Author: Gautam Bhatia
Illustrator: Shankar Lal Bhopa, Birju Lal and Ghansham
Published: 2010 by Tranqebar
No. of Pages: 182
Subthemes: Socio-politics in India
The idea of India seen through stories in soap operas, phone calls, prayer rooms and mythologies, lies subverted in the interconnected, non-coherent narratives of “Lie”. Bhatia’s novel set in modern day Bihar, filled with rich visual imagery in miniature art style is the story of happy caste-matched marriages, and backstories of ‘underdogs’ that rise from Prime Ministerial Elections to Kaun Banega Crorepati. The center of “Lie” contains a sprawling image of an aeroplane, with its constituent parts of detached high living — from swimming to golfing into an Indian flag; or sitting at a table of power.
The story is an irreverent, ironic take on a fictional India scenario where Bihar – often dubbed as the microcosm of the India’s socio-political underbelly, with its corruption, ambivalence and double-edged social justice – comes across as a “karmabhoomi” brimming with look-alikes of Jayaprakash Narayan and Lalu Prasad, who appear in post-modern eccentric avatars.
The book begins with two parallel events: the collapse of villager Ali Baba’s family in a fateful fire in Bihar and the lavish wedding of a Patna-based smuggler-turned freedom fighter Sati Mishra’s son Rocky in Taj Mahal. Rocky, the smuggler, becomes politician Bhola Mishra, post-wedding and subsequently a minister after a rigged electoral sweep. Rekha Pande, the winner of a popular national television reality show, becomes prime minister and clamps emergency on the country. She tries to gag freedom activist Ali Baba while the policemen are busy upholding the duties of a normal day. The characters resemblances to personages of the current times is too quirky to be missed.
While Monster Bhola’s long-suffering wife has to live with her mother-in-law, who consigns her granddaughters to the most inconvenient waste bins. Rekha who once plied the world’s oldest profession, further introduces a five-point programme to improve the lives of women.
Filled with austerity, tradition and nationalism, it becomes a roller coaster amidst executions, denial of basic rights, and clamping down freedom of expressions. The text is funny and the illustrations are simple in a rather 17th century style.
Hence, this graphic novel is a “Traditional Tale of a Modern India”, composed of interweaving myths of freedom fighters and power holders, of underdogs screaming for power and leaders getting assassinated to tell India’s story complicated stories.
In Nationalism and the Imagination, Spivak says how storytelling through folk songs adopts an oral-formulaic approach — equating multiple voices and ideas to paint their mind’s picture of a place. Bhatia, an architect by profession, weaves in Rajasthani Folk Artists to form a set of miniature paintings that equate to such a form of storytelling.
Under the umbrella of Satire, what takes precedence is the way of storytelling, between panels that are of regular square shape but with irregular patterns of placing. Narratives weave around an image, with two ends contrasting and yet moving, to grotesque heaping of people in frames. The images create a disturbing ensemble epic of “Lie” by repeating dissections that exaggerate decadence to the point of overflow — alienating notions of traditional India.
But “Lie” if absorbed entirely, would make readers skeptical about the notion of narrative creation itself and allow them to see their world not as a sum, but a dumping of convergent and divergent paths. And yet the the text and the graphic constantly negotiates between subversion and the miniature, revealing rather familiar lies.
The search for narratives subverts as the story of the other, divergent India — ripe with contradictions between peace and violence, alms and bribery, violence and catharsis, destroys what anyone believes to be constructed truth about India.
The notion of tracing narratives to “common pasts” maintains a union with othering. Maybe “Lie”, through its subversion and disturbance, presents a cure. It is worth your read, be it to find a story, or to explore a web of history within interconnected realities. The genius of the novel then is stretching truth to an extent, that it becomes a lie.