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