For those who dismiss the graphic novel as just a comic masquerading as a book, Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s book will return the medium to literature. He is at ease being at once an artist and a writer. The combination of the two in a single story can either lift the effort to a deeper understanding of the story, or reduce it to a mumbo jumbo of incoherence. Ghosh’s visual acuity gives the book an edge that wouldn’t be possible in a wordy narration.
Centred on the Emergency, Delhi Calm is a tirade against the excesses of extremism—the national anthems, the prayers, the speeches that mark national holidays. It charts the short but trying period of the 1970s, raging against all the sins of the time. It begins with the rise of Mother Moon, or Indira Gandhi, and all the thinly veiled characters of her life: Jawaharlal Nehru, the barrister father living in the House of Joy, Anand Bhavan, writing letters to his daughter in Barrister Memoirs; the prince, Sanjay Gandhi, a bully with limited intelligence and unlimited power, and provided with extra-constitutional measures rather than unconstitutional ones; a government that chases ordinary people with blades and injections, asking them to ‘Think Freely but Obey’, then issuing certificates for the Responsible Indian. Arrests are made, but anticipatory bails are sold by street vendors. The State is run by Smiling Saviours, masked faces enlisted for the cause.
Against them, an unseen revolutionary prophet struggles with his socialist cause and the hope of returning India to real democracy. But the State always wins. VP, the story’s protagonist, continues to write his radical poetry and believe, but is eventually arrested at Red Fort for passing information to a foreigner. Finally, all voices are stilled; comrades are sterilised or arrested. Or they become part of the system. You are either with us or dead. The Emergency takes no prisoners.
There have been many books on the Emergency, but none expressed graphically. When drawn, the dark hours can bring a sinister desperation to the written word. So catastrophic were those days to people who believed that their entitlement to democratic freedoms was a birthright, that the Emergency has become a serious blot on India’s post-Independence urban psyche.
Ghosh is a gifted artist, unafraid to express himself, even in the most audacious ways. His earlier drawings of Gandhi created enough of a stir in a Paris exhibition, and later at the Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. The fiendish sketches he produced in Comic Century, a book authored by someone else, lifted the banal and often tedious text into a crazed and maniacal setting. Delhi Calm is drawn with a deftness and skill that only Ghosh can bring to the page. The murky dark times are sketched in a muddy sepia wash that taints and tints the scenario with a uniform greyness.
The story, however, suffers in one small way. The excesses of the Emergency also become the excesses of the book. For too long, the reader is made to swim unaided through the slimy waters. Nowhere is there an attempt to either lighten the refrain, or darken it further with more sinister excesses. A specialist in visual excesses, Ghosh’s virtuosity with the brush could have shifted the focus to an entirely fictional frontier and a less straightforward rendition of history. Had he delivered a more personal and less ideological perspective, the story may have ended differently. But his allegiance to the truth was perhaps a choice he made as an artist and not a writer. For this and all the fear that the images evoke, Ghosh’s book remains a stark reminder of a time most urban Indians refuse to forget.