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An amused Nicholas Wild is scanning the excited group of youngsters lining up for book signings. “I did not expect to have fans in India. I first thought people are just walking up to me because my name is written on the brochure,” says the French illustrator.
“But they were asking me questions about my books and travels and I thought, maybe I do have some readers in India. Some of them are quite scary too,” he says, in a thick French accent as a young girl demands that he draw “something from my book”.
Wild (pronounced Vield) is exhausted after an entire day of book signings at the recently-held Mumbai Film and Comic Con. He is the author of three autobiographical graphic novels, Kaboul Disco, Kabul Disco 2: How I Did Not Become an Opium Addict in Afghanistan and Thus Zarathustra Was Silent.
The stories follow him as a French expat — dodging mines, escaping bombings and kidnappings — to give an honest and witty account of his life in the world’s most conflict-ridden areas.
The idea for his books struck him when he took up a job in war-ridden Kabul in 2005. The first page of his book Kaboul Disco, shows a young, jobless, soon-to-be-homeless Wild waking up one morning to find an email offering him a social communications job as an illustrator of books. The catch? The job would be in Kabul. “I had no money, no job and no place to stay. So while Afghanistan was not my dream destination, I thought it would be a new experience.”
Wild recalls the warm reassurances the French people in Kabul sent him, “They told me not to worry about security. We have special life insurances that cover land mines and bombings. Who can say no to that?”
Wild, who was commissioned for a two-month assignment where he was required to illustrate a comic book to explain the Afghan constitution to children, ended up staying for two years. “I had only worked as a freelancer before so it was a really emotional moment to see my office with a desk and computer. Who knew my first office would be in a small building in Kabul,”
In his comic strips, Wild has captured the loud billboards on Kabul’s streets, beautiful structures in Afghanistan’s countryside and also the warmth of the people. “Afghan families have no qualms about letting a foreigner into their house, offering him food and maybe even opium,” he says, “I roamed the streets, made friends with the shopkeepers and learned Farsi and Dari.”
Wild also reveals that the insurgents and elements such as the Taliban or Al-Qaeda did not take too kindly to foreigners. Talking of the recent Peshawar attack, Wild says it is not easy making the distinction between good and bad in Afghanistan. “The people are scared. They often follow the person who is more powerful. Every 10 years, the baton of power switches hands,” he says.
A day of riots makes it to Wild’s second book, when the building they were staying in was being attacked by insurgents because the Americans had accidentally killed some civilians. “I was in my room, cowering from the sounds of the shooting. It was scary, but I also found it really funny.”
Finding humour in such dark moments can be tough, but Wild says that it is what the Afghans taught him. “They are all in this together. They stick together through the chaos and the humour that comes out of it is very dark, riddled with fear. They say war photographers often use their cameras as shields to protect themselves from the horrors they’re capturing. My stories protected me.”
In 2007, Wild returned to Kabul after a brief holiday in France, where he penned his second novel, Kabul Disco 2, on a campaign against opium that he was working on in Afghanistan. Later, he stayed in Iran for almost a year, where he turned investigator of the Zoroastrian community in Tehran, a book that took him three years to write.
He is currently working on the third book in the Kabul series, narrated by an English journalist who has an interesting story to share about the city. “I moved out of Afghanistan because I realised it was not safe after 2007. But I made some really good friends there and learnt a lot about the 21st century, much of which was written in these countries.”