Emergency sketches

Vijay Prashad is a historian, author and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, an inter-movement research organisation based in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, New Delhi and São Paulo. He is also the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and a fellow at the Independent Media Institute. As a journalist, he writes for Frontline, the Hindu, and Turkey’s BirGün. He has been associated with Himal Southasian since its inception.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh's Delhi is not restricted to the wide avenues near Akbar Road, nor to the exalted addresses of Defence Colony or Golf Links. Those parts of Delhi are important, certainly, but these are not his centre. Ghosh's map shifts outward, away from Connaught Place, toward Ajmal Khan Road or Mall Road, streets that during the 1970s had electricity and telephone wires strung between poles. It is these wires, and the narrow lanes they circumscribe, that frame Ghosh's drawings of Delhi. Here, in these other avenues and roads, the side stories of the Emergency play out.

As the novel commences, Parliament is put into a coma, and one of our lead characters, VP, must go to work as usual. He has opened his day in the customary fashion, with Karl Marx and Mohammad Rafi. But when he steps outside, nothing is as it was. It is 26 June 1975. Delhi is to be calm. 'The President has declared Emergency,' Indira Gandhi has announced, 'There is nothing to panic about.' VP is a journalist, but his newspaper no longer exists. The Censor has spoken. Delhi is calm because it has been forced to be silent. But the quiet does not last long. VP meets up with his old comrade, Parvez. Clandestine papers need to be delivered. VP is cautious, Parvez insistent. The story unfolds.

Ghosh's novel is structured around two poles: on one side is the epic political battle between Moon (Indira Gandhi) and the Prophet (Jayaprakash Narayan), and on the other are the mundane lives of everyday activists caught in the extraordinary period of the Emergency. The variation in tempo between these two poles is beautifully captured in the way Ghosh tells the two stories, and the way he draws them. Moon and Prophet come to us as if in a dreamy memory: the drawings are set in a faux newsreel from the Indian government's Films Division, and the text is something that might have come from the pen of Ezra Mir or Jean Bhownagary – the magician, actor, writer and filmmaker who set up the first animation unit in India in the 1950s. There is even an echo with S Sukhdev's 1958 film for the Films Division, The Saint and the Peasant, about land-reform movements led by the philosopher and Gandhian, Acharya Vinoba Bhave. The pen portraits of Moon and Prophet stay close to biography but veer off here and there – ironically, playfully (remember that the Amar Chitra Katha on Jayaprakash Narayan comes to a magical end as the Emergency starts, which is another way of playing with reality, hiding what is perhaps unpleasant for the publishers). Neither Moon nor Prophet comes off without blemish, or without humanity.

The other pole, that of our activist friends, comes in sepia, much darker, less cinematic. VP, Mala, Parvez, Master and the others struggle to find their feet in resistance, or at least in survival. They have to dodge the havaldar, the sterilisation-wallahs, the intelligence moles and other assorted characters. Ghosh captures the banality of life in a time of a crisis: coffee must be drunk, golgappas must be eaten, queues must be formed and children must be taught. Life goes on. Moon cannot vanquish the spirit. Our band plots to end the Emergency, to end all human pain.

Our activists are educated people, led by the Master, who is able to make a living giving tuitions. Of course, these radicals are not identical to the People, and find themselves worrying about the gap between the latter and the Radicals. Both Moon and the Prophet have made claims to carry the people's mantle. From the perspective of the streets, as opposed to that of the podium, it is not easy to be cavalier about such political ventriloquism. Was one speaking for the people, or in their name? Our band worries about this, earnestly. 'That night, in my dreams, old man Marx appeared, smiled and whispered, "Omnia dubitandum" – "Doubt everything" – and disappeared.' It is not easy to be oblivious to the twists and turns of the consciousness of the people when one is engaged in organising them. Because Ghosh locates so much of his story in the side roads, we are given regular cautions against the belief that the people are automatically for this or that ideology.

Between the newsreel and the sepia city is a band of commedia dell'arte buffoons, their faces hidden behind masks. They are the Smiling Saviours, the ground troops of Sanjay Gandhi ('Prince'), eager to shove reality behind the mask (there is much in the Saviours of the Emergency's Youth Congress). The Saviours are ubiquitous: peering around the corner, pushing the poor to get sterilised at Dojana House (where Rukshana Sultana awaits them), or pushing those who live in the slums around Turkmen Gate out of the city. Moon and Prince both chant the mantras of socialism, but in sum try to give the city's well-heeled their trees, their wide boulevards and their modern landscape (absent beggars and slums). Ghosh portrays the sinister edge of the Emergency without fanfare: there is no Scream, only the plastic mask of the Saviours which is ubiquitous, making the act of complaint anti-national. 'Every country gets the fascism it deserves,' wrote Aijaz Ahmad. India's version, circa 1975, did not come in jackboots, but in khadi.

Slow pace of life
Ghosh is a part of an exciting group of graphic novelists called the Pao Collective. It includes Amitabh Kumar, Orijit Sen (River of Stories, 1994), Sarnath Banerjee (Corridor, 2004 and The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers, 2007), Parismita Singh (The Hotel at the End of the Earth, 2009) and Ghosh himself. Each has a unique style, a distinctive voice. What seems to unite them (apart from work on an anthology that they are preparing for publication later this year) is a dedication to style and story.

To expect all those who draw their stories to produce books with caped crusaders or prepubescent adventurers is to expect all those who use prose to generate pulp fiction in the style of James Hadley Chase or the Mills & Boon stable. To make distinctions between different types of comics (or prose) is not to repeat the tired debate between 'high' and 'low' art – it simply means engaging with different forms of storytelling, some that are driven by the urgency of the plot (the need to rescue the innocent from evil), and others that are focused far more in the characters and their development. Ghosh, and others in the Pao Collective, seem to have a far deeper literary bent, not particularly interested in Manichean oppositions (good, evil) that require a hasty narrative pace. Their work is slower, simply because they are interested in elements of human life that do not move as fast as the Batmobile or Hanuman in full flight.

One cannot say enough about Ghosh's style. In 2009, Blaft published a whimsical book authored by him, titled Times New Roman & Countrymen. It was a collection of 25 gorgeous postcards, in which Ghosh brought together the classified advertisement and the Hindi film poster, the sidewalk educational poster and the aesthetic of Raja Ravi Varma. It remains a treat to sit down with that book. Ghosh's cover for Dilip Simeon's new novel, Revolutionary Highway (2010), is another good example of his sense of humour, with Mao at the centre of a collage, blessing Ma Kali.

Delhi Calm is more serious, able to carry the weight of a difficult history, to show us the fissures and the possibilities. Underlying the tensions is a puckish sense of humour. The novel ends with a joke: The Emergency is over. A policeman finds our friends on the streets, at night. He challenges them. They say that they are in search of dope, Manali stuff. He yells at them. They walk on, 'That was close.'

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