THE CONCLAVE of creators is a crowded space,” writes Amruta Patil in Adi Parva, the first of a trilogy of graphic novels on the greatest story ever told, the Mahabharata. She speaks of creation myths, of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh coming to terms with each other’s infiniteness and agreeing to share creator’s credit for the Universe. But she might as well have been talking about the crowded space she enters with this book, the one occupied by modern retellings of Vyas’ epic. Unlike the sutradhars she mentions in the prologue, “an unbroken lineage of storyteller nested within storyteller”, this conclave of retellers is a diverse group, each telling the story from their own vantage, looking at it through their particular prisms of modern thought and experience, each of their Mahabharatas at once similar and wildly different.
Patil’s solution was to read them all. “The desire to write the Parva trilogy predates Kari by more than a decade,” she says, referring to her much-acclaimed 2008 debut novel about forbidden love. Drawn to the booming voice of the epic — the reason, she says, that she also loves reading the Bible – she was soon obsessed, reading every possible version of the Mahabharata. Her MFA thesis in art school in Boston was on Draupadi. “I may go on to write stories unpopulated by pictures or by creatures of divine impact,” she has said in an earlier interview, “but there’s no turning back on a personal level.”
Calling herself a “head case” whose friends wonder when she plans to permanently move to Hastinapur, Patil says the sensibility of the tale was sleek enough, it needed no contrived means to make it contemporary. We are talking over the telephone a couple of days before Adi Parva is launched in Goa, where the 33-year-old Patil lives. She grew up in the state, in the large port city of Vasco da Gama. Her father served in the armed forces; she told journalist Vivek Menezes that her parents “always emphasised that money would be spent on travel and nature adventures, not on clothes and toys”, that “the family was quite oblivious to material accomplishment”. Her cosmopolitan, nuclear family is “decidedly atheistic in its alignment”, so her love for the Mahabharata is her own. “Not being entrenched in tradition was great,” she says, “because I got a chance to approach the lore without being caught up in propaganda. I questioned and counter-questioned; kept the reading list diverse, and switched the lens from respectful to irreverent and back time and again.”
This irreverence shows up through glorious non-sequiturs in the book. One moment she is describing the majesty of the holy trinity, the next they are sheepishly agreeing to share credit. At another, just about when the reader comes to the same conclusion, one of the listeners says, “Notice how often this tale uses the lazy device of blessing and curse? To distract from a plot full of holes, I’d say.” Patil’s playfulness, her undercutting of the solemnity, the portentousness of the epic, appeals to modern sensibilities while not patronising the form. She uses the narrative’s innate modernity to achieve her effects. “Staying faithful to the original story is an immense responsibility,” she says. “The trick is in being respectful to the essence, without being enslaved by earlier manifestations.” She stuck to economist Bibek Debroy’s translation as reference for the plot, as it is fairly faithful to the original and not loaded with 21st century context.
This refusal to don the blinkers of modern thought in telling this ancient story shows in an illuminating exchange between Ganga, the sutradhar of the book, and a female member of her audience. Exasperated at yet another tale of a woman getting a raw deal in the story, the woman asks Ganga for a subplot where women “aren’t just pots in which semen is deposited”. Ganga asks in turn, “Is it the story that’s engendered, or is it your eyes?” This, Patil says, is the classic sanatan response. “In any case,” Ganga continues, “you are not held captive by the old narratives. Tales must be tilled like the land so they keep breathing.” A simultaneous defence of the story against snap judgements and labels, underlining the fact that nothing in the epic should be taken at face value, while acknowledging that interpretations may change with time and sensibilities.
FOUR YEARS ago, Patil was being fêted as India’s first female graphic novelist for her bold work, Kari, the story of a lesbian heroine whose love has moved away. While there were comparisons made to Marjane Satrapi by starry-eyed critics, there was a sense among many that the book had its flaws, that it was trying too hard, that her best was yet to come. Writing for TEHELKA, Patil said Kari escaped being bonsaied by label and went on to find her own audience. She has written about being forced to take a stand on her own sexuality, saying that “if one believes in falling in love with people (as opposed to body parts), then I identify as gender oblivious. It irks some people, but I like it this way — unapologetic, but unlabelled.” Her rejection of labels, rooted in the essence of the Mahabharata, makes writing about her doubly difficult, deprived as one is of the crutches of easy classification. Clearly, she is not a typical graphic novelist; her scholastic approach suggests a very literary sensibility that could just as easily be seen in a conventional novelist.
A side-effect of Kari’s success helped in the making of Adi Parva: a residency, sponsored in part by the French Embassy in India, in Angoulême, the capital of the comics world. The residency was useful, she says, “as for the first time I could not make excuses and had to devote myself to this massive task”. She learnt how to paint and interacted with talented artists, leading to a visible difference in the quality of the visuals in the two books. Unlike the black and white aesthetic of Kari, Adi Parva tells the story in full colour, with charcoal depictions of the sutradhar scenes. The striking illustrations do justice to the scale of the story, and there are references for the keen eye to the works of Gauguin, Matisse and Botticelli, whose Birth of Venus is replicated in the form of Menaka breaking Vishwamitra’s penance.
Unlike the black and white aesthetic of Kari, Adi Parva tells the story in full colour, with charcoal depictions of the sutradhar scenes
Her keen sense of story and image may have been engendered — at bedtime story hour, her mother sketched illustrations on newsprint — but it has not been fostered by the burgeoning graphic novel genre. When asked why, she counters, “How can I answer that without being a complete snot? Technically, graphic novels are beautiful, but I’m not sure the content is up to the mark. I’m using the medium as a means to an end, as a storyteller’s device. I may never write a book with pictures after this trilogy.”
Ajachi Chakrabarti is a Correspondent with Tehelka.