Kari being stared down at by the monstrous buildings for being a woman who could not even kill herself well, and Ruth looking down at a city she is leaving to start afresh elsewhere. What we have here is the subterranean Gothic: Kari’s descent into and immersion in the urban sewer from which she emerges, like all heroes, transformed. If, in Corridor, Brighu also descends into the underground and comes out having rationalized his life and relationships, Kari emerges from the underground sewers altered for good. But there are other features of the opening pages that need to be attended to. Ruth survives her suicidal jump because she gets caught in a safety net placed around the building and Kari falls into effluence which saves her. As she falls, Kari passes Ruth caught in the net and thinks: ‘held within a protective cradle’ (5). The invocation of ‘cradle’ draws our attention to the rebirth theme. Both survive, and Ruth leaves town while Kari continues with a ‘renewed’ life: ‘A failed suicide is death still, because no one emerges from it unscathed’ (10). In other words, both carry the sense of death within their ‘new’ lives. There is ‘death still’ in the living body, as Kari realizes. This reinforces the Gothic elements of the text when Patil imbues life with the indelible sense of death: even a new, or renewed, life is haunted by the death they so barely evaded. Having emerged from the sewers Kari moves up, on the vertical plane (having plummeted to the depths, she can only move up). She spends hours on the water tank of her building, Crystal Palace (89). Towards the end she is again on the terrace and contemplating jumping off, and speculating on the reactions of neighbours, passers-by and the birds (112–13). The contemporary Gothic, writes Catherine Spooner, consists of spaces of absence where, even in ‘easy reach of civilization, one could disappear without a trace’ (2006: 48). Patil marks urban spaces as spaces of alienation and disappearance. Minimal interactions and phatic conversations mark even her own residence that she shares with Billo and Delna. On the public transport Kari thinks: ‘In this city, no one talks . . . two inches from one another and expressionless’ (42). It is a city that does not let her breathe. Strange and unfamiliar roads emerge (43) in this city. The road appears one day on her walk to the workplace, and she cannot find it later. Like the traditional Gothic’s strange, shifting and disturbing labyrinths, or a Kafkaesque door meant only for one person, the road is a road for Kari alone to take. However, Kari’s anxiety attacks (90) and sense of alienation are not contingent upon a fear of disappearing into the alienating spaces of the city but of becoming invisible, being rendered invisible, even within her little community. Paranoiac aesthetics (Nayar 2012b) kicks into overdrive when the images show her curled up on her bed on the floor in her home. In the three images that depict this anxiety attack, we have a metonymic
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organization (we shall return to the metonymy of the body in a while). We first see Kari’s head on the pillow (panel 1). In the second we see her hand beside her head (we see the back of her head) clutching the pillow (panel 2). In the third, large visual that takes up the lower half of the page we see the mattress is on an island, floating in a sea and surrounded by what look like rocks. The text has Kari saying ‘please let me breathe!’ (panel 3). The metonymic representation and the final visual show increasing alienation and suggest a paranoiac aesthetic of loneliness and fear: floating on a mattress in unfriendly waters, perhaps.
Spaces of desire, spaces of vulnerability Urban spaces are spaces of alternative and disruptive sexuality in accounts of psychogeography (Ho). But desire and sexuality lead often to trauma in the Indian graphic narrative, thus proposing that spaces of urbanity are as uncongenial to freedom as any other space. Thus Gothic urban geographies are spaces of longing, and trauma. The psychogeography of urban spaces as seen in the Indian graphic narrative maps the enormous sexual energies flowing across and through the metropolis, in Kari, Corridor, BOWC, Local Monsters and other texts. Shintu, Brighu, Kali, Kari, Ruth and their numerous escapades, sexual tensions and dynamics lend to the graphic narrative a whole new dimension: of portraying the city as an eroticized geography.
Domesticity and graphic desires In Corridor the hakim offers Shintu a detailed prognosis, suitably laced with threats and cautionary tales of excessive sexuality and uncontrolled desires (57–69). The hakim also shows Shintu portraits of withered/emasculated men, claiming that those who masturbate excessively become this way, and virile pehelwans. Shintu’s love life is fraught and takes a comic turn when the maid mixes up the aphrodisiac with the hair oil (101–2), as Banerjee concludes this tale with two satiric visuals. One shows a brain and the accompanying text reads: ‘Sex is in the mind, silly’ (101). The last visual in this episode shows Maya the maid, with half a moustache, and a tuft of hair standing up on end (102). Shintu’s horror hinges on the recognition of his exploitation, because he now believes he was simply given hair oil in lieu of a genuine aphrodisiac. Our horror comes when we see how one individual’s sexual anxiety has effected a grotesque transformation in another (Maya). The erotic geography of Corridor maps both the libidinal and sexual economy, often in the literal sense, considering the market in aphrodisiacs and porn that Banerjee superbly tracks, across the city and domestic realms,
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in order to demonstrate how spaces are united in the quest for sexual satisfaction. What Banerjee and Patil (in Kari) both point to is the horror of loss of sexuality, sexual satisfaction and sexual loyalties in the urban context. Robert Mighall has argued that the urban Gothic is the new world infested with ‘old fears’ (2007: 58), and what we see in both Kari and Corridor is precisely such a contradiction, that the youth of this new world continue to worry about the same old things. In a text like Kari the Gothic instability of urban spaces is matched by the domestic arrangements of the protagonists. If in the traditional Gothic, familial tensions produce terror and traumatic alienation, in Kari it is the absence of the expected woman-woman bonding that generates Kari’s trauma. ‘When I first came here I had expected walk-in sisterhood. . . . This warbling Little Women camaraderie is a badge that must be painstakingly earned,’ says Kari. The accompanying visuals show her asking Delna if she wants some of the soup she, Kari, had made. Delna, engrossed in something, doesn’t even pay attention. ‘Huh’? . . . ‘No’, she responds before turning back to whatever she is reading (18). The space of alienation is not the big bad city, but the cocoon of comfort called ‘home’ that she had initially seen as a refuge. Patil deploys a paranoiac aesthetic to document this loss (of comfort zones), of the depiction, visually and verbally, of Kari’s alienation from her settings. This alienation is compounded when Kari notes the exponential increase of objects around her house. This is what she records: Other places are equally busy. Three racks, for example, shared by three women and two permanently visiting houseguest men. All five share the top of the cistern. Five people have six soap dishes, five loofahs, eight razors, four bottles of shampoo. Two towels, three pyjamas, a bridal bra, talc on the floor. Strands of conditioned hair on the drain cover, novel tucked away in the blinds, a paper-covered something someone forgot to throw away. (19) The proliferation of things that take up all available space and seem to haunt Kari’s existence suggests an object Gothic within the home. Kari’s numerically precise account in the preceding passage not only conveys a sense of crowded spaces but also of an attempt to exercise some form of textual control over that space by enumerating and cataloguing. Paranoiac aesthetics enable Patil to show the proliferation of objects and the concomitant erosion of the human individual, or perhaps the transference of individuality away from the human to the objects used/owned by the human. Kari’s horror is not out there in the urban spaces of the city but within the place she calls home. Thus Patil first offers us an urban Gothic but eventually
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ensures we see horror as domestic. Domesticity in Kari does not always become a refuge from the urban chaos. In the text domesticity is essentially reduced to signs of consumption – food, drink, bodies in the form of multiple sexual liaisons – and appears devoid of companionship. That Kari seeks to escape the alienation of her home by visiting the house of the dying Angel suggests a kind of inescapability about alienation and trauma: it is only with the dying that Kari finds true solace and comfort. Thus both domesticity and the city are spaces of uncertainty and instability in Kari, and fantasy (maybe Kari’s fantasy of Ruth?) is the only means of escape. That Kari works in an ad-agency creating fantasies around hair gel and cosmetics seems only to underline the quasi-real environments of their lives. Patil does not make it clear whether Ruth ever did exist. At one point in the tale Laz wonders aloud: ‘I’m not sure the Ruth bitch even existed’ (79). So is Ruth merely a figment of Kari’s imagination, a double? If the urban Gothic in graphic narrative relies on the uncanny, then Kari seems to have mapped the geography of Bombay/Mumbai with individuals who are spectral, or didn’t exist: Ruth and Angel who, of course is disappearing, literally, with her cancer.
The gynaecological Gothic The passion of women in Kari, it would seem, is doomed to discontent and disaster. What characterizes all relationships in the tale is trauma, but the trauma is gendered, and is affecting the women alone. There is also, in this form of the Gothic, a clear emphasis on the corporeal, the reproductive and feminine sexuality as the source and site of entropy, trauma and anxiety. For instance, a text like Kari reasserts the primacy of the physical- neurological where ‘physicality situates an uncanny dimension that intrudes upon routine life in the form of stroke, coronary, dream and nightmare, the menstrual cycle, childbirth, menopause, and so on’, as Jack Morgan puts it in his study of the ‘biology of horror’ (2002: 3). All the gendered items Morgan lists are present in Kari, in addition, of course, to Angel’s cancer. With her flat-mate Billo, Kari tells us, there is always ‘lurking danger’ and ‘the promise of a betrayal that men can never resist’ (22). Then Billo gets pregnant, by Vicky and not her regular boyfriend, Zap, and decides to abort the baby. Next follows a series of ‘gynaecological Gothic’ (Fischer 1992; Scahill 2010) graphic narratives. Billo’s trauma about her pregnancy is only half of the gynaecological Gothic, and I shall return to the foetus theme in a while. Kari, as we now know, has ended a passionate affair with Ruth in as final, if clichéd, a way as possible: by attempting suicide. Kari is left bitter and deeply unhappy. The mocking and the teasing over her lesbian interests that mark the relationships within the determinedly heterosexual household of Crystal Palace transform the passion of women into something
Figure 2.2 Amruta Patil, Kari. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2008. 98.
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illicit, which is in the fitness of the Gothic genre again, with its obsession with illicit passions. Kari, it is suggested, is partly in love with Angel, dying of cancer and shorn of all hair due to her chemo, although, Kari admits, it might have been Angel’s ‘dying [she] was drawn to’ (38). It is Angel’s emaciated and rapidly dying body that Kari seems drawn to. Death and the ‘actively dying person’ as Kari terms Angel (36) are what interest the former in life. Kari is Angel’s boatman, designated to ferry her across when she was about to die (40). Whether this role is assigned to Kari because she essentially escaped death, Patil leaves unclear. Later Kari is present when Angel dies (102), as the boatman who is around when the last breath leaves the body. In each case we have the stereotypical woman-in-distress theme of the Gothic tale. Billo, Ruth, Kari and Angel are all, in some way or the other, damaged and deranged, negotiating loss and discontent. By portraying Kari as a near-androgynous woman, Patil’s ‘paranoiac aesthetics’ (Nayar 2012b) also problematizes gender roles. Angel has willed her body to medical science and therefore expects to be dismembered and studied as well (104). Angel, says Kari, ‘found it vastly entertaining that young medical school boys would be experimenting with her’. Angel said ‘ “At my age, you take what you get” ’ (104). The body here is ‘desired’ in wholly different ways, and Patil transforms the body into a site of quests, experiments and incisions rather than desire.4 If in traditional Gothic texts the body is transformed into something else – vampire, alien, monster – Patil depicts a living cadaver in the case of Angel, a body unable to deal with itself in keeping with its biology in the case of Kari (one of her friends asks Kari ‘don’t you ever remember when your periods are due?’ 80) and a more or less ghostly ‘figure’ in the form of Ruth. Patil complicates the theme of love and desire by swiftly causing the women protagonists to suffer psychological disintegration. In conjunction with her own death-wish is Kari’s obsession with the dying Angel. The suffering flesh, so central to the horror genre and not uncommon to the Gothic, and embodied here in Angel, is central to the paranoiac aesthetics of Kari. When Angel clarifies that her bald head is the consequence of her illness and not a part of her sexuality (‘I am bald because I am sick, not because I am butch’, 38), she unwittingly offers up her suffering body as the object of desire. Kari goes to Angel, as the latter bluntly puts it, ‘for [her] daily fix of decay’ (72). If, as Kelly Hurley noted (2004), the dissolving or disintegrating body was the corporeal centre of turn-of-the-century Gothic fiction, then Angel’s suffering body takes the centre stage here. The foetus in a bottle is also an instance of the troubled corporeality of Kari. Kari, on hearing Billo’s pregnancy and imminent abortion, recalls her school-day fascination for foetuses and specimens in the biology laboratory of
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her school (97). Later visuals dwell incessantly on the foetal theme. A manhole cover lies open, and we are shown legs and feet encased in scuba-diving gear (97). The entire page consists of panels that appear fragmented. The body of the eyewitness (Kari) is also shown only metonymically: eyes and legs-feet. In a technique that reminds one of Spiegelman’s cult work, Maus, the splitting of the panel and the fragmentation of the eyewitness’ body parallel each other. The fragmented state of the eyewitness’ body symbolizes the cleaving of Billo’s body when her foetus is separated from her body. Then we are shown a silhouette of a scuba diver and a baby wrapped in some kind of tentacles or weeds (98). The trapped and eventually drowned foetus recalls the desire to drown that Kari expresses early in the tale, where she wishes she had been trapped in the coils of the river.5 The diver is Kari, we now see, and she calls the foetus/baby a ‘truncated wretch’ thus reinforcing the image of dismemberment and fragmentation. Dismemberment and troubled corporeality occurs in a different version in Delna’s case. She had come to Bombay to become an actress but ended up as a ‘hand-and-foot stand-in’ (22). In films she becomes somebody’s hands and somebody else’s feet (23). Thus, instead of becoming a star body, Delna becomes the body ‘spare-parts’ (or body doubles) of Aishwarya Rai and other stars. She becomes, in other words, a part-body. We are also given vivid accounts of Kari’s nightmares. She first sees herself as a boatman for the souls of the recently dead (31). In her dreams, sometimes, she rows towards the ‘House of the West’ where the dead sleep, but her canoe is broken in half on the trip (56). Uncannily, the boatman theme for Kari is repeated completely unexpectedly by Angel, who calls Kari her boatman (102). Now how does Angel know of Kari’s dreams of being a boatman? How does she know of Kari’s suicide attempt after which the boatman nightmares begin? The doubling of the boatman theme – Kari’s dream and Angel’s real-life endorsement of Kari as her personal boatman – is paralleled by the boatman (Kari) acquiring a more-than-passing resemblance to her ‘passenger’ (Angel). When she is about to receive an award for her co-created advertisement, Kari also gets a closely cropped hair style, remarkably akin to Angel’s head (107). Although it is not made clear whether Kari intends to resemble the now-dead Angel, the doubling of appearance generates the visual’s uncanniness. I propose that in Kari the home is unhomely (Freud’s ‘unheimlich’), and except for the repeated attempts to feed people, cook and consume there is nothing of the expected ‘homeliness’ in Kari’s apartment. The place where she appears most comfortable is the space of Angel’s home, filled with the sense of Angel’s impending death from cancer. And, of course, there is always the unspoken presence of Ruth in all of Kari’s interactions. Ruth is the repressed who/that haunts Kari’s
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relationships and spaces, and also represents the spectre who/that will not be exorcised. However, there is another possible reading of this gynaecological Gothic in Kari, and one that links this to the uncanny. Images of parturition, burial and death, several of which I have examined earlier, abound in Patil’s text on the opening pages. Let me return to the biomedical-clinical Gothic visual with which the text opens: Ruth and Kari with linked hearts and an imprecise medical procedure at separation. This visual has a particular link with the uncanny as well.6 I invoke the ‘clinical’ as a term for its resonances as identified by Nicholas Royle: ‘clinical’ from the Greek klinikos, from kline, ‘a bed’. Royle pointing to these several meanings therefore speaks of ‘a bed of repose and suspension, and a death-bed’ (148). But also detaining us here is Royle’s reading of the ‘burial alive’ motif in Freud and Poe as suggesting a double movement: ‘womb from tomb and tomb for womb’ (144). Life in the womb is uncanny (144), just as ‘burial alive’ is uncanny (144–5). The burial alive is uncanny because one is ‘seemingly dead’ (149). Images of burial, birth and drowning recur through the narrative. Kari is born again when she survives the suicide attempt when she falls into the sewers. She wishes she had allowed the effluence to ‘drown’ her (8). In her dreams of being a boatman she sees ‘grey water’ that ‘cracked’ her canoe, and could at any time ‘sink [her] without a trace’ (56). There is a detailed account of the Ganesh immersion where ‘the sea snarls . . . ready to swallow anything, mortal or not, that is lowered into her’ (92). Kari imagines rowing through this area the day after the immersion, ‘navigat[ing] through the narrowest veins’ (93). The sea is full of ‘carcasses and plastic bags’ (93). In the sewers of her imagination, Kari encounters the ‘truncated wretch’ of the baby (98). The gynaecological Gothic presents an uncanny in the surreal merging of life and death, birthing and dying, the living and the dead, the moments of birth and the moments of death, where each moment or event in these binaries is linked uncannily with its other. The variety of birthing, parenting and dying themes and images in Kari mixes birth and death, dead bodies and living ones. The living ones are delivered up to us as near-death, drowning and buried alive in sewers. Foetuses in water (Kari’s nightmare) and gods in water (the Ganesh idol) coexist with (a new) life that emerges from slime: Kari who comes out of the slime of the sewers after the suicide attempt. Slime’s very ambivalent texture – between land and water, both land and water – makes it uncanny (Giblett 1996: 32–4). Hence Kari’s immersion in and subsequent rising out of this eerie substance of ambiguous consistency and ontological indeterminacy dissolves dreams, memories and reality. Slime’s primordial nature (Rushdie 2002: 407) becomes the means and site of a new birth, and the precise moment when Kari hoped to die. Indeed, Kari
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coming out of slime is the return of the primordial (which, for Freud, was an instance of the uncanny, 1971: 393). Wombs, crucial sites of the uncanny and the repressed (Berthin 2010: 81), are illustrated in numerous ways in Kari. Billo’s promiscuous life – the many men who grace her bed pretending to be her ‘cousins’ (94) – and Kari’s desire to have a baby with Ruth (100) are interwoven with images of foetuses in bottles and Kari’s obsession with the dying Angel. The foetus in the bottle that Kari sees as a child, the nightmare of a drowning or about-tobe-born (it is uncertain whether the child is drowning or about to be born) are representations of her repressed desire for a child, to be able to generate new life. (The death of babies, Dawn Keetley argues in the context of American horror television, is ‘a powerful sign of its vision of a failing futurity’, 2013: 93.) Seemingly-alive figures like Angel merge with almost-dead Ruth (if she was ever alive in the first instance). Wombs function as tombs when the women do not wish their babies to be born: ‘nothing should live that isn’t a labour of great, great love’ (Patil 98). Tombs – the sewers that serve as possible places of death – end up yielding life and are therefore the uncanny double of the womb. In the watery tomb of the Ganesh idols. Kari encounters an infant, and thus the tomb uncannily replicates a womb. Birth and death, living and dying are uncanny versions of each other in Kari. The events around Ruth might all be in Kari’s unconscious or subconscious. Ruth is buried in Kari’s subconscious, even as most of her nightmares are to do with burial and drowning. Kari’s drowning (but not dying) in the sewers merges her psychic topography with the physical topography of the city sewers. The sewers themselves, we could argue, represent the site of the city’s subconscious – its dirt, literally, flowing under the city. The tale ends with Kari on the terrace, perhaps contemplating throwing herself off the apartment yet again. But it is another girl, the one who feeds pigeons, who does so (112). And this is where the uncanny comes roaring back. The full-page visual shows a figure lying on the ground, ostensibly dead. The text prints Kari’s thoughts: ‘I imagine myself in Pigeon girl’s place – a split open bag of skin on tar.’ The textboxes inside the visual give us the exclamations of the witnesses and watchers: That’s Kari! Ohmygod! Wow! Has she died or what! (113) The déjà vu – which Royle identifies as a key component of the uncanny (172–86) – that we experience is that of Kari’s as well: she sees herself, imagines herself in the dead girl’s place.
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The image of the girl jumping is in silhouette as usual, but the girl appears to be in a dress or a skirt. The image of the dead girl on the following page shows the body in a T-shirt and trousers. Thus the optical uncanny accompanies or rather drives the déjà vu for us: the girls seem to exchange places in the space and sequence of the panels. We make what Scott McCloud called ‘subjectto-subject transition’ (71) here when we see the girl’s jump and see the dead body so that we visualize Kari jumping to her death: a scene we have already witnessed in the opening pages of the text. (The polyptych – moving figure/s imposed over a continuous background to indicate motion in comics – in both cases, of Kari’s attempted suicide (5) and that of the Pigeon Girl’s (112) resonate with each other so as to compound our déjà vu). Also accompanying the sense of déjà vu is the anonymity of the dead body: just ‘a split open bag of skin on tar’. The dead girl and Kari could exchange places in death, if they could not do so in life. Recall here that the text began with the statement ‘there are two of us, not one’ and showed Ruth and Kari connected to each and attempting a separation. On the last pages, the two girls, one dead (the ‘Pigeon Girl’) and one alive, become one in Kari’s mind. The fact that the neighbours assume immediately that the dead girl is Kari lends credibility to Kari’s and our déjà vu. The story begins with entropy and dissolution (of relationships, bodies) and ends with a version of stasis: Kari decides to live.
Urban spaces and anthropocene visuality Amruta Patil’s fascination for vulnerable spaces of domesticity continues in ‘Atlantis’, a seven-page narrative included in The Obliterary Journal – I (2012). Patil opens with a visual of the earth’s three layers, core, mantle and crust, with the core and mantle in different shades of red and the thin crust showing tiny silhouettes of skyscrapers over which hangs a dark blue-black night sky with scattered clouds. The text reads: ‘Upon this skinny, shifting surface [crust] we plant our heels, our flags, our tap root, our metropolis’ (145). Patil has already underscored the instability of the surface – ‘shifting’ – upon which mankind builds domestic spaces, such as the residential tower of Atlantis. One of the two residents of the ninth floor notes the irony of the name, indicative of ‘both, glory days and sinking’ (146). Patil then offers us a veritable inventory of vulnerability and instability: Visual: The silhouetted figure of a man making his way up the side of a tower using a rope. Accompanying text: ‘a young lad who risk[s] his life every week to clean the windows of (and remove the beehives from) a twentystorey building’. (146) Visual: the adjacent slum, viewed from the high-rise.
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Accompanying text: ‘Instead of keeping their eyes on Atlantis’ scenic stomach-shaped Infinity pool with its Ionic-pillar cabana, the residents’ gaze keeps returning to the other side . . . the land currently serves as a garbage dump and home to a family of squatters. Hundreds of high-altitude eyes watch hungrily as scruffy private dramas unfold in full public view.’ (147) A couple trying to sleep and the woman feeling some vibrations or hearing a noise wonders loudly if it is an earthquake. (148) Visual: a window and to the right of the same panel an extended root with its extensive branching. Accompanying text: ‘Unbeknownst to the folks on the seventh floor, a Ficus sapling has set root in a crack on their parapet that will, one day, bring it all crashing down. The window cleaner saw it, but decided to let it pass on account of being livid with his supervisor.’ (150) Visual: of the earth’s layers and a fault line. Accompanying text: describing how ‘only great violence that can renew the crust of our planet’. Second visual: of Mihir sitting in doorway, in the foreground the urn containing the ashes of his recently deceased wife. Accompanying text: about Mihir’s inability to cope with the loss. (151) Visual: the first visual of the three earth layers again, but now in different colours: core is dark green, mantle red and the crust is under a dirty brown-green sky. Accompanying text: describes how the residents of Atlantis never say they will be staying in the tower ‘always’ but only ‘until’. ‘Asked how long they think Atlantis will remain standing inhabitants only laugh the belly laugh of a rogue sage. Live as if there is no tomorrow, but pack your overnight bag just in case.’ (152) The Gothic in the contemporary age, Spooner has proposed, is all about surface (2006). But Patil’s urban Gothic, I propose, hinges upon a tension between a glamourous surface and unstable depth, between human ambition and the geological foundation of lives. Patil’s urban Gothic in ‘Atlantis’ is a geologic Gothic. The entire work might be read through the theory of anthropocene visuality. Nicholas Mirzoeff, the visual studies theorist, has proposed (2014) that such a visuality enables us to ignore the environmental destruction we have produced and to continue to remain wedded to high consumption, despite the effects it has on the biosphere. In Mirzoeff’s reading of environmental visualizations of the planet, an anthropocene visuality obscures rather than reveals environmental and social inequalities. Mirzoeff’s argument enables
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us to see the critique implicit in Patil’s urban tale. Patil takes the literal and metaphoric heights of human achievement – the high-rise accommodation in metropolises – and transforms them into figures of imminent collapse and social inequality. Impermanence and instability mark the lives of people in the ominously named building, Atlantis. First, the surface glamour of the building is constantly being undermined by something deeply unstable about it. The story opens and closes with a reference to the shifting earth on which humans build their spaces of sanctuary, love and security. Patil’s representation of the high-rise and the lifestyle of its inhabitants is a critique of the anthropocene visuality of contemporary culture: we portray and see Ionic pillars, stylish buildings, rooftop gardens (as the girl on the fifteenth floor in the tale) but not the sapling putting down roots. We, of course, do not see, or wish to see, the shifting earth underneath. Patil extends this instability outwards from the earth, with its shifting crust and tectonic plates, to the building itself, making a larger point about lives lived under the shadow of extermination and ephemerality. But signs that things are not quite okay occur throughout for us to register, even if these are invisible to the residents of Atlantis. There is the Ficus sapling that seems to cover the entire left side of the building/ panel on the page. Then there is the accompanying premonitory statement by the narrator about how this plant will bring it all ‘crashing down’. Second, we, like the residents of Atlantis, register the slum inhabitants who live closer to earth and whose tents and ramshackle houses are less threatened by earthquakes than the expensive high-rises. As Patil puts it, the people who watch from the high-rise do so ‘hungrily’. This is the anthropocene visuality that Patil critiques: the high-rise dwellers gaze upon the slum and the garbage bin but do not see the social conditions that created these. The window-washer who climbs twenty floors and hangs from a rope in the air is an anonymous worker, a window-washer without a name or identity. The accompanying text informs us that he has an MA in ancient Indian history, thus offering an implicit critique of a society where the overqualified young man risks his life at this kind of a job. But more can really be discerned in Patil’s subdued and powerful visualization. His degree is not, even metaphorically, his ticket to upward mobility in the society. Instead he continues to remain trapped in the literal and risky physical rise in his menial job. That he exists in the panel as a mere shadowy silhouette is symbolic of the fringe-existence he leads: suspended between the ranks of the social order and the structural order/difference of earth-dwellers and high-rise residents. His is a literal life-threatening climb along the high-rise, as a compensatory, if savage, allegory for the absence of a social rise. The increasing distance from the terra firma, as the anthropologist, the voice of the critical narrator in the text, says, is ironic because ‘for a biped
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mammal designed to live off the land, we took such great pains to distance ourselves from it’ (150). The dwellers see the distance but not the distancing from terra firma and the social inequalities that enable them to forge this distance and distancing. The people on the ground live their lives under the gaze of those who live far away, high in the air. The people in the air see the distance but not their own instability brought on as a result of the distance/ing. If the Gothic is all about surface and no depth, Patil’s critique of anthropocene visuality enabled by the form of the graphic narrative presents a nightmare scenario of shifting foundations, high-rise buildings and indeed, on the opening and closing pages, of civilization itself. The true horror of urban existence in Patil’s tale is the anthropocene visuality that causes us to fix our gaze on distances, heights, poor-lowly lives but cannot see the inherent instability of the position from which we gaze. The psychogeography of urban India in Patil is one of vulnerability, anxiety, excessive pride in property and possessions and a tragic indifference to the social realities around oneself.
National character and the urban Gothic Lurking beneath the rhetoric of an India on the move (‘We Make New India’ is the popular slogan, 179) is a subtext of violence, old-world feudal attitudes in Delhi Calm, a graphic narrative that deploys Gothic elements in urban settings in entirely new ways, as we shall now see. One of the leading commentators on the Gothic, David Punter, has proposed that the Gothic might point to the ‘unbalanced difference between official and unofficial history’ (Punter 1996: 187). In the cases I study here the official is haunted by the unofficial story. DC foregrounds, as we have already noted in Chapter One, the violence of the state as it intrudes into everyday life and meaning-making. The state also appears throughout this text – which is again set mostly in urban India – as an engine of new development schemes and grandiose plans for the country. At the forefront of these plans is the ‘People’s Car Project’ – a historical reference to the making of the Maruti car, Sanjay Gandhi’s pet project, whose planning and production are coterminous with the period of the Emergency (158–60). Through the narrative the state slogans are tethered to ideas about development and hard work that will transform India. The state thus projects a particular national character for the new India through these newly discovered virtues – population control, discipline, punctuality – and, of course, the culture of enterprise embodied in the People’s Car Project. What Ghosh does is to take the rhetoric of ‘national character’ and place it alongside a rhetoric that brings back images and memories of a wholly different world. Or rather, he takes the package of enterprise culture and new virtues for a new India and contaminates the same with an entirely ‘old-world’
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tale adapted from arguably one of the most iconic scenes in Bollywood: from the movie Sholay. Using the set of dialogues that began with Gabbar Singh’s stunning ‘kitne aadmi the’ (‘how many men?’) Ghosh transforms the portrait of ‘national character’ into a (Gothic) setting of injuries, trauma and murder. That is, what Ghosh does with the text of Sholay adapted for the Emergency’s more brutal projects is to demonstrate the uneasy tension between a projected national character of enterprise and new virtues and the atrocities against the nation’s subjects in the guise of this same national character. The panel’s visuals – the legs of Gabbar Singh/population control administrator – are direct take-offs on the Sholay scenes and are accompanied by the famous query: ‘hmm . . . how many were they?’ (DC 182). It continues; ‘Arre, o Sambo, what targets has the government set for us?’ ‘Full 50, 000 sterilisations . . . as far as 50 miles from here, when a child cries, the mother says . . . sleep my child, or else the Saviour will come and sterilise your father.’ Then, in place of the Gabbar Singh revolver, we have the administrator carrying a blade. The famous execution scene from Sholay is riffed across three panels: Castrated I, castrated II, castrated IIIs. (183) Ghosh converts the Emergency’s most notorious programme, sterilization, into a reference point in order to convey the true nature of the twisted ‘national character’ rhetoric. Using Gabbar Singh, perhaps a character of national appeal if not a national ‘character’, as a mimetic approximation of the Emergency’s oppressive administrators and henchmen, Ghosh redraws/ redefines the much-touted national character as being founded on terror and trauma. The deployment of the well-known lines from Sholay where the mother cautions the child about the threat to the father and the castration/ killing of the three ‘loser’ and uncooperative henchmen invites this reading. The return to, and reprising of, in the form of a Gothic parody (maybe a comic Gothic?), the bandit drama of Sholay and its feudal settings into an India of the Emergency serves as an ironic but revealing, compensatory fiction that undergirds the bleak but hyped-up and bombastic present. That is, just as the antiquarian uncanny underwrites the spaces and events of the present urban India, in Ghosh, the feudal bandit-vigilante story offers an insight into how under the bombast and the hype of national character lurks the very same ‘character’ of a Gabbar Singh, of terror and of trauma. I think of this as an ironic and revealing fiction because we as readers make the connections and transition between this narrative and that of Sholay’s. I consider this as compensatory because, despite the horror being shown to
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Figure 2.3 Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Delhi Calm. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2010. 182.
us, the echoes of the dramatic pleasure offered by Gabbar Singh’s style and Salim-Javed’s original dialogues reverberate through the two pages. The urban Gothic here, then, is the ironic subtext to the ‘national character’ text of DC. The psychogeography of the spaces – for inexplicable reasons the population control administrator and his henchmen are not in the city but on hillocks, reminiscent of Gabbar Singh’s terrain in Sholay – is at once of a triumphalist national ethos and emotion and of trauma, horror and danger.
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Ghosh delivers the Gothic by contaminating the discourse of success, enterprise, adventure and freedom with the Gabbar Singh rhetoric of terror and threat. As our memories are conscripted to the Sholay story-and-dialogue line through the very direct allusions, they also mediate between us and the events of the Emergency. Ghosh, in other words, offers the Gothic psychogeography as a frame in which to read the Emergency’s excesses, where the excess of rhetoric is matched, ironically, by the excess of violence and trauma. The Gothic here, I argue, is essentially so because it questions, through the medium of the Sholay subtext, the idea of a national character that justifies forced sterilization and harms its subjects. In the space of these two pages Ghosh takes post-Independence India’s most famous horror story and merges it with its most popular action-drama film. Ironically, Sholay’s most famous scene becomes the literal and figurative antecedent to the Emergency’s most infamous campaigns by fusing the bandit with the state administrator. If the Gothic thrives on a confusion of categories of the avuncular male-turned predator, or the young virgin-turned vampire, then Ghosh’s free-range adaptation is a truly postcolonial Gothic in its overturning of categories of state/ protector-protected/citizen into state-bandit/injured citizen. An entirely different set of graphic narratives that address this same theme of India’s national character may be found in Sarnath Banerjee’s The Harappa Files. The files are compiled by the ‘Greater Harappa Rehabilitation, Reclamation and Redevelopment Commission’ which, we are told, ‘is a secret think-tank’ that operates ‘from the nether regions of the government’s subconscious’ (11). The ostensible agenda of the group is to ‘conduct a gigantic survey of the current ethnography and urban mythologies of a country on the brink of great hormonal changes’ (11). The rest of the narrative is made of the files the Commission has put together, files that have to be communicated to the general public in an appropriate medium. The person they hire to do this is one ‘Sarnath Banerjee’ who proposes that ‘a series of graphic commentaries that addressed the cracks of post-liberalized India, a fast capitalizing society that suffers from bipolar disorder’ (15) might be the best way to document the country’s present state. The Gothic is anticipated with these opening pages, with the references to secrecy, the subconscious, the ‘nether regions’ and mental illness. But akin to Delhi Calm, this text also aligns state activity with fear and insecurities of citizens. The artist Sarnath Banerjee in THF worries that based on its findings, the committee will release the dreaded Harappa Recommendations and will make it mandatory for all citizens to sign the draconian form 28b. Form 28b will decide everyone’s fate. (15)
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Thus, the state’s project of uncovering ‘cultural, human and material relics’ (15, emphasis added) might result in a particularly oppressive present. The retrieval of ancient ‘national’ details affects the present in ways that shackle the present. In other words, the idea of ‘national character’ is less about the retrieval of a glorious India than about the cultural and political policing of the present. What the files reveal therefore is not history but a set of the state’s unpleasant political aspirations and possibilities for the present. This anticipation of trauma is figured in the announcement on page 18 by the bureaucrat in charge of the commission: ‘the launch of the first volume of The Harappa Files heralds the arrival of a nation’ (18). What emerges from this set of files promising the arrival of a great nation is a psychogeography marked by a collapsing civilizational order, rising emotional insecurity and a history of bad policy, indifferent populace, corruption and hypocrisy. (I shall return to this text in a later chapter, for wholly different reasons.) Banerjee here is locating postcolonial concerns with national identity/character within the threat of dissolution in the age of global capital, with the latter exemplified by the growth of consumer products such as cars in THF’s ‘Nano’ and Nike shoes in Banerjee’s ‘Tito Years’. On the one hand, it becomes impossible to reverse the globalization of India, especially as it comes to represent the aspirations of young boys (to own a pair of Nike, or being enchanted by Hollywood films and rock music). On the other hand, organizations like the commission, if we are alerted into a critical literacy, would represent a thinly disguised version of the numerous Hindu right-wing organizations and their unrelenting campaigns in cultural censorship in contemporary India, to demonize the present and praise the past, in instances like the nostalgia for a traffic-less Indian city and the middle-class objection to sexual freedoms (in Corridor, THF and Kari). The new sexual economies in the graphic narratives’ psychogeography of the city are represented as offering multiple subject positions to the country’s youth.7 * In this chapter I have examined how a psychogeography of urban India is mapped in the graphic narrative. The psychogeography as seen in these narratives pushes the entire aesthetic project towards the Gothic. The antiquarian uncanny exposes the ancient, mystic, mysterious and often unhappy pasts that lie beneath a city. Material absences and ghostly presences from the past intrude into and inform the present. Indian graphic narratives map spectral geographies of the self in the city’s streets, buildings and architecture. Spaces of desire often collapse into spaces of vulnerability in these narratives. Representations of ‘national character’ in such narratives, I have
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argued, often also expose a critique of such a project by demonstrating how beneath the rhetoric and the propaganda is an uncertainty and even a threatening politics that promises not fulfilment of promises but erasure, injury and even extinction. The subtexts of these narratives generate a critical literacy about the reality behind a confident urban India, the unhappiness of people’s professionally successful lives, the often-difficult engagements with the past. The visual symbolism of the Gothic or uncanny beneath and behind urban India in the graphic novels reveals the unstated, or glossed over, social realities of urban India: illiteracy, exploitative labour, patriarchy, among others. When the mask is peeled off the Emergency, as in Delhi Calm, it also reveals the conjunction of interests between business, the state and the law enforcement authorities. The visual symbolism of the mask, like the register of the documentary or popular film, alerts us to the multiple ways in which the past might be delivered to us and consumed. This is precisely the critical literacy generated by the graphic narrative: the alertness to form, modes of representation, strategies of telling and showing in multiple registers whether by the state or individuals. This means, simply, a deserving scepticism toward all forms of storytelling, and a resistance to the pedagogic imperatives of national history or urban legends. Critical literacy draws attention to the possible alternatives and resistance to these pedagogic imperatives.
Notes 1 That the Gothic was a genre primarily devoted to the expression of cultural anxieties of the age has been extensively studied. See Brantlinger (1988), for instance. 2 Older meanings of the word ‘uncanny’ include, David Punter points out, ‘mischievous’, ‘malicious’, ‘careless’, ‘incautious’, ‘unreliable’, ‘not to be trusted’, ‘partaking of a supernatural character’ (Punter 2007: 129). 3 I am indebted to K. Narayana Chandran for this point – he made this observation in a set of detailed, handwritten notes he made for me, with patience, affection and his usual exemplary scholarship in 2006. 4 Dismemberment is a part of the Gothic and the uncanny. Freud wrote: ‘Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist feet which dance by themselves – all this have something peculiarly uncanny about them’ (397). 5 In the early modern period, ensnarement of bodies within vegetation was part of the aesthetic of the ‘natural grotesque’ (Farnham 1971: 11). 6 The ‘clinical Gothic’ is a category Tamara Wagner (2009) has identified within Victorian fiction dealing with substance abuse, including an addiction to novels. 7 On the linkage between global capital, postcolonial concerns with migration and identity, cast within Gothic conventions see Stephen Morton’s (1998) reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride.
3 CULTURAL GRAPHICS
In Samidha Gunjal’s short tale, ‘Someday . . .’ in the powerful new collection of graphic narratives about women in India, Drawing the Line (2015), we see a shot of the urban space a woman traverses. The young and welldressed woman becomes the subject of wolf-whistles and cat-calls. As she continues on her way, she reaches a space where there are only men. In an extraordinary series of tableaus Gunjal transforms this city street into predator-territory. The men begin to grow in size, then blur into unidentifiable ‘things’. Two qualities mark these ‘things’: their physiognomies with staring eyes and gaping maws, and penises. The girl is shrunk and in the midst of these creatures. Later panels will show them completely overwhelming her, being rendered invisible, buried under the men, who are beyond doubt molesting her. But those are more direct representations. The key image is the one I have described in detail, and presents what I take to be a critique, via the visual medium – there are no words or textboxes – of a cultural and social setting. The men are reduced to, or grow into, just staring eyes and predatory genitals. The girl concomitantly shrinks, in the presence of these two bio-anatomical features. As a cultural graphic capturing the ethos of a male-dominated, anti-woman, city street, Gunjal’s work is a disturbing vision of a reality. Chapter Two examined how in the contemporary graphic narrative history was configured through various aesthetic and narrative modes. This chapter builds on the foundations laid in the preceding ones in order to investigate how markers of cultural identity are introduced into the visual vocabulary of the graphic narrative. I am, of course, distinguishing cultural identity and markers from history. I examine markers such as Gunjal’s in the graphic novel’s portrait of harsh realities and unacceptable social conditions as indices of a national identity. Specific domains, such as the family, education or the everyday, in these graphic narratives are seen to carry cultural markers of a new and emergent India. Values and behavioural patterns, of thrift, improvisation-adaptation,
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social unrest, ambition-aspiration, choice and personal effort, alongside bureaucratic obfuscation, government double-speak, corruption are also the subject of stories and visual narratives. There is considerable satirizing of such markers at work, but that is the subject of a later chapter. The cultural markers are never innocent and never just aesthetic in their function. These in fact ensure that we move in and out of the textual frame to consider the social contexts of contemporary India when we see a cultural marker in uneven and unequal visual fields in the texts. Thus, the visual field when it draws us into it and also, simultaneously, makes us aware that it represents an unequal social field. The positionality of characters, the frames of the situation in the panel and the tableau in the panel direct us outward, if we are alert to the formal techniques of the text.
Culture, in and beyond the panel Sarnath Banerjee’s The Harappa Files (THF) offers an exciting new way of ‘marking’ Indian cultural features in the comics format. In several of the ‘files’ – purportedly ‘graphic commentaries on post-liberalized India’ (15) – he eschews the classic comics book structural device, the panel. Instead the visuals occupy very often the entire page or at least a sizeable area of the page. Scott McCloud had argued that in some cases the panel in a comic book runs off the edge of the page, thereby indicating that the event depicted is no longer contained in the cloud or panel but ‘haemorrhages into timeless space’ (103). But what if it is not simply about images bleeding out of panels, uncontained, unrestricted by time and space? What if an icon or image occupies all available space? What if the visual narrative is unbounded, in other words? Aligning Banerjee’s opening statements in – about the work being commentaries on contemporary India and its past – with the technique he uses in the work, I propose that Banerjee presents a two-tiered narrative in ‘The Jaguar Salesman’. The first tier is at the level of the immediate story being told on that/those page/s. As readers we focus on the instant of the event, its immediate, irreproducible and irreversible moment of irruption: a moment in time, a temporal instant. But the second tier is far more expansive. Adapting the work of Anna Reading on mobile witnessing (2011), I propose that the icon or image serves as a cultural instance, or an instance of a cultural condition/characteristic, which is reproducible and communicable. This instance is a cultural instance, an event whose singularity cannot be simply of that moment, but has larger iterations necessary and possible. I propose that Banerjee’s strategy in THF (he does not deploy this in either Corridor or BOWC) is to open up the singularity of a particular moment to signify a cultural condition that cannot be restricted, or read into, just that one moment but must be reiterated. Take for instance one of his best
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pages. In the ‘Jaguar Salesman’ story (THF 32–41) Banerjee narrates how the persuasive salesman functions. But the key visual is the final one. Spread across two interlinked pages, it shows (i) Ratan Tata (ii) the headlines of a newspaper announcing Tata’s purchase of the Jaguar company and (iii) the Tata logo. The caption, serving the purpose of a commentary, running along the top of the pages, reads: ‘Some people will go a step further and buy the entire company . . . and a national daily will blaze with a Times New Roman, 24-pt.-size headline’ (40–1). But there are other features of this crucial final ‘chapter’ in the story that we need to attend to. The Tata logo is neatly arranged like a halo around Ratan Tata’s head on the left page with the newspaper occupying most of the right. But the logo is also created as a result of a light being shone against the logo, exactly like the iconic Bat signal in the Batman texts. Just as the signal is supposed to at once invoke the messianic Dark Knight (who descends from the skies) and imply that the city is under the Batman’s protection (the logo as a ™ sign), the Tata logo flies above the global skies. It projects, literally and figuratively, the ascension of the Indian company. The unboundedness of this entire page (although the earlier pages are also, it must be said, panel-less) is metonymic. It represents the Tata Company as metonymic of a post-liberalized India that is ready to take its place in the global skies, and compete at that level in industry, entrepreneurship and finance. By using an iconic moment from Western popular culture (Batman), and Indianizing it by translating it into the Tata logo, Banerjee further proposes an instance rather than an instant. It is not the actual moment (instant) of the event of the Tata purchase that we need to see here but the endlessly reproducible instance of the arrival of India on the skies of global industry. The visual grammar of this representation would, to the alert reader, easily move the reading outward, so that he or she becomes aware of the multiple registers of the page and of the need to situate the Tata triumph within the context of globalization. The globalization of the icon of the Dark Knight that we are made aware of through the page’s critical literacy is inextricably linked to the globalization of business and finance. Complicating this is the arrangement of the logo adjacent to and touching Tata’s head. The logo approximates a halo in this visual grammar: a halo around the captains of our industry. Banerjee positions Tata as linked to a certain capitalist messianism and heroism that marks the new India: aggressive, enthusiastic and risk-taking. The halo is not about traditional virtues of thrift, passivity, India’s famed spiritualism here – but about values such as those mentioned earlier that reflect a whole new cultural identity for India. This interpretation is invited by the newspaper visual on the facing page. If the instant was an event, the instance is a cultural marker to be used regularly (like the Bat signal). This is the shift from a temporal instant to a cultural instance.
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We can read some of the words in the news item: ‘Turning the T [. . .]’, ‘former colony buys the [. . .]’. The rest of the news heading and the full report are both unclear except for one word, ‘Tata’. The newspaper is slanted across the page with its borders and text both ‘bleeding’ off the edge thereby, in McCloud’s terms, ‘haemorrhaging into timeless space’. With the words that we can actually read, we are invited to finish the news heading on our own: ‘Turning the T [. . .]’ is either ‘Turning the Tables’ or ‘Turning the Tide’. These are the readings we finish based on the second level of the news heading ‘former colony buys’. What Banerjee does so deftly is to convert the instant of the Tata purchase into an instance of considerable postcolonialhistorical significance to be remembered and reiterated. We are to recall that we were a colony, and a colony that has (i) turned the tables on its former colonial master (ii) turned the tide in its favour, by purchasing the iconic British manufacturer of luxury cars. That the only word we can read from the full report is ‘Tata’ suggests a typographic iteration of the event, where the event is an instance of the former colony striking back, of coming into its own in the comity of industrialized nations. As readers we are expected to make a subject-to-subject transition (McCloud 71) where we forge the link(s) between the words ‘former colony’, the logo in the sky, the logo-as-halo and the rest of phrasing of the news report. We see now how the former colony has turned the tide of its own fortunes, turned the tables on its former colonizer and arrived on the firmament of international stars. After the Batman motif and the news report, Banerjee makes one more move that we should pay attention to in order to understand the shift from temporal instant to cultural instance. The accompanying caption places Times New Roman in bold, a formal font, and highlighted. One aspect of this caption is the emphasis on the font itself, and calls attention to certain distinctive connotations that might be placed by the alert reader on a continuum with the visual narrative of the two pages. Martin Medhurst and Michael Desousa have argued that ‘typeface functions as voice’ in a cartoon or pictorial satire, especially when it ‘differs from the type which surrounds it’ (1981: 227). The lettering or typeface is not simply the description of the font; it is the ‘graphic voice’ (Medhurst and Desousa 227) of the text. It announces ‘new times’ in a syntactic anagram that also echoes the historic reversal of colonizer-colonizer roles announced in the newspaper headline just beneath this caption. Second, the caption says the headlines will ‘blaze’, and the actual lettering of the font is in bold. If we read this in conjunction with the news item, we can detect the resonance: a bold India in and for the new times. And what of the ‘Roman’ in the account of the font? Knowing Banerjee’s games, and the other textual and visual codes on these two pages, it
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is possible to presume that he is forcing our attention to one of the oldest empires in the world: the Roman. Placing all these connotations alongside the visual narrative we can see why these two pages can serve us as brilliant markers of India’s post-liberalized cultural identity. That the Tatas built an ‘empire’ in the industry is a commonplace descriptor in India. But in Banerjee’s text this local, territorially circumscribed empire has now expanded its territorial conquests and seized/acquired British industrial territory as well in a historic reversal (turning the tide, turning the tables). For the relatively informed reader it recalls the chief jingoistic phrase of the erstwhile British Empire: ‘the sun never set on the British Empire’. Such a reader would also, perhaps, recall that the British Empire was believed to have inherited the mantle of the ancient Roman Empire. But right now, Banerjee signifies, in these ‘new times’ Tata occupies the place of the Roman. The news report running off the edge, the lettering and the overall visual narrative of the two pages offer up a new cultural identity for India, one whose time is now, and perhaps extensible beyond temporal limits. The Tata empire has expanded, like India, beyond the scope of the pages itself. Yet again the reader is alerted and a critical literacy demanded through the visual grammar of the text. The visual ‘expansion’ in the representation parallels and echoes less-pleasant imperial expansions in the past, even when the representation is suggestive of a postcolonial reclamation, so to speak, of the imperial project. The critical literacy produced by the graphic narrative makes imperial pasts the postcolonial present here. A facet of Indian culture that gets considerable attention from Banerjee is education and middle-class aspirations. In ‘Nehru’s Children’ he first lists Russians who have excelled at sports and music, and places ‘American light entertainment’ at the lower right side. The later visuals show a RussoGerman pact being inked and a bearded man poring over a book with a magnifying glass. The caption for this last visual announces the theme: ‘as children growing up in the Third World, we made it our business to know’ (65). On the next pages we have on one side middle-aged and slightly senior men drinking tea and reading newspapers in a club or tea shop. We discover that the bearded man on the previous page is sitting adjacent to the tea shop. Facing this page is a scene, perhaps from a college. A list of marks, or of selected candidates, has been displayed and dozens of people crowd around it, trying to see if their futures have been secured. There are some despondent faces and one woman seems to be in tears (67). The caption at the top reads ‘education for us was what boxing had been for the black man’. This caption runs on to the next page, a double-spread: ‘the one way to overcome the caste/class barrier’ (68). This last page is made of a collage of advertisements from coaching centres and tutorials, with Brilliant, Tripti Agrawal, among others, announcing their top-ranked
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students, their success rate and their specializations (IAS, NDA, Physics). Superimposed on this collage is the head of a bespectacled boy. His gaze, we presume (we see only the back and one side of his head), is directed at one such advertisement which has left an empty space in the middle of a whole set of photographs of their successful students. This blank space declares: ‘You Can Be Next.’ Banerjee places at the centre of this entire tale the anonymous crowd, whether in the teashop, the college or the advertisements from various teaching centres. Banerjee proposes that the one way out not only from the caste/class context but the teeming, anonymous millions of India is education. The crowd at the college notice board gestures at a metonym: the crowded country itself. Anxious, tense, sad faces constitute this crowd of aspirants. This crowd is in sharp contrast to the solitary boy on the previous page: he is the only one not reading anything. While the older men are all immersed in newspapers, the boy is serving them. Thus we see two crowd scenes here. In the first the smaller group consists of those who have already acquired an education, but precisely centering the entire page is the boy who doesn’t possess one. When we turn to the facing image, we understand implicitly the subject-to-subject transition expected of us. The list on the college notice board is a list of those who will not end up like the boy of the preceding panel: they would have escaped. Banerjee complicates the crowd and escape-through-education theme in the next image. The posters represent the many doors, points of entry into a safer life, and points of exits from deprivation. The rhetoric of ‘You Can Be Next’ ironically says ‘you can be one of the many who have succeeded’. That is, an individual simply exchanges one kind of crowd – the crowd at the college – for another, the crowd of successful aspirants. To stand out here, to succeed, is to make the transition from one kind of crowd into another. The sheer chaos of this set of two pages gestures at the cultural marker of a middle-class India: one would rather be a part of the crowd whose faces haunt these propagandist posters than in any other crowd. Banerjee refuses to erase the crowd, or to signify any exceptional individual. By positioning the boy as a possible photograph in the poster/advertisement he generates a cultural symbol of aspirations. The poster with the blank space in the centre is the symbol. This too centres a boy, a potential winner. And the irony of the visual grammar of the solitary boy in a crowd, from the tea shop, and here, in the fantasy space of the poster, should not be lost on us. Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm uses the ‘bleeding’ mode that converts the instant into an instance effectively to portray the unending crisis of the Emergency. Soon after the proclamation of the Emergency we are given a page (9) whose visual is a street scene. None of the buildings in this visual are complete, and the walls tend to suddenly disappear. In the foreground is
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a set of road signs and barricades that stand for the state’s rhetoric, as already noted in Chapter 1 (Graphic History). We see three such prohibitive slogans inscribed across strips that look like zebra crossings. The first says ‘Do Not Guess’, the second ‘Do Not Enter’ and the third ‘Do Not Think’. The Do Not Enter signage bleeds off the edge of page, while the other two are complete. There is an autorickshaw driving over the zebra crossing with the Do Not Enter signage. The signage by bleeding off the page suggests not the immediacy of the road and the prohibition but a larger cultural instance where prohibition is the order of the day for an entire nation. The ‘Do Nots’, to phrase it differently, is the language of the nation’s new culture of prohibition, punctuality, bans and oppression. That the signage is inscribed across the ubiquitous zebra crossing but which in Ghosh’s visual vocabulary approximates to the bars of a prison cell as well suggests a commonality of language and rhetoric. Prohibition and restrictions are what Indians all understand: this is the culture, at large, signified by the seeping signage which will not be restricted to a page’s visual vocabulary just as it will not be limited to the instant. It is the unboundedness of the oppressive signage that constitutes the India of the period. In Kashmir Pending there is a particularly fine example of a ‘bleeding’ visual narrative that offers a powerful cultural critique (13). The top half of the page, an L-shaped panel, shows the Pakistani flag, with its bright green occupying most of the space. On the lower left is a visual of a baby. The lower-right panel shows us a family with the baby perched on the father’s shoulders and the woman reaching out and smiling at him. But the key panel is situated between these, perched on top of the family-panel. It shows a namazi’s hands, in the praying position, joined together. We only see the hands, not the rest of the (wo)man, since the gender of the individual is not clear: but the colour of the sleeve is the same as the burqa of the mother in the family-panel. The text on the flag-panel reads: A deep love for Pakistan was fed to us along with mother’s milk; tales from our elders further strengthened it. Soil brought from Pakistan was considered holy. Even winds blowing from Pakistan were greeted with salutations. (13) What captures our attention is the bleeding of the flag-panel on to the pray-panel. The crescent moon from the top panel bleeds into the panel with the praying hands. In fact, the crescent, in white in the flag-panel, changes colour as it becomes flesh-coloured to match with the colour of the praying hands. The Pakistani crescent is embedded in the Kashmiri’s body: the Kashmiri body is part of the Pakistani icon, and vice versa. The
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bleeding vocabulary is significant as a cultural comment on Kashmir and Pakistan, about how each sees the other as integral to their identity. Ahmed and Singh make a larger comment about cultural identity and national sentiment through this visual which, unless one is careful, we pass over. Bleeding enables Ahmed and Singh to gesture at the making of a cultural identity of the Kashmiri: Kashmiris find themselves embedded within Pakistani identity markers. Black space, black background and covered (masked, veiled) faces: the mostly monochromatic Kashmir Pending paints the fair land of Kashmir black. As Thomas Doherty pointed out in the case of Maus, the visuals in Kashmir Pending too lack detail but not depth and consequently induce a deep engagement from the reader’s side (1996: 77). Part of this symbology is the effect of the book’s production itself. Kashmir Pending is printed in heavy black ink, pages filled with ink, with few other colours, and the entire book is printed on thick paper. Thick and black seems to be the material aesthetic of Kashmir Pending. One reads Kashmir Pending through both sight and texture. I invoke here Katalin Orbán’s work on ‘haptic visuality’ in Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (2007). Orbán argues that Spiegelman allows, or rather asks, us to see ‘differently, through touch’ (75). What we are seeing is not simply a visual object but the ‘image as material’ (75). Orbán offers us a way into a text like Kashmir Pending by pointing to the materiality of image making, and by foregrounding the affective response engendered by not only seeing severely blacked pages but feeling the heavy pages that are blacked. We respond tactilely to the work as well as visually when we see Srinagar under siege, young men shot down, the menacing army presence, the disaffection and deep anxieties on faces. We are constantly made aware of the figurative heaviness of the trauma as literalized. As a self-reflexive strategy wherein they draw attention to the production of their book about social discontent and cultural identity and cultural alienation, Ahmed and Singh foreground form as few graphic narratives in India do. The book, overall, is a comment on the formal aspects of a graphic narrative that has to deal with questions of traumatic cultural identity. Mushtaq narrating the story of his conversion to militancy, torture and incarceration is also simultaneously giving us the story of other Kashmiri youth. The haptic visuality slows down our reading, captivated as we are by the enormous blackness spreading across the thick pages. Instead of the quick left-to-right movement across panels one is stuck at the enormity of the trauma. That is the form of Kashmir Pending makes sure that we are not racing through the story but remain entranced by the heaviness of every page, slowing down our meaning-making process. The formal architecture (perhaps given the tactilely stimulating pages, it should be ‘architexture’) delivers up a sense of claustrophobia: the closed-in pages, the
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blacked pages, the crowds also presented in blacked pages and the prison scenes all force us to see how the form is the content.1
The tableau vivant There are two visual narratives, roughly half-way through THF, that are not part of a sequence but nevertheless deliver a powerful story. The first, ‘IIT’, shows two families. On one side is a clearly middle-class family of balding father, mother with hair in a bun and a gawky teenager. All three are looking upwards. The father holds a book in his hand, the mother, a tender coconut. With her other hand she is grasping the teenager’s arm, almost as though she is preventing him from escaping whatever they have planned for him. Facing this family is another family. Here too the parents are escorting a teenager. But the class difference is palpable, marked in the woman’s hair styling and glasses. Another tale, ‘Extracurricular’ (one that also occurs on the cover of the book) follows on the next page. A middle-aged woman in a sari is escorting two boys – who are dressed in karate costume – grasping their hands firmly, marching down the middle of an empty street. One boy is carrying a waterbottle, the other a three-tier lunch box. The caption on the facing/left page informs us as to how it was important in middle-class Bengali families to ‘excel at co-curricular activities’ (72). Banerjee’s preferred mode to deliver to us cultural markers and identitarian symbols is what I propose to study as an instance of the tableau vivant. The tableau vivant might be described as ‘short narrative sequences . . . in which the “real life” hidden beyond the still image is exposed’ (Gomes and Peuckert 2010: 123). Citing Barthes, Gomes and Peuckert add: ‘Such tableaux do not represent scenes picked out randomly from a chain of events, but rather particular “pregnant moments” [Barthes’ phrase] in which past, present and future are condensed’ (123). The key in the interpretation of such a tableau as the ones Banerjee uses, without giving us the benefit of a sequence, is to see the visual as embodying an intensity of events, what Gomes and Peuckert refer to as ‘pregnant moments’. The tableau or rather a series of tableaus are meant to point to a particular moment, in most cases. I think of these as tableau vivant in the sense that Gomes and Peuckert use it. I first turn to the ‘IIT’ visual narrative. The accompanying caption tells us about the fierce competition for the IIT seats, the stress parents go through and finally, how coconut water is ‘strongly recommended’ as a ‘rich source of nutrients for the brain’ (71). The tableau is intense, and captures in one moment the heightening of all anxieties, preparation and aspirations directed at an IIT seat for the son. (It is significant that Banerjee opts to depict only boys in families aspiring to the IIT.) In the second one, the
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mother has possibly prepared the ‘tiffin’ for the children to eat after school and before. The boys are dressed in spotless white uniforms. The mother is striding along, and all three are looking straight ahead (72–3) (see Plate 2). We as readers are directed to something beyond the tableau. What Banerjee forces us to see – and the caption goes some way in helping us here – is the set of lives, efforts, monies and time spent that all cathect onto the visual. We are not shown any of these lives, efforts or time spent. There is no visual narrative of effort or discourse of aspiration, and yet the tableau alerts us to these behind and beyond the tableau. The tableau freezes time as well because it suggests in the first narrative (i) past efforts by the boy and the entire family, (ii) the present competition/examination that frays the nerves and induces panic attacks, (iii) the future where he might just claim an IIT seat and the more fashionable family might be looking at them with envy. The smarter, perhaps upper-class family, Banerjee shows, is looking at the first family, and the first family is looking upwards. Banerjee again packs into the scene an entire invisible sequence of work, efforts and aspirations. In the second we only get the sense of the mother’s efforts that ensure the kids are ready and fed in time for the extracurricular activity lined up for the evening. They are the only people in the lane/road and houses loom on either side. In Banerjee these two tableaus are narratives finalized in themselves, unattached to any other panel or narrative before or after. It must be noted that these are presented as singular units from the Harappa files: each has its own file number and name. Banerjee positions these as standalone narratives. Yet what they achieve is something more: they convey to us, in their very absence, an entire narrative of lives and aspirations, efforts and energies spent. I would further argue that as tableau vivant they capture the life of a nation itself, and thus serve as cultural markers for the Indian middle-class’s emphasis on education, personal aspiration/effort and eventual success. Banerjee is careful not to signal caste backgrounds (although it should be noted that there are no Muslims either) – and thus evades the thorny issue of the privileged backgrounds of caste and class that enable only certain boys to aim and compete for the IIT or participate in extracurricular events. As cultural markers, however, Banerjee effectively deploys the tableau vivant because it does not really require a narrative sequence: the sequence is common knowledge. That is Banerjee depends on the reader’s cultural literacy to deliver the ‘pregnant moments’ of the tableau, the invisible but perceptible narrative of efforts and sacrifices, monies spent and anxieties condensed into the single frame or visual. That both tableau are full-page, and in one case, a double-spread, is indicative and symbolic of the life-size efforts that drive the middle-class Indian family. The mother in the second one, for example looms in the
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frame. She dominates the entire page, in fact. The cultural marker here is of the woman who takes the lives and future of her sons in her hands (literally) and sallies forth into the world, through deserted streets and all. In both visual narratives, it might be noted, the mother is the one who grasps the boy’s/boys’ hand/s, and we could of course quarrel endlessly about the gendered nature of the roles, the caste of the woman.
Parergons and cultural margins In an earlier chapter I examined the role of signage, slogans and other such texts that, when located alongside the dominant lettering and text within a panel, seem to counter the dominant narrative, often issued by the state. The minor characters in panels, as I noted in Chapter Two, are insignificant players in history, and yet they serve a crucial function, as parergons and witnesses. The parergon, as Derrida famously demonstrated, is ‘against, beside and above and beyond the ergon, the work accomplished. But it is not incidental: it is connected to, cooperates in its operation from the outside’ (1979: 20). The parergon adds something extra: it intervenes with the inside only because the inside lacks something. Thus, although the parergon is supposedly exterior, it affects and is required by the interior or inside work to supply a lack. So, in short, it cannot be merely extrinsic. Objects and things that lie around in a visual are associated with the relationships between the humans depicted in the visual. Even as the humans, or the main protagonists, frame these objects, the objects frame the human interactions (Woodall 2012). I now propose that the minor figures in graphic narratives function as silent witnesses to the events unfolding in the panel’s compositional centre. They frame the events, even as they help us complete the events. It is even possible to see them as the instruments that enable us to focus on the events as they are writ large, beyond the immediacy of the panel. The parergon is a structure of cultural margins which when populated by people serve as the frames of history itself. The Indians who occupy the corners of panels in Banerjee’s BOWC are witnesses to the history unravelling. I propose that the graphic narrative enables Banerjee to offer us a visual sense of how people might have viewed the events. These people are parergons, immaterial to the main narrative unfolding at the centre of the panel. But they furnish something crucial that the events in the middle lack: a frame of witnessing of history and our own viewing of what happened.2 Whether we, the readers, are to ‘see’ the events from these bystanders’ point of view is also a moot point, since the structural location of the bystander is that of an eyewitness and therefore as potential bearer of witness about whom history has no information.
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With this, in effect, Banerjee also effaces the power of the omniscient narrative voice of the author. For example in one panel, two punkahwallahs stare out at us (15). It is unclear as to whether they are looking at the events unfolding around them (there are no events depicted in this particular panel) or at us, the readers. Reversing the camera-eye gaze Banerjee suggests that these minor figures of history are staring at us, as though from photographs. Writing about visuals of the Holocaust incorporated into other texts, Marianne Hirsch proposes: ‘The viewer fills in what the picture leaves out: the horror of looking is not necessarily in the image but in the story we provide to fill in what is left out of the image’ (1992–3: 7, emphasis in original). While Hirsch is examining Holocaust visuals, the larger point is of reading these ‘other’ actors of history. I propose that when the subaltern classes stare out at us from the pages of BOWC we are made aware of their presence as witnesses to and in history, but equally aware that there is no story we can seize from their presence. We are conscious of the fact that as witnesses they might have something to say – their stare is actually an invitation to address them, for being witnesses, as witnesses – but haven’t so far. Thus these figures in the panels become non-agential actors whose role in the historical narrative is tied in with the possibility that they might have known something more, something else. What we fill in, when we see the visuals of the hookah-burdar or the khansamah staring, is a certain element of uncertainty: do we know what they saw, and did what they see somehow undermine the story being narrated about the other actors on the stage of history? We are forced to forge links between the main narratives of history and the possibility of subaltern and minor characters as having a different ‘view’ of events. Banerjee makes a case for such witnesses in a panel dealing with the Philip Francis-Madame Grand scandal. The small panel depicts a hookahburdar, his face neatly divided by the hookah’s stem, eyes slanted sideways. The text says: ‘Dear reader, if you are wondering who the source of my detailed eyewitness account was, cast a second look at the huccaburdar’ (9). The minor characters on the stage of history might have no agency but some of them do function as storytellers. The shifty eyes, the partially covered face represents the ‘small voice of history’, to adapt a term from the Subaltern Studies rhetoric, but it also represents a key feature of the medium itself. Even without the text it is possible to see how the anonymity and invisibility of the servant enables him to function as an eyewitness and storyteller of this particular history. What I am arguing for is the graphic narrative’s power to undermine the larger storyline by planting these other silent witnesses as potential, mostly lost but sometimes agential, storytellers of the history. Their open invitation is to engage with them, speculate on what they saw and thought, even as they undermine, in my view, the larger narrative. Thus the graphic
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Figure 3.1 Sarnath Banerjee, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, New Delhi: Penguin, 2007. 9.
novel calls attention to the incomplete, partial nature of the history being narrated in its pages by indicating that there were other ‘agents’ who contributed to the scene, who witnessed the scene, but whose story can only be guessed at. By foregrounding these ‘minor’ actors on the stage of history, sometimes as props, the graphic narrative cuts out the ground from under the feet of the story we ‘know’ from historical narratives. Rather than history as being the story of great men and women as told to us by so-called reliable witnesses and chroniclers like Abravanel, it is (in the graphic narrative at least) a messy convergence of actors, many of whom might have been witnesses but whose stories we have not recorded. If, as Joanna Woodall, via Derrida and others, proposes that the parergon finishes the inside, then it can no longer be treated as extrinsic to the work. It is possible to see the parergon, the seemingly unimportant object in the margins, as offering us a way of interpreting the scene unfolding. But they also contribute a form of cultural commentary enabling a cultural literacy connected to the main narrative being portrayed at the centre or the foreground of the visual narrative. Take for instance ‘Single Malt, Single Woman’ in THF. Here Brighu’s love affair with ‘AK’ is the subject of the main storyline. Through direct commentary – such as the Pavlov one (195) – Banerjee offers us insights into the
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events unfolding between Brighu and AK. When AK tells Brighu not to visit her for their regular Thursday trysts, she explains that two of her male friends are planning to visit that day, and they have a threesome in mind. They need a channel to do so. I am happy to be their intermediary. I too fantasize about a threesome. The image shows her sitting with her three fingers pointing upwards as a gestural accompaniment to the verbal text. But the fingers point to a small visual located strategically at the edge of this panel. This small visual shows three men in what look like antiquarian costume holding swords over their heads, their swords all touching each other. This visual at first sight has nothing to do with the verbal text or the main visual. But closer examination reveals something else about the image. The culturally literate would recognize in the visual the clear gesture at the Three Musketeers. Now, the three musketeers, for the culturally literate, symbolize the strength in unity and the power of friendship (‘All for one, one for all’ was their famous slogan). None of this is connected to the story in the panel, but it offers a cultural commentary, from a different context, causing us to reflect on the events in the foreground. This parergon, supposedly extrinsic to the main text, finishes it for us: it tells us that friends stand by each other, share things (including women, as AK has already indicated about the two men due to visit her, in a previous panel on the same page). The parergon is the frame within which what AK says needs to be interpreted, perhaps to alleviate the culturally surprising narrative – threesomes – in the foreground. Banerjee uses the cultural commentary from the classic French text in order to bring our attention to the events unfolding in AK’s life. The visual therefore is not mere ornamentation but integral to our reading of the foreground.3 In Delhi Calm a key scene shows VP meeting up with the radical protestor in a tea shop (96). The top half of the page shows a caricature of Sanjay Gandhi on a poster instructing the tea shop patrons: ‘SSHH Do not talk politics here.’ Underneath this is the bill of fare and a warning: ‘We do not have any other branch.’ Just beneath the poster we can see VP and the leader who then turn to face each other from behind newspapers. The leader, we note, is wearing a smiling mask. The newspapers that the two men are reading are The Statesmen and The Hindustan Times. The headlines in both are the same: the proclamation of the Emergency. On the table in front of the two men is a bag from which a magazine or pamphlet is sticking out, with one word on it, ‘FILM’. There are two glasses, of the kind used to serve tea in hotels across India. At first sight these objects are parergon, unconnected to the main work or narrative: the leader finds VP and urges him to join the protesting radicals. But Ghosh achieves something else with the parergon.
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The glasses on the table are part of the relationship being forged between the men: companionship with the same set of things. Just as the newspaper headlines are mirror images of each other and therefore link the two men, the glasses on the table are mirror images of each other and signify a commonality through objects. The glasses, that is to say, frame the human interaction here just as the humans frame the glasses. The glasses acquire a narrative elaboration in the biography of the two humans, and the humans share the object biography of identical glasses. The bag with the ‘Film’ inscribed on the paper/film it carries is also part of the parergonal frame that completes the visual narrative or ergon in the middle. This object connects to the warning issued by the leader: ‘They could be watching us. Let’s get out of here . . . Hurry, VP!’ This is said partly in response to VP’s question: ‘Are you stalking me?’ The caricature with the warning, the young leader’s words of caution that accompany the smiling mask he is wearing (but which, it must be noted, is not firmly in place and is slipping off, suggesting an incomplete or unconvincing disguise) and the key word ‘film’ all contribute to a sense of being watched, documented and recorded. ‘Film’ as a signifier of both documentation and endless replication – a film is played over and over again – works to suggest here a surveillance mechanism that unites the two men. That VP mentions ‘stalking’ in the ergonal part of the narrative ensures that the word speaks to the parergon (‘film’) just as ‘film’ frames the ‘stalking’. The parergon of ‘film’ also frames the mask the young leader is wearing: films by definition offer the opportunity of putting on various faces, or masks. Duplicity and fear, observation and documentation as evidence are all part of this page’s narrative when we bring the parergon into alignment with the central visual of the two men. In another Vishwajyoti Ghosh text, ‘RSVP’ in The Pao Anthology of Comics I figures and objects situated on the margins of the ergon, which deals with Babu Ramanath Biswas’s rise and fall as an internationally acclaimed storyteller, offers us the necessary interpretive frames to read the ergon. But these marginalia also constitute comments on the cultural conditions in which the ergon is situated. The opening image shows Biswas lounging in his house, in the drawing room. In the background is a bookshelf with a state-of-the-art music system, a potted plant, a light, and the walls have three paintings, one of it possibly that of Rabindranath Tagore. The text panel begins with a very conventional incipit, where the A of ‘After’ (the first word of the text) is placed in the large square box. The letter is embedded inside and has baroque borders (66). The frame for reading Biswas and his story is already set. The ‘pictorial quotations’ (Schwab 2010: 104) on the walls, namely, the Tagore portrait and that of others, frame Biswas for us. Perhaps the state-of-the-art music system in the room is used to play Rabindra Sangeet. Biswas is a man of culture and one who respects
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tradition. This sense of Biswas as a man of culture is brought home to us through the parergon, which plays no part in the story but which enables us to position, literally and figuratively, the protagonist. The decorative incipit, also a feature of early printed books, is another allusion to the manof-taste and the man-of-tradition. Even before we read the text, which informs us that Biswas listens to devotional music and is a storyteller by profession, or proceed with the story, the pictorial quotations in the parergon prepare us for classical taste, tradition and convention in the person of Biswas.4 It is his lineage and cultural affiliation that the framed photographs and the incipit establish for us. When Biswas establishes himself as a professional storyteller, his audience, says Ghosh, were divided into two camps: those who were ‘shocked’ and those who were ‘awed’. The responses from the two camps are placed as frames on either side of the scene of Biswas’s triumph, the award of ‘Queen’s Honour’ (72). The key event is of course the award, which establishes Biswas as a celebrity, locally and internationally. One group derides Biswas as ‘overrated, ‘bloody mediocre’, while the other calls him an ‘absolute phenomenon’ (72). The text tells us that the warring groups had to be separated – in an instance of heightened irony – by a Delhi Municipal Discipline Act. The ‘Shock’ group met, writes Ghosh, in the ‘heretic precincts of the Indies Coffee House or the Triveni Sangam Canteen’ while the ‘Awe Group’ met at the ‘posh kothis of Golf Links’ or the ‘hip art house cafes of Shah-Pur Jaut Village’. But both sides were transfixed into applauding when he wins the award as Delhi is ‘transform[ed] into a City of Awe’. We are shown the Award ceremony flanked by the panels depicting clapping hands from both the groups. While Ghosh’s ‘cartoony’ depiction of Delhi’s cultural elite is striking but obvious, it is the allusion in the parergon that constitutes, in my view, the real satire on this page. The two groups are named after a famous phrasing of the contemporary era: the USA’s ‘war on terror’ in the wake of 9/11 was founded on what it called the ‘shock-and-awe’ doctrine. Framing the event of Biswas’s cultural triumph is the register of battle and an unfair/unethical war declared by the most powerful nation on planet earth. That the ‘war on terror’ grew to encompass the world is also an allusion the informed reader would grasp through the critical literacy generated by his or her alertness to the visual-verbal grammar of the narrative. Ghosh transforms culture, and Delhi’s ethos of cultural practices, itself into a war. That Biswas’s storytelling company is called the ‘Bahadur Kahaani & Co’ offers yet another allusion to a cultural atavism: ‘Bahadur’ was the title conferred by the British colonials on loyal Indians. The parergon offers us the frame in which to read not just this page but the complete story as well. What works in contemporary India is a cultural atavism of sorts – the return to traditional storytelling modes which receives funding, audiences and awards. Ghosh satirizes the fascination
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for any such ‘back to roots’ project that then becomes quickly internationalized. The only global product is a forgotten story and storytelling mode. Further, Ghosh also treats the space of culture as the space of battle, thus rendering the entire project of reviving a cultural form as opening up the space for acrimony. The parergon determines the way we read the Biswas triumph and the entire project he initiates. Orijit Sen takes the parergon and literally makes it a part of the story in ‘The Adventures of PR Mazoomdar No. 19: Emerald Apsara’ (2012). PR Mazoomdar in the story is a Bengali explorer – Sen reverses the standard colonial trope of the Westerner as explorer – and arrives at an old fort/ palace, Heartbreak Haveli. He rents a room and lies back on his bed. In the next panel we see him staring at the ceiling on which an Apsara has been painted. The painting is marginal to the panel itself, with Mazoomdar occupying the entire centre/foreground. That his eyes are focused on the emerald-coloured ceiling and painting is also by deduction since the point of view in the panel only allows us to see from the rear his reclining head tilted upwards. From the next panel we see the figure in the painting moving downward and out of the painting. She garlands Mazoomdar, kisses him – and the entire event is viewed by the shocked camouflage-clad security guard of the haveli. Mazoomdar and the Apsara then escape on a flying camel, pursued on the ground by armed horsemen. The story ends with a textbox in which ‘Mazoomdar Moshai’s Moral # 328’ is printed: ‘art saves those it seduces’ (260). Several things stand out in this tale. First, the main protagonist, Mazoomdar, is never really fully seen by us, since he never takes off his ‘monkey-cap’ in the text. Second, the fullest view we have is of the painting-come-alive, the Apsara. That the parergonal painting is the one that determines the plot of the story even as the supposed main-protagonist remains both partially invisible and disguised ensures that the parergonal painted figure is the only truly alive one in the text. The moral of the story points, at one level, to the power of imagination but in effect foregrounds the power of the artwork, not the viewer or the artist alone. It is the spectacular Apsara, just a figure on the ceiling, who makes Mazoomdar’s life a spectacle. When the camel flies away, it is Mazoomdar who is holding the reins and the Apsara is behind him. But the final visual shows Mazoomdar as having released the reins, allowing the camel to set its own course and speed. He himself stands up, arms opened out, in a cultural reference to the famous DiCaprio-Winslett scene in Titanic. Whether Mazoomdar is at any time in control of the events in his life is an arguable point. Sen, I propose, reverses the figure-carpet, or ergon-parergon, scheme when he makes the Apsara the crucial factor and Mazoomdar incidental to the plot. It is the artwork that saves the human, and is therefore more important and agential than the human. Mazoomdar might formulate a moral, but this is really
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a submission and acknowledgement that art triumphs. Sen’s work might be interpreted as a cultural commentary because of this shift in emphasis, emplotting the parergonal work of art as a means of saving the human. Art, Sen posits, is central to the human condition. Even if the events involving the Apsara are only in Mazoomdar’s imagination, art still enables an escape, and this is the key to the tale as well: that Mazoomdar becomes an explorerdiscoverer thanks to his ability to imagine artefacts. A set of powerful visuals in Kashmir Pending also foreground the theme of witnessing history from the margins. Mushtaq, from whose point of view the Kashmir ‘problem’ is delivered to us, is telling his story to a fellow inmate, Ali, in prison. He first describes the protest march that he watched with Aziz, his friend. The visuals on the page (23) alternate between Mushtaq in the cell and Mushtaq at the protest. The visual vocabulary foregrounds his looking, and gathers strength on pages 25–6. Here we are shown the riots and police action in the form of six panels in three rows, two panels in each row. Separating the panels is a set of eyes, Mushtaq’s eyes. It suggests Mushtaq is watching from a secret space, out of sight of the protestors and the army men. ‘From the opening [of the hideout] I saw a protestor hobbling to safety’, he says (25). He then watches an army man shoot the protestor (27), eyes wide open in horror. Such a pictorial framing, in the fragmented form of Mushtaq, amounts to a cultural critique. The disembodied eye is literally dangled over the page, ensuring we understand that we are seeing the protest through this person’s eyes and no one else’s. The visual, in other words, is a retracing of the sight Mushtaq saw then.5 Mushtaq is the witness and we see through this witness-position. But we also are made aware that the pictorial space that allows us to look into the past events is structured around a fragmented person, Mushtaq, and therefore limited to what he saw and how he interpreted the events. By locating the witness in a condition of concealment and in an emotionally fraught situation, Ahmed and Singh consciously alert us to the limitations of witnessing and our own reliance on such a witness. The witness is on the margins, a fragmented, concealed body, and through whose eyes alone can we see the events of the Kashmir valley.6
Stereoscopy as cultural commentary In ‘Precocious’ (THF ), Banerjee depicts a schoolgirl, Viji, studying. Bespectacled, in school uniform, she is a black and white figure in the foreground. In her background is the setting of a library: deep stacks of books in clear vertical lines that organize the pages (62–3). Figures lounge against the stacks. A closer examination reveals that the same set of three figures is portrayed at different points. The background-foreground division is mainly in terms of size and colour: except Viji who is in black and white, the rest of
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the page and visual narrative is in yellow and black. The theme of precocity comes home to us not through any other narrative but this juxtaposition of disparate and divergent images within the space of the same double-spread. What we experience is a stereoscopy. Jonathan Crary studying the evolution of visual technologies argues that ‘the relation of observer to the object [in stereoscopy] is not one of identity but an experience of disjunct or divergent images’ (120). This results in the lack of a unifying order or logic. It is, as Crary argues, a ‘disunified and aggregated field of disjunct elements’ (125). It is through stereoscopy, especially as Banerjee deploys it in THF, that a cultural commentary emerges. In the preceding visual narrative, for example, Banerjee forces us to account for two differently sized and divergent images. One shows the girl, in a school uniform, studying. The background is made up of massive bookshelves against which figures lean in postures of relaxation and leisure. Since the entire story is compressed into this one double-spread image, we immediately fasten on the divergence between the girl and the background. The stereoscopy enables us, further, to see the distinction between an India of leisure and the easy-life contrasted with the India of hardwork and ambition. The lounging figures and the schoolgirl are studies in contrast, and because we register these together, a cultural commentary that derives from but ultimately exceeds this visual narrative comes home to us. The pages are actually mirror images of each other – a fact we register only slowly, and only on paying greater attention. The books on the left-hand side are, for instance, inverted on the right-hand side. The rather expressionist visuals of the lounging figures seem to caricature the leisurely India. The earnestness and the downcast eyes in the girl, on the other hand, signify concentration. She is reading the book with her fingers touching the page, as though she is following the text line by line, again signifying intense, focused reading. Further, the bolder black lines of the schoolgirl’s portrait seem to suggest, in McCloud’s terms, a more ‘grim’ world of adults (McCloud126). Thus Banerjee offers us a stereoscopy in which the older people lounge leisurely and the schoolgirl is adult-like in her determination and focus. Unlike the older people dressed in jeans, saris and dresses, the schoolgirl, in a uniform, more than anybody else, wishes to work hard. It is in the disjunct and divergent visual narrative that we come to the divergence of contemporary India. As cultural commentary the ‘story’ works precisely because of the stereoscopy of disjunctive images. In other words, I am proposing that disjunctive visual narratives draw attention to the contradiction that is India. But stereoscopy is not simply in terms of the visual narrative with divergent and disjunct images in a writer such as Banerjee. It could also be the placing together of contradictions, between, say, images and text, within the
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same panel. What is generated is not simply a stereoscopy of vision but of emotional and semantic variety. Take, for example, ‘Bodhidharma’ in THF. Banerjee has his character narrate the story of Bodhidharma. This character is eating a sandwich. On the facing page we have a bunch of visuals. At the top is a plate of food. The lower half of the page shows in the background two men at a restaurant table, and the speaking character in the foreground at another table. What makes for stereoscopy here is the clear divergence and disjunction between the visual text and the speech of the character. First, Bodidharma, in the character’s words (in a speech bubble), ‘spread Buddhism in China, but kung-fu as well’ (152). Later: ‘I am not nationalistic, but truth is the truth, no?’ (153). The accompanying text/captions are as follows: (i) at the foot of the page is a line of text: ‘said the son of the freedom fighter and maker of patriotic music videos’ (152); (ii) ‘He is currently working on a feature-length film that explains how Bodhidharma can undoubtedly be called the father of all martial arts and therefore one can safely assume that martial arts originated in India’ (153). There is one more set of texts in this tale that need to be examined. On page 152 we are shown the character espousing the greatness of Bodhidharma biting into a sandwich. Marking the border of this visual is a bottle of ketchup/sauce with the label proclaiming ‘Kissan’. Kissan, a product of Hindustan Unilever, announces a national identity, at least at the restaurant. The bottle is at once a frame and a comment about identity inscribed onto a product/object. The second text, on page 153, is a labelling of the items on the character’s plate: lettuce/coleslaw cream cheese grilled tomatoes cabbage In addition, although it is not labelled, we can discern French fries. Stereoscopy enters our interpretation in the disjunct between (i) the objects portrayed and (ii) the speech text and the visuals. The Kissan bottle contrasts with the items on the man’s plate. If we read the Kissan bottle as a marker of Indian cultural identity, the food on the plate undermines this symbolism by offering a wholly different identity, that of cosmopolitanism. Then there is the stereoscopy between the jingoistic nationalist rhetoric of the character – that martial arts were invented in India – and the food he consumes. That Banerjee itemizes the food on the plate is a metanarrative comment that reinforces the stereoscopy. The visual-semantic stereoscopy
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ensures that we, as readers, make the ‘closure’, fill in the gaps between the ideas mentioned in the speech-bubbles, the meta-commentary and the actions depicted. The speech given by the man, the visuals depicting something else and the meta-narrative all generate a semantic stereoscopy that brings home to us the contradictions in the cultural dynamics of contemporary India. Thus it is we who make the connections even though there is no narrative of cause-effect that the visuals themselves offer up directly. Stereoscopy works effectively because it makes a higher order of demand on the reader to perform the closure. In Parismita Singh’s The Hotel at the End of the World, the story up to page 5 shows two travellers arriving at the hotel and gorging themselves on the food served. On page 5 one of the people in the hotel asks this question: ‘and, my son, whatever has given you a hunger like this?’ One of the travellers replies: ‘the journey to China, of course’. The response in the last panel on the page gives us three speech-texts: China? The two of you went to China? They’re from China? China? The China people are coming again? (5) The misreading of the traveller’s statement invites the stereoscopy. While all the speeches, in particular, are at odds with the traveller’s statement, the alert reader immediately latches on to the apparent incongruity of the last one: ‘China? The China people are coming again?’ The incongruity or semantic stereoscopy of this panel lies in the tone – anxious – of the panel and the question, and forces us to make an act of closure: the connotation is to the Indo-Chinese war. We also note that the people asking these odd questions, including the last one, are older people. The lines that ‘draw’ or portray these people are fragmented and wavy, suggesting weakness, instability or age, while the others are drawn in clean unbroken lines. This also contributes to the visual stereoscopy of the panel. The age of the respondents, visually represented as noted earlier, means we recognize that an older generation is more likely to remember the Indo-Chinese war. The listener to the traveller’s statement who misreads this statement leads us to a specific historical moment and its cultural reference. Contemporary India, especially in specific geographical areas, lives with the awareness of the ‘China threat’. The incongruity of the traveller’s statement and the response brings this reference as a cultural belief. The questioning speaker comes to stand in for an entire cultural belief of imminent Chinese aggression. Simply put, the semantic stereoscopy that accompanies the visual stereoscopy of this panel enables Singh to create a narrative moment that speaks to the social and
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political climate of the present through an address to the historical moment. I think of this as an instance of cultural commentary because Singh via the panel’s stereoscopy references a cultural imaginary. The cultural imaginary is a set of representations, artefacts or practices that, when shared, enables us to understand ourselves as a nation with specific cultural attributes like thrift, aspirations, obsession with the freedom struggle, films, cricket, among others. Singh draws the readers into participating in a collective memory of the Indian past here. While on the one hand what the question gestures at is a personal memory, it works as an instantiation of the cultural imaginary because it is a personal memory of a historical event that shaped and re-shaped several lives across communities. Further, given the constant skirmishes and tensions at the Indo-China border even today, Singh’s work holds particular resonance in terms of the critical literacy it calls for and generates in us. Other instances of semantic and visual stereoscopy that deliver cultural commentary occur in the Indian graphic narrative that perform similar acts of co-opting readers into the collective memory. Take Sarnath Banerjee’s ‘Tito Years’ in The Pao Anthology of Comics I. After detailing for us a short history of famous athletes, foreign and Indian, such as Carl Lewis and P. T. Usha, Banerjee gives us two pages in which a new cultural imaginary is being forged. On one page we have a beach scene, with a solitary coconut tree. In the left corner is a man in a suit carrying a briefcase. Under the tree sits an individual at a desk. Papers float through the foreground, some floating out into the sea. The second panel on the page is a close-up of the desk without showing us the person behind it, and the swirling papers. The facing page has no panels but has two visuals (see Plate 3). The one on the top left shows a woman, with plaited hair sitting at the desk, with a man in a suit from the previous panel approaching her. On the desk is the large black telephone that immediately pronounces ‘Government’ in the India of the 1980s and early 1990s. What is striking is the pair of running shoes hanging at the back of the woman’s chair. At the bottom right is a colour drawing that approximates to a photograph of Rakhi Sawant in what is a typical post-2000 Hindi film dress that positions her as the seductress. White paper floats across the page, especially over the woman at the desk, but not over the Sawant panel/photograph. The visual and semantic stereoscopy of the page generates an interesting cultural commentary about gender. The story so far has given us the running queen, P. T. Usha. Now there is a woman at the desk, with the caption under the visual stating: But that was a long time ago, as ancient as Kedar Nath’s 303. Today PT Usha heads the Coconut Council of India, no one knows where Shiny [Abraham, another sprinter] is, and the notion of sexy has changed. (199)
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The visual stereoscopy forces us to take cognizance of disjunct and divergent items: the running shoes, the state-telephone, the woman in the sari and Rakhi Sawant. The shoes draped over the back of the chair, to the reader conversant with English idiom, would immediately recall the phrase ‘to hang up one’s shoes’. In this case it is not retirement from sport alone that Banerjee draws attention to with the incongruity of shoes draped on an office chair, but a whole new gender role for the sprint queen. The graphic novel’s depiction here shows us much more in the grammar of the visuals: it draws attention via a critical literacy made possible by the form, to the often-atavistic portraits of Indian femininity. The sari and the ‘sexy’ outfit, we recognize, are ‘standard sexy’ attires, as opposed to running shoes and the athlete’s clothing. Even without the caption the stereoscopy delivers the powerful cultural commentary: the sprint queen has exchanged the track for a desk, the running costume for the traditional Indian sari. From the speed of the track to the utter inertia of the desk is not only the story of India’s most famous track-and-field athlete after Milkha Singh, it is also the story of Indian womanhood. After all the grand spectacle of blazing across the world’s tracks, Usha retains only a remainder and reminder of the glorious days: the shoes. The visual stereoscopy merges with the semantic one: (i) a bureaucrat, a member of a species of inert, immobile creatures, (ii) who was once a runner, and a cultural icon. The image suggests an incongruity. Instead of utilizing her athletic skills the shoes confine her to a desk: a desk given her precisely for having run in those shoes. The shoes are never far away, though, as Banerjee points out. Usha’s two public careers – if indeed, it is Usha in the visual – merge in this one stereoscopic moment. This stereoscopic moment is the herald of the critical literacy I am claiming for the graphic novel because it becomes impossible not to miss the irony of normative Indian femininity: even the sprint queen, finally, gives up the athlete’s costume for the sari. Then, of course, there is the visual and semantic stereoscopy of Ushathe-bureaucrat and Rakhi Sawant-the-seductress. From the sari-clad Usha to the seductively dressed Sawant, Banerjee offers us a cultural text for the changing notions of ‘sexy’ as the caption, but through the visual narrative as well. We never see the face of the woman at the desk, and we see a lot, literally, of Sawant. The vamp or nymphet rules the tele-screen, and the page. The sheer incongruity of the two visuals brings home to us the gender roles pre-assigned for women: a ‘safe’, conservative desk job after a brilliant, public career on the field, and the seductress. While it might simply be about changing idea(l)s of ‘sexy’, Banerjee also alerts us to the cultural limits placed on what the woman could actually do, from Usha’s time to the present. *
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The critical literacy demanded by and generated when we read these texts point us towards the gendered inequality of Indian society. From P. T. Usha to Rakhi Sawant, from demanding mothers to the Emergency, the graphic novel forces us to see these inequalities, fissures and oddities of Indian middle-class lives, normative femininity and state terror. The unequal visual fields in the text of Kashmir Pending with the inset of anxious eyes, the solitary, clearly exploited and uneducated boy in the tea shop in ‘Nehru’s Children’ in THF, the nightmarish streets of Emergency India in Delhi Calm fold into the unequal and grossly uneven social fields of contemporary India, and this is the critical literacy generated by and called for by the political commentary and cultural graphics of the Indian graphic novel. The visual collapse of time frames, the extension of one story into another, the continued symbolism of, say, Tata, and numerous cultural markers all ensure that we, through the critical literacy thus generated, see the contemporaneity of the nation’s past.
Notes 1 Julie Reiser (2014) studying Spiegelman’s technique in In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) also makes the point that the self-reflexive style and metaformal mode he deploys foregrounds the ‘transmission’ of the body and the mind (his nervous breakdown and hysterics). 2 Helen Cooper’s children’s book Pumpkin Soup (1999) has two beetles stationed as ‘observers’ in every frame, and is the book that first drew my attention to this structural feature. 3 Immanual Kant uses ornamentation in paintings to make the distinction between ergon and parergon, and between Reason and Religion – Derrida reverses this reading by showing how the supposedly excessive and unnecessary ornament centres the painting. 4 This is a tale heavy with allusion and parody. Ghosh has Fab Indies, quotations from popular Bollywood film dialogues (such as Amar Akbar Anthony), caricatures of academics and funding agencies littering the text, thus making it one of the most intertextual graphic narratives in recent times. 5 I use the idea of ‘retracing’ vision from Hillary Chute’s reading of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2008b: 96). 6 Suhaan Mehta reading one episode in Kashmir Pending notes how the ‘facial expressions of the Kashmiri people vary from anger to resignation’, made even more visible by ‘extreme close-ups’, all in ‘shades of red, orange, and yellow’ (2010: 179).
Plate 1 Amruta Patil, Kari. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2008. 3.
Plate 2 Sarnath Banerjee, The Harappa Files. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2011. 72–3.
Plate 3 Sarnath Banerjee, ‘Tito Years’, in The Pao Anthology of Comics I. New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. 199.
Plate 4 Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand, Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability. Art by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. New Delhi: Navayana, 2011. 48.
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4 DRAWING (ON) OTHER HISTORIES
Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand’s Bhimayana (2011, hereafter B) has a preliminary framing segment, ‘One Day’, that sets the scene for the narrative to follow. Two college students in an unidentified Indian metropolis begin talking about reservations and Dalits. One of them voices a hatred of the ‘quota’ system (the affirmative action policy through which seats in educational institutions and employment are ‘reserved’ for particular castes and communities identified as historically oppressed and marginalized) that ‘favours’ the ‘Backward and Scheduled Castes’ (B 11). The other student then responds with information about continued caste-based oppression in India and the nature of this oppression (denial of equality, violence directed at particular castes). Then she embarks on Ambedkar’s story, which is the subject of the remaining narrative. But whether it, B, is a graphic rendering of Ambedkar’s Autobiographical Notes or an enactment of a counterhistory of India itself is a moot point, and is the question that invites this chapter itself. The previous chapters analysed how the graphic narrative in India documents Indian history, cultural identity and urban spaces. This chapter turns to another tradition visible in the canon of graphic narratives, a tradition that interrogates the nature of the Indian past and the established modes of speaking of that past. More importantly, in this process of interrogation, works like B and A Gardener in the Wasteland (hereafter GW) also make visible other histories embedded in the known histories. Contemporary work on the graphic novel has established almost as a truism that the medium offers a brilliant format to speak of unspeakable pasts, traumatic histories and hidden stories. Several among them have tried to isolate the specific modes through which the form enables counter-histories and an interrogative stance towards established histories (Lander 2005; Chute 2006, 2008b; Chaney 2007, among others). My chapter draws on these works and expands my own earlier readings of texts such as B and GW (Nayar 2012a, forthcoming).
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In effect, texts like B and GW constitute what Homi Bhabha termed a ‘performative’, which disrupts the pedagogy of established and commonly accepted histories of the nation. For Homi Bhabha, the ‘performative’ is aligned with instability, a ‘practice that destroys the constant principles of the national culture’ (1995: 303). Bhabha argues that the ‘performative’ destabilizes the stereotypes on which the nation depends and which miss ‘the zone of occult instability where the people dwell’ (1995: 303). The performative in B is the intrusion of multiple, equally demotic, registers within the graphic narrative that disrupts the youth’s narrative of ignorance (at the beginning of B), even as it interrupts the continuum and seasoned homeostasis of our, the readers’, own ignorance about another history of India. I see the performative as the effect of the critical literacy generated and demanded by the graphic narrative. This chapter builds on the assumption that ‘other’ or alternate histories might be made to speak and become visible to the contemporary reader through the medium of the graphic narrative and its demotic register. The demotic register is crucial because it enables a popularization of a social condition and of historical wrongs. Then why use Ambedkar’s or Phule’s stories in order to offer this potentially subversive ‘other’ history of the country? B contributes to a postcolonial critical literacy because it enables the circulation of stories in a medium and form that draws upon the existing interocular field. The personal narrative folding into, but not blurring, the social-historical in a popular format creates a new story space where we begin to see a history of violations, a history otherwise available (only) in UN tracts, Amnesty reports or socio-legal studies. Commentators on human rights have pointed to the necessity of such a space for storytelling. Writing about the role of narrative in human rights, Joseph Slaughter says: A public sphere is a story space that not only enables but also shapes and constrains narrative; moreover, it is not simply a clearinghouse for the publication of personal narrative truth but a kind of story factory in which the norms of public discourse become legible both in the social interactivity of storytelling and in the story forms that it disseminates, conventionalizes, and canonizes. (2007: 144) In a similar fashion, Paul Gready writes: Human rights work has two primary points of reference, the law and what we are calling here the story – you could define human rights practice as the craft of bringing together legal norms and human stories in the service of justice. Law provides the mechanisms for rendering power accountable, particularly state power, but also increasingly the power of non-state actors. Human stories
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provide a no less essential resource – attempting to spark the law into life, transcend cultural and political difference, and cement the solidarity of strangers. (2010: 177–8) Writing about popular perceptions of the law through such cinematic representations – even fictional ones – Anthony Chase states that ‘popular perceptions [of the law] are constituent elements in the social process by which any legal culture becomes recognizable to its own participants’ (2000: 559–60). It has also been suggested that a cultural apparatus of human rights emerges in a folklorization of political human rights discourses and the concomitant circulation of apposite narrative forms. We can make universal standards of human rights folkloric by sliding them into local cultural forms and practices of thought (Nayar 2011). The register of the graphic novel is what enables us to see other histories, to locate the ‘story’ of this text in the social fields that frame it and to ‘stretch’ the events being documented to larger social conditions of injustice, oppression and inequality. Clearly then, form has an important role to play in educating an audience about historical wrongs, rights issues and social injustice, and this chapter foregrounds the use of form, demotic registers and visual vocabularies in order to speak of historical wrongs. This chapter also moves from the public to the private-personal in the concluding sections, when looking at works like Hush and the tales in This Side, That Side. In doing so the chapter suggests that hidden, alternate and ‘other’ histories from domains as large as the nation and as circumscribed as the family are made visible through the verbal-visual protocols of the graphic narrative.
Multiple temporalities, intercultural histories The panel in any graphic narrative encloses space and time. But in a graphic narrative devoted to producing a history of contemporary social injustice, such as A Gardener in the Wasteland, a simple ‘one panel-one moment’ schema does not do the work required to draw the reader’s attention.
Empanelling multiple temporalities The topographical ‘map’ of Rewa valley that Orijit Sen incorporates into the text of The River of Stories (a two-page spread, 47–8, hereafter RS) encodes multiple temporalities, by showing the changed landscape. Spatializing the changes, Sen gives us temples, forests, villages, railway lines, monuments to slain fighters and the massive dam itself. Panel insets show a cameraman interviewing the displaced, a folk singer narrating the story of the river and
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the protestors. (I shall return to the crucial panel of the cameraman later in this chapter.) Older features sit on the same page as the new ones, and historical figures and events seem at odds with the dam, which takes up the entire right foreground of page 48. More or less coherent masses are represented in the rest of the ‘map’, bounded by various mountains (that also mark the edge of the page, incidentally). Myths and narratives of the river and the tribes are written into the landscape as tiny texts as well, suggesting the stories that make (up) the land. The dam alone has no stories, but a bland pronouncement: ‘Rewa Sagar dam under construction’, almost as though this leviathan requires no stories, and has no stories, unless, of course, it has absorbed all the stories of how it came about into itself. Old worlds and new, old ways of life and the new, older stories and newer histories are all inscribed into the map here, to show us that every land has multiple temporalities embedded in it. I propose that the graphic novel’s foregrounding of history and the contemporary clearly calls for us to be made aware of the extension and impact of the former on the latter. The siting of tribal lives, modernized technology, media and folklore in the same frame ensures that we see a social conflict, and a contest over not just the land but over the stories of this land – and this is the critical literacy demanded of us by the form. On page 10 of GW we have two panels. The upper one shows brahmins sitting around on cots (‘charpais’), relaxing. The lower one shows a hirsute brahmin being weighed in a massive balance. He proves to be heavier than a whole group of emaciated and stooped Dalits. Standing facing them is a brahmin who pronounces ‘caste is merely division of labour’. The Dalits dispute this claim with their own: ‘no, caste is systematic oppression’. Then there are two textboxes explaining, by way of commentary, the roots of the caste system and social order in 1840s Poona, Western India. Now several details about this page stand out. First is the caption ‘Poona, Western India, in the 1840s’ at the top of the page, the textbox cutting into the frame of the panel. The three comment boxes are all edged into the frames of the two panels. But also noticeable is the woman in the bottom left corner, looking completely incongruous, and looking into the panel. If one has not missed the early copyright pages, we know who this ‘onlooker’ is: Srividya Natarajan, the author of the story of GW. Srividya here asks: ‘How different are we now from how we were, say, in Jotiba Phule’s time?’ (10).The opening pages (9–10) of GW effect the collapse of temporal frames: 1840s Pune, India, and twenty-first-century New Delhi, India, with Natarajan hoisted into the panel where the brahmins are picturized. It is also important to note that Natarajan is herself shown looking into the panel, watching, as though on a screen, the unjust social order of 1840s India. We are therefore viewing the storyteller viewing the events in a very self-conscious meta-viewing format. Moving on to the next page this sense of multiple temporalities
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is reiterated. The next image, on page 11, shows a brahmin relaxing. In the same panel, to the right is a visual of a couple working away on a field: the woman is planting, the man is hacking away at the ground and the sun blazes on them both. The brahmin thinks: ‘Running the farm is a breeze. The shudra slave-labourers do the grunt work’ (11). Some brahmins are also to be given ‘handouts’ by the local king, reports one of them (11). Having given us a synoptic view, in formal prose, of the unequal division of labour in India’s casteist society we are shown the difference the labour system engenders: the scrawny ‘untouchable’ couple slave away in the fields, the rotund brahmin relaxes. What is startling is the register in which the brahmin is thinking: ‘grunt work’ and ‘breeze’ take the register of contemporary yuppie culture and give it to the 1840s brahmin to articulate. This jars, assuredly. But it is in the incongruity between the registers of brahmin supremacy – cast in the language of scriptures or law (‘caste is merely the division of labour’, 10) – and the yuppie slang that we understand something else: the continuity of inequality in labour or employment from 1840s India to the present. Usually, as Hillary Chute notes, ‘approaching the past and the present together is typical for someone considering narratives of causality’ (2006: 208). However, Natarajan and Ninan are not establishing causality. The rhetorical question Natarajan asks (‘How different are we now from how we were, say, in Jotiba Phule’s time?’) is implicitly directed at the reader as well, or rather is the question the text leads the reader to ask. GW is the answer to this question, as it will go on to demonstrate (i) the persistence of the caste system in various guises means that our present age is not significantly different from that of Phule’s and (ii) from our vantage point we can see what has been wrong with Indian society and history since the Poona of the 1840s. By incorporating herself into the panel, the storyteller Natarajan positions herself not as a reliable or authentic narrator but as one who shares with the reader the shock of discovery: the discovery of continuities in social
Figure 4.1 A Gardener in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty. Story by Srividya Natarajan, art by Aparajita Ninan. New Delhi: N avayana, 2011. 11.
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inequity. If critical literacy is an awareness of the social locations of texts and textual production then the opening pages of GW foreground the distant yet intimate location of the storyteller: she narrates the story to us even as she unravels the horrific story for herself. More importantly it calls upon the readers to note the continuity of social contexts: when the narrators of the tale see parallels of their (and our) time with Phule’s age, we see through their eyes the same continuity. The reader is drawn into the multiple temporalities so that she recognizes continuities in the social structures. Never, in GW, do we read the past in isolation: we read the past into the present. Then, by giving the nineteenth-century brahmin the lingo of the present-day capitalist, globalized workplace we once again have a telescoping of temporal frames, thereby indicating a continuum rather than a disjuncture. The historical reality of the caste system cannot only be described and comprehended in contemporary language but it seems to cross econocultural boundaries as well: from agrarian nineteenth-century India to the contemporary capitalist global economy. The past haunts the present, so to speak, since the present-day language seems to apply seamlessly to the past as well. Or is it that the present exploitative and unjust society has its roots in the past? In other words, what these two pages show is not merely the presence or reconstruction of the past through the author’s reflexive presence in the panel and the linguistic register of description, but that the past is (perhaps) constitutive of the present. I also see the emphasis on labour then (i.e. in the past) and now (as described by the luxuriating brahmin) as a material marker of historical and social continuity: what continues from the past to the present is the materiality of labour. What the present inherits is not the past as much as the material burden of it, when some segments of society have to labour just as their ancestors did, and some classes relax, just as their ancestors did. It is this sense of continuity of oppressive past into the unjust present the critical literacy enables. Further, the fact that ‘Natarajan’ the author/looker-in and the exploitative brahmin speak the same contemporary language with entirely different content forces us, I believe, to see the multiple threads of Indian history: one, that pronounced by the brahmin, one by the commentary boxes and one by the author/onlooker. GW seems to adopt this strategy of multiple temporalities as its definitive mode, and adds an additional dimension to it later. At one point Ninan is shown texting Natarajan, ‘I’m seeing Savitribai in my head’, and immediately, in the next panel, the scene shifts to Poona 1848 and Savitribai’s encounter with ‘caste-Hindus’ (12). One is led to believe that it is Ninan seeing the events of 1848: yet again, a metanarrative strategy. All panels that depict Natajaran and Ninan also have a date-box indicating the present, and clearly therefore distinguishing the present from the past (which has its own date-boxes as well).
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Posters of Savitribai as a ‘wanted woman’, a commonplace modus operandi used by law enforcement agencies to catch criminals, are also shown (13). Surely there were no posters of the type GW represents. But the point about nineteenth-century India’s intolerance for change or social reform is made in the register of everyday culture: a social reformer is very often despised, hunted down and even killed by the conservatives who do not want the change. By mixing registers of the diatribes against Savitribai and of the law (the wanted poster) and later (17) with the icon for ‘prohibited’ (Savitribai’s face within a circle and a ‘/’across it, resembling signs which tell us ‘No smoking’ by having an image of a cigarette with the ‘/’ across it) the message is powerfully conveyed in the language of the contemporary.
Intercultural history Since Savitribai Phule’s focus in 1840s Poona was women’s education irrespective of their caste, the storyline also aligns it, predictably, with the campaign for the rights of African Americans to education (13). The date here is 1957, Arkansas, USA, and the debate around right to education for African Americans. The panel itself is shaped like the shape of Arkansas State, giving it spatial and temporal location. Cries of ‘nigger’ and ‘ape’ rend the air as the African American students, with the American flag in hand, march, perhaps in protest. White students look slit-eyed in anger at them. This panel adds an additional layer to the multiple temporalities structure of GW. Natarajan and Ninan in addition to merging timeframes produce an intercultural history of oppression, inequality and resistance. This intercultural history is reinforced in a later image as well. In a visual spread across two pages (20–1) we have a whole group of revolutionaries, radicals and liberal thinkers juxtaposed. Lenin, Marx, Mandela, Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Che Guevara, the Buddha and others constitute this group that is supposed to function as the backdrop to Jotiba Phule, who is represented on the very next page (22) delivering commentaries on the caste system. This is presentism at its best, where the need to locate Phule within a radical generation, severely circumscribed by the graphic novel’s format (no footnotes where this connection can be elaborated with cross references), is achieved through the chaotic montage. Later there are more fascinating juxtapositions: of Phule with Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman (23) and of the brahmins with the Ku Klux Klan (24–5). Also continuing a pattern from B, GW drags the present-day cultures of cruelty into the narrative about nineteenth-century India. Newspaper headlines about atrocities against Dalits are worked into the montage here (26). Later, comparisons would be made to the Gujarat riots of 2002 (62–3) and the anti-minority wave that led to the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid (110) and the subsequent riots.
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In Orijit Sen’s RS traditional tribal ways of life are interrupted, indeed overwhelmed, by the contemporary. In one visual we see this contest of two different moments and two processes. The adivasis are labouring at their traditional works, but their attention has been distracted by a strange presence: a bus on a bridge. The bridge is high above and so, from the angle at which the tribals are looking up, the bus seems to be in the clouds, or at least skirting close to them (11). Two cultural symbols come into dramatic tension here: the crude baskets of the tribals representing old-world traditions and the bus-andbridge representing modernity/the contemporary. By locating the latter high over the labouring former, Sen suggests an overarching modernity. Modernity overtakes the tribal, and it hangs threateningly over their lives. The caption above this visual reads: ‘It [the road] was like a big snake from whose belly emerged the caravans and moters [motors] of traders from the bazar’ (11).
History and irony Orijit Sen makes an early attempt to foreground the mediated nature of storytelling, propaganda and even history. In RS he shows cameramen filming the tribals, almost weaving the camera into the narrative of the Rewa dam (48). Now this constitutes an interesting narrative strategy. Unlike a visual history that effaces the mediating role of the camera – where the events were staged in the presence of the camera – and thus pretends to a transparent access to the events, Sen calls attention to Rewa as a media story, the displacement and suffering of the tribals as a mediated story. The camera is the symbol of the media, but it is also something more in the tale. I propose that it is the camera that makes things happen in Sen. The enactment of suffering is possible because the cameraman and his device sets out to record this suffering. In other words, the historical events of displacement are ‘arranged’ based on a priori assumptions of suffering that are to be recorded by the media. In this crucial panel the cameraman is on the left, and he holds out a microphone with one hand as he films. To the right of the panel are the displaced, walking towards the protest-site. Of the five people here three look at the camera, one boy looks straight ahead and the woman right in the front seems to be focusing on something outside the panel (and thus is actually looking at us), or she is looking away, shyly, from the camera. The senior man is telling the cameraman/microphone their reasons for the march. The documenting apparatus is very much a part of the events (as we know, the Narmada campaigns were massively covered in the national and international media, making the river itself a celebrity). I further propose that this supposedly intrusive sign of modernity in a text ideologically positioned on the side of the premodern/tribal performs an act of validation. The events unfolding are worthy of memorialization, and the camera represents the eventual
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Figure 4.2 Orijit Sen, The River of Stories. New Delhi: Kalpavriksh, 1994. 48.
portability of memory (Anwer 2014) from Rewa to the world. The cameraman represents the outsider, yes, but he also represents the mode of documentation, memorialization and dissemination: this is what will take Rewa to the world. Thus we need to see this odd panel as central to the politics of Sen. History such as the one being made in Rewa has its little ironies because it is the modern mnemonic device that ensures our present access to the events of the period. There is no unmediated history and Sen makes sure we understand that the Rewa issue is a mediated one. In GW alongside the multiple temporalities and intercultural history there is something more significant about its strategy of author presence. The technique of montage GW uses not only telescopes time and historical events, as noted earlier, but it also introduces a fair amount of irony. The irony is dramatic and contingent upon our acquiring the critical literacy whereby we can recognize the limited nature of the storyteller’s authority. That is irony is not implicit in the narrative – irony lies in our recognition of the nature of the storyteller’s ability.
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By suggesting that Ninan conjures up, visualizes and dreams up the events in Savitribai’s life – not very different from Saleem Sinai saying, in Midnight’s Children, that the Indo-Pak war happened because he dreamed of it – the narrative generates dramatic irony. We acknowledge here that, surely, the narrators cannot be certain of their own access to Savitribai’s story, just as we come to recognize the limited nature of all access to historical events and figures. GW converts this dramatic irony into a principal narrative device, thereby escaping the charges of authenticity and accuracy of representation. The storytellers draw our attention to the mediated nature of their own and thereby our access to 1840s Poona. I propose, therefore, that the montaging and irony sharpen critical literacies by emphasizing the narrative and constructed nature of all histories, whether of Phule’s age or anything else. I am making a larger case for the metanarrative style of GW where the montage’s dramatic irony might be seen as calling for a critical literacy that rejects any argument about direct, unmediated access – and understanding – of the historical past. All pasts, GW suggests, are mediated by the present’s needs and politics. GW then self-consciously refuses to offer us an unmediated history. If anything, it draws attention to its narrative of history and counter-history, each constitutive of the other, and both mediated by the knowledge (or ignorance) and politics of the storytellers.
Other bodies in history The brahmins in GW are all muscular and hirsute. The Dalits are emaciated and stooped. Phule and his wife, Savitri, are healthily proportioned. But Natarajan and Ninan are at their best when corporealizing an alternate history of the Dashavatar and the Aryan invasion/origin story of Indian civilization. By ‘corporealizing’ I mean the reconstruction of Indian history as a history of misrepresentation, misleading myths geared to maintaining brahmin supremacy, and embodying this history-myth dynamic. Indian history thus might be read through and in the grotesque bodies of the brahmins, Rakshsas, Aryans and mythological figures like Parashuram. The first thing to be noted about these representations across pages 67–9 is the frontality of the image. The image in the centre is positioned for ‘darshan’, the key mode of gazing at gods and worship in Hinduism (Babb 1981; Eck 1998). Worship is contingent upon the ‘ability truly to see the divine image’ (Eck 1998: 6).1 Curiously the ‘action’ in these visual representations takes place behind the fronted divinity/Aryan/Rakshasas. The central figure, nearly the size of the panel itself, is positioned like an idol in a place of worship. Behind him/it is the action played out – of massacres and violence. I propose that
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the action adds depth to the frontal view we have of the image/figure. The image is so positioned so as to occupy all our vision, but we can also see the ‘behind the figure’ actions, to the sides and in smaller scale. I treat this as a crucial visual protocol of seeing history itself.
Figure 4.3 A Gardener in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty. Text by Srividya Natarajan, art by Aparajita Ninan. New Delhi: Navayana, 2011. 67.
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By presenting Aryans, Rakshsas, brahmins and Hindu mythologicalscriptural figures in large size and full frontal view but with the action to the sides and in smaller scale, Natarajan and Ninan suggest that it is the figure as an abstraction of divinity that has come to occupy the mythic narratives of India, with other violent histories being made secondary. That is, this traditional representation in Indian history is darshanic. But what Natarajan and Ninan add to this darshanic image is the ‘sidelines’ that then produce a corpothetics. Expanding the idea of the darshanic as intrinsic to worship, Christopher Pinney has proposed a ‘corpothetics’ (2002) where the gaze is not a disembodied vision but on a more complicated relationship of the image and the embodied beholder in a somatics of the image, where the image is seen as a body. We now see, if we are alert to the framing sidelines, the story behind the body, so to speak. We respond not simply to the divine or the perfect Aryan form, but to the possible story engendered by this body. We also move away from the image to the image-as-body, and therefore of the image (of the Aryan, or of the brahmin) as representing an agential body that has determined a particular course of history. In other words, Natarajan and Ninan’s corpothetic visuality calls attention to the image as more than image or an abstract form of the divine, and as a body that produced certain actions that have been marginalized in favour of a presumed (passive?) divinity. These pages caution us against seeing historical and mythic figures as mere images. Developing a new visual protocol that also forces us to reevaluate history, the visual narrative on these pages suggests that we need to see such figures as agents of a different history of India as well, one of violence, discrimination and exploitation. Such a revisionist visual protocol diminishes the distance between myth embodied in the central darshanic figure and history embodied in the actions that frame this central figure as agential body and not mere abstraction. The Aryans in GW are two-faced. The two-faced bodies of the Aryans and the Rakshasas self-consciously recast the anthropological and genealogical foundations of India’s races and castes. The brahminical narrative of Aryans as ‘true Indians’ (67) is immediately subverted in the very form of the Aryan body by demonizing one half of it. On page 67 we are given this history inscribed onto the Aryan body. The right half of the Aryan body represents ‘Phule’s perspective’, as inscribed in a caption at the top of the panel. This side describes the Aryans in textboxes as ‘invaders’, ‘usurpers’ and ‘killers of Aboriginal dasyus’. The left side, representing the ‘Brahman’s perspective’, as captioned above the panel, describes the Aryan as ‘Indo-Europeans’ and ‘true Indians’. The Rakshsas are likewise two-faced. The right side (‘Phule’s perspective’) represents ‘indigenous people with a far greater right to ownership of India’. The right side (‘Brahman’s perspective’) shows them as ‘dark-skinned monsters’, ‘demons’ and ‘desecrators of Brahman rites and sacrifices’ (67).
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Later we are given a series of similar two-faced bodies of the various Vishnu avatars (68–9). What we perceive is a grotesque body in each case. (On page 67 the Phule-side panels are better lit and the brahmin side is shaded darker in the background, symbolic of the truth/falsehood dichotomy Phule is working with when he debunks the Hindu mythography and dominant historical narrative.) ‘Co-presence . . . harbours the essence of the grotesque, the sense that things that should be kept apart are fused together,’ writes Geoffrey Harpham about the grotesque (1982: 11). When we see new forms, we first seek to compare them with what we are already familiar with. This is an effort to locate the creature/form as adjacent to a known category, till such time as we ‘discover a proper place for the new thing, and we recognize it not only for what it is like but also for what it is, in itself’ (16). The grotesque unspeakable body of these mythic figures, both villains and heroes, becomes symbolic of a mode of historiography itself. The grotesque body represents the convergence of history with myth – a reading invited by the panel immediately preceding the pages I discussed earlier. Natarajan and Srividya are in a bookshop. Ninan says, ‘History, like myth, changes depending on who writes it, who reads it.’ And Srividya: ‘Jotiba makes you shift your perspective on the Aryans, for example’ (66). Grotesquerie is also the foundation, Natarajan and Ninan’s story-art suggests, of social inequalities, with massacres, misrepresentation and violence that decimates the indigenous people, the Dalits and the weak. Visually speaking this mode is fascinating. Things that have to be kept separate – such as myth and factually verifiable history – have fused, and the result is the grotesque bodies of the figures that continue to command respect, reverence and epistemic power. That myth and history are often messily merged is brought home to the reader with the visual grammar of this text. Foregrounding the grotesque body also enables the writer-artist to highlight the sheer violence of history: the massacre of Dalits, the alleged violence of the Rakshsas, the violence against women, among others (67–9). In the body of the Aryan or the figures of Hindu mythology, Natarajan and Ninan suggest, we can see another history emerging and acted out. Rather than the peaceable role of brahmins or the nobility of Aryans we could read their bodies as embodying injustice and gratuitous, ethnicidal violence against indigenous tribes. The larger argument to be made is that the grotesque body functions as a signifier of a messy and complicated historiography that has suppressed any alternate interpretation – an interpretation that Phule offers in his texts and that Natarajan and Ninan bring to us on the pages of GW. The co-presence is not only of history and myth but also of history and counter-history, the one that Phule delivers up.
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Victim bodies also produce a narrative that strikes at the root of myths like that of the ‘glorious’ Indian or Hindu civilization. In GW Buddhist monks are crushed in oil-presses (83), and Dalit bodies constantly subjected to abuse and suffering, just as in B, the earliest, concrete manifestation of casteism in young Ambedkar’s life is centred in the body when the thirsty body craving water is denied the life-saving liquid. It is in bodies, whether of victims or perpetrators, that we see history’s (and myth’s) most visible signs of India’s violent past. To adapt Katalin Orbán’s phrasing, such a depiction of the suffering, tortured, deprived body of the victim or the violent, powerful body of the perpetrator might be read as ‘an effort to reorient the reader from the ‘awesome’ sublime to a more contingent history that does not transcend material bodies and traces’ (2007: 58). That is history needs to be read not as large-scale, macro movements and events but as inscribed on individual bodies. History is writ large in bodies. If we link this representational strategy of grotesque bodies to the preceding representations of hirsute brahmin bodies and slaving, stooped Dalit ones in GW, one can see how certain bodies, usually represented as a mass, are allegorical figures of historical and national victimization, exclusion and oppression. That is the grotesquerie of the fat brahmin body, the stooped Dalit body and the two-faced Aryan are allegories of historical processes and thus offer us a different perspective embodying the contradictions, violations and violence of Indian pasts.
Reframing the archive The revisioning of Indian history in the graphic medium is also facilitated by the reframing of the archive and the various bits and shards of evidence from the past that seem to intrude into the present, even as the present ‘reads’ this evidence in divergent ways. By ‘reframing’, I refer to a whole group of processes whereby official histories are rewritten visually and verbally in these graphic narratives. The term enables us to also see the ‘frames’ or contexts in which a particular archive or official artefact might be read in the present contexts for present-day political ends. Reframing the archive is not about a simple montage of past and present that we have already discussed. It refers explicitly to the use of textual evidence, documentary material and visual records in new ways to frame the evidence so as to make it speak to and with the present. Revisioning history requires not only a re-reading of texts: it also necessitates that this re-reading establishes a certain relationship with the past. I take my cue in this insistence on the return to textuality from Amy Hungerford’s (2003) reading of the diary-burning incident in Maus. Hungerford argues that the ‘murdered text . . . lies at the heart of any understanding of genocide’ (cited in Mandaville 2009: 219). If murdered texts lie at the heart
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of genocidal actions, then its corollary might also be envisaged: revivified texts could lie at the heart of emancipatory projects. This revivification I take to be a sign of critical literacy the graphic novel commands. Works like B and GW proffer an ‘alternative methodology that posits value based on a fundamental codependence between the archival images . . . and the graphic novel’s mechanics for re-circulating, reframing, and re-animating them’ (to adapt Michael Chaney’s account of the graphic biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 2007: 180). Chaney elaborates on the biography’s act of reframing photographs, documents and even older biographies: It [the biography] also lays bare the processes of public memory and hagiographic memorialization that constitute these images as facts at all. More than the sanctity of the life of King, it is rather the sanctity of photographic documentation and of the historical itself that this biography calls into question. (180) Chaney focuses on the deployment of archival photographs within revisionist history in the graphic narrative. However, I would like to dwell on the role of documentation, archive and already-existing narratives in the revisioning of Indian history in these two graphic narratives. An early instance of reframing the archive in GW occurs as the author Natarajan is reading about Savitribai Phule. In a panel dated 4 February 2010 we see Natarajan recalling her childhood encounters with Indian history, especially the heroine of the 1857 ‘Mutiny’, the iconic Rani Lakshmibai. This panel has its frame on three sides, the fourth is missing and that entire side opens out into a ‘flashback’ visual: Natarajan as a child peering into a book. Natarajan is positioned at the computer but is looking to her right and it is on the right side that we have the book-in-a-book, and Natarajan as a child. The book-in-a-book is open at two visuals: one depicting the line drawing of a warrior queen and one of another woman. The warrior queen is surely Lakshmibai because the line drawing is built around existing archival visuals of the queen. Natarajan in this panel, as an adult, thinks: ‘As a child, I read about Lakshmibai, I read about Sarojini Naidu.’ The next panel, beneath this one, has Natarajan’s thoughts on this history of India’s ‘great women’: ‘I never read about Savitribai Phule. . . . I guess she has been erased, like other nonbrahman role models, from history’ (17). In this striking set of panels several new visual protocols are in play. First, Natarajan is looking away from the computer and her present to her past. The panel shading into the child and the history textbook suggests an opening out of the present into the past. The absence of a border to the panel
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Figure 4.4 A Gardener in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty. Text by Srividya Natarajan, art by Aparajita Ninan. New Delhi: Navayana, 2011. 17.
presents the interpenetrating nature of past and present (as noted in earlier cases, this too is an instance of multiple temporalities within a panel). This in itself suggests a revisionist view. When reading (reading left to right along
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sentences and along a book) one looks at the left-hand side in a book as the past, with the right as ‘to come’, and hence the past is usually associated with the left-hand side. But here Natarajan looking to her right towards the past is at once antithetical to the standard trope.2 Second, the history textbook is in the past, in Natarajan’s childhood which she now recalls, suggests the continuity of the textbook’s grip on her imagination, an imagination she is now trying to examine. Third, the history textbook from her childhood is a symbol of an official archive on Indian history that, when re-examined in the light of contemporary awareness and responsibility, gets reframed. This reframing is achieved through the visual protocol of the page that shows us an architecture of the archive: the book and the computer. The history book gave no role or space to certain women in Indian history. It is on the computer that a new memory, or archive, that gives Savitribai Phule a wholly different role, will be written. The architecture and devices of public memory or biography are, to borrow Chaney’s phrasing from the previous quote, called into question in these two panels. The computer rewrites the public memory, just as the history textbook created it in a particular way. The architecture of the panel is reflective of the architecture of public memory and history where, when she looks to the right/past from her contemporary location and devices (the computer), Natarajan is able to see through the history book. Drawing attention to the devices of memory is also to draw attention to the devices of composition (the computer) that need to be used responsibly so as to address the gaps and wrongs of the older device (the book). Just as print replaces oral narratives and mnemonic devices by rendering into near-permanent form a particular history, the computer replaces the print medium. If the print medium rendered into visual-readable terms one kind/version of Indian history, then the computer screen perhaps could achieve a visual revision of this history. This panel expands the scenes from history by bringing into the visual field new actors hitherto invisible in the grand narrative of, say, India’s freedom movement. Natarajan discovers, as noted earlier, the role played by actors like Savitribai Phule in women’s reforms and anticaste campaigns. The panel discussed earlier, even as its showcases the devices of public memory, forces us to expand both, our visual field to include Savitribai Phule beside Lakshmibai, and our perception of history. The open nature of this panel’s frames might be read as a formal strategy of expanding history and the historical sense itself. This expansion of history is essentially our admission that there are other histories of India that need to be read. On the page immediately following this breathtaking visual protocol of history remaking, we have another panel that also suggests the urgent need to rethink official Indian history as one that masks a history of oppression and social injustice. What is reframed here this time is Thomas Paine and his work, Rights of Man.
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The panel on page 18 is spread across two pages and occupies the entire lower half of the two pages. On the left is Phule at a desk reading a large-sized tome. The caption tells us: ‘Jotiba reads from Thomas Paine, Rights of Man.’ The speech bubbles from Phule give us quotes from the classic political text as well as Phule’s commentary (‘he [Paine] could be talking of brahmanical Hinduism’). This same panel has another odd visual element, a magical-realist representation: Paine is climbing out of his book. Natarajan and Ninan suggest that Paine comes alive. As we scan the page towards the right, Paine is now standing in front of Phule and making speeches (essentially from his work). The extreme right of the panel has, again oddly, Phule handing the book to Paine to read from. And Paine reads: ‘The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man . . . these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance of oppression’ (18–19). It is significant that the panel at its opening moment (the extreme left, if we assume that the time in the panel moves from left to right) has Phule drawn in full scale, even as Paine emerges from the book. As the panel’s time moves along, Phule shrinks and Paine now comes to be larger than Phule. The last two images of Phule are of a small man at the table even as Paine is making his fiery speech. The volume, Rights of Man, is first a large tome on the table, and then, by the time we reach the extreme right of the panel, a handy little volume which Paine holds in his hands and reads from. The shrinking of Phule and the volume accompanied by the concomitant increase in the dimensions of Paine seem to imply that the medium through which history might be viewed – Phule, the book – diminishes in size even as its message captures the world. The person bringing us the message in the immediate context, Phule, becomes incidental to the storytelling: Paine’s words are powerful enough to make perfect sense. The entire narrative of this panel also invites the argument that Phule’s shrinking has to do with the radically different contexts in which the message circulates: the French Revolution, the age of Phule and its ‘brahmanical Hinduism’ and finally our very own context in which we read the panel. That Phule hands Paine his (Paine’s) book to read from is yet another reiteration of the reframing. Paine’s book has circulated across and percolated down from England to the colonial subject, Phule. But the visual also implies that Phule has internalized it and can now do without the book. But Phule is also letting Paine speak – metaphorically – in his own voice. Thus Natarajan and Ninan reframe the medium through which Rights of Man comes to the Indian context. Phule does not wish to be the person/ medium solely responsible for the interpretation and circulation of Rights of Man. The diminishing and the handing-over of the book seem to suggest that Phule wants the book and its real author to do the talking. This calls attention, in my reading, to the reframing of official and political texts,
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their circulation and their consumption. By getting Paine to read from his work, with Phule reduced to the role of a listener/onlooker, exactly like us readers, Natarajan and Ninan efface the medium minimally. The artefact/ archive/document circulates beyond the control of the medium. It speaks to posterity in some way or the other. Here it is notable that the frames of the panel at the extreme right are cut into fragments by the quotes from Rights of Man that Paine is reading. It is almost as though the medium of the message has diminished, but the content of Paine’s message (from the book) frames the story, or even the world. The frame of the panel in which Phule, along with Paine, broods on the role of freedom, despotism and slavery is constituted by the most resonant words from Paine’s text: ‘liberty, property, security, resistance of oppression’. Thus, the message alters the nature of the medium in another way: it defines the page and the visual protocol itself (a strategy made famous in Maus where the tattooed arm of Vladek, and other such potent symbols cut across panels, 1986: 12). The limits of the page’s visual and verbal narrative are determined by the powerful words from Paine’s great work. The reframing here is also to do with the way Phule in one speech bubble makes the connection between Paine’s European text and India. That the text makes sense across time zones, eras and historical contexts is a reframing of the text by Phule and by Natarajan-Ninan. It references the appropriation of a tract for radical purposes in a very different context. One other artefact that gets reframed in GW is also a book. The storytellers rely, for the better part of their tale, on Phule’s book, Gulamgiri (Slavery), published in 1873. Indeed GW opens with a facsimile reproduction of the cover page of Gulamgiri; this page constitutes the first page of GW, on the obverse of which is the colophon page. While the book jacket gives us The Gardener in the Wasteland, the first page we see inside is Gulamgiri’s 1873 cover page. What this achieves is at once a distancing into the past but also a palimpsest: we are made aware that GW is a reworking, a writing over, a writing into, of the older text, Gulamgiri. This alerts us, yet again, to the mediated nature of the text of GW (it reworks Gulamgiri), and thus questions about its fidelity to the past are evaded. But it also alerts us to the reframing – of Phule’s book on slavery, the historical record of slavery in the USA, and both inserted into the debate about caste in India. By drawing a link between caste and race and characterizing both as slavery, Phule inaugurated a new discourse, a transnational one. When Natarajan and Ninan frame Phule’s text within theirs and theirs within Phule’s they are making their text participate in the past, revivifying Phule’s so as to give life to their own text. Natarajan and Ninan take Phule’s iconic text and contemporize – revivify, as I called it – it. In doing so it takes an experience of marginality – Phule’s, in 1840s India – and aestheticizes it for the present.
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There is yet another instance of reframing in GW. At one point we have a full-page panel that shows Ninan reading out a poem by Savitribai. The poem is inserted into the bottom right corner of the panel, so we get a sense of the ‘original’ text. But what is important here is the metanarrative structure of this panel. Ninan is reading out the poem to Natarajan. But overhearing the recitation are four college-kids, a woman in a sari and a balding man (123). On the one hand this reframing – a verbal citation of the past in the picture – enables the listeners to reach out to the past in the words of Savitribai’s poem. On the second level it shows how the past seems to resonate powerfully for an entirely different generation of people. The reframing becomes a political strategy where a continuum and continuity is established between Phule’s time and his concerns and the present. Yet another instance of this political reframing of the book occurs on page 93. This one references an essay read out by a school girl. The preceding panel has Savitirbai telling Jotiba: ‘Do you remember 14-year-old Muktabai after three years in our second school for atisudra girls? Do you remember her brilliant essay on caste?’ Jotiba does not respond to this, but the girl reading the essay occupies the entire extreme right of the page, running full length down the page. She is also reading it on stage, with a spotlight shining down and illuminating her. The spotlighted girl in fact is the frame of the page itself, almost as though the spatial-temporal frames of the graphic narrative are contingent upon the girl’s reading. The reframing here is of the act of writing. By spotlighting, literally and figuratively, the girl’s efforts Natarajan and Ninan propose the necessity of writing as emancipatory. The book, thus far the provenance of the upper castes, is now in the hands of the girl, and it could be argued that the spotlight emerges as much from the writing the educated Dalit did as from the school the Phules ran. Reframing here is the shifting of the spotlight. Reframing enables the storytellers to foreground the tenuous nature of history-writing and memory and deal with the sheer terror of the events they do recall or revisit when reading Phule’s or other texts from the past. Take, for example, the historical accounts of the massacre of Buddhist monks where the monks are being crushed in oil presses by the brahmins (83), or the activities of the Satyashodak Samaj which rejected brahmin supremacy and encouraged rational thinking (96). When uncertain about the nature of the historical event the storytellers prefer to simply take recourse to documentary evidence from the past: the speeches of Savarkar, Gandhi, Ranade and Tilak (88–9, 91), as well as Phule’s own speeches, most notably the speech to the Hunter Commission of 1882 (106). But the horror of coming to terms with what they, Natarajan and Ninan as contemporary readers, have discovered in these documents would have to be conveyed to the present readers as well. After telling us about the massacre
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of the Buddhists, the full horror of the events is visualized for us in the form of the representation of the Hindu right wing and the demolition of Babri Masjid (110). In the second example the storytellers continue Satyashodak Samaj’s rhetoric against brahmin control over education and learning (96) into the controversial debates over affirmative action and the anti-Mandal riots (102). In order to convey their horror at the exclusivity of education in the past, the narrative of GW swiftly situates the Satyashodak agitation as a contrast to the anti-Mandal one, where the latter also sought to retain this exclusivity of the upper castes in education. Appropriately the section where the anti-Mandal issue is raised is titled ‘Seeds of Change’ and the previous section ended with Satyashodak Samaj’s call for change, mainly in the domain of education (96). One can, the storytellers suggest, see continuities between the horrors of exclusion that the Satyashodak Samaj was battling in the nineteenth century and the very recent horrors of the anti-Mandal agitation (the same twisted physiognomies characterize the brahmins and upper castes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in GW’s visual rhetoric). Similarly, the horror of the massacre of the minorities (Buddhists) in ancient and medieval India is brought home to us with the follow-up visuals of the Babri incident of the twentieth century. History is marked by a tenuous recall, but the horrors revealed to the discerning reader are no less authentic for all that suggests the narrative of GW. Reframing texts and documents enriches our reading of these works because it foregrounds how contexts determine the meaning of the older texts. Paine, the Constitution of India, the Gandhi-Ambedkar correspondence (in B), Gulamgiri, Manusmriti are consumed with the awareness of the discursive and material contexts of our interpretation. The discursive contexts include the discourse on rights, continued oppressions of Dalits as reported in the media (utilized in both GW and B) Dalit emancipation, antislavery campaign and the question of form (of the graphic narrative). The material contexts of our meaning-making come from the self-reflexive representation of the authors and their attention to social conditions of post-Independence India, a contextualization that foregrounds our (that is, the readers’) contexts as well. Thus every rhetorical moment in these revisionist texts needs to be read in multiple contexts.3 Delhi Calm deploys canonized texts and speeches in order to reframe them in the entirely different context of the Emergency. One of the first texts to be reframed is ‘Delhi Calm’ itself. In a set of oddly shaped panels on page 24, we see Vibhuti Prasad, one of the characters, with his hand on the book. ‘Delhi Calm’ is clearly inscribed on the text in a meta-narrative move that signposts the work in progress. The book-in-progress is reframed as an event in the making because it is inextricably connected to the history-of-India-in-the-making. The book is a key piece of commentary,
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and Ghosh draws our attention to the need for documenting the events unfolding around the national Emergency. The book is thus a live recording device when positioned as an object in the meta-narrative mode. The sepia-coloured pages of Delhi Calm recall parchment, old paper or archival documentation and thus offer a meta-critical commentary on the very attempt to rewrite history. The mix of photographs, line drawings, portraits and newspaper also suggests that there is no one definite genre or medium in which we can discern history. When narrating the story of ‘Madam Moon’ in a text-heavy and panel-less section (39–54), we have a silhouetted wedding picture of Madam Moon. The bride and groom are to the left and in the backdrop is the wall of a mansion, or fort. To the right is the Indian tricolour. Inscribed in stencilled lettering on the wall is a line from a legendary speech, ‘long years ago we made a tryst with destiny’. Ghosh’s visual vocabulary redefines ‘tryst’ as the marriage of Madam Moon and her ‘handsome Parsi’ (this being Feroze Gandhi’s descriptor in the text) in a brilliant ploy. What we see is the undermining of an inspirational moment and speech when it gets reframed as the tryst of a couple, a wedding rather than a country’s greatest moment. By using the Nehru speech to describe the newly married couple, Ghosh also turns the history of the country into the personal story of Moon/Indira Gandhi so that we understand how democratic processes, and aspirations, have been subverted. When the country becomes the fiefdom of a family/dynasty/individual, then the ‘tryst with destiny’ begins to be either a joke or a personal storyline. Reframing the speech in this fashion allows Ghosh to demonstrate with no more than just this visual the hidden history of both, post-Independence India and the subversion of a historical project (independence). The Emergency was also a horrific project undertaken by the woman whose father was one of those who delivered to the new nation a stirring ideal of agency, for India would recall that Nehru’s speech articulated the aspirations of a nation determined to take charge of its destiny. The history of the nation shades into the history of a family, in Ghosh’s visual vocabulary.
Graphic dissonance The montaging and finessing of a national discourse with the microstories of everyday lives and individuals enables graphic narrative to produce the ‘performatives’, or what I call graphic dissonance, that disrupt the pedagogic and official narratives of the nation. Graphic dissonance is the mode through which the incongruities between ideologies, discourses and official languages of the nation and the lives of marginal or oppressed people enter the visual-verbal field so that a uniform narrative of the nation is never possible.
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Bhimayana offers instances of this graphic dissonance from the title itself. Bhimayana uses a new typeface, which the publishers term ‘Bhim’ after Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, thus working the subject of biography into the very language of cultural production. By using Bhimayana as a title, with its echoes of the Hindu sacred epic Ramayana, Srividya Natarajan, Anand and Navayana (the publishers) invite an intertextual connection and a dissonance. The dissonant note is already an implicit critique, for it is the story of ‘Bhim’ (as in Bhimrao Ambedkar), just as Ramayana was the story of Rama. Instantiating a textual but also historical and socio-cultural uncanny in this homonym and aural echo, Bhimayana alerts us to the persistence of the past, but not as a temporal antecedent as much as a repressed past (the uncanny, as commentators would tell us, is the return of the repressed, see Royle 2003: 154–5, 177–8), of a story that has not been told. The socio-cultural uncanny is the persistence of caste as a nightmarish reality, even as it is denied, or deemed to be a thing of the past. Caste, according to the disbelieving, ill-informed and prejudiced college student in the framing narrative, is not an issue in contemporary India, but was significant in the past. Echoing the Ramayana, Bhimayana suggests that there are other pasts not often ‘read’ in the epic: pasts that include caste-based discrimination. Thus, (i) not only is caste not addressed when speaking of the Indian past (the repressed of history, so to speak) and (ii) it is not only in the past either. It is at once a part of India’s hoary past and troubled present. Anand explicitly references this textual/ historical uncanny when he notes in his short essay at the end of Bhimayana, ‘A digna for Bhim’, that Gandhi’s experience of racism in 1893 South Africa has become an iconic moment in the ‘global history of anti-colonial struggle’ but Ambedkar’s experience of caste-based discrimination in the 1901 Bombay Presidency has been ‘forgotten’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 103). In one set of visuals Bhimayana rips apart the cliché ‘Unity in Diversity’, that abiding mantra of the Indian nation, by showing us how in the cultural and linguistic diversity of Parsi, Muslim, Christian and Hindu communities, the untouchables are uniformly disenfranchized by all groups. ‘Unity in diversity’ is reflected with tragic irony in the unity of Parsis, Muslims, Christians and Hindus in their ill-treatment of the Dalits. Ambedkar’s thoughts are given to us here: ‘A person who is an untouchable to a Hindu is an untouchable to a Parsi, and also to a Christian’ (Natarajan et al. 2011: 71). Throughout Bhimayana the juxtaposition of texts, from newspaper reports on anti-Dalit violence in the first few pages to Ambedkar’s autobiographical text, Ambedkar’s official letters and extracts from the Constitution of India, constantly forces us to move from a personal life story to a larger socio-historical reality. Graphic dissonance is the verbal-visual undermining of texts such as the Constitution of India, but also of ‘the book’ as symbolic of education and literacy.
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One of the most powerful instances of such a graphic dissonance is smuggled into the visualization of Ambedkar’s homelessness incident. Ambedkar has been thrown out of his hotel when the proprietors discover he is not a Parsi and he is threatened by a mob (66–8). Ambedkar leaves the hotel and knocks at the doors of two of his friends seeking accommodation, both of whom offer excuses – their wife/servants would be offended – why they cannot accommodate him even though they would like to (69, 71). Ambedkar then spends the night like a vagrant in the Kamathi Baug public gardens. Through this incident’s picturization one feature catches the eye. Ambedkar is carrying his books as he roams Vadodara city seeking shelter. The complete dissonance between the books in Ambedkar’s hand and his vagrancy is present poignantly in the graphic form. The tragic irony of his condition comes home to us when we pay attention to this appurtenance: the symbol of Ambedkar’s erudition and social achievement now turned into his burden. The book becomes the metaphor for the denial of social achievement in India where (i) ‘bookish’ education does not ensure social equality, and (ii) the book is ignored by all those who reject Ambedkar’s caste identity in toto. Ambedkar’s books represent the attempt to gain a measure of citizenship through education and employment. His complete rejection by the Vadodara people implies, I argue, that civil citizenship – by which Partha Chatterjee (2004) means social acceptance beyond mere political recognition and rights – is denied him. The book, in short, fails Ambedkar. Graphic dissonance here is the complete rupture, captured in a visual idiom, between the ideal of social advancement and equality promised by education and the social realities of caste. The social world of the park that Ambedkar sees when waiting on the bench is imprinted across his visage and his mind (72). Nowhere in this world is there a place for the erudite, foreign-returned Ambedkar, except as an interloper, a vagrant. The failure of the books in Ambedkar’s case must be read not only as the denial of civil citizenship but also as the absence of all historical agency to a young man who comes back from the USA and UK with a PhD and a considerable body of knowledge. By showing the uselessness of the books in his hands when he wanders helplessly through Vadodara Bhimayana offers a telling comment on how social structures constrain the young man’s agency despite his education. Indeed, his books become a burden to the young Ambedkar because his basic needs – such as shelter – aren’t met, and he has to carry these books around. What use, Natarajan et al. seem to suggest, is education for the Dalit when all historical agency of such communities and individuals are limited by the social contexts. However, in GW, the ‘seeds of change’ remain in education.4 In order to understand the visual vocabulary of pens that the chapter’s title page presents, we need to link it to the title pages of earlier chapters.
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Chapter One is titled ‘The wasteland of caste’ (vii), and it depicts a ground with rotting organic matter, fish-bones, broken pots, etc. We see flies buzzing around the place, indicative of organic decay.5 Chapter Two, ‘The weedbed of myth’ (29), shows weeds reaching into the air, curling and twisting, rendering the landscape ominous and crowded. Chapter Three, ‘The roots of tyranny’ (65), is marked by a map of India being strangled by dark, flowing roots that seem to resemble choking structures rather than mere roots. India’s visage seems twisted in agony at the suffering. Finally there is the sixth chapter ‘The seeds of change’, which shows an array of pens, some of which have new blossoms in place of nibs (99). The first five chapter title pages all suggest limits on growth and expansion. Decay, death and choking seem to be the determining traits of the Indian subcontinent. In a later panel there is real choking, with a Dalit being strangled or decapitated by a clerk, who is holding a pen at the poor man’s throat (114). The visual vocabulary of this page transforms the pen into an instrument of oppression even before this panel. A poor Dalit is seen sitting obsequiously at a desk from the other side of which the clerk demands bribes. On the table is a stack of papers in the kind of file common to government offices. The Phules discuss in the panel immediately below this the lack of education among the ‘mahars, mangs and chambhars’. Following these two is the image of the Dalit about to be killed by the clerk’s pen, and visuals depicting the poor man’s illiteracy (115, 116). Phule also mourns the fact that ‘too much government money is devoted to higher education’, and not primary schools (117). Education, says Savitribai, would ‘make people critical . . . refuse to accept what was thrown at them in the name of religion and tradition . . . make women, sudras and atisudras understand how they were being exploited . . . make people powerful, able to manage their own affairs’ (121). On the next pages we see brahmanic texts being burnt and Jotiba Phule holding up a book high over his head, open, and facing us out of the panel in which the pages speak of the evils of the lack of education (122). The pen and the book as instruments of upper-caste power are resignifications of the symbols of learning. The graphic dissonance is the inversion of these symbols so that they become the instruments of Dalit exploitation. The pen converted into a knife at the throat is perhaps the single most powerful instance of graphic dissonance in the work. But as this chapter moves to a close, a further and more radical resignification is visible, one whose first moments lie in the image of the girl under the spotlight, reading (93). This radical resignification corrects the graphic dissonance by which the pen had become the instrument of the Dalit’s oppression so that the ‘upheld’ book must be read as the new book we need to read – the old books being burnt in the panel immediately above this one (122). The pens on the chapter’s title page are topped by nibs and flowers, once again
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suggesting a resignification but one aligned with the horticultural imagery of the chapter titles: wasteland, weed, roots. The blossoms suggest rebirth, or new birth, at the tip of a pen. There is one more notable feature about this image. The pens are arranged, tips upwards, inclined, exactly like missiles arranged in silos, ready for launch. This odd visual vocabulary where horticultural-botanical symbols merge with martial ones in the climactic instance of graphic dissonance is really the thesis of GW. The graphic dissonance in this case signifies protest, rebellion and change, driven by education and instruments of writing/reading that then come to be instruments of social change. The martial iconography calls to mind the violence of social change and breaking apart of traditions, even as the flowering pens seem to indicate that this change would be orchestrated not through guns but textual means. In other words, the graphic dissonance of martial and horticultural signs that ‘connect’ with the spotlighted girl, the burnt books, the upheld book and the rhetoric of freedom accruing from women reading (121) all point to the need to transform textual and learning materials so as to effect social change. The pens and the new book are modes of revisioning tradition, of breaking free from existing modes of thinking and of mustering the learning needed to do all of these.6 Graphic dissonance is also the subversion of established notions of animals, people and things in order to raise larger questions of ethics, morals and human relations, and this is best exemplified in Bhimayana. A water pump with an elephantine snout has big rounded eyes expressing puzzlement when the boy Ambedkar is denied water (21). A harvester machine weeps alongside news reports about Dalit massacres (46–7). When the horse-drawn cart carrying Ambedkar and his friends has met with an accident, the horse is blamed and the horse is shown thinking ‘heh – heh – heh! They make fools of themselves and blame me! (82–3, emphasis in original). All houses have eyes and animals seem to be observing the humans constantly in the Gond art of Bhimayana. But the animal symbolizations serve another, more radical purpose. As Natarajan et al. offer us alternate histories, they suggest that there have been other observers and witnesses to the iniquities of Indian society. That these witnesses are silent ensures that ‘other’ stories of the past have not come to us. But this is surely a simplistic interpretation of the role of animal observers and ‘seeing’ eyes on machines. I propose that the graphic dissonance of having seeing-emotive machines and animals in these representations of historical events destabilizes the role of the human as the sole authority on the events that occurred although the former remain voiceless in the literal sense. That machines and animals have been given affective responses by Natarajan et al. also suggests what Michael Chaney has termed ‘animality’s alternate cognition’ (2011: 134). While highlighting the universality of emotions – shock, sadness, anger, all
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scripted on the ‘visages’ of animals and machines – at the sight of horrific events such as the denial of water to a thirsty boy or ethnocide, Natarajan et al. foreground the dissonance between the human actions and lack of emotions and the expressive emotion on the animal-machine visage. This constitutes a larger critique, enabled by the very form of the graphic narrative, of a casteist society where even machines and animals take cognizance of and register affective responses to the social injustices but the humans remain both unmoved and cruel. Alternate cognition embodied in the animals and machines suggests, paradoxically, a universality of emotional responses that excludes the humans. I further propose that the visual hybridization of machinic and animal bodies, despite being open to charges of anthropomorphism, unsettles the category of the ‘human’ itself. While the physiognomic excesses of the machine or the animal approximates to the visual grotesque I would like to suggest that this pales in comparison with the monstrosities of the humans in Bhimayana. That is it is not the fearsome visages and hybridized bodies of machines and animals that are monstrous but the cold, ruthless and despicable actions of humans that are truly monstrous. The hybridized bodies in Bhimayana therefore give the lie to the human as an emotionally, ethically and intellectually evolved creature: in the ‘face’ of human actions, the machine and the animal’s affective response makes them more human.
Visualizing the unspeakable The graphic narrative gives not just words but visuals to the unspeakable and the unrepresentable. In the text that launches the entire genre of graphic trauma, Maus, Spiegelman’s non-realist and symbolic representation of his characters, with the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice, drew attention to the de-humanization of victim and perpetrator in the genocidal state: the Jews were not ‘persons’ in Nazi eyes, they were just types (Orvell 1992: 120–1). In similar fashion, Bhimayana does not seek realist presentations of people either. The characters do not necessarily allegorize a reality of their own, but we, as readers, are asked to enter their world, to see ourselves in what is going on. In the non-realist mode of Bhimayana we see a type, the oppressed, rather than clear-cut individuals. We have identical faces of Dalits listening to Ambedkar (48) and identical faces representing ‘orthodox Brahmins’ (50–1), for instance. I propose here that such a non-realist representation of the history of caste oppression in India becomes a way of visualizing the unspeakable and the unspoken. It is precisely the ordinariness of characters, and their similarity to and resonance with, the experiences of Dalits and other oppressed today that constitutes the first step towards a postcolonial critical literacy. With this literacy readers connect texts to social iniquities and the
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de-humanized ‘otherness’ – symbolized in the ‘types’ rather than ‘individuals’, as I have suggested earlier – that caste engenders: the world of Bhimayana, the experience of untouchability, the horrific injustices were not unique to Ambedkar’s India: we see them even now. Disavowing uniqueness is a political move in this text, for it merges Ambedkar’s experience with that of millions of Dalits today – a narrative move that is coterminous with the visual–verbal juxtaposition of Ambedkar’s story with reports and headlines of contemporary anti-Dalit oppression elsewhere. Bhimayana relies heavily on symbolism and a densely metaphoric visual narrative so as to represent the unspeakable. The opening conversation between urban youth, one seemingly ignorant of the very persistence of caste in India, offers the first of these powerful metaphors. The speech and thought balloons, Anand’s afterword on the art of Bhimayana informs us, are designed to function as metaphors: bird speech balloons for characters whose ‘speech is soft’, for ‘lovable characters, the victims of caste’ (100). Speech balloons for ‘words that carry a sting’ from ‘characters who love caste, whose words contain poison, whose touch is poisonous’ are designed like a scorpion’s sting (101). After the girl, the first-level narratee to whom the second girl is telling the story, has understood the poisonous nature of caste, her thought balloon becomes shaped like a bird, to suggest a transformation in her outlook and attitude (93). Thirst becomes embodied in the form of a fish, as the young Ambedkar pleads ‘Sir, may I drink some water?’ (19). The triad of fish-water-thirst recurs (21), and is reinforced with the image of arms extending in a pleading image (21), all suggesting a plea. The water pump itself assumes an angry face at the denial of water (21). The entire village ‘turns a desert’ when Ambedkar tries to ‘quench [his] thirst’ (25). The accompanying visual shows a herd of animals drinking from a pond. The village is only metaphorically a desert because it excludes from its ambit only the ‘untouchables’ while allowing even animals to consume water. Mobility becomes embodied in a bird, where young Bhim’s ‘heart is a bird in a cloudless sky’ (31). Arguably this is one of the most powerful visualizations of the horrors of the caste system, given to us through the eyes of a child, and hence is worth spending some time over.7 Natarajan et al. first initiate a gap between the adult perceptions of the caste system, in the form of the debate between the urban college youth with which the tale starts, for example, and the child-Ambedkar’s perceptions of the same. The child’s incomprehension and agony of thirst but also at the insults are the lenses through which we see the caste system. In other words what I am proposing is that the visual language of trauma achieves its greatest power because it is framed by the child. The adult narrative that is the larger context of the story might tell us the historical antecedents of caste or the political mobilization of Dalits, but the power generated by the visual idiom is truly enhanced for us only because we see through the
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child’s eyes.8 The short verses, often doggerel-type, interspersing the visual narrative, for instance, on the train journey to their father’s town (36–7), are also the kind that a child would compose in these pages, and enhance the sense of seeing the events through the child’s eyes. Representing the Satara massacre, where a Dalit was killed for daring to dig his own well in 2008, the visual shows a harvester machine crying (46), serving as a metaphor for the feeling machine and the unfeeling upper-caste humans. Ambedkar’s words function as sprinklers, energizing the lands with reviving water and freshening the people’s minds (48) (see Plate 3). This reconfigures the image of thirst, water and deserts from the earlier parts of the tale. This powerful image recalls Ambedkar’s thirst as a child but also serves as a metonym for the Dalit’s condition then and now. A metonym is, of course, the use of a term in order to describe something closely related to it. However, an important feature of metonym when used in literary texts is that ‘metonymic objects and experiences can be charged with an interpretive potential that deepens as the associations accumulate within the world of the story’ (Whitted 2014: 80–1). Whitted continues: ‘Understanding how meaning can be expressed through metonymy is crucial to recognizing the “revision aesthetic” ’ (81). Further, following Anne Pankhurst, Whitted writes: ‘Metonymic meaning develops through recurrence, gathering increasingly complex connotations to advance the narrative’ (86). Thirst in B might be read first as a primordial metonym for water. First, the child’s thirst is a purely visceral reference: to bodily needs, deprivation and suffering. Second, we infer from the verse and the child-Ambedkar’s accounts of his thirst and social behaviour, the absolute horror of the caste system that denies lifesaving water. Third, this primordial metonym (thirst for water) recurs later, both in terms of the narrative and in terms of Ambedkar’s life. The reference to his first major campaign – for Dalits to draw water from the Chavadar Tank, Mahad District, in 1927 – and the child’s thirst come together here in a narrative progression attained through the metonym’s recurrence. But thirst also serves as an amplified metonym. From the visceral condition of a body craving water to the social protest for water and finally to the energizing-generative words-as-water (48) is an incremental connotative process in Bhimayana, all cohering around thirst. Here thirst is the thirst for equality and justice. It is no longer the thirst as an individual body’s craving for the liquid, but a larger social need for knowledge, self-awareness and justice. What I am calling ‘amplified metonym’ is no doubt the metonym accruing power through iteration (as Qiana Whitted has demanded of the metonym). But it also moves the metonym from individual to collective even as it moves from a visceral condition to a political one. The full connotations of ‘thirst’ register upon us only when we, paying attention to the repetition of the metonym, move from individual body to social body, bodily craving
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to political demand. That Ambedkar’s words are metonymized as water suggests this movement: his words generate ideas, identity and protests, and revive the barren earth of Dalit life. In iteration lies the power of the visual metonymy so that we see the metonym as embodying the unspeakable. Towards the very end of the narrative we see one of the most powerful uses of the visual idiom. The anti-caste and casteist urban youth debate Ambedkar’s role in the making of modern India, with the text inked in blue. The entire visual vocabulary is of a human chain, of people holding hands (90–1). The human chain is spread across two pages, suggesting community and unity. Set within this ‘network’ of human hands is a faceoff between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the question of the ‘untouchables’. The two are also framed by a semicircle of people listening to them and witnessing the Gandhi–Ambedkar debate (90–1). The power of this set of pages lies in the way in which the Ambedkar-blue human chain (blue is traditionally the colour of Ambedkarites) spreads wider than the subset of people listening to the Gandhi–Ambedkar debate, symbolically attesting to the concerns of a larger section of humanity. In concluding with the human chain, the only image of such a ‘positive’ collectivity in Bhimayana, the text gathers into itself the entire theme of united action and togetherness: all other collectivities in the text, interestingly, are of either victims or violent oppressors. The textboxes carry quotations from Ambedkar’s speeches and letters where he had demanded equal rights, constitutional protection and legal remedies against caste-based discrimination. These textboxes also situate Gandhi’s speeches and letters in a ‘face-off’ with Ambedkar’s textboxes, with Gandhi expressing concern that separate electorates for ‘untouchables’ – an Ambedkar demand – are ‘harmful for the Depressed Classes and for Hinduism’, thus suggesting a conflict of views (90–1). What is also interesting is that cutting across the two pages (carrying Gandhi and Ambedkar in adversarial positions) and beneath the Gandhi–Ambedkar debate is a textbox shaped like a book containing words from the Constitution of India, starting, ‘We, the People of India’ (90–1). The arrangement of this textbox, with Ambedkar’s image on the lower half of the page, symbolically merges, and converges, the two debates into a larger cause. The entire issue is seen as embedded within the large human chain, and invests the Constitution with the authority of a larger segment of the Indian population. That the speeches and letters, along with the first, famous, pages of the Indian Constitution, are set in boxes designed to look like books and/ or pages from books – all situated within and around the human chain – returns us to the trope of the book that we discussed earlier as an instance of graphic dissonance. Natarajan et al. now invert this trope by showing how the power of words alters power relations, the social imaginary and
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political debate. It is within the framework of the law that the battle for equal rights has to be waged, these pages suggest. This set of visuals of the human chain also resolves the isolation and fear set in the early pages, wherein an isolated and thirsty Ambedkar pleads for water, and its continuation in the middle pages where, alone in his rooms, he is threatened with eviction by a group of armed Parsis (68), or is sitting alone in a park, homeless and frightened (71). Much of Bhimayana’s metaphorization generates enormous verbal and visual emotional appeal. Take, for instance, the extraordinary ‘pointingfinger’ image. Accusatory fingers, pointed in the direction of the victim of caste, occur throughout the narrative (13, 20, 21, 47, 68). They are invariably in groups, to indicate the numbers arrayed against the Dalits. If in Maus the Auschwitz inmate’s arm with its tattooed number is spread across panels (Spiegelman 1986: 12), here it is the recurring pointing finger that performs the same task: of isolating and targeting the victim. In addition to visualizing the unspeakable through the effective deployment of a rich visual vocabulary, texts like Bhimayana offer a visual challenge to the dominant discourse of the nation-state and its modernity. Modernity in South Asia, Sandria Freitag proposes, has been dominated by the visual and the acoustic (2003: 394). Acts of seeing become acts of knowing as consumers and viewers impute new meanings to familiar messages. Civil society’s informal activities – as opposed to the state’s – especially in the realm of popular visual culture often challenge the actions of the nation state (2003: 389). Freitag’s emphasis on the visual realm of modernity and its moments of interrogation is a useful way of approaching the cultural work of Bhimayana. The tale opens with an urban youth’s immediate identification of ‘Ambedkar’ as somebody who is represented by statues around the country (14). This reference to already-existing and therefore recognizable visual images is crucial, for Bhimayana’s cultural work is to generate what Sumathi Ramaswamy calls the ‘interocular’ field. The interocular is the field where the visual intersects with other images from other media, thereby reconfiguring the familiar (2011: xvi). The statues of Ambedkar and Bhimayana’s visual representation of the early life of Ambedkar, the symbolic representation of massacres and suffering – Ambedkar’s as well as other instances such as Khairlanji – open up a whole new visual field: of caste-based atrocity that impinges upon us. The purpose here is to draw the ‘statues’ into the field of common knowledge. Urban youth do not know anything about either Ambedkar (except his statues) or caste atrocities in India. I propose that Bhimayana taps into a visual literacy already generated by an existing interocular field where we are called upon to move beyond the statues to the story behind the statues, even as we are ‘shown’ the contexts of both Ambedkar and our (re)reading of his life
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in the events unfolding today across India. That is Bhimayana’s interocular field draws existing visual cultures of both Ambedkar and the horrific representations of caste-based massacres into its ambit and our reading practice. Hereafter, we will widen our visual field, as Bhimayana causes Ambedkar and caste-based atrocity to erupt into the present. The interocularity of Bhimayana abandons the traditional mode of sequential art in favour of the traditional form of Gond arts. As Sandria Freitag suggests, traditional art or performance is fine-tuned to accommodate the new (2003: 371). While Bhimayana does rely on the contemporary fascination with and circulation of graphic novels, it retrieves an older art form in order to speak about the present. The styles of Bhimayana as noted earlier are unconventional in that they are not what we see in Frank Miller or Joe Sacco. Yet they are conventional because they are traditional. Freitag observes that ‘the new is dealt with through a deliberate choice of the antique’ (2003: 367). Retrieving Gond art for the purpose of narrating Ambedkar’s story in the very contemporary graphic narrative format has the effect of situating one of the oldest forms of oppression – based on caste – in a new medium and genre. In terms of cultural production this is a radical step, for it simultaneously showcases the beauty of a traditional art form while telling us a contemporary ‘story’. It takes localized, Gond art and cultural practices and deploys them to design a work in a more or less globalized contemporary medium – the graphic narrative. The art of Bhimayana, in other words, underscores at once the need for a new visual register but also the contemporaenity of the past in terms of both the language of art and continuing casteism. The statues of Ambedkar most Indians recognize frequently portray him with a book in his hand, possibly the Constitution of India that he drafted. When we read Bhimayana’s pages showing Ambedkar, books in hand, wandering through Vadodara looking for a place to stay, the interocular field kicks in. For the informed reader the irony of the pages and the visualization could not be greater, or more tragic, for we see how the books, in his early years, had let him down, and yet we see him today with the book in his hand. The book establishes through the interocular field of the statues and Bhimayana’s visualization, a reminder of Ambedkar’s exhortation – educate, organize, agitate – where the primacy is given to education. In order to speak of the second, Bhimayana suggests, we need a language that is at once ancient-traditional (‘antique’, as Freitag would say) and new (the graphic narrative way of telling a biography). Thus, the visual protocols of Bhimayana are simultaneously traditional and conservative (in its choice of tribal art which is as old as the hills) and avant-garde because it helps reinvent the graphic narrative form. The highly stylized Gond art depiction calls attention to the horror of the historicity of caste –
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that the horrors of casteism are as old as the form in which they are to be represented. The power of the interocular field generated by Bhimayana lies, as should be clear from the preceding discussion, not in its exclusivity, but in its hybridized and demotic register of representation, as Maus did to devastating effect years ago. Writing about Spiegelman’s Maus, Thomas Doherty (1996) suggests that by delivering the horrors of the Holocaust in the form of an everyday medium like the comics, Spiegelman brings the Holocaust closer to the people, because the graphic novel remains, ultimately, ‘populist art’ (Wolk 2007: 23). This argument might be extended to suggest that what Bhimayana does is to make caste-based oppression and its history (hyper)visible by steering clear of standard modes of documenting oppression (tracts and Amnesty reports) and by shifting it into the demotic, or populist, register, even within/among the elite readership for Indian writing in English. Richard Wilson writing about human rights coverage notes that such writing is ‘minimalist’, and ‘strips events of their subjective meanings’ when they cast them into ‘objective legal facts’ (2009: 209). Wilson argues that it is therefore necessary to ‘restore to accounts of political violence both the surrounding social relations and an associated range of subjective meanings’ (2009: 209). Such a ‘restoration’ of subjective meanings is possible through the use of a popular interocular field. As noted at the beginning of this chapter, the personal narrative folding into (but not blurring) the social-historical in a popular format creates a new story space where we begin to see a history of violations, a history otherwise available in UN tracts or sociological studies; the demotic register is crucial because it enables a popularization of a social condition and of historical wrongs. Bhimayana contributes to a postcolonial critical literacy because it enables the circulation of stories in a medium and form that draws upon the existing interocular field. The historical abuse of certain social groups, and the urgent need for reforms is best articulated in the demotic register of Bhimayana, with its interocularity, vernacular, non-official, everyday life and stories in a supposedly ‘non-serious’ medium such as the graphic narrative. With its economy of the languages of representation – minimal speech balloons, no boxed-in narratives and the seamlessness of narrative movement – Bhimayana is at once high art and low culture, a mix of genres and subgenres that recalls antique artwork and the highly commercialized comic book format at one go. Miles Orvell’s comment about Maus that Spiegelman seems to ‘have projected the mentality of the cartoon world with the complexity of high art, aiming at a broader based audience, a middle space between high and popular culture’ (1992: 111), applies equally well to Bhimayana.
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Microhistories of the unspeakable Moving away from paradigms of ‘national’ or ‘collective’ histories and discourses to ‘microhistories’ in which critiques of smaller entities like the family or the home might be possible, graphic narratives like Hush (2010) play a crucial role. If Bhimayana and A Gardener in the Wasteland foreground the unspeakable casteism, even into the twenty-first century, of Indian society, Hush moves into the domestic realm, to address the unspeakable subject of child abuse. A wordless graphic narrative, Hush brilliantly demonstrates in a visual medium the absence of a language in which to speak about the silence surrounding the subject of child abuse. Hush’s focus is the denial of ‘rhetorical sovereignty’ – Scott Richard Lyons’s concept to which I shall come later – to victims of abuse where no language of communication is available in which, by talking about what happened to them, they might find a measure of identity beyond that of the mere victim. Hush foregrounds the linguistic, narrative and discursive contexts of abuse, and argues, through its meta-narrative strategy of a wordless text, that language denied is sovereign identity denied. Hush appropriates silence as its textual/narrative strategy. Relatedly, I propose that given the injunctions and prohibitions – legal, social, cultural – against seeing certain things and the pressure to invisibilize them, the graphic medium has found a new life. Theorists have examined the power of this visual-verbal medium extensively as well (Sontag 2003; Hirsch 2004; Butler 2005; Whitlock 2006, among others). Hush is located at this awkward intersection of (i) having to draw attention to the silencing of certain issues such as child abuse but through (ii) the use of a medium that necessitates the use of both word/speech and image. It has to at once speak of the unspeakable and focus our attention on the cultural rhetorics of silencing. It needs to draw us in as viewers of somebody’s abuse and get us to listen to the screams she will never articulate. This dynamic of sight and sound is what Hush so wonderfully negotiates. Keeping this intersection and dynamic in mind I explicate the rhetoric of silence/ing. Silencing itself is enclosure (see Glenn and Ratcliffe 1997: 3), and we can discern enclosure as the key trope in Hush. Enclosure is of the body, of spaces and of the mouth (the speaking organ). Hush’s opening images (four panels) show a spiderweb of cracks widening out on a blackboard with a few dark spots congealing into a stain or flow converging on to the geometric centre of the cracks (unpaginated). The unnamed protagonist (we know from the notes at the end that her name is Maya) is shown with a gun in her hand, then moves along the corridors of the school. In this set of three adjacent panels the largest object in
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each panel is the gun, that occupies the entire left-hand side of the panel. The gun in the helpless Maya’s otherwise slim hand seems to overwhelm her identity. The narrative is interrupted by a flashback (the flashback sections are marked by broad, black brushstrokes frames). Maya is entering the vice principal’s room to discover a small school child in there. The child sits, face in her hands, cowering, as the man in authority, perched at the edge of the table, seems to be haranguing her (we see it from Maya’s perspective since the visual focuses through the same line of vision as Maya entering through the door). He is waving his hand and the child looks terrified. This is where the theme of enclosed, closed-off bodies begins. Maya notes the child’s wide open eyes with arms crossed across her chest in a widely accepted posture of closing-off, diffident and withholding the body from the world. Maya is thrown out of the vice principal’s room, with him shouting at her (his mouth is wide open and his eyes glare), and Maya herself looking furious. The child with the enclosed body is what strikes Maya as reminiscent of her own condition: being abused by her father (who is the vice principal as well, or at least bears a startling resemblance to him). What I am referring to as the enclosed body of the girl child in the vice principal’s office is almost exactly replicated later in Maya’s own body posture after she is abused by her father. But first we are shown Maya cowering in her bed at home, the father’s hands, synecdochically the hands of the oppressor, approaching her. Just as the hand waving in the case of the child in the vice principal’s room was clearly threatening, promising, perhaps, greater punishment, the synecdochic hands in the case of Maya evoke fear because Maya knows what follows. In the hallucination Maya experiences in the men’s washrooms in the school, she sees a figure approach her in the mirror. This figure also gestures with his hands. Later panels are close-ups, wherein the hands, hard-looking ones, are across her mouth and partially cover her face as tears roll down Maya’s cheeks. The abuser’s hands enclose – more accurately incarcerate and silence – Maya. They prevent her from speech, covering her face and mouth, but obviously also restraining her. The next set of three panels show the following: Maya cowering on the floor in the bathroom, under running water, head resting on her knees, hugging her knees to herself; close-up (in a smaller panel) of the hands holding the knees tightly to her body; Maya asleep in a foetal position, huddled, tightly rolled up, in bed. The flashback ends with this set of panels. Another interesting panel that references the enclosed body is the panel showing the mother. In a close-up shot, the visual captures the mother’s expression – wide-eyed, scared and helpless, with her arms tucked under her head, shoulders slightly hunched. The helplessness of the maternal body is
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also synecdochically conveyed: where the man’s hands are free to abuse and hurt, the maternal hands are tucked away beyond the sightline. Free hands seem to suggest potential harm and violence, and are always male hands in Hush. Enclosed, tucked-away or self-encircling hands are women’s hands in Hush, and are helpless (the mother’s) or seeking, futilely, to enclose the body from the world. When Maya finally takes up a gun, she seems to have discovered that her hands by themselves achieve nothing. The gun is of course the prosthetic extension of the hand, but, in the case of Hush’s Maya, seems to compensate for the dysfunctional natural-corporeal hands she does possess. Unable to ward off the waving, threatening and abusive hands of the man with her own (she cowers behind her hands) she takes recourse to a prosthesis. The body incarcerated, immobilized and silenced is a key trope in Hush and has two subtexts. One, this visual representation of Maya’s immobilized body gestures, again, to commonly accepted notions of the child’s protected (enclosed) body within the circle of the family. It is precisely this notion that Hush references and then subverts. What we are shown, in the case of Maya, is the defenceless and abused body. Second, the hunched up and curled body of Maya under running water and on her bed at home suggest the body’s attempts to find coherence in itself, and against the world. It turns in on itself, closing itself off from the world. It is significant that the story begins in a public space – the school – and then turns to the home. Maya, upon seeing the child in the vice principal’s office, seems to recall her own home scene. Two flashbacks – another school scene and the home – are connected by the present. But the connection runs deeper. In both cases the male oppressor spatially traps the girl child. In the vice principal’s room the child sits and cowers in the chair as the man towers over her. The scale of figures in the panels here emphasizes the child’s claustrophobic spaces: she is less than half the man’s size and is located in a corner of the panel, the bottom left, with the entire right-hand section of the panel being taken up by the vice principal’s form. The narrow panelling symbolically references the confined nature of the girl child’s spaces and the imminent threat of being trapped by the man in authority in that space. Maya, for inexplicable reasons, goes to the men’s washrooms after shooting the teacher (who is also the vice principal, who is also the father, as we discover in the flashback panels). Staring into the mirror there she sees, or hallucinates, a man approaching her, and she shoots the mirror. The resultant spiderweb of cracks across the glass recalls the opening visuals. Let us turn to the home now. Three pages cover the home scene. They open with a long shot of the neighbourhood, with middle-class respectability – duplex houses, cars, two-wheelers, fairly well-lit streets – being foregrounded. Then the next series of shots offer Maya’s family: Maya
Figure 4.5 Pratheek Thomas (story) and Rajiv Eipe (art). Hush. Bangalore: Manta Ray/Studio Kokaachi, 2010. Unpaginated.
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scowling, Anju, her younger sister smiling with her mouth full, the mother looking anxious and sideways, the father slightly grim. The mother’s leftlooking sightline connects with the right-looking sightline of the father in the very next panel. The panels are all slim and with small gutters. On the next page the father is reading the newspaper – only two of his features are visible, his face above the newspaper and the hands holding up the paper. Anju is sitting encircled by Maya’s hands as the latter reads out to her baby sister. The panels here are larger, suggesting family spaces. Significantly the panels where the abuse of Maya is depicted are smaller, adding to the sense of the claustrophobic family atmosphere in which the abuse takes place. After incidents of abuse Maya hides in the bathroom, converting it into a space of retreat but also a space of shame. The text open with the space of speech: the classroom. The instructor is lecturing. The first sign we have of the classroom space becoming something else is in the open-mouthed (and wide-eyed) expressions of the school-kids, in eight of the ten panels on that page. As Maya shoots the teacher dead, the students are shocked into silence. Later as she walks down the corridor, the teacher who sees her with a gun is open-mouthed with horror and fright. In the flashback scenes from the vice principal’s office, we are shown the man shouting at Maya. At home Maya’s mouth is clamped shut by a large hand as the abuse proceeds. When Maya gets ready to shoot, the images in her mind include the hand over her mouth and the cowering silent girl in the vice principal’s office. The hand-over-mouth visuals embody the silencing of languages of protest in Hush. The closed mouth is not only, however, a denial of speech and language, but it is also a clear physical injunction against it. Further, the physical silencing of the victim in this act is also materially coterminous with the denial of sovereignty to and of her body. Speech denied is the denial of Maya’s sovereignty over her own body. Obviously language is material here, just as the body is irreducibly material. Maya is clearly unable to voice her protest (and this applies to the silent mother as well). We need to read Hush as an exercise in questioning the codes of communication that prevail around abuse but also within so-called mythic structures of free communication – the home. Maya’s identity, like that of all abuse victims if one may extrapolate using Maya as an exemplar, is contingent upon her continuing silence and the burden of abuse. Her absence of sovereignty as an individual body is linked to the absence of rhetorical sovereignty. Scott Richard Lyons writing of the indigenous peoples argues a case for ‘rhetorical sovereignty’ which he defines as ‘the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires in this pursuit, to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse’ (2000: 449–50, emphasis in original). Rhetorical sovereignty in the
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case of Maya is not simply denied her: she is, in Hush’s brilliant metanarrative strategy, ill-equipped with any language in which she may assert her sovereignty. Her rhetorical sovereignty which might have been, ironically, granted if her mother had protested is a grammar of suffering without a language of articulation. I am, as should be clear, treating rhetoric as a material condition and context in which individuals can find their identities. Maya’s act of violence, again represented only in terms of visuals and no text, becomes an assertion of her identity as a sovereign individual in the only language available to her. The materiality of her action might therefore be read as a rhetorical move in a context where she is denied all other forms of rhetoric – protest, screaming, complaints. It is in her murder of the vice principal/father and her final suicide – the ultimate act of asserting both sovereignty and materiality – that Maya finds articulation. The visuals here are arresting in terms of their effect. Arranged in slim panels that hurtle to a climax, the visuals show the vice principal/father and the cowering girl in his office, Maya with the abuser’s hand over her mouth, Maya glowering in class just before she pulls out the gun, Maya with Anju, Maya with the gun pointing at the vice principal/ father, the policeman screaming at Maya not to shoot herself, Maya aiming the gun at her temple. The penultimate set of three small panels simply shows the gun with the trigger being squeezed progressively. The last panel is simply a black strip. That black strip is more than, I propose, the end of a life or a body. It recalls a very powerful symbol of protest – black badges – but also black cloth over the mouth to signify silence-as-protest. The black strip at the end seems to gather and compress into itself all the events of past and present. It is the end of articulation. When Maya destroys her material body, she asserts the only language she has in and through which she can speak of what happened to her. ‘Some things’, says the epigraph to Hush, ‘are not meant to be talked about’, and thus sums up what I take to be the work’s major focus: the silence around child abuse. The arts of silence and concomitant acts of listening that Hush engenders are essential and effective for analyzing the cultural contexts of writing about the unsayable. These arts and acts in Hush implicate the structures of power and disenfranchisement of both dominant and non-dominant (i.e. subaltern) individuals and groups. Maya’s inability to speak about what happens to her, the silent witnessing of the horror by her mother, the physical silencing of Maya by her father and the policeman’s silent scream at the end and the numerous instances I have examined in the essay gesture at the individual and collective silencing and silent witnessing of abuse. Hush’s power lies in its evocation of silence in order to speak of the unsayable, and our recognition of this narrative. Having acquired a certain cultural literacy about abuse through newspaper
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reports and media coverage we ‘see’ Hush and ‘listen’ to Maya’s silent screams in the form of her self-destruction. Hush does not only demand justice for victims, but it articulates in its rhetoric of silence/ing the necessity of a rhetorical sovereignty for victims to speak about their abuse. In its attentiveness to the structures of enclosure and silencing Hush therefore aligns rhetorical and material sovereignty (Nayar 2013). There is one final point about silencing, or a silent history of the family. Maya shoots herself when standing in front of the mirror in the boys’ toilet in the school. I want to spend some time examining the role of the mirror and reflective surfaces. Spectacles and reflecting surfaces are an integral component of Maya’s life, whether in the form of her father’s glinting spectacles or that of her vice principal’s, the glass on the door and finally the mirror in which Maya is staring at herself when she puts the gun to her head. In psychoanalytic terms (from Jacques Lacan’s famous ‘The Mirror Stage Formative of the Function of the I’, 1977) the child develops a sense of an integrated self when he or she sees himself or herself in the mirror. Later this sense of the integrated self is at odds with the chaos of the real world, and the child always returns to the ideal of a coherent self he or she first perceived in the mirror. In Hush, the mirror ‘shows’ different things. One, Maya does not see anything but a spider-web of cracks. In the very next panel she sees herself entire. And then of course she sees herself put the gun to her temple. Maya’s self is neither the fragmented mirror nor the complete one, but a constant dialectic between the two. The mirror shows the dissolution of her life even as it offers the sense of what it is that is dissolving. I would propose that the mirror might be read as offering both a history of what has happened to her (fragmentation) and a future of what she could have been (a complete self). The spider-web in the mirror, which is what Maya sees, is the inscription of her past so that it stares her in the face. But the mirror is also what reflects, literally and figuratively, the subject of this past. If Hush turned the vocabulary of the graphic narrative to addressing the issue of child abuse, stories in This Side, That Side address the gender question. Take a story like Malini Singh-Dhyuti Mittal’s ‘The Taboo’, set in a refugee camp, ‘Cooper’s Camp’, established in 1950. Dhyuti Mittal’s visualization of the camp eschews borders and frames so that it dramatically captures the messy, intermingled and co-dependent nature of life in abject poverty and state neglect: ‘Cooper’s Camp lived out its strange reality in persecution, pride and unhappiness’ (240). But the true focus of the tale is not the poverty but patriarchy. The narrator, ‘Malinidi’, perhaps the author of the story, asks by way of starting the story of the women of the Camp: ‘what were the women doing?’ They were saving money, taking loans, buying and selling everything from school books to goats, cultivating land on lease,
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Figure 4.6 Malini Singh and Dhyuti Mittal, ‘Cooper’s Camp’, in Vishwajyoti Ghosh curated, This Side, That Side. Restorying Partition: Graphic Narratives from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. New Delhi: Yoda, 2013. 247.
arguing with banks that refused them accounts, attending gram sabhas. And every woman was fighting her own private battles. (240)
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In the messy topos that is Cooper’s Camp we see eager women, working women and suffering women embedded in what looks like black ink or mud. The blackness is all-encompassing and constitutes the ‘frame’, if we want to call it that of the page, the story and their lives. The black liquid or smoke flows across the pages and we have the events unfolding within this blackness. Later in the story Lily tells Singh her life: her marriage to Samar, his lapse into unemployment and vagrancy, the ‘death’ of her dreams (243– 5). Lily then, in her words, walks out of her marriage, ‘crosses the road’ and sets up her own business. On the last page the Camp is presented as a large mass, almost undifferentiated into houses and things, suggesting a chaotic topos. The ‘battlefield’ that Singh refers to in her account of Lily and other women is the battlefield of everyday life in Camp. The last line of the text reads: ‘He would have to hurry. Unlike him, we had work to do. The dark, monsoon clouds were round the corner’ (247). The entire topos of the Camp is situated within the inky blackness that approximates to a map. It functions as a frame to the events and lives of the inhabitants of the Camp. But the visual vocabulary also suggests that the blackness is like a ‘cloud’ that envelops the women, buries them inside and defines their lives. In a reading of the use of black in Satrapi’s Persepolis Hillary Chute writes: The bodies are stylized against a black background, filling up the frame, some open mouthed in horror, some appearing grimly asleep. In that mass death in Satrapi’s work looks almost architectural, her representations both suggest a child’s too-tidy conceptualization of ‘mass’ death and tacitly suggest the disturbing, anonymous profusion of bodies in the Iranian landscape. (2008b: 100) This seems to be Mittal’s style as well, embedding the bodies of women in the black landscape. The scope of the women’s lives, whatever they do – and the above inventory suggests they do a variety of things – is still within the ‘frame’ of the black (toxic?) cloud, and it is to this framing I now turn. The absence of a panel scheme defeats the readers in ascertaining temporal and teleological progression in the lives of the Camp’s characters. The timelessness of the space that is Cooper’s Camp is symbolized in the black cloud, for Cooper’s was meant to be a transit camp, and people had now lived there for decades, as Singh discovers! The cloud enveloping them is shapeless, timeless and limitless. It also signifies the limits of the narrative’s form – panels – in capturing the lives of these women in the Camp. I forward the proposition that the inky blackness is not emptiness but the thickening of specific, oppressive contexts in which the women live.
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If we wish to extrapolate, the terrifying black cloud could very well be India itself within which women toil and battle. Singh and Mittal refuse to offer us a history of the Camp as a history of refugees or geopolitical tensions. Instead, they demonstrate how the space of the Camp is the battlefield for women. What stands out in this text is the microhistory of the woman’s struggle that does not attract the same degree of attention as the larger question of ‘refugees’ but where the immediate spatial location of this struggle could very well be expanded to become India. *** It is in the cultural legibility and the visualizing of the unspeakable that the incipient campaigns for rights might be launched. I therefore claim for the graphic narrative the power of undermining the dominant pedagogic discourse of the nation by focusing on the performative. I see the graphic dissonance of Bhimayana and GW as embodying what Hillary Chute writing about Persepolis called ‘an ethical and troubling visual aesthetics’ (2008b: 106). Casting this performative in poignant and powerful visual metaphors the graphic narrative ensures that the alert reader sees through the dominant texts and clichés of the nation. ‘How come we don’t read about all this in our history books?’ asks the sceptical anti-reservationist in Bhimayana (48). Not only does Bhimayana revision history, but it spectacularizes history’s Others as well. Intercultural histories and multiple temporalities enable the making of a narrative imagination where the reader’s imagination is forced to see links between tortured and hung black bodies (the visual, GW 25) and the tortured Dalit bodies (24). Within one visual we see African American and Dalit victimage. Timeframes, histories, structural conditions converge across these two pages. The power of the facing visuals triggers a narrative imagination through which we, for ourselves, picture these contrasting yet similar, singular yet universal histories of oppression. This is the narrative imagination of a cosmopolitan reading practice engendered by the critical literacy we acquire as we move through GW. A cosmopolitan reading, in the case of victim narratives, is not universalism but a response built on ‘shared judgments about particular cases’ (Appiah 2001: 223). A cosmopolitan reading entails ethics because it is the encounter with the suffering (of the) Other. Through GW, I propose, we are called upon to ‘respond in imagination to narratively constructed situations’ (ibid.). Appiah, writing about imaginative literature, suggests that what makes a cosmopolitan reading possible is not that we share beliefs, but an ‘entirely different human capacity that grounds our sharing’: ‘the grasp of a narrative logic that allows us to construct the world to which
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our imaginations respond’ (ibid.). Appiah insists that we agree upon particulars: cosmopolitan reading is not about universals. It is the ‘narrative imagination’ that we build on when we read about the Other (ibid). However, it must be immediately noted that such a work of the narrative imagination is not a disavowal of the particular. It is the narrative imagination that, as I have argued elsewhere via Appiah, makes us understand that the stranger is not abstract or imaginary, but real (Appiah 2006: 99). When we read of Khairlanji, we do not see the brutalized Dalits as mere representations – we imagine the realities they faced. The narrative logic drives this quest for particulars about the Other – what happened? why? how? – and not universals (Nayar 2012c). When we read GW’s montages – which seems to be its preferred representational mode – that ‘fix’ castebased oppression alongside the racism of America, the narrative imagination thus engendered makes the links between victims, even as we seek (and are provided) particulars about individual forms of tyranny. The narrative logic of GW, in other words, with its immersion of the past in the present and the merger of socio-political contexts (race in the USA, caste in India) drives our narrative imagination where we are called to be witnesses to the continuity of historical trauma in the present. We are invited, also, to see the prehistory of, say, the contemporary horror of Khairlanji in ancient India or Phule’s times, and to imagine how it was then. GW does not abandon the storyline’s focus on caste even when it speaks of race in America: rather it draws our attention to it through the montage because it is now the critical literacy of the reader that is able to make intercultural links without abandoning the particulars of each instance of trauma. Indian history might be read through the lens of an intercultural history of oppression, exploitation of labour, race-and-ethnicity–based discrimination and a rigidly hierarchic social order. But it can also be read in terms of micro-histories, of women, households and families. In certain texts the shift from collectivities to individual trauma, from national processes to individual battles, ensures that these ‘other’ stories are also brought into our field of vision so that when we look at ‘India’ in the graphic narrative our eyes are sometimes drawn to very personal and poignant battles.
Notes 1 The darshanic, Sandria Freitag has argued, was also the mode of visuality in Mughal India, especially in the durbars (2001). 2 I am grateful to Anna Kurian for pointing this out. 3 Critics have turned to the notion of Kairos, of multiple time-frames and contexts, as a way of reading the graphic novel’s form. See, for instance, Brister and Walzer (2013).
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4 There is a typographic error in the 2011, and first, edition of the book. The contents page lists ‘the seeds of education’ as a chapter title (v), but the actual chapter (99) is titled ‘the seeds of change’. 5 To alert readers the resonance with Spiegelman’s Maus with its section ‘Time Flies’ would be immediate. In Maus Artie is sitting at his desk trying to write, while corpses of mice are piled high under him, and flies buzz all around. 6 That the last pages of the Ambedkar story in Bhimayana are also full of page-like figures with Ambedkar’s fingers pointing to certain truths on these pages links the theme of education across these two texts (92–3). 7 A comparable example would be of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003) where the nightmares of Iranian society and tyrannical rule are seen through the eyes of the child Marjane. 8 Hillary Chute’s reading of the child in Persepolis is obviously my source of this argument. Chute writes: ‘The tension that is structural to pictorially depicting trauma in a visual idiom shaped by the discursive scaffolding of a child is one of Persepolis ’s most moving and effective tactics supplied by the graphic narrative form’ (2008b: 100).
5 GRAPHIC SATIRE
A premier mode through which the nation’s limitations or a culture’s follies, obsessions and peculiar tendencies are examined is graphic satire. The political and editorial cartoons of Abu Abraham, R. K. Laxman, O. V. Vijayan and Ajit Ninan have for years offered the Indian public insights into our political culture, the problems of everyday life, economic and social conditions so that, while we laugh at them, we also recognize our drawbacks, hypocrisies and incompetencies. The caricature and the cartoon are two interlinked and perhaps the most popular forms of graphic or pictorial satire. Caricature is the distorted representation of any individual with a fair amount of exaggerated physiognomies to reflect the ‘inner’ nature of the individual. ‘Caricature’ and the ‘cartoon’ are closely related and are often used interchangeably. Caricature, from its etymology itself, suggests an ‘overloading’ (from ‘caricare’). Caricature ‘pertains to grotesque or ludicrous representation of scorn or ridicule of human vices or follies and exaggeration of their most characteristic features by means of graphic images’ (Streicher 1967: 431). Lawrence Streicher defines pictorial caricature as ‘pertain[ing] to grotesque or ludicrous representation of scorn or ridicule of human vices or follies and exaggeration of their most characteristic features by means of graphic images’ (1967: 431). More importantly, Streicher argues that caricature ‘aims not at contemplative readers but at passionate, stand-taking, mass-reading publics’ (433). This latter argument of Streicher helps us see the graphic narrative, especially its satiric avatar, as a mass medium. It is possible to see it as a ‘constitutive archive’, defined by Charu Gupta writing in a different context, as ‘banal, everyday popular communications that conceive anxieties, offer counter-politics, manufacture public opinion’ (2014: 672). The political cartoon – and this applies to the graphic satire as well – ‘compresses into a single image the various streams of cultural consciousness’ (Medhurst and Desousa 1981: 219). Joan Conners writes: ‘[Political cartoons] focus on potentially provocative political issues, but tie them to imagery and references from entertainment
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that may unexpectedly draw readers to politics’ (2007: 261). Political satire, as Christel Devdawson in her recent study of political cartoons in India (2014) shows, has always borrowed from many traditions of representations and aesthetics, and serves a didactic purpose. What emerges from these definitions is that the cartoon is a popular medium that captures and ridicules cultural assumptions, often through exaggerations, about ourselves, and thereby pushes us into taking a political stand – whether it is about corruption, the mess of urban life, our political leaders or the education system. Graphic satire (in this case extended narratives rather than just a cartoon) thus offers us readers another view of India, and this aligns the analysis of the genre with the arguments of the preceding chapter: graphic satire brings to the surface an-Other India. It offers in the work of Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Gautam Bhatia, collections such as the Obliterary Journal (Volumes 1 and 2) and the Pao Anthology of Comics and others, both social and political caricature. This political stand is the critical literacy engendered by the graphic narrative, the meta-awareness of seeing through the visual-verbal text to the larger social field and of seeing ourselves and our social contexts in the representations.
Laughing with graphic contrasts ‘Contrast’, between wealth and poverty, competing ideologies, present and past or between popular perceptions and the visual forms, reveals the differences, schisms and just plain extremes in a socio-cultural form, and is a key feature of the political graphic satire (Medhurst and Desousa 205–6). When, for example, Gautam Bhatia in Lie positions Alibaba’s povertystricken, honest lifestyle with that of the Mishras’ and Rocky, we have a contrast in operation. The contrast is meant to direct us to the two Indias: one belonging to the politicians, fundamentalists, wealthy and immoral people and one belonging to the poor, honest, lower-caste/minority people like Alibaba. Contrasting lifestyles, attitudes – for instance Alibaba adores his daughters and Rocky’s mother keeps eliminating the girls born to her son – belief systems, economic means enable Bhatia to speak of India’s social inquities. We do not, in this case, restrict ourselves to the tale: the visual rhetoric combining with the ‘story’ enables us to see an allegory of contemporary India being played out. Sarnath Banerjee chooses to use plumbing as a way of speaking about the new India in ‘Rakhaldas Banerjee’s Plot’ (THF). The tale begins with Brighu ‘frustrated with his plumbing . . . step[ping] out on his balcony for some fresh air’. The first panel shows Brighu standing staring at concrete structures that face his apartment. The sky is minimally inserted into the panel. The second panel shows Brighu standing ankle-deep in water (93).
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The contrast between two essentials – water and air – cannot be clearer: Brighu tired of his water-logged apartment steps out for air. Later we see Girish the ‘psychic plumber’ trying to find the cause of the flooding, undertaking repairs, and Rakhaldas explaining the intricacies of Harappan plumbing to Brighu, thus effectively contrasting the past with the present where of course Rakhaldas sees the past as having got at least the plumbing right. A detail that we need to note about the image of the final pages of the tale is the black water tanks balanced on top of every apartment. Banerjee underscores the risk of the structure by pointing to the tension between water and granite-marble-glass-steel-wood, as he tells us (97) from which the apartments are made. Positioning water as the textural and structural contrast to the ‘hard’ materials that make up the unplanned and ill-executed apartments of modern India, Banerjee gestures at not only the endless iteration of architectural structures and features but also the endless potential for water’s destructive potential: water in the form of bad plumbing can undermine the foundations of these structures. In Gautam Bhatia’s Lie an astonishing contrast is presented to us in order to convey the arrogance of India’s new elites. Sati Mishra rents the Taj Mahal for his son’s wedding, by bribing the director of the Archaeological Survey of India with a ‘Chinese prostitute and a pair of Reeboks’ (10). The visual narrative shows guests, organized as ‘Indians with dual citizenship’, ‘Pakistanis with Afghan spouses’, ‘Koreans with mid-sized cars’, being welcomed at the Taj (10), the rituals (11) and others. This is how a national monument and a mausoleum becomes the venue for a wedding. In Bhatia’s satire an inversion of spaces is at the heart of the critique of cultural practices. ‘Inversion’ here is the contrast between the symbolic values, functions and iconic status already associated with places and things and the new values, functions and iconoclasm of the present. I see contrast or inversion as heterodoxy so as to draw out the shift in cultural values. A dissenting note, so to speak, is sounded against generally established and accepted cultural values. The first heterodoxical move is the functional inversion when the Taj Mahal is made to serve more as an example of the well-known Taj hotel chain, an inversion Indian readers would enthyematically recognize, and thus register the satire.1 It is an enthymeme whose logic enables the readers to understand the assumptions and significance underlying the visual of the ‘Taj’, the name ‘Taj’ from existing cultural texts, just as they unravel the premise from Bhatia’s language: The Taj is violated, therefore the acts are culturally unacceptable, and the new-age perpetrators irreverent towards traditions. Second, it is the inversion of a national iconography. The director of the prestigious Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), tasked with the conservation of Indian heritage structures, rents out the national monument when bribed with foreign ‘products’: a Chinese prostitute and Reebok
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shoes. Third, a mausoleum becomes the venue of a wedding. Fourth, Bhatia notes that the national monument is the space of social exclusion where ‘a special enclosure with a ten-rupee entrance fee was made for the untouchables so they could watch the festivities without feeling left out’ (12). Bhatia’s satire is biting here: the policy of inclusivism that the Indian government might speak of endlessly does not extend to the people. The richer classes continue to be exclusivist, with the active connivance of government functionaries like the director of the ASI. The critical literacy that grows in the reader would be quick to note how social exclusion is not the subject of legislation, or even social will. The ‘untouchables’ have a token presence at the wedding, akin to their token and spectatorial status when it comes to national development and modernization. They will be by-standers, not participants, and Bhatia’s apparently cruel satire is actually an extraordinarily powerful comment on the difference between political constructions of identity and case and social realities. The contrast, however, climaxes with Sati’s death in the midst of dinner (13). As Bhatia puts it, ‘Punditji rolled his sleeves, and turned the marriage ceremony into a death ceremony’ (15). The Taj, temporarily converted into a recreation centre for private entertainment, is restored to its sombre role again: as a space of death. Bhatia’s first sustained satiric narrative in the work ensures that we see the inversion of cultural practices, national iconography and even basic social decency as the marker of the new India. Satirizing puritanical (brahminical, Hindu) eating practices Ambarish Satwik and Pia Hazarika in ‘Hindus and Offal’ (The Pao Anthology I) start off by presenting us with a skeleton on the title page. A closer examination reveals that the skeleton is holding a jar/bottle with what looks like a soft inner organ inside it. The theme of the tale is inaugurated right away: internal organs and dietary practices around them. The tale is a critique of the prohibition on certain kinds of food in the ancient text, Manusmriti. On the second page of the actual tale we are shown a brahmin defaecating into a pond and fish swimming in the effluence. The verbal text informs us: ‘Manu’s tract . . . considers the fish as scavenger, perhaps on account of effluents that find their way into the water’ (110). The following page shows a grinning butcher slicing into a goat, while strips of meat hang on hooks behind him (113), but contiguous with this visual is a ‘model’ of a horse, eviscerated to show its musculature in a biology lab, inside what appears to be a glass case. The rest of the tale is a short history of food prohibitions, international cuisine, eating habits in parts of the country (Delhi, Punjab) and so on. The entire tale is built on contrasts, whether between the verbal and visual narrative, or the ideological positions. First, the verbal narrative aspires to a high-flown, serious-comic, quasiscientific tone at times. Food items and organs are called by their scientific/
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technical terms, for example, which contrast sharply with the brutal images of people eating with minimal table-manners (114–15). Eating habits and recipes are described in the language combining the registers of ethnography and the cookbook, whereas the visual narrative relies on excesses and squirm-inducing representations. The register of theoretical discourse also enters into the verbal text, as for instance in this account: The subcontinental habit in general is to demeatify with marination and condimental treatment. (121) Or in this: The Ahl-e-Dehli, prandially, are well disposed towards muscles. (125) Second, the strategy of contrast operates even within the visual narrative. Religious rituals merge into cooking and butchery (127). Greek gods and goddesses, resembling muses – or perhaps they are just the upper classes of society – and in amatory poses ride a suspended pig, its eyes bulging with pain and shock, even as shaved-head figures scoop out entrails, although the visual does not make it clear whether the entrails are indeed from the pig (118). Here, for example, the contrast between the muses and the amatory-artistic activities on the top of the page and the violence of disembowelment below signifies the contrasts in social ranks of the ancient world. The contrast in the visual narrative is explicated by the verbal text that tells us about how ‘the internal organs of newly slaughtered animals being given away to the lower orders’ (118). We are then given, in a tone of great seriousness, the root of the descriptor, ‘humble pie’: from ‘umble-pie – a pie made from umbles or innards and scrap that the subalterns ate – the offal of society eating offal’ (118). The text’s unravelling of class and caste privileges hinges on unravelling the hidden politics of food, culinary habits and the contradictions within them. The subaltern classes are condemned to eat offal in some cultures. In others, ‘there’s the dialectic of delicacy and repugnance’ (119) that makes the European upper classes eat ‘foie gras . . . the fat laden, diseased liver of duck or goose (enlarged to ten times its normal size)’ (119). The contrasts between the mechanics of abattoirs and culinary processes with the cold, precise formality of the verbal text also force us to acknowledge that meat-eating is a politically divisive socio-cultural practice and a mode of organizing the social order. But it also brings home to us the cold and ruthless processes through which religious strictures and social norms
Figure 5.1 Ambarish Satwik and Pia Alize Hazarika. ‘Hindus and Offal’, in The Pao Anthology of Comics I. New Delhi: Penguin, 2012. 118.
were created so as to impose inequalities. In other words the dark satire of ‘Hindus and Offal’ depends on our recognizing that the brutality of animal slaughter and the precision of cooking speciality dishes are aligned symbolically with the brutality of social divisions and precisely hierarchized oppression.
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Graphic commentary In Gautam Bhatia’s Lie, Rocky, who is now Bhola the politician, has just embarked on his maiden election campaign. As he proceeds in his car, Bhola addresses the people on the roadside through a loudspeaker. We have five panels on one page that shows the progress of his speech and journey.
Panel 1 Caption: ‘People lining the streets clapped’ Bhola: ‘You, people, for whom voting is an important concept, I know you find democracy an intoxicating idea. Conceptually of course, democracy has great potential. Look how well it has worked in Nepal’. Beneath this, at the level of the car and road, is Dharam the driver’s speech bubble: ‘Sir, there’s insurgency in Nepal.’
Panel 2 Bhola quickly takes another example of a functioning democracy: ‘I mean, look at the Andamans.’ Dharam the driver corrects bhola: ‘Sir, Andamans is a part of India.’
Panel 3 Bhola: ‘Oh . . . take Singapore, for example.’ Dharam the driver corrects Bhola: ‘Sir, Singapore is a totalitarian state.’
Panel 4 Bhola: ‘Isn’t there any bloody democracy?’ Dharam: ‘Mauritius, sir . . .’
Panel 5 Bhola: ‘Look at Mauritius. Now there’s a fine example.’
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The visual vocabulary of this page offers us a direct commentary, which Medhurst and Desousa identify as one mode in pictorial satire in which the artists simply offer a perception of truth, a truism, with no clash of ideas (206–7). Bhatia places Bhola’s speech bubbles above the car to show how his voice and words rise above the vehicle and ground level to address the people. Dharam the driver’s speech bubbles are at the level of the road. When Dharam’s ‘corrective’ words are placed at the ground level, Bhatia portrays a pragmatic and knowledgeable man who is, however, socially at a lower level than the pompous and ignorant politician. The commentary is clear: not only is the politician ill-informed and spouting rubbish, all that he says is literally up ‘in the air’, lacking substance and untethered to any local/Indian conditions. Dharam at once undermines Bhatia’s ‘authoritative’ speeches floating in the air by bringing it down to earth through factual corrections. Dharam, in fact, becomes the foundation, the terra firma, of Indian democracy. Bhatia’s text becomes a commentary not only on the kinds of politicians manning our government in India but also on the nature of the democracy so that Bhola’s comments on the faith we place in democracy in the first panel also become part of the satire. Bhatia does not offer the classic modes of pictorial satire (contrast and contradiction) in these panels but offers us a truism, an irrefutable truth about the state of Indian democracy. The distance and distinction between Bhola’s speeches and Dharam’s corrections is the distance between the democracy India has and the democracy India longs for/ought to be. I now turn to another particularly powerful piece of satire, a collaborative text by Banerjee and Samit Basu, in THF, ‘The Dept of Surplus Emotion’ (52–5). The tale satirizes the government office, perhaps in the pre-liberalization era in a more or less direct commentary. The first page shows a gargoyle squatting next to a water dispenser, both against a bilious green background. They are, writes Banerjee-Basu, ‘generally stubborn, immovable and fixed in their habits’ (52). This opening is startling for we are led to expect a monster tale. But on the facing page is a visual, one that fills the entire page, of one S. S. Sivakumar, a ‘petty bureaucrat in the Department of Surplus Emotion and Nervous Breakdowns’. Sivakumar is caricatured with the same physiognomy as the stone gargoyle of the tale’s first page. He sits with a large black telephone, the hallmark of any government office in India, in the foreground. At the right-hand bottom of the page is a very brief resume of the man himself: Age: 42 Height: 5’2” Nationality: Indian For other details, see Form 167b.iii (awaiting reprint)
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Figure 5.2 Gautam Bhatia, with Shankar Lal Bhopa, Birju Lal Bhopa and Ghansham. LIE: A Traditional Tale of Modern India. Chennai: Tranquebar, 2010. 51.
It is the next two pages that offer us the satire as commentary. Four objects are portrayed, with accompanying text, on one page. There is the ‘Mystic Stone Paperweight’ which, dating back to Columbus, ‘when rubbed slowly,
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Figure 5.3 Samit Basu, ‘The Dept of Surplus Emotion’, in Sarnath Banerjee, The Harappa Files. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2011. 55.
magically erases every trace of guilt in the mind of its owner’. The ‘Hermes Supersonic Pen’, weighing ‘243 kg per pen, possesses the power to immediately clear any pending document’. The ‘Triangular Bermuda File’ is an ‘indispensable weapon’ because ‘the most audacious of wandering documents have disappeared mysteriously in its uncharted depths’. Finally, the three-tiered steel lunch box (‘tiffin carrier’) which ‘contains the government official’s
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staple articles of consumption – paneer, roti, pickle and procrastination’ (54). Collectively all these names and terms indicate deception, obstruction and an almost inhuman mysteriousness around governmental processes. Here the commentary relies on association of a cultural commonplace – the bureaucrat – and a series of allusions: Hermes, mysticism, Bermuda Triangle and a lunch box. The allusions, oddly enough, universalize the bureaucrat by referencing the instruments of (bureaucratic) power and torture that are not Indian in origin. However, the allusions constitute excellent cultural commentary because of the popular associations of Hermes (messenger of the Gods, but also, interestingly, the God of trickery, deception and theft), the Bermuda Triangle (the place of mysterious disappearances) and lunch box (sustaining food) even in India. Facing this is a full-page visual of what looks to be a government office. Sivakumar sits at a table with his pen-stand and telephone. Paint peels off the wall, and there is a brown, faceless clock on one wall. To Sivakumar’s left is the water dispenser, on top of which sits the gargoyle. In the foreground is a large collection of massive books and files. An arm reaching out from under the heap has grabbed a book. But also attached to the book, or at least in close contact with it, is a devil’s tail, which appears to be coming from behind Sivakumar. One can also discern a similar but smaller tail’s tip just behind the gargoyle. Banerjee caricatures the bureaucrat as a gargoyle, although, strangely enough – and this, I think, is really the power of the satire – the stone gargoyle appears to be smiling and the human is expressionless and frozenfaced. The instruments of a ‘petty’ bureaucrat’s power are listed as quasimystical and therefore by definition, beyond rational discovery, analysis or understanding. They stand in for the bureaucracy itself, in other words. In order to access two basic things – information and water – in any government office one has to run the gauntlet of the stone and the human gargoyle. That somebody lies buried beneath what might well be rule books and dated files, while seeking a rational means of escape (another set of rules? crucial information?) from the labyrinth of the ‘bureaucratic Gothic’ (Parama Roy’s term, 1998), is one possible reading of this image. That the devil’s appendage is also attached to this all-important book suggests that the individual seeking escape is not likely to succeed. Another interpretation Banerjee-Basu invite is: there is perhaps a slave who files away and stacks the books and material furnished by Sivakumar. The hand grasping the book is only adding to the already-crowded condition of the government office. The satire is directed at the impossibility of reasoning with the bureaucrat- gargoyles who people government offices. Armed with mystical stones and other instruments, they rule the office where surplus emotions (anger or sorrow at being thwarted) are to be curbed and eventually to effect
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‘nervous breakdowns’. It is unclear as to whether the office is to take care of those afflicted by emotional crises and nervous breakdowns or whether the office induces these states in supplicants. There is also a clock without a face. A certain sense of timelessness informs the Indian government office, Banerjee and Basu suggest, by placing the clock in conjunction with the heaped (thrown) files. Neither the clock nor the files ‘move’, and are frozen in time, and place (‘file moving’ is a phrase we all recognize in India, and is a descriptor of the decision or action taken in any matter submitted to the government). Thus time perhaps stands still in the office, as does the decision-making process. The man in charge of decision-making is frozen as well. The telephone on the officer’s table faces away from him, almost as though he has no intention of making or taking any calls. He will not be ‘called’ to account for anything, maybe? Or there are no calls on his time – either from the clock or the telephone. These puns on time and ‘calls’, I propose, are coded into the visual, and collectively offer an extraordinary satire for those who can detect the English language puns in the visuals. Devdawson puts it well when she says: ‘Graphic satire sometimes seems to lock itself into its moment of production’ (258). The preceding tale refers, in my view, to a past age in India, the age of the infamous ‘Licence Raj’ and heavy red tape. While it might not be entirely applicable to post1990s and liberalized India, caricaturing the bureaucrat/civil servant as a monstrous, obstructionist, unemotional gargoyle enables Banerjee-Basu to extend the satiric commentary to bureaucracy itself, and not just to a certain period of Indian history. There is in the caricaturing and the theme a semantic flexibility that allows this. That Sivakumar himself is a man without a backstory (as noted earlier, we have only his height, weight and age, the rest of the information is not (yet) available) suggests that he is a product of the office. The dehumanization of the official is not specific to an age in modern India. Banerjee and Basu seem to imply that the nature of the job – dealing with nervous breakdowns and hysteria – renders the man a gargoyle. Perhaps we need to read the tale as a satire on the kind of jobs in India, where a cultural marker of the bureaucratic job is dehumanization and the redundancy of emotions. The commentary here leaves it unambiguous as to the nature of the Indian bureaucracy. There is no conflict of ideas or ideologies: the bureaucracy exists to trouble people, to slow down processes. It is a self-perpetuating entity, and looks at nothing other than itself. In Bhatia’s Lie Reena, the daughter-in-law of the house, married to Rocky/Bhola, goes through numerous pregnancies – every couple of weeks, according to the text! – and delivers a baby girl every time. And every time the mother-in-law is fortuitously on hand to dispose of the baby. Once the
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newborn is deposited in the ‘waste basket, along with the paper plates’ (33), ‘discarded along with the mango left-overs from lunch’ (34), ‘stuffed . . . into the locker’ at a bank (46). Even discounting the biomedical improbability of the narrative – Reena’s pregnancy and delivery, all in the matter of a few weeks – the events portrayed are clearly excessive and exaggerated. Given India’s history and record of female infanticide, it is not hard to see Bhatia’s satire as rooted in a particular socio-cultural bias and reality. If caricature is founded on an exaggeration of the most characteristic or recognizable features of a person or culture, then Bhatia exaggerates the anti-girl-child sentiments of India. In other words, Bhatia takes a horrific cultural belief and amplifies it to ridiculous extremes, not so much as to make us laugh – the visuals of babies being thrown into waste baskets and locked up in bank lockers are not funny – as to point to an irrefutable foundation to the exaggerated depiction of female infanticide. Whether this makes female infanticide the Indian cultural characteristic is open to question but it definitely makes us aware that one of our characteristics is our negative attitude towards the girl child. Here the caricature of Reena’s pregnancies together with the exaggerations of the mother-in-law’s actions in disposing of the infants satirizes, in black-humorous fashion, the state of cultural literacy around the girl child in India in the late twentieth century. Stretching across several centuries and geological timescales, ‘The Past and Future History of the Emu’ in The Obliterary Journal, Volume 2, written as a fantasy where emus are farmed, cloned, then acquire enough hive intelligence to form communities and build their own civilization, the tale satirizes India’s ‘get-rich-quick’ schemes, the failure of government safety nets for investors, scientific institutions, the film industry, fan clubs, among others. The tale is structured like a History textbook narrative with timelines, major events, geography and maps. It gives the evolutionary history of the emu and then tells us how Indian businessmen discovered emu farming as a profitable business (19–20). Soon film stars join in and begin to advertise for the emu farms (20–1). The advertisement shows ‘emus dancing in chorus under disco lights as thousand rupee notes fall from the sky’ (21). Alarmists however warn that the profits are hyped up and smaller farmers are being duped. Things begin to unravel, and businessmen and investors disappear. Emus are abandoned on the farms and, starving, these begin to invade human inhabitations nearby. By 2016 (according to the timeline given in the tale) ‘feral emus continue to plague farmers around Tirupur and Pollachi’ (24). Meanwhile in a parallel narrative cloning technology has developed enough for humans to be cloned. Cyborg emus are also mass-produced and war breaks out as they rampage through the cities of Coimbatore, Bengaluru and other places. (They ‘expand throughout the Indian Ocean and much of southeast Asia’, we are told, 28.) The emus
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learn how to clone themselves and build rockets for their spaceflight. They head out to Io, Jupiter’s moon. The tale packs its satirical punch in the language of science and history through which it is narrated. The dry, objective narration conveys information about massacres, fraud and such. The visuals resemble the ones in school textbooks. Cultural allusions abound in the text. These allusions are primarily text-based in the tale, though. They serve the purpose of directing readers to events in India that have now become common knowledge. The tale uses cultural commonplaces within its fictional context: we readers forge a relation between these commonplaces and the immediate fictional account. That is the cultural sources of the fiction are already known to us, and we simply read these into the text. As Joan Conners (2007) notes, potentially provocative political issues are brought home to us through such popular allusions in cartoons. The emu tale draws our attention to a variety of lacunae in India. Films and fan clubs determine cultural identity, and filmmakers/stars have strong business links. Farm scams are commonplace because politicians and businessmen join hands to mislead investors and farmers. Unregulated agricultural and scientific practices lead to farming disasters and questionable inventions (emu clones, clones of film stars). Financiers fund dubious investors. The absence of proper ethical and institutional guidelines enables unscrupulous investors to defraud farmers and unsuspecting small investors. The inventory of such acts and actions suggests a political and social system that is built on fraud. Culturally aware readers see in this text stories of farmer suicides, bank loan scams, bad science that one reads in newspapers every day. By delivering this in the language of a textbook, however, the tale does something more. It lends an air of high seriousness so that the satire has a greater impact. Speaking with authority on fraud and scams, bad science and indifferent governments allows the text to propose a counter-history of sorts for contemporary India. The timeline which starts in an early earth age extends into the future, and thus forces us to track a set of future developments in the life of the emu and of humanity. The tone of seriousness in the text, the timeline and the fact-sheet kind of writing that is often at odds with the cartoonish drawings of emus, people and events suggest a fate that is impossible to (i) confront directly because it is not yet here and (ii) avoid because we do not, in India, have any mechanism to prevent this kind of future from occurring. It works more as a social caricature – lampooning a social context – than as a strictly political one. It extrapolates the present (and past) history of frauds and disasters in India to propose a future. Thus the story is not the ‘past and future history of the emu’. Rather, it is the past and imminent future history of Indian society itself where the reader supplies the premise, founded on his or her common knowledge of India that
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is the theme of the satire: that unregulated business and scientific ventures result not only in fraud but unwarranted death and destruction. Extrapolation and the speculative history of the world and humanity is also the subject of Sathyanarain Muralidharan-Mihir Ranganathan’s story about meat-eating, ‘Food-chained’, in The Obliterary Journal, Vol. 2. After stating a series of facts about the human body and meat-consumption (222) the story focuses on a group of humans placed in a cage (224). The first panel shows the royal woman and her baby in the cage with attendants waiting on them. The second panel begins to use the zoom-out technique so we see the ‘call 12489234 for door delivery’ sign pasted on the top of the cage and ‘freshcut 200 per kilo’ sign (224). The third panel gives us more signage, and we see that the cage is labelled ‘Royal Family Human Meat’, ‘ready to cook human cuts’, ‘human brain’. The fourth shows policemen and some graffiti. The next page depicts the protests against human slaughter. And this is where we discover that the protestors are Martians: ‘Martians unite against slaughter.’ Zooming out we see the entire complex wherein the slaughters of humans are done, with the graffiti declaring ‘humans have feelings too’ (225). The penultimate page shows the surface of the earth, then the entire globe and finally an open-mouthed fish coming to swallow the earth (226). The last page simply shows the human brain (227). All the pages have thick black borders. As a satire, the tale works by extending the current concerns into a whole new domain: calling us to visualize the fate of humans as akin to that of animals being slaughtered. The food chain will one day make sure that the humans are food for somebody else. The first move in the satiric text is thus to suggest that class differences among humans will be of no consequence in an inter-galactic or interstellar food chain – evidenced by the fact that a royal family is also in the cage, ready for slaughter for paying consumers among the Martians. The graffiti and signage are instructive in the satiric subtexts of the tale. The exact same processes of slaughter we see now will remain in use in the future. The suggestion here is of a trans-universal ethos of cruelty and suffering. It is in the sloganeering graffiti by the Martians that we see the full satiric power of the tale. The Martians by proposing that humans have feelings too reveal both their empathy and their sympathy. In fact the slogan humanizes the Martians who seem to feel sorry for the fate of the humans about to be slaughtered for their meat. The masks worn by the Martians – dressed, oddly, in suits and salwar-kameezes – recall the famous masks of cats and mice in Maus. The dog-like faces ‘worn’ by the otherwise humanoid creatures register an uncanny effect upon us. The masks, however, let us glimpse something of the ‘person’ behind it: one wears glasses and the woman has long plaited hair. This suggests that beneath the masks are ‘real’ persons. Emily Budick writing about the masks in Maus argues that these glimpses tell us that beneath the
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masks lies a ‘world of actual, literal people and events and emotions’ (389). What ‘Food-chained’ tells us is that underneath the Martian masks are real (if unidentifiable) ‘creatures’ whose emotional responses might be read on the walls of the complex. The person behind the mask is the person whose emotions are writ large. The commentary works powerfully by demonstrating that the affective is a condition of even ‘alien’ species (sometime in the future perhaps, thus rendering the story a post-historical one?). Beneath the masks, in other words, Martians and humans are the same, because both are
Figure 5.4 Sathyanarain Muralidharan-Mihir Ranganathan, ‘Food-chained’, in The Obliterary Journal, Vol. 2. Chennai: Blaft and Tranquebar, 2013. 225.
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sentimental creatures. As a commentary the text works brilliantly to highlight this particular affective resonance across species by reflecting on the possibility of trans-species sympathetic identification. The dehumanization at work in the text relies on an animalization of the human, with humans being just ‘meat’, even though it is as meat that they possess at least minimal value. So the text forces us to see the blurred borders between humans, aliens and animals where to be valued as human in an alien context simply translates into valued as human-flesh. The hypercorporealization – the excessive emphasis on flesh, meat and the bodily – here underscores how humans are simply flesh. But the satire also draws attention to one common aspect: all life is just meat to some other form of life. The satire reduces all life to ‘bare life’ (to adapt Giorgio Agamben’s term), barely living organic bodies with no value except as meat. All sentiments, affections, rationality belong to another life form that has become politicized around this human meat. Extrapolation is integral to Bhatia’s work, where every theme extends the internal logic of the story to implausible but believable limits. To capture the social reality of caste and communalism in India, Bhatia presents Alibaba’s quest for water (78–9). Alibaba travels ‘long distances in search of water’ (78). Everywhere he sees signs of exclusion: ‘Brahmins-only hand pump’, ‘Brahmins-only Bisleri bottle’, ‘Brahmins-only well’ (78) and even a ‘Brahmins only’ water theme park (79). Even contemporary India’s hyperconsumption (represented in the visual narrative in the form of the abandoned, empty Bisleri bottle and the elaborate water park arrangement in the middle of a desert 78–9) of the late twentieth century seems condemned to iterate age-old prejudices. What Bhatia urges us to take notice of through his direct commentary is the copresence of old and new in contemporary India: castebiases haunt hyperconsumption and the new leisure class just as they once did ancient and medieval India. Bhatia suggests that our cultural and social prejudices are far too ingrained for them to be lost even in the globalized age. Ideas of caste purity and segregation continue to haunt new spaces of consumption like the theme park, just as these constitute the product biographies of Bisleri. Bhatia’s commentary enables him, via satire, to interrogate the foundations of Indian modernity (if indeed this modernity might be read within paradigms of consumption and leisure alone) in this short episode. These signs we interpret as commentaries – ironic and satiric – on contemporary India. The exclusionary language might shock us in its directness but does not surprise us because it alludes to a culture and history of exclusion intrinsic to India. One might dispute the specifics and be sceptical towards the extravagant example (theme parks organized around a caste identity), but the satire here forces us to take cognizance not of instances but of generic cultural conditions. In other words, I am arguing that such satiric representations are
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less about the specific cases illustrated and described than they are exemplifications, or even allegories, about cultural malaises, lacunae and absurdities. Take as another example the satire on the Emergency (160–72) in Lie. The TV news is restricted to the PM’s interviews and workday (160). The notorious Family Planning programme (the subject of Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s extensive commentary in Delhi Calm) is the next theme (161). We are shown a family of six walking past a poster announcing ‘we two ours four’. In the next three panels the family shrinks, to five, four and finally three. The posters correspondingly change across the panels, announcing ‘we two, ours three’ and ‘we two, ours two’. The final panel shows a mother with two children holding on to her hands. The propaganda poster says: ‘me one, mine two’. The theme of increasing population control and decreasing numbers is now extrapolated to a point where it is not population control, but population decimation. It is not family planning in the traditional sense (contraception) or the Emergency sense (sterilization) of the term. Instead, Bhatia suggests, it is outright murder: the father has been taken away. The family is now the ‘right’ number: three. (But Bhatia is letting us dwell on the woman’s condition where she has to raise the two children on her own.) Bhatia’s satire extrapolates the logic of population control to its merciless limit: population control, as the government sees it, is about the reduction of population in terms of numbers, and numbers alone. Whether this reduction of numbers results in greater difficulties for the family (the single-parent one, for instance) is not considered. Bhatia is satirizing the mathematical sense of population control which is internal to the logic of the project but one that does not account for the social, economic, affective and cultural consequences. Extrapolation here serves as commentary because it forces the reader to concede, with no contradictions or alternate ideas, the flawed nature of a population control exercise that does not account for larger social and other consequences but focuses only on a literal interpretation of the ‘control of numbers’.
Graphic contradictions Sarnath Banerjee offers us a different picture of the post-liberalized era through the use of contradiction, occurring at multiple visual-thematic levels, in ‘Rakhaldas Banerjee’s Plot’ (THF). Contradiction, argue Medhurst and Desousa, could be between word and deeds, and the readers have to accept the conclusion presented. It invites condemnation. There is no choice of meanings delivered in the contradictory mode of graphic satire (207). Banerjee shows how the plumbing system in contemporary buildings in India has been neglected and/or badly done. But the crucial visual that offers a counterpoint to the supposed success of post-liberalized India is the final
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one, spread across pages 98–9. The visual shows four-storeyed apartments in three rows across these pages. The overall impression we get when we encounter the pages is of a hive. All the buildings are packed close and we can barely glimpse a sliver of sky between them. For urban readers of the visual we immediately recognize, enthyematically, that laws – of the mandatory space between buildings – have been violated. The apartment blocks are the panels, in one sense, filling up the pages. Yet the sense we get from the pages is not of panelling but crowding: and this is the visual vocabulary of contradiction. It is also significant that the apartments are clones of each other: the ones in every column on the page are identical, except for column 3 which has, in row 2, a two-wheeler parked outside. The final row is interrupted, with an old-fashioned cement mixer placed in the empty space between apartments. The apartments in the final column run off the edge of page suggesting continuity. But it might also be a satire on how cities are bursting at the seams (the borders of the page as metaphor for the borders of the city, perhaps?): buildings, people and vehicles spill over, unrestrained and unrestrainable. Banerjee’s critique of the new India is of the lack of variation, the monotonous iteration of aesthetic styles and architecture. The clone trope we see here reflects a post-liberalized India’s stifling conformity to a pattern, even when that pattern is of flouted building laws and architectural ugliness. Defining the new India, then, is an architectural sublime, but a sublime of ugliness that emerges in the contradiction of expansion (growth, development) and crowding. The sublime, as theorized by Longinus, Edmund Burke and others, is traditionally a sense of awe experienced when witnessing states of boundarilessness such as the horizon or vast seas. The visual vocabulary of the apartments not fitting the pages suggests an architectural sublime of unending ugliness, where the contradiction might be seen in a visual narrative device where the development cannot be contained in the pages. That is, it is development that exceeds what it sets out to do, and therefore is unsustainable. The story up to this set of images has emphasized the loss of careful planning, for instance, of the plumbing in apartment houses: when Brighu’s blocked drain is being cleared, it does strange things in a neighbour’s bathroom ‘three houses away’ (94). In the new India, Banerjee writes on the page immediately preceding the ones on 98–9: His son-in-law sold the house to Monga, the builder. In the current India of endless optimism, nothing comes in the way of progress. Basement, garage, four floors, servants’ quarters, water tanks, piled top of one another. Monga emptied an entire marble quarry
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to construct the new building that came up on Rakhaldas Banerjee’s plot – granite, marble, glass, steel, wood. However, it still didn’t have a plumbing blueprint. (97) The ‘endless optimism’ is manifest in the unending continuity of crowded and badly planned housing in Banerjee’s architectural sublime. Further descriptions only reinforce the sense of such a contradiction of development and bad planning: of buildings whose constituents are ‘piled top of one another’. The construction was made possible because an ‘entire marble quarry’ had been emptied to build one apartment. Despite so much investment, it lacks the basics: such as a plumbing blueprint of the building. Banerjee’s text and visuals that lead to the nightmarish composition of 98–9 connote a new India whose cultural identity might well rest in such unending iteration of hive-like dwellings, absent or broken laws and a complete lack of attention to basic questions of things like plumbing. The contradiction leads us to conclude that ‘development’ in India is essentially based on pro-tem arrangements (such as Girish the plumber), greed and an absolutely cavalier attitude to basic requirements. There are no two meanings possible in Banerjee’s use of the visual rhetoric of contradiction, and we can only conclude that development in India is completely skewed. In Gautam Bhatia’s Lie policemen in a police station are shown watching television, playing cards and ‘raping a minor’. It is described as ‘a normal day’ (27). The sheer brutality of the account, aligning harmless activities like card-playing and watching TV with rape, serves up the contradiction: the keepers of the law are its primary violators. The reader is instantly repulsed by the collapse of moral order witnessed in the narrative, and there is really no other response possible in the face of this contradiction where rape is constitutive of a ‘normal day’ for those tasked with protecting the public. The contradiction lies in the alignment of extreme conditions and events such as rape with the descriptor ‘normal’. It is the sheer shock of having it described as ‘normal’ that forces us to wonder about an India where excessive violence, exploitation and suffering inflicted by law enforcers have been normalized.
The destruction of personae Caricature, argues Streicher, results in the destruction of personae (1967: 430). This ‘destruction’ is achieved through various modes in the Indian graphic narrative and is not restricted to personae of individuals alone. What is achieved in graphic satire is the destruction or, at the very least, erosion, of a cultural ideal and a national visage.
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Humanization and the loss of (political) credibility An unexpected consequence of the caricaturing of political figures is to humanize them (Streicher 1967: 440). However this humanization comes at a price. Streicher writes: ‘The gain of humanness may contribute to the positive public image of a figure but detract in other and more crucial political areas’ (440). In Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s portrait of Indira Gandhi, cast as ‘Moon’ in Delhi Calm, we see a process of humanization. First there is her childhood with an ‘absent father’, as Ghosh puts it, because he was ‘busy fighting the white imperialists’ (40). Moon ‘missed her parents’ (40). The image shows Moon looking into the distance, with bright stars in the night sky and behind her a bare cot with a pillow and no mattress. There is also a single red rose (which, Indians would immediately recognize, would go on to become an indispensable component of Nehru’s attire). Having up to this point painted Moon as instrumental in altering forever the fabric of the democracy by declaring a National Emergency, this ‘backstory’ renders Moon a more human person. We are then told of how she ‘played’ (dramatized) Independence movements (41), playing the piano (42), and growing up into a beautiful girl with ‘big round eyes and a sharp Kashmiri nose’ (43). Later in the official propaganda version of the Moon story – a narrative within the main narrative – we see her being proud of her son, ‘He is so much like I was at that age, rough edges and all, that my heart aches for the suffering he may have to bear’ (155). Family portraits showing Moon with her two sons and a verbal narrative of her parenting (‘a magical dose of four almonds and a glass of milk transformed him into a young man of strength, energy and intentions’, 154) humanize her further. Yet this humanization has a startling effect on readers. First, it functions as a sign of the personalization of governance, government and India itself. Second, it erodes the political credibility of Moon as the leader of the government and as a symbol of the ‘New India’. Third, we begin to see the personal narrative of the characters as undermining the ‘history narrative’, so to speak, of India – in domains of economics (the ‘hard-working’ Prince is given the People’s Car project, for example) and politics. In a later moment in the same propaganda story we have Moon and her car-project son in one visual spread across the lower half of the page. He is leaning over her shoulder smiling as she is seated, grim-faced, in a chair. He whispers cheerfully in her ear: ‘Democracy doesn’t mean the freedom to destroy everything there is in a country. Democracy means the freedom to build the country’ (159). Two contrasts come into play here. One is the contrast between unsmiling Moon and the smiling, or smirking, son. Second, it is the son who is giving the politician-mother the jingoistic slogan
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about democracy. There is a third as well. The mother and son are staring at a photograph on the table. In the photograph Moon is standing behind her son in a reversal of the present. But the contrast also seems to be in the symbolic reversal where, initially, the mother had supported her son in his scheme of building a People’s Car and now it is the son who is offering the mother words of advice and wisdom. While it humanizes the dictatormother-son duo, it also renders the ‘First Family’ of Indian politics deeply suspect because, as the text suggests, the mother and son have always supported each other, and now they together will ‘build the country’. ‘Building the country’ essentially translating into the mother, in her role as prime minister makes sure the car project goes to her son. The loving, ‘motherly’ smile Moon has almost permanently fixed on her face humanizes her, even as we recognize that this is in sharp contrast (and here the other rhetorical strategy, of contrast kicks in) to the dictatorial actions she has embarked upon.
The grotesque In his wonderful exposition on the grotesque Geoffrey Galt Harpham shows us how the grotesque as an aesthetic has to do with ‘hybridisation’ (5). These ‘inspire ambivalent emotional reactions’ (8). The grotesque is marked by the co-presence of the normative, fully formed, ‘high’ or ideal, and the abnormal, unformed, degenerate, ‘low’ or ‘material’ (9). With the species mixing, the grotesques frequently ‘grade toward some species lower on the evolutionary or ontological scale, toward a principle of formlessness, primitivism, or bestiality’ (9). The grotesque is the interval in our comprehension of the hybridized form, before we sense the unity of the elements combined in the creature or representation of the creature.
Exaggeration In Banerjee’s ‘Hydra’ (THF) the inquisitive landlady has a stethoscope placed at somebody’s (perhaps her tenant’s) door, perhaps seeking to find (hear) incriminating evidence about debauchery and antisocial behaviour. (103). One eyebrow raised/arched, mouth pursed in a grimace with the head disproportionately larger than the rest of the body, the landlady’s portrait has the following caption above it: The hydra was a famous many-headed snake in ancient Greece. Whenever one of its heads was cut off, two new ones emerged. Hydras are famous for their cruel, sneaky nature, their ability to keep attacking you from various angles, and for being practically impossible to fight.
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At this point in the narrative there is nothing hydra-like in the landlady’s disposition, and hence the caption leaves us puzzled. The next page reveals the hydra-ness of this same lady. The grotesque image has the lady with seven heads, each at the end of a separate stalk. Each mouth on each head is issuing one instruction to a college girl (a prospective tenant, one assumes): ‘every drop of water is like amrit’, ‘you are like my daughter’, ‘no late nights’, ‘no boys’ and so on (104). What lends this grotesque, dismembered portrait a sense of satiric exaggeration is the surreal quality of the distorted and multiple visages. The landlady exists now in multiple copies of the original, each copy adds one more condition for renting her apartment/house. Banerjee develops an aesthetic of excess here where the ‘overloaded’ portrait of the landlady is in perfect conjunction with the excessive imperatives she issues. This excess is compounded on the next page when we are shown the landlady monitoring the various apartments from her home: every apartment has secret cameras installed that record the activities of the inmates. Like her many heads issuing many instructions from the many mouths, the landlady has many ‘eyes’ – the cameras – that watch everything. Here the exaggeration of the visage is accompanied by rhetorical excesses (the landlady’s series of injunctions) and the ubiquitous surveillance culture. The landlady’s heads and the cameras’ eyes are analogous, and both are grotesque exaggerations, of visage and of social norms. The ‘hydra’, then, is the multiheaded, many-eyed surveillance of contemporary society where it becomes impossible to achieve a sense of privacy or even of individuality because one is robbed of all agency by the landlords and the social order. Banerjee therefore allegorizes the landlady and the residents as hydras by overloading their rhetoric, visages, structural conditions (the cameras and screens) and social norms. I propose that such an exaggeration destroys the personae of the landlady and the other inhabitants. But more importantly the exaggeration enables Banerjee to satirize the landlady as an instance of a cultural imaginary. What gets distorted in the process, and thereby inviting our anxietytinged laughter, is contemporary India’s obsession with private morality and a concomitant interest in other people’s lives. What gets destroyed, in other words, is not just the persona of the landlady (as hydra) but of urban India’s appearance of a civil society. It should be evident that I am not treating Banerjee’s portrait of the hydra-landlady as the distorted projection of an individual but rather as the metonymic representation of a distorted cultural condition. We have become hydra-like, tyrannical, intrusive and uncivil as a culture, and the landlady is only one instantiation of this. In his earlier work, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, Banerjee resorts to the grotesque as a mode of de-iconizing Bengali culture.
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Figure 5.5 Sarnath Banerjee, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers. New Delhi: Penguin, 2007. 110.
Painting the portrait of Calcutta’s elite, Banerjee satirizes their ‘high- culture’ by exaggerating specific qualities in Chapter Seven. The twisted torsos, the enlarged visages and the bizarre mannerisms produce the effect of the grotesque. Babu Shibchandra Mukherjee has swollen jowls, and his entire portrait, in an oval frame, is embedded in weeds. He is depicted holding a pipe in his hand, and we are informed that he founded the Baghbazaar Hemp Smoking Club and was ‘at the centre of th[e] culture of intoxication’
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(108). This club was also known as the ‘North Calcutta Bird Club’ (108), although it had ‘very little to do with ornithology’ (110). But ‘each member was given the name of one [bird] and expected to warble accordingly’ (110). The visual shows various birds with the heads of prominent members of Calcutta society (110). The monstrous Bengali babu does not fit the category of human or bird, in Banerjee’s visual vocabulary. In the conjoining of different species – birds and humans – we see a breakdown of categories, although we recognize familiar details, such as the human head. Harpham’s theorization helps us understand Banerjee’s satire better. Representing the ‘culture of intoxication’ of nineteenth-century Calcutta, Banerjee deploys a very contemporary idiom: to ‘fly’ or ‘get high’ as a descriptor of being intoxicated. Flight and height are represented in the bird imagery. The satire lies in the avianization of humans in Banerjee’s account. We see humans degenerate into ridiculous creatures at the mercy of hemp, with some even attempting to literally fly (112). The ideal or normative of the rational human is here merged with the unformed or degenerated human and bird. Banerjee suggests here a movement down the evolutionary order: (i) intoxicated humans ‘flying’ in their minds (ii) and intoxicated humans attempting to fly like birds. Both of these involve a movement down the evolutionary ladder because the behaviour is bestial and irrational. The larger-than-life portraits are of bird-bodies and human heads, and seem to occupy all available space. Calcutta society is made of engorged bodies whose ontological status is rather indeterminate, suggests Banerjee, given that most of them are barely human in their behaviour. Once again we see dehumanization and ontological uncertainty at the heart of the social critique cast as satire. When we see the actions of the high-class Bengali babu we (are made to) feel a revulsion at the excesses (I will have reason to return to Banerjee’s theme of excess in later sections) perpetrated by the so-called cultural elites. The bird visualization, while appropriating the idiom of ‘flying’ to reflect their intoxicated state, renders the Calcutta classes both lower in scale and a certain domesticated species: ‘Each member was given the name of one [bird] and expected to warble accordingly’ (110). The exaggeration and caricature here helps Banerjee destroy the aura around the culture that has been traditionally seen as having experienced and engineered the first cultural renaissance in India, by showing how the Bengali babu also engineered experiments in intoxication.
Revelation In The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers there is an episode devoted to Job Charnock, the English founder of Calcutta city. It begins with the epitaph on
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Charnock’s grave, ‘a wanderer who, after sojourning for a long time in a land not his own, returned to his eternal home’ (43). On the very next page Banerjee has five panels. The first one depicts an owl, looking with its unblinking gaze. The next, and smaller panel, shows a rooster with a hand around its neck. Panel three, a larger one, zooms in on the head of the rooster but includes a hand holding a knife, the latter poised over the rooster’s neck. The fourth shows the head of the rooster flying off, separated from the body. The final panel, also running the breadth of the page like the fourth panel, shows a man in a coat dangling a rooster, dripping blood now, on to a grave. The rooster head rests on the stone. The captions for the five panels read as follows: It is commonly known among the founders of great cities, That although there is great posthumous joy in having streets and avenues named after you. It can make you a little crazy. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that every full-moon night, Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta, sprinkled the blood of a rooster on his wife’s grave, in accordance with pagan rites. A deeply enigmatic fellow, he is said to have become totally native, acquired local mannerisms, married a Hindu woman and worshipped the order of panch-pir, an ancient cult followed by poor Muslim peasants. (44) The entire set of scenes on page 44 performs a function peculiar to political cartoons, that of revelation (Medhurst and Desousa 1981: 217). Revelation is the exposure of the man behind the legend in this case. The heroic Charnock is revealed as a believer in strange cults, practitioner of occult rituals and an Englishman who clearly had renounced the Christian faith for ‘pagan rites’. In the later panels we are shown Charnock rescuing a woman from the sati pyre (we are told he marries the woman), Charnock carrying his wife’s body, a half-portrait of his wife (that shows her to be Hindu). The last panel shows Charnock’s mausoleum and gravestone (45). If the function of the political cartoon is to reveal the person behind the persona, or to destroy the persona itself, then the Charnock episode works at two levels. One, the panels and captions here convey the mystery around the man regarded as the hero of Calcutta. Two, they demystify him in one way as well, by depicting him as less-than-heroic: in fact as a mere follower of an ancient cult, a lapsed Christian and as just a ‘deeply enigmatic fellow’ (44). Later we have the caricature of eighteenth-century Calcutta’s Bengali upper crest (to which I have paid some attention already in the previous section). First there is the hilarious satire on Joy Mitra who cannot read, going
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through the streets of Calcutta in his phaeton pretending to read the newspaper, when everybody knew he was illiterate. Even the kids in the street have fun at his expense, directing him to turn the newspaper upside down (98–9). At his house during Durga Puja, Banerjee shows animal sacrifices and ‘people rolled in the blood of sacrificed animals in merriment and devotion; men wrestled with each other. Some vomited . . . the streets were splashed with blood, the drains got clogged’ (102). The sacred meat then has to be distributed to the patrons but ‘the meat distribution took ages, rendering it unfit for consumption, and entire north Calcutta reeked of putrefying flesh’. The image shows Joy Mitra’s clerk reading a long scroll of paper, perhaps with the names of those who are to receive the meat; walking behind him is a porter carrying meat and the entrails of slaughtered animals. The smell rises into the air and passers-by are shown with wrinkled noses, objecting to the stink of rotting meat (103). There are episodes depicting the intoxicated Bengalis – who defy Hindu prohibitions on meat-eating and alcohol, attempting to fly (112–13, 116–17), human sacrifices (120–3) and so on. The grotesque is Banerjee’s preferred mode for caricaturing upper-class, upper-caste Bengali society. Nowhere in the entire chapter (Chapter Seven) do we have a sober Bengali. It appears as though Banerjee sets out to depict only a culture’s excesses. This aesthetic of excess gathers strength with Banerjee tracing the ‘whims’ of the upper-class Bengali in Chapter Eight, and the entire chapter serves as an inventory of the excesses. Some of them lit cigars with ten-rupee notes. Some flew kites with hundred-rupee bills stuck to the string. (139) Every Saturday . . . Nilmoni De used to go to the Governor’s house and urinate outside the main gate. There was a penalty of one hundred rupees for this in those days. . . . Nilmoni gladly paid the fine, only to return the next Saturday. (140) Tarachand, thwarted in his wish to buy the most expensive perfume of the time, Thetis, because Harrods would not allow him into the store, still managed to procure a bottle. That evening, he was back at W[hiteway] & L[adlaw]. At the step he asked his coachman to open the bottle of Thetis and rub the priceless perfume on the horse’s testicles. (142) When the shocked shopkeeper objects saying ‘even Lady Hastings puts it behind her ears only on special occasions’, ‘a connection was drawn [by
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Tarachand] between Lady Hastings’s ears and the part of the horse’s anatomy in question, too vulgar to be put into words’ (143). Yet another, Kali Kinkar imported fine glass from all over the world so he could drop them and hear them shatter (143–5). The satire on the Bengali upper classes, however, also evokes a sense of the very distinctive anti-colonial sentiments of these classes. In Lie we are exposed to the grotesque nature of the Indian legal system where the rapist gets away free and the victim instead is convicted. Bhola Mishra is accused of rape by a twelve-year old and he goes for tests at the ‘Ahuja Laboratory’ where the medical officer asks, ‘who is the victim?’ and Bhola immediately claims he is. The medical report, says Bhatia, ‘placed the blame squarely where it was required’, and proved that the blood stains on Mishra’s penis were from the girl. Further, ‘the 12-year old rapist showed clear signs of remorse during the examination’, which further confirms that she is the rapist. This shocking satire demonstrates that the law in India is truly grotesque, seeking to establish not the credibility of the victim’s statements. That the law sets out to re-categorize the man as the victim and the twelve-year old girl as a rapist is fundamentally grotesque because it inverts the regular gender roles in the diabolic act. The grotesque in Bhatia’s story invites repugnance and it does so by pointing to a cultural condition where, with enough money and resources, such a grotesque might actually be established within the medical-legal system itself. The dissolution of boundaries of victim-perpetrator, justice and farce, material evidence and mythic constructions (of, for instance, the twelve-year old girl as rapist) renders the legal system itself grotesque. The grotesque is situated somewhere between the archaic and the advanced or the modern (Harpham 1982: 49). They generate repulsion as a primary emotion in us, those who perceive (71). Calcutta’s excesses seem to be driven, in Banerjee’s account, by a sense of their ‘old money’, pride and value systems even as they are modes of fitting into the new Anglicized social world of colonial India. It is old money that gives the Bengali the courage and the wherewithal, the dignity and the label of ‘whimsical’ to do any and all of the things he does. When ‘whims’ are linked to civilization itself (137) then, Banerjee suggests, Bengali civilization requires a serious reconsideration. Thus even as caste, class and family remain the foundational markers of identity for these grotesque characters, their excesses are also driven by the assertion of this old identity and new ones in the face of the white man’s presence. Excess, in other words, locates the Bengali upper class as straddling both the old world of elite Bengalis and the new world of colonized Bengalis. The fact that each act of the upper-class Bengali seems to attract shock, opprobrium and, even on occasion, penalties, seems to suggest that the excess and the grotesque has brought them into the sightline of the new powers in India.
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This caricature through the aesthetics of the grotesque serves the purpose of forcing us to see through the excess at the decadence of high-class Bengalis. In other words, caricature here reveals the degeneracy behind the civility, the stylized life and the veneer of sophisticated wealth. There are extensive illiteracy, cruelties, indifference to civic life, hypocrisy and exploitation in the lives of Joy Mitra, Kalishankar Ghosh and others. As in the case of other histories made visible in Bhimayana and other more revisionist texts, Banerjee’s work enables us to see a different history of India’s, or Calcutta’s, socalled glorious past, though he achieves this ‘revelation’ for us by painting the characters and events in gory, ridiculous and grotesque colours. The finest purveyor today of the aesthetics of the grotesque for purposes of satire is Appupen (George Mathan). In Moonward®, The Legends of Halahala and Aspyrus Appupen satirizes organized religion, consumer culture and human civilization itself. Appupen generates what has been identified by Manuel Broncanco as the ‘magical grotesque’ (2007). This aesthetic has a tendency towards the magical and the mysterious (661–2). The magical (drawing upon the magical realist mode) is an ‘ontological instrument for exploring the multiple layers of reality’ (662–3). Since the grotesque is itself an instrument of satire (as we have seen earlier) and because the grotesque ‘subverts cultural patterns of meaning making’ (Butter 2007: 338), in Appupen traditional views of organized religion and faith are overturned. The grotesque marks, writes Stella Butter, the return of the cultural excluded (339). Cultural dichotomies blur in the grotesque (338–9).2 Appupen foregrounds the absurdity of ideas about the evolution of faith, of the contingent nature of belief and the violence underwriting this history. The surface-level meaning of religion as strength and cohesive cultural practice is a meaning Appupen refuses to contemplate for a minute. Everything begins with a random cosmic event – a shooting star – followed by more random events such as the volcanic eruption, the lightning strike that kills Tortle, the arrival of Ananthabanana in the Oumbe valley. In Moonward, inside primordial Halahala’s old tree, lives the ‘Tortle the Wise’ (unpaginated). In the forest a ‘survival of the fittest’ battle of the weak versus the strong rages. Complaints are taken to the Tortle, who then explains the idea of a God. Once they discover God, they begin to sing ‘praises to God’, and soon ‘worship groups’ appear on the scene. Since Tortle had told them that ‘God lived in nature’, the creatures ‘began worshipping trees, stones and rivers’ (unpaginated). Idol worship soon arises and it is a matter of time before there is a battle between worshippers of various idols and gods. In order to create a unique god, one never seen before, as an attempt to end the wars, Tortle creates an image of the human. Immediately afterwards lightning strikes the tree and the wise Tortle is killed. Eventually a wandering human, Ananthabanana, arrives in the valley
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and acquires the status of a God among the creatures, perhaps because he resembles the figure Tortle had drawn. When Tika a magic-painter enters Oumbe, his art acquires him fortune – which, ironically, causes his artistic talents to disappear. Eventually when he discovers that the painting he made has become the centre of a religious cult (taken as a manifestation of the divine), he reveals the ‘manifestation’ as human art. He is beaten up and thrown out – for blasphemy. Appupen suggests that only a complete abandonment of rational process can produce faith, religion or cultic devotion. Anything can become God, or godly, given the right circumstances and the right rhetoric. But Appupen’s most trenchant satire revolves around the violence that faith incites, inspires and relies on. In Aspyrus a ‘dreamer’ first builds a house to accommodate his dream. As the dream grows like an organic thing, he builds a city. This ‘Dream City’ (as the signposts announce it) then becomes the residence for the people of the city but none of whom can find their dreams. The Dreamer ‘showed them their dreams’ and then they all lived happily. The city grows and the dream itself – a monstrous, lizard-like creature – travels the world and becomes a significant cultural artefact. Then artists began to make ‘tributes to the dream’, and some claim to be its ‘creator’. The Dreamer is shocked and scandalized and has to ‘remind’ them that it was his dream. The residents of the city ‘laughed at him’ and threw him out, ‘as a mad dreamer’. In both these tales Appupen works out an allegory for organized religion and social imaginaries. In the first he demonstrates the violence inhabiting religious faiths and belief systems. In the second he points to the subversion of belief by commercialism (the artists who begin to paint the Dream) and invented origin-stories. The grotesque lies in the cross-species identities of most creatures in the valley, the ‘teethy’ nature of all life forms, the anthropomorphic trees and, of course, the absurdity of statue-making. This is also magical because it relies on marvellous and supernatural elements, and the very process of transformation: clouds that seem to possess teeth, leaves that carry, fractally, the image of a human face (creatures with misshapen heads are some of Appupen’s specials). The grotesque enables us to see multiple layers of reality that Brancaco proposes. Appupen shows that the marvellous magic of fabled beasts, ‘dreams’ and dream cities generated by religion or art or belief quietens people and beasts. This is the apparent, peaceful organization of people and places around beliefs, icons and imaginaries. The surface meaning revolves around the myth, as Appupen sees it, of community feeling and bonding: everybody shares a dream in ‘Dream City’ (Aspyrus) or faith (Moonward). But beneath this apparent calm and bonding is another layer of reality which is violent, fraudulent and tyrannical. The ‘founder’ of religions is mocked and driven out – a reference to the ‘prophet mocked in his own village’ theme – and followers
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Figure 5.6 Appupen, Moonward®: Stories from Halahala. Chennai: Blaft, 2011. Unpaginated.
of rival beliefs constantly bicker, often with violent actions accompanying them, among themselves. Thus the tension lies in the coexistence of magical harmony and violence, desire and death, in the Appupen texts. The twisted visages and the snarling mouths of the ‘believers’ function as this second layer of reality by an emphasis on what Marita Nadal has termed
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the ‘blunt physicality’ of the grotesque (2004: 457). The ‘magical’ part of the magical grotesque foregrounds the magical, the other-worldly (the creatures from dreams, from the heavens) and the social imaginary of faith, desire or achievement. But the grotesque of the magical grotesque returns this magicality to the corporeal or the demonic to suggest a ‘base’ nature underlying the performance of faith and belief. I propose that Appupen’s magical grotesque functions as a satire because it reveals constantly how the supposed divinity, unity, communitarianism and quiescence are undergirded by potentially violent bodies or uncontrollable demonic forces. Appupen stages, I further propose, a dialectic between the abstractions of faith and its supposed powers and the ‘blunt physicality’ of life forms, the latter’s incipient violence being only temporarily held in check by the belief system. As satire, Appupen’s texts ponder over the wisdom of believing that organized social imaginaries can overcome the inherent violence of cultures and peoples. In another story in Moonward Appupen satirizes the consumer cultures of the late twentieth century through a particularly horrific tale. The young boy who seeks the ‘Supa Cola’ embarks on the ‘Race of Life’. As he proceeds up the tower’s stairs his visage contorts, partly with the effort of climbing but also with the determination and ruthlessness that, Appupen suggests, marks the contemporary consumer. He takes a knife from a dead man lying on the stairs, and continues on. He stops to strike deals with a man who owns a bicycle and ends up killing the man – by putting a knife through his latter’s throat. Appupen comments on the ruthlessness of the young boy willing to murder for success in the rat race, for a drink of the cola. The brutality of the actions he commits is incommensurate with the prize at end of the race. The grotesque lies in the twisted nature of consumption – the hype around the abilities of the drink, the desperation of the consumers and, of course, the incommensurate nature of process and product. Beneath the consumer culture is the absurdity of the race and the violence drawn out from within the consumers’ selves. The twisted visages and corporeal deformities of the consumers chasing Supa Cola are grotesque variants, or manifestations, of the reality of violence lurking inside the human. The resultant revulsion we experience when we see the boy’s unrelenting pursuit is the effect of the grotesque juxtaposition of desire with death and cruelty. In Act II of Aspyrus, the boy from the forest chases a fairy-tale animal and ends up in a city. Here he experiences his first consumer desires – for Supa Cola, as advertised by a woman. That she sprouts wings as well in the advertisement is something to be considered – for it indicates the mixture of species characteristic of the grotesque in Geoffrey Harpham’s argument. He tracks her down, and they have a very brief romance. After a night together when he brings her tea in bed he again sees the fairy-tale bird
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Figure 5.7 Appupen, Moonward®: Stories from Halahala. Chennai: Blaft, 2011. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2014. Unpaginated.
and runs out, leaving the girl in the house. We are then shown the man being a grand success as an entrepreneur yet always seeing somebody else he needs to acquire or conquer, in ‘Fairwell Fairness and Wellness cream’
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and other advertisements. The same girl, it appears, is on several product biographies and brand stories. The satire here is particularly vitriolic and mocks the culture of screens: there are pages with TV sets piled floor to ceiling, screens everywhere, and one where a sari advertisement has been nailed to a mountainside (the advert announces a ‘50 % off’, and depicts a half-naked woman with half her sari lying unwound on the ground, thus forcing us to ask whether the ‘50% off’ refers to a price discount or to the 50% of the sari being ‘off the woman’s body). The grotesque here is the chase by the young man of the fabulous beast (which might even be the product of his imagination). The mixing of reality with the fables of advertising is what the grotesque achieves here by way of ‘category confusion’ and sheer incoherence of the man’s narrative. The man with the girl chases after a strange animal in the sky. Romance also is satirized in Appupen’s Legends of Halahala. In his reworking of the Romeo and Juliet story, the prince’s arrow carrying his letter to Juliet kills Juliet’s mother, the Queen (the two kingdoms are on two hills facing each other). In anger Juliet’s father shoots an arrow that kills Romeo’s mother. In the resultant war, the armies of each side rush down the hill to battle each other. Deaths mount and the valley between the hills fills up with dead bodies. Finally, the kings themselves face off and kill each other. Then comes the ultimate grotesque, situated within the register of the ridiculous sublime. Romeo says ‘pssst’ from his tower. In the next panel we see Romeo and Juliet walking over the sea of dead bodies and kissing under the blood-red moon. Appupen’s grotesque situates romance flourishing in the midst of extreme violence and massacre. The cumulative effect of the images of violence and ‘triumphant’ romance is not admiration but revulsion when the lovers kiss standing on the bodies of their countrymen and their fathers. Appupen’s tales of love, loss or desire are allegories cast in the language of the grotesque. Stella Butter, following the work of C. W. Thomsen, has proposed that the grotesque might be seen as a form of representing postmodern lives (2007: 336). Given that Appupen merges worlds and multiple realities, one could perhaps make a case for the tales being representative of postmodern lives. However, I propose, the Appupen grotesque works through a merger of categories. Love and death come together in the Legends of Halahala tale, just as consumerism and violence come together in the Moonward tale. If cultural dichotomies are blurred in the grotesque (Butter 2007: 338–9) Appupen work is set at the heart of the grotesque. Appupen thus, at least in these tales, exposes social monstrosities via the aesthetics of the grotesque. The tales of consumption and romance become therefore ghoulish tales of obsession and cruelty because in every case
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Appupen reveals the demonic beneath the social and psychological, mythic and corporeal dimensions of life. *** Graphic satire in Appupen, Sarnath Banerjee, Gautam Bhatia and other practitioners might be read as an extension of the political critique mounted in Bhimayana, Delhi Calm, A Gardener in the Wasteland and other texts that were discussed in the preceding chapter, albeit in a wholly new register. The satiric mode also offers us alternative views of Indian history, culture and society, but with the purported aim of making us smile and laugh. Through exaggeration, the ridiculous sublime and the grotesque we come to see the chinks in our cultural identity. In this the graphic satire is a crucial mode in contributing to our cultural literacy and self-critique.
Notes 1 Medhurst and Desousa note that graphic rhetoric relies heavily on the enthymematic form. The artist utilizes the beliefs, values and attitudes of his audience and the audience has to participate in the form (204–5). Enthymeme is a rhetorical strategy (elaborated by Aristotle) where the basic premise is not offered directly to the reader, and which the reader needs to discern from the sentence. It is usually associated with syllogistic reasoning. In visual language, we extract the basic assumption when we read the signs – the assumption and ‘truth’ is always only implied. 2 The grotesque exists where there is a tension between mirth and horror, high seriousness and the ludicrous (Barasch 1971). Wolfgang Kayser famously argued that the grotesque is an attempt to ‘invite and subdue the demonic aspects of the world’ (1963: 188). Appupen’s work seems readily adaptable to this reading – for demons lurk beneath the real in almost every tale he crafts. But what is also fascinating about Appupen’s work is his ready willingness to reveal the demonic in natural formations like waves (Aspyrus has some particularly stunning depictions of dinosaur-like waves, with of course plenty of teeth), clouds, trees, rocks and landscapes. Appupen’s Halahala is a place ready to bite, to transform itself into a predator.
Conclusion THE GRAPHIC NARRATIVE AND CRITICAL LITERACY
This book has treated the graphic narratives as an artefact of public culture. It remains a truism that this ‘public culture’ is restricted to the upper- and upwardly mobile classes of metropolitan India, with a considerable investment in the English language as a means of social and cultural empowerment. Thus, the claim Karline McClain makes about Amar Chitra Katha’s readership – those who speak and read English, are of urban backgrounds and possess a global outlook (2009: 7) – applies to the graphic narrative as well. The high costs of the graphic narrative and their very medium (English) determine the scope of the audience and readership in India. That said, however, it should also be noted that the graphic narrative feeds into an increasingly visually educated readership with a marked preference for the visual over the verbal. Even as it calls its own efficacy and modes of narrativizing into question the graphic narrative fits into an age when visual literacy trumps the verbal. The graphic narrative in English, a medium embodying the global popular today, performs serious cultural work in that it enables the making of a critical literacy. Critical literacy is central to the ‘performative’ counter to ‘pedagogic’ histories (Bhabha 1995) in rupturing the received narratives, histories and ‘truths’ about India. Sandria Freitag’s argument that civil society’s informal activities – as opposed to the state’s – especially in the realm of popular visual culture, often challenge the actions of the nationstate (2003: 389), along with the Bhabha notion of the performative contribution to our understanding of the graphic narrative’s role. Critical literacy invites readers to take up the ideology of a text, but it also examines the assumptions of the authors and readers, involving readers as active participants in the reading process. Critical literacy is also localized (Boatright 2010). It is the graphic narrative’s adoption of popular-populist regimes of the verbal-visual (or image-text) that constitutes a radicalization of form, even as it contributes to a critical literacy about casteism, atrocity, child abuse, genocide, skewed development processes and human rights. Critical
literacy forces the reader, through the use of narratives and autobiographies, to link personal experiences with socio-historical and institutional power relations. It uses other texts about contemporary historical realities to reflect on issues of otherness. It also uses multimodal (visual plus verbal) semiotic strategies where multilingual and multiregister texts are used in multilingual classrooms (Morgan and Ramanathan 2005; Chun 2009). Critical literacy sees texts as situated within unequal social fields – caste, patriarchy, capitalism – and demands that the reader become alert (called ‘meta-awareness’, Ramanathan 2002) to the position she takes vis-á-vis not just the text but the social domains represented in it. It refuses to see the reader–text relation as that of subject (reader) and object (text), but sees all subjects as subjectsin-process, where reading the text produces the reader. So the question one needs to ask when reading the graphic narrative Hush (child abuse), River of Stories (development) or Bhimayana (caste) or The Harappa Files (contemporary India) is: what kind of subject is produced by a text that makes casteism or abuse the prominent feature of the social order? The demotic register of the graphic narrative (even in the elite medium of the verbal-visual interface and cast in the English language) brings complex social issues into visibility and ‘cultural legibility’ (Slaughter 2007). If cultural legibility is the narratological – representational – foundation of human rights (Slaughter 2007), it demands and implies a popular acceptance of the norms, values and belief systems about human rights through the consumption of these narratives. In the case of the USA, studies have shown that genres like the graphic novel have empowered teachers by combining ‘recreational reading’ and ‘advanced themes in literature and visual literacy’ (Seyfried 2008: 45; Yang 2008). It is this conflation of the popular with the critique (or the critique within the popular) that enables the cultural legibility of contentious social issues, and bestows upon concerns about human rights, which are otherwise debated mainly in the realm of the legal-juridical, a cultural legitimacy. The critical literacy engendered by the graphic narrative has several interrelated components. It first refuses the primacy of the verbal language, engaging us through both the visual and verbal vocabularies of the text. This might seem like a truism to place at the end of a book on the graphic narrative, but I have a larger point to make. ‘It seems to me that comics have already shifted from being an icon of illiteracy to becoming one of the last bastions of literacy,’ Art Spiegelman said in a 1995 interview (cited in Chute, ‘Comics as Literature’ 2008: 460). This new literacy generated by this medium is not simply the combination of the visual and the verbal, but a critical literacy. Perhaps the single most enduring legacy the reader inherits by way of a critical literacy when consuming the graphic narrative is the way History
is delivered. In Chapter Two, I drew attention to the several features of the graphic narrative that by merging public and personal histories, the combination of the documentary and aesthetic modes and the careful ‘positioning’ in panels alerts us to the mediated nature of all historical representation. Unlike the authoritative, definitive, ‘pedagogic’ histories of textbooks or official documentation, the graphic narrative tells us that there is no History outside modes of representation. Hillary Chute writes: The graphic narrative accomplishes this work [of the textualization of context and contextualization of text] with its manifest handling of its own artifice, its attention to its seams. Its formal grammar rejects transparency and renders textualization conspicuous, inscribing the context in its graphic presentation. . . . The most important graphic narratives explore the conflicted boundaries of what can be said and what can be shown at the inter section of collective histories and life stories. (‘Comics as Literature’ 2008: 458–9) Every graphic narrative dealing with historical events studied in this book achieves precisely this, as I hope I have shown. The mediated nature of storytelling tells us that there is no ‘natural’ or ‘objective’ history-writing. It makes sure we understand that neither the documentary nor the aesthetics are entirely reliable, or dominant, modes of ‘telling history’ or delivering a commentary on the contemporary. If the grotesque serves Appupen’s purpose of satirizing contemporary consumer culture, graphic dissonance performs the task of unravelling traditional history and cultural traditions in Bhimayana and A Gardener in the Wasteland. This layering of the narrative is what makes the graphic text such a crucial player in alerting us to the problematic domain of representations – whether of the past or present, oppressive traditions or reform. The graphic narrative thus refuses to privilege even itself as offering the next new definitive medium of telling the story. Even as it worries us with the self-reflexivity of representing history, the graphic narrative makes sure that multiple and silent histories, personal and public histories visibly jostle for space and our readerly attention in the graphic narrative. Graphic narratives like Delhi Calm or Bhimayana or the satiric Lie show us the misfit between the individual and the abstract entity of the nation. Commentators like Monica Chiu have proposed that the graphic narrative, especially in the postcolonial context, reveals the ‘narrative and visual contest between individuals’ yearning for national belonging and a bitter critique of the nation to which the protagonists belong . . . illustrating how the protagonists are both resistant to and dependent upon nationality for identity’ (2008: 99). By visualizing the marginal, even if in
the form of fictionalized marginality, a certain tension between the desire for belonging and the impossibility of it is foregrounded. Such a cultural legibility of these other histories constitutes the central component of the critical literacy that the graphic narrative demands of us. By visibilizing microhistories, the graphic narrative tells us that it is not enough to think in terms of national and universal chronicles. It is how such a national event, process or policy affects the individual and the family that we need to juxtapose against the grand narrative. The empanelling of these microhistories brings this home to us. The detailing of stories of individual survivors, refugees, displaced and marginalized – the microhistories – enables the graphic narrative to develop a new language of human rights. Richard Wilson writing about human rights coverage in the media and in texts like the Amnesty Reports notes that such writing is ‘minimalist’, and ‘strips events of their subjective meanings’ when they cast them into ‘objective legal facts’ (2009: 209). Wilson argues that it is therefore necessary to ‘restore to accounts of political violence both the surrounding social relations and an associated range of subjective meanings’ (2009: 209). Such a ‘restoration’ of subjective meanings is possible through the use of a popular register, the graphic narrative. Bhimayana contributes to a postcolonial critical literacy because it enables the circulation of stories in a medium and form that draws upon the existing interocular field. The personal narrative folding into (but not blurring) the social-historical in a popular format creates a new story space where we begin to see a history of violations, a history otherwise available in UN tracts or sociological studies (Nayar 2012c). The graphic narrative opens up the popular cultural realm to serious human rights discourses. The cultural is the space where human rights are staged for common consumption. It is the domain where an implicit discursive operation of human rights – equal rights, human dignity, protection against torture – can be discerned in narratives of violations, abuse and rights-denial. The culture of human rights strengthens and expands the moral project of human rights when literature and cinema trigger the moral imagination of listeners and viewers about the fate of Dalits, genocide victims, the destitute and the abused. It is in popular representations such as Bhimayana’s or Hush that the essential critical literacy about human rights originates. I am proposing here that a postcolonial critical literacy about the need for human rights, the historical abuse of certain social groups and the urgent need for reforms is best articulated in the demotic register with its vernacular, non-official, everyday life and stories in a supposedly ‘non-serious’ medium such as the graphic narrative. Seeing Ambedkar’s suffering face, the traumatized victim of child abuse, the agony of the refugee in the space of the panel forces us to look into the eyes of the disempowered. This has two possible effects. One, as Wendy Kozol
has proposed in her reading of Joe Sacco’s Palestine, it enacts a ‘pedagogical model of ethical spectatorship’ (2012: 167) that teaches us that we should be uneasy with our looking, examine our motives for looking and be aware of our own complicity in what Brister and Walzer have termed ‘circuits of spectatorship’ (2013: 141). We too are onlookers, looking at the suffering Other, the disenfranchised Other. A second possible effect of this visualization of the disenfranchised might read ‘off’ from the work on video testimonies. In works like Bhimayana we are drawn to the eyes that inform everything – from trees to humans, from animals to railway tracks. Frontal views of the human face with two eyes looking out are restricted to the visage of Ambedkar alone. The subtext of the narrative is clear: we are forced to see untouchability and the heinousness of the discriminatory caste system through the wide-eyed Dalits (including Ambedkar) in the text. We witness through the eyes of the discriminated Other in this visual narrative. Mary Marshall Clark (2005) writes in her discussion of video testimonies of Holocaust survivors: ‘It is not possible to turn away from the telling [of the survivor] without breaking the gaze with the one who has suffered; this breakage perhaps risks losing a part of ourselves’ (271). There is a form of compelling witnessing we experience when we look into the eyes of the victim on our screen, even though we know that the gazes (both victim’s and ours) are mediated (Nayar 2012c: 18–19). Judith Butler, writing via Emanuel Levinas, says: ‘To respond to the face, to understand its meaning, means to be awake to what is precarious in another life, or rather the precariousness of life itself’ (2004). But Butler is also alert to the displacement of the face: Here the term ‘face’ operates as a catachresis: ‘face’ describes the human back, the craning of the neck, the raising of the shoulder blades like ‘springs’. And these bodily parts, in turn, are said to cry and to sob and to scream, as if they were a face or, rather, a face with a mouth, a throat, or indeed, just a mouth and throat from which vocalizations emerge that do not settle into words. The face is to be found in the back and the neck, but it is not quite a face. The sounds that come from or through the face are agonized, suffering. (133) And again, later: ‘so the face makes various utterances at once: it bespeaks an agony, an injurability, at the same time that it bespeaks a divine prohibition against killing’ (135).Given the very nature of the graphic narrative, we look into the face of the injured, the precarious life of the Other. Ambedkar’s questions about society, staring out of the pages at us, are directed at us, the readers, even as his own immediate status is precarious:
evicted from his hotel room, threatened by other communities, alone and friendless. In the tales in This Side, That Side, photographs of refugees have them looking out at us from the frame of the photograph and the page. In such cases we encounter the face of the Other, the disenfranchised, the victim. It is in this engaging glance, look, stare and gaze of the disenfranchised and the traumatized in the graphic narrative’s visual vocabulary that a new apparatus of witnessing comes into existence, and one that forces our emerging critical literacy to ‘see’ in an ethico-political way. This model of ethical spectatorship born of critical literacy and witnessing is the starting point for the increased role of the popular medium of comics in discourses of rights and social justice even as it cautions us against any easy interpretations of representations. Globally, the graphic trauma and distress narrative has come a long way from the work of Spiegelman’s ‘touchstone text’, Maus (as Hillary Chute calls it, ‘Comics as Literature’ 2008: 457), with the biographies of Martin Luther King (Ho Che Anderson’s King), narratives of Vietnam War (Aaron Stewart’s The Other Side), comics journalism (Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, Palestine), the disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Nakazawa Keiji’s Barefoot Gen), sexual identities (Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Are You My Mother?), disease narratives (David B.’s Epileptic, David Small’s Stitches) and genocide (J.-P. Stassen’s Deogratias). Writing about foreign comics and their circulation-consumption in the West Juan Meneses makes a serious case for reading transnationally: I propose this examination of locality and foreignness in the context of comics studies as a starting point to re-evaluate approaches of equal political importance such as those we find in postcolonial or global studies in order to keep pushing the boundaries of the comics studies discipline. In particular, the inter-national third space I have discussed here has great potential to tackle questions related to narrative and political representation, migration and diasporas, war, armed conflicts, and other social and cultural aspects that often manifest across the boundaries of nations but primarily emerge within them. (2014: 66) In similar fashion Gretchen Schwarz and Christina Crenshaw propose that graphic novel as bildungsroman can ‘address diversity issues in thoughtful and engaging ways’, if we assume diversity is a developmental task among adolescents (2011: 49). The Indian graphic narrative must be seen as a part of this global ‘graphic turn’ to stories of disaster, disease, deprivation and displacement, stories that constitute the foundational texts of global campaigns for rights,
equality and an end to suffering. Thus, the Indian graphic narrative is poised to become a part of the global popular, taking specific local contexts and conditions of casteism or abuse via a globally hypervisible and widely recognized medium, onto the world readership screens. In addition the graphic narrative makes it imperative that other texts, stories and modes of storytelling severely undermine the dominant literary and cultural productions of, say, official histories and add a new medium, mode of representation and way of reading in Indian Writing in English (IWE). In this, as Michael Chaney has argued in the case of African American graphic narratives, we can discern the outlines of a ‘re-politicization’ (2007: 182). This re-politicization is made possible through not only the making available, in the demotic register of the graphic narrative, radical works like Ambedkar’s or Jotiba Phule’s or problematic personal stories of the Partition, but also inserting these into the cultural productions and the canon of IWE. The canon of IWE, whether in the form of syllabi and pedagogic texts or leisure reading, needs to be expanded through these texts cast in the popular medium but carrying alternate histories and reformist politics. What I see as the scope of ‘re-politicization’ is precisely this textual expansion to suit contemporary (urban) India’s reading tastes, popular cultural forms and politics. As literature the graphic novel with its visual-verbal combination offers a greater degree of intensity, identification and empathy with staring faces, tortured faces and restricted bodies. It forces the reader to take a position, and to acknowledge the social fields from within which she reads. As alert readers developing a sense of critical literacy we also recognize in works like Bhimayana, Delhi Calm, Drawing the Line, A Gardener in the Wasteland and some of the texts in The Harappa Files the urgent need to develop a cultural public sphere constituted by multiple forms of storytelling, where alternate, radical and personal stories of victimage, oppression and deprivation jostle for space with ‘national’ narratives of progress, equality, democracy, freedom and development. At the beginning of Chapter Five I cited Joseph Slaughter and Paul Gready on the necessity of storytelling for the layering (storey-ing) of public space. I now return to Slaughter’s field-defining work (Human Rights, Inc., 2007) in order to add another element to the components of the critical literacy I have been elaborating here. Slaughter proposes that a ‘disruption in the mechanics of the public sphere rends the social story texture that makes meaningful personal narratives possible’ (159). He suggests that ‘assaults’ on the public sphere like censorship and restrictions on free speech not only ‘degrade’ the social texture but also limit the ‘possibilities of its reproduction’ (159). The ignorance we see in one of the interlocutors at the opening of Bhimayana and the homogenized silencing of opinion in Delhi Calm are two instances that reveal to us the necessity of keeping the public space of storytelling open
to multiple stories. An ignorance born of not having access to these other stories or the censorship of alternate histories forces us to examine how a ‘narrative society’ – that understands itself as narrative – can be made receptive to these other stories, while the obverse is also true. Jeffrey Brown (2001) in his pioneering study of black superheroes from Milestone comics has noted how fans work in cooperation with the producers so that new ‘archetypes’ of superheroes emerge in the canon. Brown proposes that the nature of reception can alter the course and content of specific artefacts of cultural production, especially when the recipients and consumers (readers) are members of the historically marginalized and disempowered groups. I interpret this to mean: keeping the space open for stories but also the consumption of stories as central to the production of even more such stories. Together these are key factors in constituting a public space. Such a narrative society demands new attention-grabbing forms that through powerful visual vocabularies (such as the ones discussed here) highlight the practice of storytelling and history-writing that then generate fascinating content. Critical literacies then would involve paying attention to those structures and strictures of the public sphere that inhibit or encourage the telling of stories. The graphic medium, as I hope I have shown, does precisely this. By calling attention to its own mechanics it shows us that the larger mechanics of storytelling in our culture is something we as a narrative society seeking greater democratization need to worry about. The democratizing of form that the graphic narrative represents is thus a cause for reflecting on how we as a nation, as a public, tell stories and histories to ourselves. Thus, it is essential to see popular forms and their demotic registers as enabling the culturalization of the public sphere, opening it up to concerns, debates and campaigns about rights, historical wrongs and emancipatory possibilities. The culturalization of the public sphere is not simply the arrival of the lingua franca of human rights or processes of ‘transitional justice’ (as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions elsewhere have been termed) in the public sphere but the seeping into everyday reading and commonplace cognizance of the history of wrongs. Lynn Hunt in her Inventing Human Rights: A History (2007) makes the point that it was the arrival and widespread dissemination of the sentimental novel – a popular form – in eighteenth-century Europe that enabled the making of a social imaginary of ‘personhood’ but also of equality. Thus the political dimension of human rights that was built on the notion of the person or the individual was produced and reaffirmed when the general populace read fictional characters and their sentiments as ‘persons’. In similar fashion, I make the claim here that it is the cultural artefact of the graphic narrative that enables the creation of a larger social imaginary of historical wrongs, the need to redress these wrongs, the faults in our social and cultural fabric and the crisis of identity.
Commentators like Ben Lander (2005) and Spencer Clark (2013) have made claims about the enormous potential graphic narratives have for the history classroom, arguing that the students understand historical agency, structure and historiographic practices in this new medium. Immigrant experiences (Boatright 2010), global conflict and peace work (Christensen 2006), social issues (Schwarz 2007) might be studied differently through the introduction of the graphic narrative beside the novel, the play or the Amnesty Report. Graphic narratives might pose, argues Marc Singer, a serious challenge to the linguistic turn in cultural theory (2008), and therefore would offer an interesting pedagogic tool to question several of the assumptions about signification this theory relies on. The quantum of research on pedagogy and the graphic novel the world over suggests that the medium has been central to re-envisioning literacy, reading practices and theory for some time now. One could envisage a similar shift in India as well. Examining pedagogic practices in multicultural classrooms in India as its universities and colleges seek global ranking and recognition, one could perhaps consider what the graphic narrative adds to the Literature (but by no means only Literature) classrooms. Much research remains to be done on how this medium changes the way we talk about things we have talked about for some time now (the inventory of topics in the first part of this paragraph is not unique to Western classrooms and has been constitutive of critical debates in postcolonial Literature and Social Science classrooms as well). Just as IWE enables us to engage with debates and concerns around nationhood, regionalism, urbanization, persistent social inequalities and evils, the graphic narrative offers us a significant new form in which these same debates can be represented and studied. It should be clear, then, that I am claiming for the Indian graphic narrative a singular role in enabling the visibilizing of other histories, the satirical critique of contemporary Indian realities, the circulation of human rights discourses and the possibility of new pedagogic and interpretive practices in discussing these themes. The critical literacy that makes all the above possible is the cumulative effect of the formal properties of the medium, its aesthetic innovations and its complicated combination of registers, many of which this book has unravelled. In the complicated yet increasingly popular register of the graphic narrative and the critical literacy it calls for, the culturalization of the public sphere it produces, perhaps, lies the new lingua franca of empathy, justice and human rights.
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Ahmed, Naseer and Saurabh Singh. Kashmir Pending 85 – 6, 96, 102 anthropocene visuality 69 – 72 antiquarian uncanny 50 – 8; see also urban Gothic Appupen. Legends of Halahala 183 – 8 Appupen. Moonward 183 – 6 Banerjee, Sarnath. The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers 15 – 17, 49, 53, 89 – 91, 177 – 82 Banerjee, Sarnath. Corridor 51 – 5 Banerjee, Sarnath. The Harappa Files 51, 75, 76, 80 – 4, 87 – 9, 91 – 2, 96 – 9, 102, 156 – 7, 162 – 6, 172 – 4, 176 – 7 Bhatia, Gautam. LIE 156, 157 – 8, 161 – 2, 166 – 7, 171, 181 – 2 critical literacy 8 – 10, 14, 18 – 19, 31, 46, 76 – 7, 81, 83, 94, 100 – 2, 110, 112 – 14, 117 – 18, 135 – 6, 141, 151 – 2, 158, 191 – 9 Emergency see Ghosh, Delhi Calm exaggeration 155 – 6, 167, 176 – 9 Ghosh, Vishwajyoti. Delhi Calm 24 – 33, 72 – 5, 77, 84 – 5, 92 – 3, 102, 129 – 30, 172, 175 – 6 Ghosh, Vishwajyoti. This Side, That Side 17 – 23, 33 – 6, 38 – 43, 148 – 50 graphic commentary 161 – 72 graphic contradictions 172 – 4 graphic dissonance 130 – 5 graphic narrative (definitions) 5 – 7
grotesque 30, 61, 77 (n.5), 118, 121, 122, 135, 155, 176 – 89 gynaecological Gothic 63 – 9 history and irony 116 – 18 humanization 174 – 6 indigent sublime 33 – 8 intercultural history 115 – 16 microhistories of the unspeakable 142 – 51 mimetic approximation 30 – 3 multiple temporalities 111 – 22 Natarajan, Srividya and S. Anand. Bhimayana 109, 131 – 2, 134 – 41, 151, 153 (n.6), 183, 193, 194, 195 – 7 Natarajan, Srividya and Aparajita Ninan. A Gardener in the Wasteland 9, 110, 112 – 15, 117 – 23, 127 – 29, 134, 151 – 2 national character 72 – 6 Obliterary Journal, Vols.1 & 2 69 – 72, 156, 167 – 71 other bodies in history 118 – 22 Pao Anthology of Comics I 25 – 6, 93 – 6, 100 – 1, 158 – 60 paratexts and metalepsis 24 – 30 parergons 89 – 96 Patil, Amruta. ‘Atlantis’ 69 – 72
Patil, Amruta. Kari 50, 59 – 61, 62 – 9, 76 postmemory 38 – 46 psychogeography 50, 53, 58 – 61, 72, 74 – 6 public history/personal stories 21 – 3 reframing the archive 122 – 30 revelation 179 – 89 Sen, Orijit. The River of Stories 111 – 12, 116 – 17
spectral geographies (of the self) 58 – 61 stereoscopy 96 – 101 tableaux vivant 87 – 9 Thomas, Pratheek and Rajiv Eipe. Hush 9, 142 – 8 urban Gothic 50 – 61; see also antiquarian uncanny witness 14, 18, 34, 44 – 5, 66, 68, 90 – 1, 96, 134, 138, 147, 152, 195 – 6