Monday, 30 August 2010

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Delhi Calm

An edited version of the review below appeared in Delhi's Sunday Guardian a couple of weeks ago. I really liked the look of Vishwajyoti Ghosh's book. The artwork is fantastic; very intelligent, and full of references to things you can't not recognise if you've grown up in India. In contrast, the prose was merely adequate in most places, and in some was awkward enough to let the book down entirely.

“Nothing like this ever happened. If it did, it doesn't matter any more, for it was of no interest or relevance even while it was happening. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction. Self-censored.”
Vishwajyoti Ghosh's Delhi Calm opens with the above disclaimer. This is not, it implies, a graphic novel about the historical Emergency. Ghosh's character “Moon” has no connection whatsoever with Indira Gandhi. The figure of the “Prophet” is not based on Jayaprakash Narayan. But this rather overwrought disclaimer is in a speech bubble, and the speech bubble emerges from an illustration of a megaphone, and the megaphone is inside a larger panel... and therefore part of the (fictional) content of the novel itself. It's a lot more complex than it at first appears.

Delhi Calm traces the movements of three young men, all former members of a political music group and followers of “the Prophet”, a political figure clearly modelled on JP Narayan. The band eventually drifts apart, but “Master”, “VP” and Parvez find their lives intersecting once more in Delhi during the Emergency. What follows is a series of impressions of life in a city where Prime Minister Moon (along with her sons, the Prince and the Pilot) reigns supreme. There is an element of surrealism in the constant, sinister presence of the masked “Smiling Saviours” (who appear as an interesting visual tribute to Alan Moore, author of that great political graphic novel, V for Vendetta).

The Parvez-VP-Master story is rendered in sepia tones and uses a (mostly) traditional graphic novel format. The unusual colour palette contributes as much to the tone of the novel as the extremely strong artwork. These sections are interleaved with a more traditionally-structured, black-and-white history of Moon's life that reads as if it were from a newspaper or magazine. Occasional full-page spreads give Ghosh further opportunities to showcase his art. There is also a frequent use of pop-cultural imagery, particularly in the use of signs and posters.

Perhaps the best thing about Delhi Calm is the way in which Ghosh depicts propaganda and the construction of narratives by those in power. The megaphone that speaks the disclaimer is only one of many: the panels of this book are full of words. These may take the form of slogans, of street signs, banners, posters, advertisements. Newspapers are frequently depicted, and the title of the book itself is taken from one newspaper report. Delhi is only “calm”, of course, because it is not allowed to be anything else.

These narratives are created not just by bombarding citizens with posters and banners bearing the message, but also by curtailing what other people are allowed to say. One of the more chilling scenes in the book is an essay competition described by a schoolboy, one of Master's tuition pupils. The “essay” (extolling the virtues of Mother Moon) is dictated to the students by the teacher, and the students are judged on their handwriting and spelling skills.

Yet the deployment of words as weapons is not entirely one-sided, and Ghosh avoids the pitfall of turning this into a flat tale of state oppression by allowing his characters plenty of agency and showing that there's a lot going on under the city's “calm” exterior. At the beginning of his character's story arc, the importance of Parvez's linguistic skills is stressed. The Naya Savera band spread their message through song, and VP is a writer of songs as well as a journalist and copywriter.

Strangely, for a text that conveys so strongly the importance of narrative and the power of words, the writing is Delhi Calm's weakest point. Vishwajyoti Ghosh is both the writer and the artist of the book, and his skills in one area far outweigh his skills in the other. In one large panel, two children sit astride an elephant bearing the slogan “We Are Two, We Have Two”, while below them a woman is fleeing a man who wears a Smiling Saviour mask and carries a giant syringe. It's a powerful image, but it is ruined by the clumsy dialogue in the speech bubbles:
“Stop running after me. I am 48! That too, a widow... Pleeeease!”
“Who cares? I have targets to meet... One kilo Dalda, I promise, please! Get sterilised, you...”
While few moments in the book are quite this awkward, the prose is never quite as smooth as one would like. It's unfortunate, because it has the effect of jolting the reader out of what is in most respects a very fine book.

Delhi Calm is a fascinating commentary on the emergency. It has plenty of flaws, but there's also plenty to admire and to think about, and the familiarity of some of its imagery is distinctly uncomfortable.


Sunday, 29 August 2010

Shane Jones, Light Boxes

Today's Indian Express carries a short review I wrote of Shane Jones' Light Boxes. I bought this book for the shallowest of reasons (it is physically gorgeous - tiny and quirky and with shiny coloured bits that glow), so I feel very lucky that it turned out to be so likeable on the inside as well.

And here is an edited version of the Express review.


“The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February” - Joseph Wood Krutch

February has taken over the town. February is eternal winter; February is a God figure in the sky; February is a man who writes in a house in the woods. Whatever he is, February is destructive and must be fought.

Shane Jones' Light Boxes was first published by a small independent press (Publishing Genius Press in Baltimore) in 2009. It was a critical success, and Penguin picked it up, and gave it a wider release earlier this year.

Light Boxes begins with February's ban on flight. He sends his priests into the town to burn hot air balloons and paper aeroplanes, and to destroy anything else that flies. Thaddeus Lowe, a former balloonist, along with his wife Selah and daughter Bianca revolt against these conditions. They paint balloons into hidden corners, and kites all the way up Bianca's arms.

After an abortive attempt to fly a kite in defiance of February's orders (but February's orders are far more than that, and a cloud shaped like a hand slams the kite to the ground), Thaddeus is approached by a group calling themselves The Solution. The Solution wear plastic bird masks to remind them of what they have lost. They are organizing a revolution. As first Bianca and then Selah are taken away from him, Thaddeus becomes the main figure in the war against February.

The scenes of organised (and increasingly futile) revolt form a reasonably coherent narrative, but things are complicated by the interspersing of little snippets of February's own life in his cottage in the woods (or the sky) with someone referred to only as The Girl Who Smelled of Honey and Smoke. These scenes make February's relationship with the town (and with Thaddeus' reality) rather ambiguous, and it is difficult to attempt any sort of unified reading of the novel as a result. Is this a story about rebellion? A story about narrative? A story about depression? It lends itself to all of these theories and more, and then flits away at the last moment.

Jones experiments with different ways of using text. Font size varies wildly, some pages will only carry one line, and there are lists and recipes and diagrams and the like. February's own writings show up from time to time, and make for fascinating reading.

Note Written by February
There is a house builder and his wife. Name the house builder February and refer to the wife as the girl who smells of honey and smoke.
You coward.

At times Light Boxes seems to be trying too hard, so that it risks being overly precious. It is slightly too aware of its own cleverness and quirkiness. But the quirky imagery (balloons and owls and brightly coloured masks against the grey weather) easily becomes macabre – Selah's lovely, grotesque death is one of the strongest moments in the book – and this saves the book as a whole from ever quite being twee. And the sections where Thaddeus Lowe must cope with the loss of his family are deeply-felt and real, and definitely not pretentious.

Light Boxes is an odd little (literally; it's small and practically square in shape) book, and one that is beautiful and baffling and wonderfully crafted. More of this sort of thing, please.


Wednesday, 25 August 2010

English has failed me

Does the English language have a way of addressing an email or letter to someone whose name, gender or designation you don't know that isn't "sir/madam" or "to whom it may concern"? These are situations where you can't casual, but you don't want to be stiff.

If English does have a better option , feel free to mock me here for not thinking of it (but tell me what it is as well, please).

If not, it really, really needs one.