A sequel with slack passages and forced humour is partially redeemed by the manga at the end.
The cover of Stupid Guy Goes Back to India has a ‘Hey Bewakoof!’ in large-sized font above a drawing of an irascible old Japanese man glaring at the reader, yelling that since this is a translation of a manga (Japanese comic), we have to read it from right to left. Both the drawing and the bad-temperedness will be familiar to anyone who experienced Yukichi Yamamatsu’s graphic novel Stupid Guy Goes to India, to which this is a sequel. On the jacket of that earlier book, Yamamatsu gave us the same instructions with a simple “Hey!” minus the ‘bewakoof’. Perhaps he feels like he knows us better now, and can take more liberties. Yukichi first visited India in 2004, hoping to sell his comics. His love-hate relationship with the country continues here, though there is a little more “love” in the mix than there was in the first book (where he was often rude — or just brutally frank — about India).
The sequel begins with the artist surviving a bout with cancer. “What a waste of a life it was!” he grumbles to himself when he thinks he is dying; the self-deprecation is so mixed with peevishness that the effect is funny rather than maudlin. Yukichi’s angry, exaggerated self-portrait is closer to the worlds of Noh theatre and the medieval Samurai than to the reserved placidity we associate with modern Japanese culture. In any case, he decides to rejuvenate himself by — what else? — returning to India, having finally earned some money through the earlier book.
This time he is less prone to culture shock, which is not to say that new misadventures don’t present themselves — and he often invites them with his ambitious but not particularly well- thought-out schemes for making money. He is routinely cheated by people who, when confronted, stare into space as if nothing has happened (or twitch their heads in that ambiguous Indian way that so fascinates Yukichi). He confuses a cooler with an air conditioner, screams “Do you have any idea what the word PROMISE even means?!” after being let down by someone who had committed to helping him. (“VACHAN?!!? Do they not exist in India or WHAT?!”) But there are gentler passages too: he allows himself to be reflective about growing old, and there is even a tiny bit of social commentary when, after a series of public-toilet-related mishaps (this bit is not for queasy readers), he wonders how women in India cope with this problem.
A notable difference between Stupid Guy Goes Back to India and its predecessor is that many more of the conversations here take place in stilted Hindi (written in the Roman script, of course), reflecting Yukichi’s growing familiarity with the language over his two trips. The results are often droll: “Sir ke andar theek nahin!” shouts a hysterical Yukichi, trying to explain to a married couple that their baby might have an undiagnosed mental problem; “Kya mazedaar hai AAPKO tay karna nahin!” he snaps when someone suggests that his stand-up comedy routine might not appeal to local slum-dwellers but this also means that the reader needs a basic acquaintance with Hindi to fully appreciate what is going on.
The narrative itself probably holds more appeal for those who don’t know much about India’s dustier, poorer crannies and might therefore be able to read this as a novel set in a fantasy world. For the Indian reader, it can become repetitive and over-familiar after a while. The novelty value of the earlier book has abated. Like the badly-made Udon noodles that Yukichi tries without success to sell at a roadside stall (he belatedly learns that there is only one type of flour in India), the jokes can only be stretched so far before they wear thin and leave a rancid taste in your mouth.
A running theme here is Yukichi’s struggles to publish a slim manga titled Cycle Rickshaw Wallay ki Dukaan. He includes that comic at the end of this book, which means that Stupid Guy Goes Back to India finishes on — dare one say it — a note of grace, with a story within a story that doesn’t feature Yukichi at all, but is about a gruff man whose path crosses with a group of orphaned children. Perhaps this is a sign that Yukichi did, after all, acquire empathy for life in this noisy, messy, complicated country. Or, perhaps he is trying to tell us that like the cycle-rickshaw wala, he too has a soft heart under his self-absorbed exterior. Whatever the case, it makes for a warm ending to a book that otherwise has too many slack passages and too much forced humour.