Don’t make the mistake of reading only the text and pushing the drawings to the background.
In the Q&A session that introduces this dynamic comics anthology, Parismita Singh — one of the five members of the Pao Collective — gives a wise answer to the question of how one should “read” a comic: “Quickly, greedily, racing to the end. And then a slow return: go back to the beginning, savour it, read only the orange or the grey tones. The next time pick another element...and so on.”
Any comic buff will know how rewarding this process can be — assuming that it is applied to well-integrated graphic stories, as opposed to literal-minded comics where each panel is a drab illustration of the text accompanying it. Pao, which brings together many skilled artists and writers, is anything but drab.
And so, after you have raced greedily — to use Singh’s formulation — through each narrative, it is possible to scrutinise the stories more closely and appreciate how text and visuals inform or bounce off each other. You might pause to take in the striking use of the colour pink in two unrelated pieces (one about “helmetmen” in a world afflicted with terrorism and suspicion, the other about an insurance agent who transforms into a flamingo). Or the sinister patches of red amid black-and-white drawings in the gorily deadpan “Hindus & Offal”, credited to Ambarish Satwik and Pia Aliza Hazarika but just as likely the result of a partnership between Hannibal Lecter and a theological historian. Or you might notice — in a panel where a distracted mother fails to register what her son is telling her about his US trip— that the brand-name on the matchbox in her hand is “Tube Light”. Little delights like these ensure that this book has repeat value.
Understandably, some of the best work here comes from the “Paoists” themselves. Orijit Sen’s “Hair Burns Like Grass” — a story in progress, done mainly in charcoal — is a gorgeous-looking account of the life and work of the poet Kabir, interspersed with the memories of an old man living in our times; on this evidence the complete book promises to be one of the major achievements in Indian graphic novels. Singh’s “Sleepscapes”, with its shape-shifting forms, is equally mesmerising in a different way, as an emaciated dog resolves itself into a cloud and the laws of physics are made subservient to the logic of a nightmare-world (where a blabbering, Arnab Goswami-like newsreader threatens to “protect” viewers from jihad with his news-channel).
In his inventive take on cultural confusion in “RSVP”, Vishwajyoti Ghosh uses a classical, sepia-like style to depict a milieu where cell phones and gramophones coexist, and where the workings of a colonial mindset are revealed through the use of quaint spellings and phrases (“Fab Indies”, “Hindoo”, “Nayi Dehli”) in an otherwise modern setting. Sarnath Banerjee brings another form of nostalgia — and infectiously droll humour — to “Tito Years”, an account of a boy growing up in pre-liberalisation India and hankering for foreign-brand shoes. Banerjee makes characteristically funny use of mixed media: an image of Subhas Chandra Bose performing a salute represents the much-anticipated arrival of a U.S.-based cousin on an India visit; a Nike is obscenely superimposed on Bruce Lee’s feet in a page-sized photo. But the last panel, which has the narrator dryly calling his dad a “cheap bastard”, also has a poignant quality to it — what the father is doing should be instantly relatable to anyone who has ever known a middle-class parent trying hard to meet a child’s impractical wants.
Some stories read like fragments torn from a larger project; Sanjay Ghosh’s “Print Screen”, about a dreamy wannabe artist with Van Gogh on his mind, has an incomplete feel to it. Others work as stand-alones: the minimalist but effective “Tattoo” (Lakshmi Indrasimhan, Jacob Weinstein) has men opting for primitive tattoo designs like snakes and scorpions but graduating to plush multi-storeyed buildings in what may be a sly comment on the egoistic and competitive urges that build what we call civilisation. And though “The Afterlife of Ammi’s Betelnut Box” (Iram Ghufran, Ikroop Sandhu) is laid out as a text-driven story with smatterings of images, it would be a mistake to only read the words and dimly register the drawings; Sandhu and Mitoo Das’s artwork, among the most intricate in the book, is vital to the full effect of this tale about an old lady and her djinns.
Finally, what would an Indian graphic-story collection be without a reinterpretation of a well-known mythological tale? In “Chilka” (Vidyun Sabhaney, Shohei Emura), the Mahabharata war is filtered through some of the more hysterical tropes of manga, such as characters yelling dramatically at each other (if a revered artist like Osamu Tezuka could do this with the Buddha’s life, why not?). There are lunatic twists in the tale: grand epic tragedy meets slapstick comedy when Karna’s chariot wheel is undone not by an ancient curse but by a vagrant banana peel. However, you won’t find many other slip-ups in this fine book.
Pao: The Anthology of Comics 1; The Pao Collective, Penguin Books, Rs.799.
Keywords: PAO: The Anthology of Comics 1