Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Alan Moore on the Emergency

Thoughts on Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm

You expect book titles to be nouns. “Midnight’s Children”, “Salmon Fishing in Yemen”, or “Reading Lolita in Tehran” all evoke things, or actions. “Delhi Calm”, however, doesn’t fit the bill. Trying to make sense of the title (the Calm of Delhi?) takes its own time, until you realize that it’s ripped from a newspaper headline during the Emergency in 1975. (“Delhi Calm as X happens.”)

As graphic novels go, this one is gorgeous. The visual style is distinctive and the dull browns and earth tones perfectly convey the era of fear, uncertainty and doubt that the Emergency was.

The narrative, ostensibly revolving around three idealistic Left-leaning friends during the Emergency is just a front. It cleverly places the era in a context, allowing Ghosh to play freely with, and make fun of the age’s dark realities and absurdities. The infamous sterilization drives, the Orwellian propaganda and a brazen power grab by India’s first political family all make great fodder for Ghosh’s inventive style. However, the story also harks back to a more idealistic time, when universities were alive with the sound of debate, and youthful idealism wasn’t in as much short supply as it now seems to be.

Comparisons to Alan Moore’s Watchmen wouldn’t be unfair. While the thematic content is obviously different, just as in Watchmen, Ghosh pushes the graphic novel medium to the fullest. Asides like news articles, hagiographical Films Division-style video profiles of ‘Moon’ (the leader based on Indira Gandhi) and her son, quotes and snippets of poetry pepper the narrative, painting a fraught and claustrophobic portrait of the times. It’s a time underrepresented in Indian popular culture (no books that I know of, and the only film that comes to mind is Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi), and this book paints an unforgiving picture of Indian democracy’s darkest hours. This is a story that needed to be told, and by telling it well, Ghosh brings it alive for a generation that wasn’t even born then.

The publication of Indian books in styles other than The Great Indian Novel or The Populist Bestseller is itself encouraging, and though it’s still early days, the quality (both of the art and writing) of this book bode well for the graphic novel form in India.

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