First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction from India Volume 1 tells 22 non-fiction tales of contemporary India.
I recently read and attended the launch of India’s first-of-its-kind anthology of non-fiction graphic narratives. The book is a collection of 22 beautiful ‘comic tales’ that narrates the stories of people whose “voices have been lost in the drone of a 24-hour news cycle”.
The comic narratives are divided into six genres – biography, autobiography, oral history, documentary, commentary and reportage – and have been put together by independent writers, artists, reporters, researchers, designers, anthropologists, academicians and filmmakers from across the country.
The book’s editor Orijit Sen has been collecting and drawing comics since his teens and has been deeply involved with their development in India. Sen is the co-founder of the Pao Collective of graphic artists and a key figure behind the award-winning Pao: The Anthology of Comics #1 (Penguin, 2012). One of the founders of People Tree, his pioneering work, River of Stories (Kalpavriksh, 1994) is considered to be India’s first graphic novel. The book discusses the various environmental, social and political issues around the construction of the controversial dam on the Narmada river.
Co-editor Vidyun Sabhaney is a Delhi-based writer who is primarily interested in comics and visual narrative. She runs Captain Bijli Comics, a creator-driven comics publishing project. Her work has been published by Penguin India, Blaft Publications, Zubaan, Ad Astra Comix and COMIX.INDIA.
The ‘comic’ medium of storytelling is powerfully stark, as it combines words and (in this case) black-and-white visuals to literally draw evocative images of contemporary subjects as well as the lives of some ordinary and extraordinary people.
Many of these stories find little space in mainstream media, yet the issues they talk about – whether it is migration, displacement or mining – are timely and relevant in this day and age. Furthermore, each artist has a distinct way of looking at things around them; thus, the medium enables readers and writers to view the world through a new visual lens, allowing them to break from the dominant narratives of the times.
The book is the result of two years of discussion on scripts, storyboards and the form of comics. Unlike in film or photography, a comics creator needs to recreate a scene – the reality – in order to document it. The writer’s ‘process’ (how the material that forms the base of the narrative was gathered – through research, interview or personal experience) was strategic in putting together each story.
The story also needed to be related with contemporary public life, that is, the country’s social and political milieu, recent events or phenomena. While reading the book, one can observe how much detail has gone into developing each story uniquely with its own method and treatment.
One of my favourite stories in the collection was Effects of RTI, about a young man who files an RTI application – and the (grim) outcome of what that means for him. In a sense this sets the scene for much of the book.
The stories are contemporary, a commentary on India’s social and political rifts, and quite often, very harsh. There is nothing ‘comic’ – light, frivolous or amusing – about these particular comics. They span the breadth of ideas from pre-Partition Punjab (Ellipsis by Ikroop Sandhu) to voyages in Delhi’s metro (Transistor Can Be Bomb by Shruti Ravi), to a documentary of the life of the great singer, Begum Akhtar (Akhtari by Rajesh Devraj).
Maybe the most powerful story is The Girl Not from Madras by Neha Dixit and Orijit Sen. Beautifully told and lovingly illustrated, it is the story of a woman held captive in Haryana and a group of people trying to rescue her. Throughout the story, a masked and caped woman with ‘Laadli’ emblazoned across her chest offers a running commentary – capturing the frustration, angst and horror of dealing with the reality of the situation – especially the callous attitude of the police, who are only reluctantly persuaded to take action.
Neha Kirpal is a free-lance journalist