I have written before on this blog that I feel I don’t have the right vocabulary to discuss graphic literature properly. I still feel this way, but I’m trying to become more familiar with the genre, so the last time I was in India I picked up this graphic novel, Delhi Calm.
Delhi Calm is certainly a novel, unlike other works of graphic literature that I’ve read and reviewed, which are compilations or part of a series. It is set in Delhi during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of the late 1970s, beginning just before the Emergency does, and ending at its abolition. The narrator is a young newspaper employee who finds himself out of a job when his office closes in fear, and becomes involved in underground, anti-government politics. The title comes from an international newspaper headline, the day after the Emergency was declared.
It is difficult to describe a plot as such, because so much of the ‘action’ is visual. The story itself is a fairly predictable exploration of living under the Emergency, but the visual depiction of masked characters are what give the novel depth. The masks hide peoples’ true selves, their real political identities, and what is left visible are generic faces, indistinguishable from each other.
I enjoyed Delhi Calm but I felt it was rather long, at 246 pages (and large pages at that). But then, perhaps the mode of reading a graphic novel is very different from reading text, and I wouldn’t consider a 246 page textual novel too long (unless it was very bad, of course). So I think I need to keep training myself to read this genre more effectively and appreciatively.
My review of This Side, That Side has just been published in Kitaab.
This is an ambitious and innovative production but, perhaps ironically for a collection clearly based around a single theme, lacking in clarity and purpose, says Elen Turner.
This book represents an ambitious project: to tell stories of the Partition of India through graphic narratives. It contains twenty-eight short pieces on different aspects of the Partition in 1947, from various locations. Present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all represented, and while most of the texts were originally written in English, a number have been translated from Urdu, Hindi and Bangla. The majority of entries are collaborations between a writer and an illustrator/artist, often in different locations, particularly across national borders.
As I’m fairly intimate with both Japan (having lived there for nineteen months some years ago) and India (numerous research trips and travels), the clashing of the two cultures in Stupid Guy Goes to India appealed to me. And they really do clash! In 2004, manga author Yukichi Yamamatsu, 56 and never before having left Japan, decided that the best way to revive his stagnant career was to take Japanese manga to India: “If I take manga there, I’m sure to be able to sell it!” Naive last words. I still don’t understand why Yamamatsu chose India of all places for his first adventure out of Japan. After a year and a half living and working in Japan, I felt thoroughly stifled and jaded, so immediately after leaving made my first trip to India. It was exactly what I needed, the complete opposite in every way, and, you could say, I never looked back. Yamamatsu didn’t have such a positive trip, but I respect his adventurousness.
Stupid Guy Goes to India is Yamamatsu’s account of his several months in India trying to translate, print, and sell Hindi translations of his best-selling samurai manga. He achieves minor successes, yes, amongst a great deal of hardship and a lot of humour–he can’t speak or read either English or Hindi when he arrives, he can’t tolerate spicy food, and he has some rather serious problems with his colon.
Humour aside, it is not really the plot that is most interesting about this book, but rather its format: an English translation of his Yamamatsu’s Japanese account of his time in Delhi. I never understood the attraction of manga when I lived in Japan, couldn’t get past the fact that it looked like picture books, and found the genre strangely earnest despite its preference for the fantastical. I’m not entirely sure I get it still, but Stupid Guy Goes to India did help me appreciate the visual comedy of the form. I loved the characters’ mouths especially. Yamamatsu, when agitated or excited, and Indians most of the time, were illustrated with their mouths wide open, tonsils visible, bellowing their emotions. I loved the incongruity of some of this–Japanese people, on the whole, do not respect public displays of negative emotion, getting angry in public (for instance, at bad service) being one of the quickest ways to lose respect. That Yamamatsu is depicted on the cover open mouthed and arms raised skyward is perhaps a sign of the depths of frustration he plummeted to in India. I can empathise–I think I spend most of my time in that country with the same expression, but I feel the more empowered for it. I’m not sure Japan would take me back these days.
Yamamatsu’s trials are not resolved at the end of this book, and though we are left with an image of an Air India flight back to Japan, we are also promised that Stupid Guy Goes Back to India is coming soon. As amusing as I found this book, I’m not sure I’ll be reading the sequel. The novelty of the concept had largely worn off by the time I’d finished this, and there is little more than novelty to attract readers other than manga fans. Also, non-Hindi speaking readers be warned that as Yamamatsu becomes more competent at Hindi, the translation includes more and more of that language (transliterated into Roman script, not Devanagari) which could be quite alienating if you can’t understand it.
Stupid Guy Goes to India. Translated from Japanese by Kumar Sivasubramanian. Chennai: Blaft and Tranquebar Press, 2012. Originally published in Japanese as Indo e Baka ga Yattekita in 2008.
One of the most interesting, beautiful, amusing and original books I have picked up in a long time. Chennai-based publishers Blaft are perhaps best known for their English translations of pulp fiction, particularly from Tamil, but also from a variety of other cultural and linguistic contexts, such as Urdu, and the Nigerian language Hausa. The Obliterary Journal, on the other hand, is a collection of graphic narratives, both extracts from longer works and stand-alone pieces. It has something for almost every taste, artistically and in a literary sense: the precise and detailed line drawings of an extract from “The Hyderabadi Graphic Novel” by Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj; a translation of a Bangla piece, “Nowhere to Run”, by Anasua and Subrata Gangopadhyay, translated by Sreyashi Dastidar; a hilarious translated extract from “Stupid Guy Goes to India” by Japanese manga artist Yukichi Yamamatsu, which must be read “backwards”, in keeping with Japanese books; a photo essay of colourful vehicle art, mainly of Bollywood stars, which is an extract from “Shaved Ice and Wild Buses: Street Art from Suriname” by Tammo Schuringa and Paul Faber; and so much else in between. A brilliant touch is the contents page, which is a photograph of a large wall painted with all of the publication and contents details of the book. It seemed apt considering Chennai’s reputation for hand-painted film billboards.
The Obliterary Journal is a difficult book to discuss without a proper vocabulary for graphic narratives and comics, which I’m afraid I don’t possess. But perhaps that’s a good thing. Having become entrenched in academia (for better or worse) I find it difficult to read books these days without appraising them in the language of literary criticism. I couldn’t do that for this book, as it spilled outside of my neatly constructed boundaries. But I liked it. I recommend it. It is fun. And I really hope there will be further volumes.
(The Obliterary Journal, Volume 1. Ed. Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan. Chennai: Tranquebar and Blaft Publications, 2012.)
I’m not terribly familiar with the graphic novel/narrative genre, but several weeks ago I had the good fortune of attending a workshop by Hillary Chute–a young American academic who specialises in graphic narratives. Hillary has worked with and written on Art Spiegelman, author of the wonderful Maus, and engaging with her made me think I needed to familiarise myself with this growing form of literature: a post-PhD reading project, I thought. But then I came across this example of an Indian graphic novel, so I squeezed it in amid the thesis revision, RA work, lecturing, marking, job applications (offers welcome), general panicking of this final two months of PhD.
I found it rather unsatisfying, as it just seemed… unfinished. Like a draft of something bigger and better. This may be a result of my relative unfamiliarity with this genre. Perhaps the parameters of graphic narrative criticism have not yet permeated throughout academia (just like facebook etiquette is not yet generally agreed upon!), so I’m unfamiliar with the grammar and vocabulary of it. If anyone reading this has a different perspective, I would be very happy to discuss it.
Corridor is set in Delhi, Lutgens’ New Delhi to be precise, and opens with the narrator trawling the bookshops of Connaught Place in the heat of summer to find a specific book. He admits to being an obsessive-compulsive collector, and quotes Jean Baudrillard, in a passage I felt an affinity with:
“Yes, the collector. He regresses to the anal phase- expressed by accumulation and retention. His passion is not for possessing objects themselves, but stems from his fanaticism for an illusory wholeness, for completing the set. But really he is trying to re-collect himself. And if he gets the last object in the collection, he is effectively signifying his own death.”
And then it progresses into discussions, and illustrations, of various characters’ sex lives, romantic liaisons, all their attempts to find satisfaction in a difficult world, and I was left wondering how it all tied together, and what the point really was.
The blurb on the back cover states: “Played out in the corridors of Connaught Place and Calcutta, the story captures the alienation and fragmented reality of urban life through an imaginative alchemy of text and image.” Alienation and fragmentation I could see. But if graphic novels/narratives are to transcend the assumptions that so many people will have about them–that they are just comics, pictures–then I think they need to rise above appearing like an unfinished story-board. Unfortunately, I don’t think Corridor quite manages this.