A young boy (monkey) falls in love with the new girl (deer) in school. The pangs of puppy love are simple, sweet and have their funny moments, but are stoppered by a historic plot twist. Partition strikes what used to be undivided India, and our star-crossed love story set in the Chandni Chowk of yesteryears is suspended in limbo.
There is a reason Chhotu: A Tale of Partition and Love (Penguin), by Varud Gupta and Ayushi Rastogi, has been garnering eyeballs and rave reviews. The reason could be the stark and monochromatic art, simplistic yet multifaceted characters, the fable-esque treatment or the wry humour that blends well with the gripping storytelling. Or, it could just be the fact that one does not expect the distinct worlds of Partition literature and graphic novels to overlap, and certainly not in a Delhi that has educational tigresses and peacefully hardworking elephants as parent figures.
But for co-creators Varud and Ayushi, this creation was a nearly organic no-brainer. The duo, second cousins based in Delhi, explains over a phone call that the story borrows heavily from the memories shared by Varud’s maternal and Ayushi’s paternal grandfathers, who are brothers and lived through Delhi at the time of Partition. The magic of Delhi back then, and their own experiences of Delhi today, oscillate throughout the novel in a mood-centric time travel of sorts.
Varud elaborates on this using the example of this favourite character. “Naai, the barber, is a character who came through a WhatsApp message my grandfather sent me — my grandfather recently learnt to use WhatsApp. The message recounted how integral the naai s ( barbers) were to Chandni Chowk back then, from spreading gossip to even acting as matchmakers.”
That is just one among many stories these grandchildren treasure well into their late 20s — “many of them show how Chandni Chowk’s inherent character was a blend of multiple communities living together,” adds Varud. This inclusive, cosmopolitan mix is what the duo wants to highlight, particularly in the context of Indian politics today. “Our target readers are children in school, and adults right up to 35 year-olds. People who are still finding their voice, who will relate to a coming-of-age story of a young boy,” says Ayushi, “Who need to hear that even if you are just one person, you can still make a difference for good.”
Having said that, however, the book has clearly managed to cross boundaries of age. The duo has been invited to talks at design schools, lunches by historic researchers, and everything in between. Clearly, something has hit home.
Chhotu: A Tale of Partition and Love (Penguin) is available at all leading websites and bookstores.