By Antarleena Basu
In 2015, while Paul Gravett was affirming that “the Indian graphic novel is here to stay” (Gravett), a 162-page comic/graphic novel that raised many an eyebrow for its dauntless representation of the Naxalite movement and the rise of the communist ideology across India was published in book form somewhere in Bhilai, a bustling industrial city in the state of Chattisgarh in India. The Naxalite movement, also known as the “peasant uprising”, refers to the armed struggle of the peasants against wealthy and exploitative land-owners and it was initiated by a small fraction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led by Charu Mazumdar in a small village of West Bengal in India called “Naxalbari”; hence the name “Naxal uprising”. Titled Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari (which roughly translates from Bengali as “my house and your house is Naxalbari” and echo the popular Bengali slogan of the Naxals), Sumit Kumar’s comic was the first of its kind—it not only dares to portray the serious topic of the Naxal and communist uprising through the verbal and visual interaction of the comic mode but also experiments with a wide array of styles and techniques in the text, thereby injecting the necessary dosage of plurality that could go into the making of an Indian comic. By amalgamating the present political events with those of the past, by invoking classics as well as pop-culture and its icons, by mixing colourful pages with stark blacks and whites, among his many binaries, Kumar creates a scathing, tragic-comic narrative that almost borders on the absurd.
The initial impressions of this book can be quite perplexing, especially for academics who tend to box such visual-verbal narratives as either comics or graphic novels. The cover page of the book clearly states that this is “The comics you loved at newslaundry…now out in print”. Also, the editor Abhinandan Sekhri prefers to use the word “comics or comic book” (2015: 10) instead of the term graphic novel. Nonetheless, readers and researchers of comics and graphic novels might be tempted to call it a graphic narrative as the text deals with the socio-political historical event of the Naxal uprising in India, a subject so serious, so sensitive and so encompassing that many would prefer not to touch upon this issue. The narrative is non-linear, somewhat scattered and divided into three parts titled Book 1, Book 2 and Book 3. Steeped with wit, irony, sarcasm and tragic humour, this text defies categorization and can be best read as a socio-historical graphic narrative.The first part of the book titled “Book 1” chronicles the rise of the Naxalite movement in Naxalbari by encapsulating it within a frame story that is inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Just as Orwell’s farm owner Mr. Jones had his Manor Farm, Kumar’s zamindar or landlord who is referred to as Thakur Bose in the narrative, has his own animal farm named after him. Kumar’s pertinent invocation of the novel by creating a similar “THAKUR BOSE ANIMAL FARM” with a pig, a horse, cows, chickens and goats just adds another dimension to his tale about the communist uprising across India. Though this part of the text primarily focuses on the timeline from 1967 to 2013, it constantly shifts back and forth across time and space, with the narrative going back as early as 1903 in Motihari, the birthplace of George Orwell to build a comical-historical context of Orwell’s birth. The narrator in Naxalbari is the owl or the “ullubhaiya” (owl brother) whose ability to fly and transgress borders allows him to have a bird’s eye view of the political turmoil that was happening outside the farm. With unequivocal clarity, Kumar paints the exploiter and exploited, showcasing how the landlords exploited the tenant farmers and how this perpetual exploitation gradually led to the Naxal or peasant uprising in Naxalbari and then spread across India. No one can escape the blunts of his brutal caricatures—be it prominent historical figures like Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the First prime Minister of India after India got its independence from the British empire in 1947, or Charu Mazumdar, who initiated the militant Naxalite movement, or be it simply an unnamed zamindar (landlord) or bureaucrat, Kumar spares no one from the lashes of his pen. Kumar, through his narrative, questions the very idea of revolution and does not hesitate to take endless digs at the constructed notion of revolution among the middle-class youths in Bengal.
Leaving behind the lanes of Naxalbari, Book 2, titled the “Red Corridor: Part I”, upholds how the peasant uprising which had spread in Hyderabad had shaken the exploitative monarch or the Nizam of Hyderabad who was unwilling to unify his princely state with the Indian Union after the independence of India. Through his witty caricatures of the Nizam, Kumar showcases how the princely state of Hyderabad was finally annexed by the Indian Armed forces in 1948 under Operation Polo which was the coded name of a military operation by India to overthrow the Nizam and annex the state of Hyderabad into the Indian union. Though his narrative primarily traces the journey of the Naxalite movement, Kumar does not fail to intertwine his tale with other significant political events occurring in India. Perhaps the most striking illustration of this section is his depiction of the “emergency” period in India from 1975 to 1977 which refers to the time when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency across the country, citing “internal disturbance” under Article 353 of the constitution that also suspended and curbed the rights of the civilians.Kumar has been outstanding in his one-page depiction of the emergency: in the foreground of the page is portrayed a colourful caricature of Indira Gandhi who is shown strangling the judiciary, the administration, and the media, thereby crippling the democracy. On the other hand, her son Sanjay Gandhi, who is now remembered for his mass sterilization programme, is seen forcefully sterilizing men, awarding highest civilian honours of India like Padma Shri to his friends and controlling the news media. The sarcasm and irony run high and Kumar makes no effort to tone down his criticism of the turbulent times when democracy had collapsed in post-independent India.
Book 3, titled “The Red Corridor: Part II”, elaborates on the present state of the Naxal movement across India and its constant strife with the state. Through his sketches of the strife between the Indian soldiers and the Naxals, he shows how the Central Reserve Police Forces (henceforth CRPF) fail to curb the terrorizing activities of the Naxals. The soldiers end up being traumatized in the forested area of Dandakaranya under constant threat of being attacked by the militant Naxals. Kumar’s exceptional portrayal of the trauma of the army is embedded in his depiction of the soldiers who seem to be hallucinating and the refrain: “DK (Dandakaranya) changes you”. Kumar ends his narrative with the line, “for now the story continues” (155), thereby not drawing a closure to neither the revolt nor his narrative—or “comics” on the political instability of politics in India in general. The readers are left jarred, possibly disturbed but definitely more informed about the political landscape of India and how it has (not) altered over the years.
Aside from the plot, another intriguing feature of Kumar’s graphic narrative lies embedded in the free style and technique that he implements. Graphic novelists or cartoonists generally tend to follow a particular order: they would stick to using panels (or not); they would use colours (or not); they would write in English (or not). Much like the political landscape of India, Kumar defies all order and set system in his work and lacks uniformity throughout the text. Few pages are colourful; few pages are left plain black and white or in greyscale; few of them have panels; other pages reiterate the idea of a continuous flow by lacking panels, frames or borders for that matter. Though Kumar blames a “lack of money and time” (Kumar: 160) for his mixed methods of greyscale and coloured illustrations, it appears as though it has been done purposely in order to add an element of multiplicity to the narrative. This English-language graphic narrative is interestingly given a Bengali title and is replete with Hindi and Bengali words that add to the Indian-ness of this narrative since an Indian existence is always a bilingual (if not multilingual) one, its languages being Hing-lish (a mixture of Hindi and English) or Beng-lish (amalgamation of Bengali and English), among others.
The comic is replete with references to popular culture that Kumar deliberately uses to attract millennial readers and make them more informed about India’s political history. Kumar captures as well as confuses his readers throughout his non-linear tale. Nevertheless, the refrain of satire, irony, and humour with the underlying tragic tone weaves the seemingly disbanded narrative. When asked about his expectations from his comics, Kumar had humbly said, “People can enjoy it, keep it on their shelves and not eat samosas on it. That’s all” (Kumar 2015: 161). However, Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari remains highly recommended for readers seeking to get a contemporary perspective on the origin and expansion of the Naxal and communist revolutions in India that even now, continues to gnaw at the existence of modern India and shape its possible futures.
Antarleena Basu is pursuing a Ph.D. in Translation Studies at the University of Hyderabad, India. After completion of M.A. in English, she pursued an M.Phil. in Translation Studies, where she researched translating trauma narratives on the Partition of India. Interested in emerging trends in South Asian writing in English, her areas of interest include Trauma studies, Translation Studies, graphic narratives, and Postcolonial studies.
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