Chhotu is more than a Partition tale

In the Penguin potboiler, Chhotu, Varud Gupta and Ayushi Rastogi tick all the boxes of pop storytelling even as they reopen a scab from the nation’s past and hold up a mirror to its more recent blisters. It is essentially a Partition tale, but the authors are firm that it started out as a “superhero story”, about “a simple kid who stumbles upon the magical underpants of Shaktiman”.

Using many popular tropes — young sundered love, devastating personal loss, flashback storytelling, an arch-villain (whose smug rasp you can almost hear in your head), heart-warming courage, etc — the authors show that they know just how to win the reader’s heart, mind, and wallet.

“Bollywood was very much the lifeblood of the story from the start,” Rastogi admits, when told how filmy it all feels. “Chandni Chowk on the cusp of Partition [was where] this novel came together... and [with its undercurrents of today’s world] allowed us to explore the story of our grandfathers growing up during the time.”

Breaking boundaries

Storyboarded within crisp cinematographic frames, zoomorphic characters enact the socio-economic and communal chaos that followed India’s Independence. Why animal heads a la Bojack Horseman? “[In] Maus, animals were used to show the disparities between communities… Chandni Chowk was our ‘Animal Kingdom’ [to show] that we aren’t defined by just one aspect of our identities,” says Rastogi, openly admitting their love for the cultishly popular animated sitcom.

The pall of doom is tempered with stylishly wry humour, which is just what you need when you “rip open the Pandora’s Box” of “one of the defining moments of India’s past” which is generally treated as too taboo to ever unpack and learn from. The hero’s journey device, even if a simplistic method, does make that dark period feel a bit more palatable.

Part of the cycle

The line art is crisp and loose in a way as to suggest the dilemmatic contrast faced by the country’s forefathers, who had to watch their best-laid plans for an independent future come undone in the aftermath. “We don’t envy the decisions India’s leaders had to make — to pursue Independence knowing the ensuing aftermath or risk further time under British rule.”

The power of the book’s narrative also lies in how it depicts the cyclicality of such events. “Chhotu was born from... as individuals feeling small from the events happening in the world — and we’ve felt those very same feelings again,” says Rastogi, adding that it was surreal that its release, after many a missed deadline, coincided with the signing of the Citizenship Amendment Act. The use of contemporary vernacular inside a black-and-white palette helps visually underscore the point, although the authors insist it was a cost-constraint thing.

The novel throws up questions about the locus of power and freedom in society, and leaves you wishing you too could achieve your own transformational catharsis inside a two-page spread.

Published by Penguin, and priced at ₹299.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2021 1:25:47 AM |

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