Curator Vishwajyoti Ghosh talks about a graphic-novel anthology and the impact he hopes it will have on existing Partition narratives.
In July 2011, Yoda Press announced a call for entries for submissions (in graphic or text form). The idea was to bring together narratives on an epochal moment from the subcontinent’s history — the partition of India. After a year of tremendous collaborative efforts between the publisher Yoda Press, the project partner, Goethe Institut Delhi, and the curator, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, the book, This Side That Side, was launched on August 30, 2012. Both restoring and re-storying partition, it is 47 contributors and 28 pieces long, bringing together second and third generation narratives from journalists, illustrators, filmmakers, artists, designers and writers. In this interview, Ghosh talks about the making of this graphic anthology and the impact he hopes it will have on the existing partition narratives.
What first drew you to the idea?
Before Delhi Calm (my first graphic novel), one of the graphic novels I wanted to write was on Partition. My family moved from the present day Bangladesh and I grew up in a refugee home in Delhi where my grandmother was a part of administration. So I grew up on those partition stories of my family, the refugee home and growing up in Delhi means that it is something that never escapes you. In some ways you and partition cross paths and this is what this book tries to explore.
While working on it one realised how multiple stories and more are critical to explore such a moment in history that can be told in a million ways. It was a book I wanted to write but through many more voices and their stories.
This project was originally conceived by Farah Batool of Goethe Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan Delhi and the publisher of Yoda Press, Arpita Das. They have both been engaged with the subject in different ways and thanks to them the book took off. Hence when I was offered this book, it was a Yes without a blink. And I am grateful for that.
Tell us a little about the process of curating this book.
Having read works on partition over time, it has been a huge area of my interest.
But I was curious to explore contemporary narratives that interact with some aspect of partition in one’s daily life. And they manifest themselves through visual renditions of fiction, poetry, reportage, comics and family histories. I look at these stories more as attempts by the writers, artists and even the characters to make some sense of their histories, but in the times we live in.
The process was three-fold. We began with an open call for contributions that was circulated through mail all across the subcontinent. Some of the entries from that call are there in the book. Second was to spread the word around and chase the stories one had heard over the years and see how they can fit into the realm of a graphic narrative. And since the idea was to open the call to every form of storyteller and not necessarily graphic novelists or comic makers, it was important to pair up a writer with a right artist/illustrator for that piece and then work as collaborators. This phase was particularly interesting, as neither was aware of the other’s work. And to that I was particularly interested in cross border collaborations and keen to see how that progresses.
What were you looking for in the stories?
There’s one solid set of narratives we have grown up on. In school, the moment someone said “you know my grandfather’s house in...” we knew where the story was going. Whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, theatre or cinema – partition narratives over the decades have slot themselves into a template. This has been extremely helpful for our generation to understand it. But what we would like to tell is our understanding, processing and retelling some of it. Hence the stress was on restorying than restoring. One of the biggest myths this anthology tries to break is that Partition is a chapter from 1947. Whether based on reasons of faith or economics or family, it is still happening. Across all the three countries. It is something tucked permanently under our collective chin and we are all negotiating with it in very many ways. Hence it was important to explore the lasting legacies of partition besides memory, maps and journeys. Like the refugee camps that still exist, the speculation of how the family is doing on the other side, and many similar curiosities.
How different were the second or third generation narratives from first-hand narratives?
Not all the contributors are necessarily from a partition family. Some are. And they manifest themselves through visual renditions of fiction, poetry, reportage, comics and family histories. If you look at mankind negotiating with history, you’ll find a pattern of how different generations deal with it differently. The first generation that deals with it through its blood and sweat often gets too busy to put its house in order, the second generation goes through the grind of making something of their lives and it’s the third generation that often attempts to making some sense of their histories, but in the times it lives. This anthology too explores that aspect. For many of this lot, Partition is more than a school chapter but also how one deals with it and then how one finds a connect on the other side.
Even if the later generations did not witness partition, they definitely grew up on it. And now in the online world we live in, sans borders, it is interesting to see how we interact with the other side with equal passion if not more. For the generations now, Partition in many ways is not what we left there and how we came here, but more importantly how we connect with the other side.
There have been anthologies on Partition before, but no graphic narrative. How do you think this book adds to the already existing documentation?
The core idea here was to explore Partition and its role in our lives through the medium of comics and graphic narratives. Hence a visual perspective was critical. The book has both fiction and non-fiction, poetry, song, reportage all rendered in different visual styles and forms. I hope this book adds to the already existing documentation, with many fresh voices that have been brought in to bring in another dimension, however small but significant. As a curator I was aware of the range of subjects this collection could bring together yet there’s so much more to tell. It was tough to bring such narratives into a graphic form, yes, but it was also the contributors who must be lauded for taking up the challenge both in terms of writing and the visuals. Hence we have a video art, documentary, miniature art, wall graffiti along with conventional comics all lending themselves to some solid graphic narratives. For a curator, it is a challenge but I am much grateful to the contributors for pushing themselves and making it work.
You received entries from authors spread across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Were there any differences in the narratives?
The call for contributions welcomed any sort of a narrative that engaged with partition in any way. Memory as one, but dialogues, rethinking perspectives and stereotypes were as important.
One of the biggest discoveries while working on this project has been the partition of our memories. For many of us in India, partition is something to do with Punjab on one side and Bengal on the other. But we often forget that Gujarat and Assam were also affected. Similarly, in the neighbouring nations, memory often begins from 1947 only, often missing the centuries of common legacies and on the other side, for many I interacted with-everything began from 1971. Now the real deal is somewhere in the middle.
The amount of curiosity that exists on all sides is something this book explores to a certain extent. Trust me, every contributor has at least 20 more stories in their kitty and over 50 aspects they would like to go and find out in the other nation. And that would range from “what happened to that ancestral house”, “how do you make that particular dish” to “what if the rivers run this way than the other” and all valid curiosities.
Hence, the idea was to bring in as many different perspectives for the other languages too. So we also have translations from original works in Urdu, Bengali and Hindi.