A Graphic novel about the Northeast

From Parismita Singh’s work in progress, a graphic novel set in the Kokrajhar area. (Image source: mochaarthouse.com)

Quite a few books by writers belonging to (or having connections with) the Northeast have been published recently. Some of the writing may be mediocre but original, even brilliant, work has emerged. Parismita Singh’s graphic novel The Hotel at the End of the World (2009) belongs to the latter category.

Teachers and parents sometimes scold children for reading comics because they think it leads to dullness. Luckily for me, neither at school nor at home was I forbidden to read them. So I grew up on a healthy diet: Phantom (which used to appear in the Assam Tribune), Archie (my first introduction to American life), Superman, Spiderman, Commando Comics, Amar Chitra Katha, Mad, Asterix and Tin Tin. My parents rarely read them. But on one occasion their enthusiasm exceeded mine. This was when Phantom and Diana got married.

I grew up and so did comics. While I became an adult, comic books became ‘graphic novels’. I have read a few. I found Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2004) every bit as impressive as I had been led to believe they were. Others, like Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta (2008), I thought overrated.

But I am no expert on comics. Most of what I know (or think I know) comes from Scott McCloud’s excellent book Understanding Comics. The book’s subtitle is apt – The Invisible Art. Understanding Comics makes you aware of the sophistication that lies behind this familiar but sadly undervalued genre. Brilliantly using the comic book format, McCloud discusses critical and theoretical issues, and offers a definition of what constitutes a comic: ‘Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer’. He makes the fascinating point that cartoons work because, having only a vague or sketchy impression of our faces when we talk to others, we project ourselves into them. The ‘gutter’ – the space between two panels – facilitates closure. Comics make sophisticated use of time. A panel may seem to represent a moment but could in fact compress several. Comics thus place an ‘interpretive burden’ on the reader just as high art is supposed to do. McCloud also discusses how Japanese manga art has developed differently from American comics. European comic art is different too (better use of colour material whereas American comics tend to be basic for reasons of cost).

Parismita Singh was born in 1980 in Biswanath Chariali, Assam. She went to Mayo School for Girls, Ajmer and St Stephen’s College, Delhi. Her drawing talent emerged at Stephen’s where she produced cartoons for the college year book. Her graphic art has appeared in Tehelka and the Sarai reader Turbulence and her story ‘Pema Tsering tells a Story’ in The Little Magazine. The Hotel at the End of the World is her first graphic novel. I wish the Widener had a copy but since it doesn’t I am relying on memory in writing what follows.

The location is clearly the Northeast, though no place is specifically named. Parismita’s Northeast is rainier, sadder and more remote (the title is significant) than the one I know. The text is hybrid as are the names of the characters: Pema, Kona, Kuja etc. Northeast writing is often political even when not overtly so. The floating island that breaks off because it does not wish to be embroiled in the war that has come to its doorstep can of course be read as a political allegory. There is a particularly impressive story of a Japanese soldier fighting in the jungles (the Second World War was fought in Nagaland and Manipur, a fact we seem to have forgotten). Parismita draws on oral story telling traditions; the stories have the uncanny wisdom and haunting quality of folk tales. The art work is in black and white as in the Commando comics (one of the characters in the book is shown reading a Commando comic) rather than the more arty work preferred by Amruta Patil, the creator of the Kari graphic novel. (Patil’s artwork in Kari is a mix of marker, crayon, watercolour, collage, and ballpoint pen. She also quotes famous paintings). There are similarities with the work of Sarnath Banerjee (Corridor, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, and The Harappa Files) – though Banerjee also uses other media like photographs. The influence of Buddhist thangka art is evident in the geometric patterns and flaming forms used in some sections of the narrative.

There are very few graphic novelists in India, the genre itself being a nascent one.  So it is good to learn that Parismita is working on a second graphic novel, this time for young adults, set in the Kokrajhar area. As a way of celebrating Parismita’s art, I have reproduced above a panel from her work in progress.

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UPDATE (18/7/12):  Alas, I posted the wrong image. Here is a link to Parismita Singh’s new work http://www.pyrtajournal.com/#!__spring-march-2012/sketches

Ray Bradbury. R.I.P.

Ray Bradbury has died. I read almost everything but, for some reason, science fiction leaves me cold. So I came to Bradbury’s famous novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) late (I read it last year). It made a real impression on me.

This dystopian novel can be aligned with other famous works featuring book burning like Don Quixote and Jean Rhy’s ‘The Day They Burned the Books’. Fahrenheit 451 (to quote that unimpeachable academic source Wikipedia) is about ‘a future American society in which the masses are hedonistic and critical thought through reading is outlawed’. That’s interesting for two reasons: (1) the book is a defense of books and reading (more needed now in the age of the internet, social networking, and mass media) and (2) unlike Walter Benjamin, who thought technology would lead to a more progressive art and society, Ray Bradbury thought the opposite. In a 2007 interview, Bradbury said that the book explored the effects of television and mass media on the reading of literature. That puts him on the same side as Wordsworth (the Preface where he talked of the cheap sensationalism of Gothic novels) and Marxists like Frederic Jameson.

I was particularly impressed by Bradbury’s prescient depiction of Mildred Montag’s immersion in ‘an electronic ocean of sound’ through the little Seashells or tiny radios clamped to her ears. When I came to Boston earlier this year, travelling by subway was a little disorienting for me:  I wondered about the immersion of my fellow passengers in their IPods or IPhones and their brutal indifference to their surroundings and the guy sitting next to them. Mildred also watches programs on her large TV screen (think of our Indian homes). Bradbury’s critique of the anti-intellectual, hedonistic American society he depicts has a social dimension (the novel was written in the Cold War, post-World War II era):

We’ve started and won two atomic wars since 2022! Is it because we are having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumors; the world is starving, but we’re well fed.

When I read this, I couldn’t but relate it to contemporary India where we (the middle classes) are so delighted with our new prosperity (of course shining India has lost much of its sheen lately) that no one any longer talks of the poor. (I’d have to add the caveat that socialist India may have been hypocritical in its concern for the poor).

My favourite quote from Fahrenheit 451 is: ‘There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; …You don’t stay for nothing’.

Indian-American Kids and the National Spelling Bee

Yet another American-Indian kid has won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Snigdha Nandipati, who won the 85th edition on Thursday (May 31), is the fifth consecutive Indian-American to do so. Since 1999 when Nupur Lala won it for the first time – she became the subject of a documentary, Spellbound – ten Indian-American kids have won the competition. Snigdha’s closest competitors in the finals were also American-Indians: Stuti Mishra (who came second) and Arvind Mahankali (in third place). In 1993 the winner had to spell ‘kamikaze’, a familiar word. But on Thursday, Snigdha won by correctly spelling ‘guetapens’, a word that I (for one) had never heard of.

I confess to feeling a nationalistic thrill while watching the finals. So it was interesting to me that Amardeep Singh (whose blog I like and follow) feels ambivalent about Indian-American kids doing well in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But then our backgrounds and locations are different. It is true that there is nothing in Indian ‘culture’ to explain the success of kids like Snigdha; nor is there a tradition of holding English language spelling bees in India. The Indian-American dominance however has a lot to do with the fact that English continues to have the mystique of an aspirational language in India.

In an essay on Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, Amitav Ghosh wrote about an incident which occurred  in a bus stuck in a Calcutta traffic jam. A  frustrated passenger began to complain that nothing worked in the city. He was silenced by a fellow passenger who asked, ‘What are you complaining about? Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, and wasn’t he from Calcutta?’ The Scripps National Spelling Bee isn’t exactly the Nobel Prize but Snigdha’s success would have given her her fifteen minutes of fame in India. Back home, my friend Moloy and his wife Mamta must have read about her in an Assamese paper (and experienced the same thrill that went through me). Moloy is a driver in Tezpur University (where I work); he and Mamta send their son Aditya to an English-medium school because they want him to become a doctor or an engineer (and not a driver).

As a schoolboy, I was good at spelling, though I couldn’t have got the words I heard during the final on Thursday correct – words like ‘chatoyant’, ‘quattrocento’, ‘saccharolytic’, ‘admmittatur’, ‘chinoablepsia’, ‘arrondissement’ and ‘schwarmelie’ (this was the one that finally stumped Stuti).  In school and at home, it was no more than a joke if I misspelled an Assamese or Hindi word. But misspelling English words was unacceptable. In fact, well into adult life I continued to regard bad spelling in English as almost a moral failing. I was shocked to learn that there are errors in Keats’s and Yeats’s letters until I accepted A. K. Ramanujan’s explanation that a second language speaker often spells much more correctly than a first language speaker.

Watching the finals I was reminded of the kind of investment middleclass Indians and, increasingly, people like Moloy and Mamta make in education (and in English). Snigdha’s grandfather (and his wife) had travelled from Hyderabad for the finals. The old man was overjoyed when his granddaughter won.  An Indian-American organization called North-South provides some of the training but the crucial role is clearly that of the parents. Training to be a champion speller requires hard work. Rote learning can get you only so far. You need luck but you’d have to know the origin of a word (its Greek, Latin, French root) to make an educated guess.  It was refreshing to see normal kids (I wouldn’t call them geeky) like the Snigdha (a shy kid with braces), Stuti and Arvind on TV. No signs of teen rebellion there or of the ‘Tiger-Mom’ kind of parenting. These kids have internalized their parents’ ambitions.

My fourteen- year-old son, who was watching the finals with me, asked the logical Indian question. What would be Snigdha’s haul?  I googled and find it includes $30,000 in cash, a trophy, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 in reference works from the Encyclopedia Britannica and an online language course. It’s probably only a matter of time before some TV channel in India decides to sponsor and telecast an appropriately modified Indian version of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. A mix of education, wealth, success (upward social mobility), television and entertainment can’t go wrong. You’d need someone charming and successful but also with due gravitas to play the host. Amitabh Bachchan would be just right.

Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ and Poor Economics

Esther Duflo on May 2, delivering the first of her Tanner lectures. (Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer)

For some days after I went to listen to Esther Duflo’s Tanner lectures, I couldn’t get Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ out of my head.

Duflo’s lectures, organized by the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, were on May 2 and 3. (A seminar was held on May 4.)  It was the first time in many years that an economist had been invited to deliver the Tanner lectures. For a ‘Nobelisable’ economist, Duflo is astonishingly young (not yet 40). I don’t know how much of a success the lectures were. I don’t think they rose above the level of a classroom PowerPoint presentation (by a by a very bright teacher, of course) for many of the people I saw on the first day (‘Paternalism versus Freedom’) were absent on the second (‘Hope as Capability’).  As for me, my mind segued from development economics to literature. I began to think of Premchand’s classic.

In 2003 Esther Duflo and her MIT colleague Abhijit Banerjee (with Harvard professor Sendhil Mullainathan) founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab ((J-PAL) at MIT. J-PAL conducts micro tests to assess the effectiveness of development programmes and is credited with introducing empiricism to development economics. Some of the work Banerjee and Duflo have done  among the poor in India, Bangladesh, Kenya and other countries can be found in their  bestselling book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (2011), described as ‘Freakonomics for the billion people on earth who live on less than a dollar a day.’

A few years ago I supervised a doctoral thesis on the representation of domestic servants in Indian English fiction.  My colleague Sanjib Sahoo, who was doing the work, was on to something when he argued that the Indian servant,  so ubiquitous a presence in our upper or middle class lives, is in fact invisible and silent.  One of the many passages he cited was this seemingly innocuous one from Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel English, August:

The Garhwali servant, a cheerful teenager, appeared, said, ‘namaste’ and took away Agastya’s bag. Agastya had spent, off and on, almost six years in that house . . . It was a three-bedroom house, simple . . . The servant cooked well. Simple things, good food, a lawn shaded by neem, jaracanda and gulmohar . . . in Madna his only ambition had grown to be to clutch these simple things.

The passage effaces the ‘cheerful’, (significantly nameless) teenaged Garhwali servant’s daily labour of keeping the house in order – the endless routines of cooking and cleaning – and his years of exploitation (and the many more to come). Watching Sahoo’s thesis develop thorough chapters like ‘Marginalization of Servant’s Labour’, ‘Marginalization of the Servant’s Body’, and ‘Marginalization of the Servant’s Space’ was a way of becoming aware of the inadequacy of one’s responses to the poor.

In Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo relate an anecdote about Oucha Mbarbk, a poor man they met in a remote Moroccan village. They ask him what he would do if he had money. Mbarbk replies that he would buy more food. They ask him what he would do if he had more money. He replies that he would buy better-tasting food. ‘We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed a television, a parabolic antenna, and a DVD player in the room we were sitting. We asked him why he had bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat. He laughed, and said, “Oh, but television is more important than food!” Living in the village, Banerjee and Duflo began to see Mbarbk’s point. Since he (and the other villagers) had worked only for seventy days that year in agriculture and thirty in construction, it made sense to buy things that made life less boring and brutal.

If this sounds irresponsible, like our servants who buy cellphones when they really ought to be saving, reading Poor Economics makes you realize it isn’t. The book shows why development aid based on the belief that the poor will always make the right choices is often ineffective. The poor don’t always make the right choices – not because they are perverse but because they have their reasons. An example Duflo constantly cited in her lectures was that of chlorinated water: poor people neglect to use chlorine tablets even when they are supplied free. This is partly because the poor are less well informed about health hazards. But if, like the poor, people like us (who have access to quality drinking water) too had to daily chlorinate our drinking water, it is possible that we may not do so for the same reason we find it difficult  to stick to our New Year’s resolutions. Poor Economics also makes us realize how the poor live with the knowledge that their lives will not improve. To a poor man like Oucha Mbarbk who knows there is no realistic chance of improving his lot, it makes sense to maximize the moment.  As Banerjee and Duflo put it, the poor ‘have to be sophisticated economists just to survive.’

After the first day’s lecture, I walked over to the Widener to see if I could borrow ‘Kafan’. I had read the story years ago as a college student. The book I found on the shelves was Premchand: The Shroud and 20 Other Stories translated by Madan Gopal (Sagar Publications: New Delhi, 1972).

The story (spoiler alert!) is about two utterly poor and ‘notorious’ village cobblers, Ghisu and his son Madhav. ‘If Ghisu worked for one day, he would rest for three. Madhav was such a shirker that for every half hour of work he would smoke for one hour.’  When the story begins it is a winter night and  Budhia, Madhav’s wife, is in the throes of child-birth. ‘If she must die why doesn’t she hurry?’ asks Madhav. He wonders what he will do if a baby is born. Ghisu replies, ‘Everything will come – let God give the baby first.’ ‘In a society where the lot of the hard-working peasant was not better than theirs’, Premchand comments, ‘and where only those who exploited the poor enjoyed the plums, such an attitude was nothing surprising. We might even say that Ghisu was much wiser than the peasants. Instead of following the herd of unthinking peasants, he had joined the unsavoury ranks of idlers, though he lacked the means to follow the ways and principles of the tribe.’

Sometime in the night, when father and son are asleep, Budhia dies with the child in her womb. In the morning, Madhav and Ghisu go to the zamindar because they have no money to cremate her. ‘The zamindar had a kind heart, but to do a good turn to Ghisu was like dying a black blanket.’ However, he gives them some money. Ghisu and Madhav go to the bazaar to buy a shroud for Budhia. But ‘led by some mysterious power, they found themselves in front of a tavern and, as if the visit was pre-determined, entered it.’  They make merry in the tavern, drinking and feasting until (this is how the story ends) ‘in the end they fell down – dead drunk.’

V.S. Naipaul called Premchand a writer much concerned with middle-class morality. When I read ‘Kafan’ as a college student, it was mostly in a judgmental way. I was following Premchand: his disapproval of Ghisu and Madhav is unmistakable. But Premchand also had real understanding of what brute poverty does to people – and makes the reader feel it. That is why ‘Kafan’ had come back to me like a half remembered song.  Duflo’s lectures and Poor Economics clarified a couple of things for me  but the great writer had always known.