Delhi-based cartoonist and graphic novelist Vishwajyoti Ghosh talks about the making of “This Side That Side”, an anthology of 28 graphic narratives he has curated on Partition
It was at a student accommodation in London that Ahmad Rafay Alam, a Lahore based lawyer and activist, and Martand Khosla, a Delhi based architect, met for the first time. Slowly, a few connections emerged. Lahore, they discovered, had been home to Martand’s grandparents too.But nothing could have prepared them for what followed. One evening Martand demanded that Rafay pay him the rent he was owed. After what one supposes were a few minutes of stunned silence, Rafay was let in on Martand’s discovery. The house that the Khoslas vacated in 1947 while moving from Lahore to Delhi, had been home to the Alams, who had made the reverse journey, since 1959.“Martand and I tell this story every time we meet people together. We’ve gotten quite good at it,” writes Rafay, in a narrative titled 90 Upper Mall, illustrated by Martand. It is one of the 28 graphic narratives about the partitions of the sub-continent that come together in an anthology titled This Side That Side (Yoda Press).The book does not treat Partition as an event located in the past, but as a process that animates the present. It is an attempt to ‘restory’ Partition. “Over the years one has heard so many stories about Partition. The moment someone says ‘mere dadaji ne kaha thha…’ you know what the next part of the narrative is…but a lot of details keep changing as the story goes along from generation to generation. The stories keep reinventing themselves,” says Vishwajyoti Ghosh, a cartoonist, member of the Pao Collective and author of the graphic novel Delhi Calm, who has curated this book. “The whole focus of the book is not generation 1 but generation 3.”
He had earlier sought to write a book on Partition, but given up when he realised “how inept my single voice would be and how large this project would need to be.” This Side That Side gave him the opportunity to find more voices. “Poets, filmmakers, musicians, and a range of fresh voices were chased, including those who remained unsure of how their stories would look visually, how they would find life in print. Many took up the challenge to find themselves here,” Ghosh writes in his curator’s note. Contributors include graphic novelists Orijit Sen and Amitabh Kumar, writer Tabish Khair, anchor Ravish Kumar, video artist Bani Abidi, dastangoh Mahmood Farooqui and musician Rabbi Shergill among several others.
Apart from finding, selecting, and in some cases mentoring, these contributors, Ghosh has illustrated Rabbi’s lyrics in Cabaret Weimar and authored A Good Education, which uses texts by Amiya Sen, his grandmother, based on her experiences in camps for East Bengali refugees in Dandakaranya.
Ghosh spent his formative years in Lajpat Nagar in the 1970s, when it was still predominantly a refugee area. After attending College of Art, Delhi, he went to Jamia Millia Islamia with dreams of becoming a filmmaker. Although that didn’t work out, a brief career in advertising ensued. “Either you had met a deadline and were presenting a story to your client, or you had not met a deadline and were presenting a story about how you had messed up. You had to be on your toes all the time, and keep inventing stories,” he says, remembering his first brush with storytelling.
He locates his interest in graphic novels to reading Maus by Art Spiegelman, after being introduced to it by Orijit Sen. “For the first time I came across the idea that one can write comics about one’s own life, however unimportant that might be. The first book that I wanted to write was my life in college, because in Delhi no one knows where the College of Art is, or the fact that there is one.”
The idea for Delhi Calm came to him while he was still at Jamia, assisting a friend on a diploma film on the Emergency. But the topic overwhelmed the limitations of time and resources, and Emergency stayed with Ghosh as a word, an image for several years. “There was a lot of visual possibility to it, I kept thinking about it for 8 years, collecting stories, researching. And then I finally wrote it over two years.” Populated by three idealistic young men, and defamiliarised versions of the prime actors of the Emergency years — Jayaprakash Narayan and Indira Gandhi — called The Prophet and Moon, Delhi Calm is a sepia-tinted account of the Emergency years in the city of shadows.
Over the years, and in successive engagements with the graphic form, Ghosh has denied his work the signature of a unique style. It has ranged from the Kalighat style of RSVP in The Pao Anthology of Comics, to the kitschy depiction of classifieds and film visuals in Times New Roman and Countrymen (Blaft). “The first comic I did was a very conventional one (on Kashmir), with boxes and panels and balloons. As I kept working I started getting rid of them…every comic of mine looks very different. Every story demands its own style, every subject demands its own flesh…so what really amazes me is when people say ‘I read that piece and I knew it was you’,” he smiles.
Despite his insistence on the renewal of style, he admits that there are a few similarities between his works. In the way he renders faces, be it his own in A Good Education or that of Moon in Delhi Calm, there is a marked continuity. “It’s like a mason who wants to make five different buildings but realises the bricks are the same,” Ghosh says, with an air of apology.
For someone who admits to entering the story visually, his works are often quite text-heavy. The relationship between the two, though, is often complex. “Many times the text becomes an image. When the text is in a bubble it’s text, but the moment it’s drawn it’s an image...I don’t draw stories, I write stories and I don’t draw pictures, I write pictures,” he explains, with a hat-tip to Chris Ware.
As a form, the graphic novel is still new in India, and for it to attract new readers, it has to engage new writers. This has been the attempt with This Side That Side, Ghosh says. At the same time, he is happy with the journey comics and graphic novels have made here. “When I was in school, reading comics was banned. If you were seen reading a comic, it would get taken away, and your parents would be called the next day. It was too much of a pain to read comics… and today I was in a school talking about comics,” he adds.
From Delhi Calm to This Side That Side, Delhi, and history as it is lived here, has fed his imagination. And he is obsessive about the city. “It’s important to keep tracking this city, because five years from now it will not be the same,” he says.
His next project takes the engagement forward. Based on his interactions with the migrant industrial workers of Gurgaon,Manesar, Kapashera, Dundahera and other areas, and art and map-making exercises conducted with them, he plans to produce a graphic account of their interpretation of the city they live in, and of the homes they have left behind.