Review: Four Books

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FROM THE BOOK REVIEW ARCHIVES

Review: Four Books

By : Debasish Chakrabarty
1.
Fun In Devlok: Gauri and the Talking Cow
2.
Fun In Devlok: Indira Finds Happiness
3.
Fun In Devlok: An Identity Card For Krishna
4.
Prince Of Ayodhya: The Graphic Novel Adaptation Of Ashok K Banker's Ramayana Series, Vol 1

The two genres that this review straddles two conceptual planes—simplification of a narrative to its bare essence, in one instance and the transformation of a narrative from the world of the imaginary to the visual, in the other. In either form, the subject is the realm of mythology. As a student of Literature and Semiotics, a teacher to school and college students and a father to a four-year old, this reviewer has always been interested in publications for children. One has marvelled at authors who can conquer both the worlds—that of adults and children. Claude Levi-Strauss believed that mythology was a kind of universal language. While events and narratives could vary, the essential structures remained the same. Levi-Strauss’ conception of the myth-maker as a bricoleur (the odd-job man who works with available resources to create cogent cognitive units) applies to Devdutt Pattnaik in particular.

In Fun In Devlok series, Pattnaik brings to life the mythical characters that were always the enduring models of faith for Indians.  In making the gods interact with modern city children, in Gauri and the Talking Cow and Indra Finds Happiness, Pattnaik has enlivened the mythological space. This space of mythopoesis which was alive and healthy till the 15th CCE in India, was taken over by narratives dealing with the human condition in the colonial and the postcolonial era. The 33 crore deities of the Hindu pantheon, all but melded into core principles like the universal mother principle, the preserver principle et al. It would be wrong to say that the universe of mythology was forgotten and then resurrected again in a land which boasts of the oldest unbroken chain of belief systems and ways of life. In the last century there were many notable contributors who strove to retain the world of myths for the children like C. Rajagopalachari and Uncle Pai of the Amar Chitra Katha fame. Pattnaik is truly right up there with the notables.

In Gauri and the Talking Cow and Indra Finds Happiness, we see Gauri and Harsha, two city children, attempting to stretch beyond their limited zones of knowledge and experience. In weaving his tales, Pattnaik moves in and out of many narrative platforms. From the Vedas and Brahmanas to local folklore, nothing is left unexplored. For instance in Gauri and the Talking Cow, Gauri, on her first visit to a farm outside the city, discovers how many living creature needs looking after. The work becomes a comprehensive understanding of the core issues of environmental consciousness. Sweety, the talking cow Gauri befriends at the farm, in the course of the day, tells her the stories of Surabhi, Kali and Gauri, and Indradhyumana. Pattnaik is exploring three distinct traditions—the Puranas, the kavya and the folk tradition.  Three distinctive stylistic features of these traditions embed themselves in the narrative. The narrative of the interchanging forms of Kali and Gauri is based on the Devi Mahatmya section of the Markandeya Purana. Like the Puranas, this narrative explains the basis of differentiation, split personalities and attributes of identity. Pattnaik narrates:

Everyone realized that Kali and Gauri are the same. Mothers told their daughters, Kali is the forest. She is wild. Gauri is the garden. She is domestic. Kali stays outside the house. Gauri comes inside the house. That is why what is outside is scary and what is inside is not.

This lucid prose is easily palatable for 6-8 year olds. Add this to the simple line sketches of Tandon and the 26 point size serif font and you have an easily accessible children’s text. From the Mahabharata, Pattnaik, takes the epic-concept of developing genealogies. He has Sweety, the cow, ‘enlighten’ Gauri on how ‘Brahma created the first cow’ Surabhi also known as Nandini  or Gauri (from Gau= cow). The concept of affordance, which is an essential virtue of the Indian way of life, is explained through the uses/value of the cow and the necessity to take care of the cow. Through King Indradyumna’s story, Pattnaik, introduces the issue of how we measure our deeds.  Gauri is made to understand that even good deeds have the potential to boomerang , and it is not always easy to forgive. Pattnaik blends the narrative effortlessly to the story of King Nruga. It is a familiar folk technique which has resulted in similar exploits being ascribed to Tenali Raman in the South, Birbal in the North and Gopal Bhand in the East. The seamless weaving of the many narratives using the trope of the inquisitive young child is brilliantly achieved by Pattnaik.

Pattnaik’s writing is unapologetic about using imagination. He allows his protagonists to experience an alternate reality without using clichéd tropes like dreams or magic. The experience, however, is no less magical. In Indra Finds Happiness, Harsha, a bored, unattended child rides a cloud to meet Indra, only to realize that he is hardly the unhappiest person in the world. After many adventures with Indra, Harsha learns the simple solution to his problems from no less than the  eldest Saptarishi, Vasishtha himself. Vasishtha says, ‘You can be happy if you are satisfied with what you have. If you wish for more than what you have, you will always be unhappy.’ However, this simple message is entertainingly communicated through many episodes. The story begins with the messenger cloud (meghadutam) motif. The various gifts that Indra has accrued from the churning of the ocean (cf. samudra manthan narrative in Chapter 9 of Vishnu Purana; Section 18 Adi Parva of Mahabharata; Canto 45 of Ramayana) form the basis of the first part of the narrative. Harsha is completely bowled over by the wish-fulfilling abilities of the Chintamani, the Kalpataru and the Akshaya Patra. He insists on asking for chocolates and football though. The concept of the aswamedha yajna is explored through the story of how the insecure Indra steals the sacrificial horse of King Sagar. Of course, ‘Harsha did not like that’. This Vishnu Purana narrative is followed by another one from the same text of Kandu Rishi and the Apsara Prachetasas. However, in the story Kandu falls in love with Marisha, who in Vishnu Purana is the daughter of Prachetasas. The sad story of Kandu’s loss teaches Harsha the pitfalls of excessive curiosity. The book ends with Indra’s attempt to steal Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow of Vasishtha. This is the verbatim re-enactment of the Kartavirya Arjuna and Jamadagni narrative (as in Padma Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Brahma Vaivarta Purana)and like Arjuna gets killed by Parasurama, the son of Jamadagni, Indra gets his ears boxed by Vasishtha, in an euphemistic twist to the tale.

Pattnaik begins both the above books with a third person omniscient narrator, but soon finds an anthropomorphized narrator in Sweety, the cow for Gauri and the white cloud and Airavata for Harsha. In the third book of this set, however, Pattnaik moves away from this narrative style and makes the flow of narration more integrated into the action of the plot. In An Identity Card For Krishna, the prankster child-god Krishna appears in a teenage avatar yearning for his first public flight, but is stopped by an earnest security guard, Mr. Murthy. Krishna does fly to meet his aged devotee Lata Kumari, but not in the plane. On the advice of his golden snake-in-the-form-of-a yello-taxi, Sesa, he flies on Garuda (in the form of a helicopter). What is beautiful and touching about this tale is the concep-tual twist with which Pattnaik imbues the tale. While Krishna does the divine deeds, Lata Kumari is blessed with the divine vision and sees everything that the god has done. She even goes on to tell Krishna, the tale of Rishi Chavan and Sukanya (Satapatha Brahmana (IV.1.5.1-13), Vana Parva of Mahabharata ) why the Rishi ruled that all gods must carry a flag with their symbol— quite like an ancient form of an ID.

Pattnaik brings together the complexity of an adult tale with the simplicity of telling for the young in an apt manner. This is not quite the same in the case of Banker’s Prince Of Ayodhya. It must be said at the outset that like Pattnaik, Banker too makes the narrative of Ramayana quite accessible. To be fair, Banker takes enormous pains to explain in the eighteen page author’s note that precede each of his books in the Ramayana series, why he chose to position himself in a Pre-Tulsidas era, closer to the Ramayana exegesis of Southern India. Banker reiterates his agenda in the Afterword to the Book VI of the Ramayana series:

I’ve chosen to retell this story from the outset as an imaginative retelling, closer to the kind of beautiful monster attempted by Kamban or K.M. Munshi, rather than a strict translation...

Banker’s telling of the tale is not simple at all. It is difficult to gauge who Banker is writing for. Banker claims that, ‘Today, by any estimate, there are several lakh readers of my Ramayana books worldwide, the majority of them Indians or of Indian origin. And a surprising percentage of these readers claim that this is the first and only Ramayana they have ever read in their lives!’

The claim rings true because most Indians hear and know of the narrative of Ramayana from sources apart from the written word. While most Indians hear the story from their elder relatives, many live the tale through Ramlilas, jagarans and other such cultural sources. However, from the tenor of his claim it seems that Banker is looking at the English-reading youth of the Indian metros and abroad. Yet, when it comes to the graphic novel, he bemoans the sheer lack of Indian taste for ‘Indian’ graphic novels, ‘because imported graphic novels sell very well, like all forms of imported entertainment.’ Perhaps, this is why he decided to team up with Enrique Alcatena, the Argentinian illustrator, to create an ‘Indian’ graphic novel with an ‘imported’ look.

Banker’s Ramayana series and the graphic novel Prince Of Ayodhya are textbook examples of postmodern pastiche. While in the series he lives up to his ambition and transforms the epic to a fantasy fiction, in the graphic novel he stays faithful to the fantasy genre and through Alcatena, gives us a visual language that could well be straight out of Boris Vallejo’s sketchbook. Except for the names and the familiar thematic strand there is very little that is common with any of the Ramayanas that we have heard of or read. The morbid gloom of the predominant red-blue-green colour palette is reminiscent of the film noir genre of cinema. The sketch quality renders all characters from Rama, Dasaratha, Vishwamitra to Ravana and even Manthara as these monotonous masses of muscle that can only grimace and shriek, but never really look distinctively different. The most striking example is the rendition of Vishwamitra and Vashishtha. Both sages look like twins except for their garments. However, Alcatena must be complimented for his numerous experiments with framing that makes the flow of narrative rather exciting. In this area Alcatena seems quite at par with traditional greats like Alan Moore. 

The feel of pastiche is extended through the use of Banker’s language, which is neither trying to capture the feel of Hindustani nor attempting to tell the tale in accepted English syntax. Banker engages in active code-mixing in an attempt to approximate the ambience of a faux antiquity. For instance, page 45 (frames 1-4)of the graphic novel opens with the announcement of the King’s entry: ‘Kosala-narad-Ayodhya-Naresh-Suryavansha Raghuvansa Aja-putra...Shrimad Maharaj Dasaratha Rajya Sabha mein padhaar rahe hain...Khamosh! Adalat jaari hain. Court is in session.’ Dasaratha says, ‘Brahmarishi Vishwamitra, we bid thee welcome. ...Pray tell what causes you to interrupt a centuries-long tapasya and brings you to Ayodhya?’ Such phrasing is a school teacher’s nightmare come true. The casual blend of Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Middle English and Modern English is comprehensively mindboggling. Add to this the usage of ‘thee’, a familiar second person objective case pronoun, in this context, for an extremely highly regarded Brahmarishi, the ultimate formal relationship a King might envisage. This is of course followed by the casual ‘you’.  The linguistic pastiche goes hand in hand with the thematic pastiche where, Ravana, the omniscient evil archetype is already making his presence felt in Ayodhya, at the very beginning of the Ramayana graphic novel series through agents like Jatayu, Surpanakha, Kalanemi and Manthara.  The graphic pastiche adds to this with six full page scapes depicting Ravana in full glory (pp. 2, 25, 32, 52, 56, 57) as opposed to two full pages dedicated to Rama (pp. 18, 41). One wonders if Banker’s narrative has not done a familiar Miltonic volta and rendered a Ravanayana competently, instead of the familiar Ramayana

The net result is a readable ‘imported’ graphic novel told using flat characterization, exciting framing, a monotonous palette and a colloquial mishmash lingo for an apparently youthful audience, who can be lectured on how ‘the most talented illustrators are now working on outsourced Hollywood projects for animation or VFX firms, putting the gloss on Superman’s cape or inking the short hairs on WonderWoman’s crotch or somesuch’ (p. viii).

Twenty years before the publication of this graphic novel, in 1980, another team (Editor: Anant Pai; Script: Subba Rao; Artworks: Pratap Mulick) had come out with a traditional graphic novel, Amar Chitra Katha, Special issue No.4 priced at Rs. 9—The  Ramayana (p.  96). That novel retold the tale of epic. It too was a creative endeavour; simplistic by today’s graphic novel standards, but true to the narrative spirit of the Ramayana.  The visual language was distinctly Indian.  There has been yet another modern animation exercise based on Valmiki’s Ramayana. Nina Paley renders her Sita Sings the Blues using Andhra shadow puppets, Ravi Vermaesque calendar art and the pahari miniatures, reminiscent of the inimitable Oscar Zarate in the world of graphic novels. A solid telling of a tale armed with an equally identifiable visual language.

One of the adverse effects of globalization, whose positive effects resulted in the production of The Prince Of Ayodhya, is also to steamroll the nuanced creases of cultures into one wrinkle-free surface. In that context, Banker’s Ramayana will perhaps reach out to the unknowing many with the tale of a 10-headed monster from India.

Debasish Chakrabarty teaches English Literature at The Doon School, Dehradun.