A journey into the past with two graphic novels

Two graphic novels, one that unearths the life of an Assamese litterateur, and the other a Partition love story

Remember the gripping refrain from the opening pages of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? Much like John Galt, Munin Barkotoki is this elusive but encompassing figure, a name imbued with mystique through constant repetition. It wouldn’t have been easy to make a literary figure’s life story seem heady. But using sheer artistic flair, photographer and digital artist Shisir Basumatari tries to turn what might have been a routine biography into something of a psychological thriller in The Real Mr Barkotoki.

Released a couple of months ago, the graphic novel uses a bevy of dramatic tropes — hot pursuit, near-death events, schizophrenia and even a tangential anti-war message — to excavate the spiritual remains of the deceased Assamese writer and former News Editor of All India Radio, a “very learned man struggling with loneliness and old age” and bad handwriting.

Shisir Basumatari  
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Visual draw

Heavily cross-hatched panels keep the reader embedded in that dark chiaroscuro that straddles protracted pursuit and imminent discovery. The Joe Sacco-esque black-and-white noir style, “a hybrid form suspended between fact and fiction”, is, Basumatari clarifies, not the same as that of Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, “where the art style is tilted towards the ‘comic’.” Noir can be used to extract humour as well as deepen gravitas.

“Here was a medium that offered the space to tell the ‘true story’ of Barkotoki and the possibility to present hard information without appearing like a documentary,” says Basumatari, who spent seven years trying to decipher 17 diaries of the Assamese litterateur. Having dabbled with a film script and the idea of prose fiction, he settled on the graphic novel, a medium through which “Barkotoki’s handwriting could be felt visually and more intimately”.

Scraps of scribbled notes, letters and newspaper clippings from the diaries (journaled between 1980 and 1993) are scattered throughout the linear-yet-surreal tale. The protagonist is a disturbed sort, spiralling in his fixation with the literary figure and frustrated by the abstruse nature of his investigation. He drags us through a fragmentary narrative that brings out the disorientation of a disintegrating mind.

Coming-of-age 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. Storyboarded within crisp cinematographic frames, zoomorphic characters enact the socio-economic and communal chaos that followed the Partition, with stylishly wry humour and depth. The hero’s journey device makes that dark period feel a bit more palatable, if simplistic. Chhotu 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.

In writing

Basumatari admits the process was intimidating: “… the fortress of Barkotoki’s bad handwriting just stood staring at me”. But having been a diarist himself, he feels he was “at the right place at the right time” when the critic’s daughter, Meenaxi, approached him with her father’s diaries. These contained glimpses not only into Barkotoki’s mind but also life in Guwahati in the ’80s.

The narrative may seem overdramatised at points — much of its paranoiac pacing reflects the protagonist’s own dissonant mood as he struggles to piece together Barkotoki’s life. And given the years Basumatari spent on the project, it makes sense that the output is part-autobiographical. As a documenter, he seems to have gone above and beyond the impersonal process that journalistic research usually calls for. But he takes the precaution of developing a persona (whose quiff gives you a whiff of Tintin).

There’s a febrile dreamlike quality to the panels, with elements of pop psychology, even some nootropic Shamanism, thrown in. “The idea of the protagonist willing to court death dramatises his desperateness to solve the puzzle that is the mysterious Barkotoki dream,” says Basumatari. And, as he reiterates, it is up to the reader to decide if that sort of dedication is “worth the risk”.

Published by Speaking Tiger Books (Tiger Print) and priced at ₹499

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