Monday 2 August 2010

Past tense, imperfect but essential

As the Indian graphic novel genre grows in ambition and self assurance, it was inevitable that someone would use it as a vehicle to take on a historical subject. It’s a subject that all modern Indians should be interested in. That hiatus in our modern history of self-government, that lacuna in our democratic chronicle: the Emergency. As a nation, we tend to focus on our distant past and its many glories; yet, we’re oddly reticent when it comes to our more recent past. I contend that the recent past is much more germane to our decisions regarding our present and our future. We need a sense of modern history if we are to move forward in these postmodern times.

Ghosh’s graphic novel goes a long way towards addressing this need. A weighty historical tome like Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is an invaluable reference work for serious study; indeed Ghosh used it for just that purpose. Human beings respond better to stories than to narratives of facts, no matter how well researched and elegantly conveyed. Stories help us to define who we are, where we stand and what we aspire towards.

Contradictory aspirations war for the loyalties of Ghosh’s characters, caught on a cusp of historical change, torn between ideals and career, activism and survival. Ghosh’s characters never fully spring to life, but they do serve to dramatise various dialogues between hope and despair, populism and elitism, self-respect and self-advancement against the background of a state that could leap from a flawed democracy to an absolute autocracy in one abrupt gesture. Ghosh’s grimy sepia style proves the perfect frame for a gritty look at the recent past, one that is evocative without being sentimental or nostalgic in the least. While the dialogue is often clunky, weighed down by the sheer gravity of the arguments being conveyed, and the narrative tends to inch forward in fits and starts rather than chug smoothly along, there is much to feel and think about here if you take the trouble. The roman à clef interludes in which Ghosh treats us to overviews of the key political figures and events of the 70s serve as an invaluable potted political summary of modern India and how we got here.

So much of what Ghosh depicts still rings alarmingly true. The mythic stature to which we elevate our political leaders, the feudal sway they hold over our minds, bodies and souls. The way in which our rulers can unilaterally take draconian steps to suppress inconvenient truths – consider the way the streets of Delhi are currently being swept clean of indigents, animals and other contaminants of the modern state, not as part of a state of emergency but as preparation for a sporting event that is supposed to celebrate fellowship. To maintain a surface Delhi calm, to borrow Ghosh’s phase.

This is not a perfect book, but it is an ambitious, important graphic novel that helps serve the invaluable purpose of bringing our recent history to life, perhaps in the hope that we may not be condemned to repeat it.

A slightly edited version of this review, with numerous extraneous paragraph breaks added, appeared in the Sunday Herald on Aug 1st, 2010.


Mahesh Raj Mohan said...

Awesome review!

JP said...

Thanks Mahesh. Ghosh's graphic novel deserves all the good reviews it can get!