Sunday, July 04, 2010

JOEL STEIN in TIME Magazine, about those Immigration Blues

When I started reading MY OWN PRIVATE INDIA I assumed it was meant to be ironic. Then I began to think, well, you know? It's a view I vaguely sympathize with, because it IS unpleasant to wake up one day to find that one's familiar neighbourhood has become UNfamiliar. Everyone knows that. It's like falling asleep in a pale blue room and waking up in a green neon pizza parlour (or the reverse!).

Then I began to think, Uh-oh! Joel Stein's e-mail box is going to be filled with hot, wet hate VERY SOON!

MEANWHILE, in other news, here's my review of VISHWAJYOTI GHOSH's DELHI CALM. I can never find India Today's online review links, so this is my own text-version (with my title for it -- the print title is most likely different):


The thing about a graphic novel is that it is so very personal. The author's hands have touched the work, not merely via the keyboard, but physically: the paper, the colours, the visual shape of the narrative. In this sense, it seems to me, Vishwajyoti Ghosh's graphic novel, his first solo work as an illustrator/artist, is so intensely internal that reading it is to trespass within the author's inner studio of thoughts, moods and memories. Even though he's invited us in by publishing the book, his style is that of an artist who would much rather not exhibit at all.

So yes: this is not a novel in the normal sense. Nor is it an autobiography. It's more like the disinterred remains of a national trauma, reconstructed by someone who must have been a small child at the time (three years old: I checked). The trauma was and is forever, the Emergency. Yet in this version, it is less a historical event than a state of mind. The political figures of that era are not named, nor are their parties vilified. The entire situation is presented as a crisis that began for an obscure reason and was then maintained forever, a bogeyman in the collective national psyche. The book suggests that as a nation and as a people, we have become so inured to being in condition of stressful anxiety that we have forgotten what it means to be any other way.

The narrative is presented in a series of discontinuous episodes focusing on the persona of a journalist, Vibhuti Prasad. Interspersed between his interactions with friends and fellow-thinkers, are sections presented in the form of newspaper clippings in which we see a character known as Moon who is clearly meant to represent a certain woman prime minister. The atmosphere of unease within the book is infectious to the extent that I find myself unwilling to name this historical character in my review. Indeed, it strikes me as both very odd and very sad that while India prides itself on being a nation with a free press, Ghosh could not afford to name anyone in his book.

The entire story is told as if it were a fever-dream, and though some events are all too familiar – the rise of the younger son, called Prince in this version, the forced sterilizations of that era, the midnight disappearances alongside the flowering of a rare and sweet idealism, as if only the extremes of political excess can squeeze the purest type of radicalism out of an otherwise inert populace – other effects are presented as fantasy. The wearing of ever-smiling masks, for instance, and the chopping back and forth across narrative lines.

The drawings are presented in a yellowy sepia brown, watercolour washes combined with sharp, scratchy ink-effects. I found the work most effective in some of the long perspectives, where the city is represented as a jumble of rickety aparments held together by telephone wires, illegal power cables and the once-ubiquitous cable TV lines. The title is a slap of bitter irony: there is nothing in the least bit calm about the book. It rakes over the coals of the past with anger and in mourning, for all that was lost and all that will never be.

No comments: