GOOGLE MAPS is having a bad day. It has run into a dead end, gone round in circles and finally dropped me at the feet of the cantankerous mamma dog of 4th Cross, Kodihalli. Even at the risk of being snapped at, I’d say it’s a good sign. Machines can trip up, and that’s a thought that cheers as I take the lift to graphic novelist Appupen’s studio in Bengaluru. There is no such solace in The Snake and the Lotus (Context, Rs 799), his new novel, where machines and artificial intelligence are in total control of a dying planet and a broken human race. “There are no good humans in this world. In Halahala, we have no pretensions,” says the 38-year-old writer-artist with a chuckle.
A tattered CPI(M) flag, picked up on his travels to Kerala, flutters on the kitchen window. Bruised a mud brown, the flag still stands out in this eyrie, which is crammed with books, eye-catching art and posters. Those who have journeyed to the fantastical world of Halahala would know that the hammer-and-sickle fits right in the graphic novelist’s studio. In a series of books, beginning with Moonward in 2009, Legends of Halahala (2013) and Aspyrus: A Dream of Halahala (2014), Appupen created a vivid alternative universe that is slowly being consumed by consumerism.
The crisis accelerates in The Snake and the Lotus, over 260 full pages of intricate black-and-white illustrations inspired by the woodcut art of Lynd Ward. It also marks a departure from Appupen’s earlier near-silent works. He created a new typography to represent the voice of the narrator, who is not human, but a being who hears the call of the “dying green”. His template was the mysterious symbols in an old copy of JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit.
The end of Halahala is nigh, as humans have chosen to be enslaved by machines rather than opt out of a lifestyle that has destroyed nature. “The smartest species on the planet has come up with a plan. To go out in a ball of smoke rather than make it possible for life to continue on Halahala,” says Appupen. Humans now work in shiny lotus-shaped cities, which are surrounded by mountains of debris of the past. “At the start, I drew two-three pages filled with broken things—all our ideologies, books, thoughts, philosophy, everything is broken. Because it will go. We should know that it will go,” says Appupen.
Having signed such a Faustian bargain, humans have been stripped of language, which “has a history of creating problems among people and [which can also turn them] against machines.” In the city, a “white voice” flicks them around on the leash of a “completely functional” language. “They know names of places, or things to do, but the grammar and the flow of language is gone,” says Appupen. Appropriately for a dying race, they have lost the ability for sexual pleasure and contact, though not sexual violence.
An old habit remains: inequality. The greyfolk run the city with their free labour, and work hard to please the city. The godlings live a luxurious life in the white towers, where greyfolk aren’t allowed. Everyone drinks the same Kool-Aid: milk from a mutated lotus plant. They worship the white temple, and seek to be united with the voice.
While Aspyrus was about how the capitalist dream has colonised Halahala, The Snake and the Lotus, says the artist, shows the coming together of religion, thought control and the corporate machine-state. “I was also trying to look at the idea of bhakti. Because that’s the politics now. It takes off from BR Ambedkar’s statement, where he warns about bhakti in politics as a way towards dictatorship. He said that if you give someone so much power to one man, he will become a god. And that’s what is happening. But it is a bit like George Orwell’s 1984. He did warn, but who heard the warning and acted on it?” he says, laughing.
For a man who does not flinch from the future, Appupen aka George Mathen laughs a lot. That puckish sense of humour comes up often in our hour-long conversation, which ranges over the laid-back languor of Bengaluru to the tracking devices we carry on ourselves (smartphones) and why the future of implants in the brain are not too far away. “There are software companies who are right now working on microscopic parts that can slip into your skin and travel through your vein to the brain, just like a drug. They say they will use it to control violent prisoners and all. But eventually, they will put it into my head and I will want to drink Coke all the time,” he says.
What explains this abiding interest in dystopia? Appupen will turn back and ask why others cannot see what is hidden in plain sight. “Dystopia is the wrong word. Whenever we reflect on what is happening in the real world, it is dismissed as a dystopia and a conspiracy. Where I was, when I started thinking about these things, is the other dystopia. What do we try to create in ads? What kind of a world are we showing in billboards? Where does that exist? That is the dystopia. And all creative people are being used to sell it,” he says. Fresh out of college in Mumbai in 2001, Appupen worked in an advertising firm for a year. Aspyrus draws on that experience to show how unchecked middle-class aspiration is corralled to make profits. It also allows him a sharp understanding of the physics of propaganda and mass-messaging.
Not surprisingly, Appupen is no favourite with his extended family, who think “he is depressed, when I am poking holes in their comfort”. That need to question came from growing up in Kottayam, and soaking in the Communist culture of Kerala, where, Appupen says, hero worship is laughable. It also had a lot to do with attending the Corpus Christi High School, a progressive school run by Mary Roy, an educationist and campaigner for the rights of Christian women. “Her way of looking at the world influenced me. We would be performing street plays all the time, against domestic violence or other causes. I wanted to become an actor,” he says.
The world of comics claimed him early enough. Appupen says he grew up on a diet of Malayalam comics, from Govindan Aravindan’s Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum (Small World, Big People), which ran for 13 years from 1961 to 1973 in Mathrubhumi Weekly, to VT Thomas’s Boban and Molly (“Calvin Hobbes meets Tom and Jerry”) and, of course, the myth-making of Amar Chitra Katha. Some of those tattered first copies he still has. But he rues that the culture of accessible comics has run its course. “All the comics cost Rs 1000 minimum. We have to break out of that, that is killing the scene,” he says. Appupen wants to start by putting out his RashtraMan stories in a cheaper comic-book format. His most explicit take on contemporary Hindutva politics, RashtraMan is a superhero who helps keep Rashtria under control with a combination of violence, cow worship and militant nationalism.
There are few superheroes in Halahala, and little promise of human redemption. “Individuals can be heroic, but we have destroyed that premise,” Appupen says. Smashing the idea of the superhero into shards in his work is a conscious political stance. “I don’t want the kind of superhero who is showing himself off. That’s not the superhero we believe in anymore, because we know where he goes. He buys out and becomes a Hollywood movie,” he says. Or he becomes the vigilante warrior of Rashtria. “He can become the king, the god. That kind of worship we should we wary of,” he says.
The future that Halahala draws for us might already be there. Is already here, Appupen says. “A large part of the commercial existence is just this. In between every chapter, I have drawn a lotus, but it is a different lotus—that is the illusion of choice, you see. You can choose whichever one you want, as long as you choose the lotus,” he says.