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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Book review: Simian is a standard telling of the Ramayana

Vikram Balagopal’s graphic retelling of the Ramayana is imbued with an attractive psychological complexity

Updated: August 18, 2014 1:44:36 pm

Book: Simian
Author: Vikram Balagopal
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 260
Price: Rs 750

By: Orijit Sen

In Vikram Balagopal’s graphic novel Simian, Hanuman is a baboon, and the sun is the moon. But such distractions aside, it is a standard telling of the Ramayana, that stays largely true to the characters and events that form the core of Valmiki’s ageless tale.

The book opens with an encounter in a banana grove, as two mythologies meet, through the personages of Bhima and Hanuman, and there ensues a discussion on the shared central theme of their respective stories: war. As Bhima rages against his cousins and their deceitful ways, Hanuman reminds him that war ultimately presents but two choices — to either die for one’s moral values, or to live with compromised morality till one’s dying day. The ancients, it seems, were as obsessed with war as we are today, and just as unable to prevent it, despite their abundant knowledge of its horrors.

The storyteller of Simian is as deeply wonderstruck as he is wise, courageous as he is complex, impetuous as he is introspective; and casts his spell as we follow him from his early days in exile with Sugriva, through his heroic leap across the ocean, to his adventures in Lanka. In his preface, Balagopal says that he fashioned his story and its protagonist by drawing from a range of sources — starting from his grandmother’s oral accounts, to popular publications and scholarly translations. And this, perhaps, is what lends his telling a psychological complexity that is attractive in a very contemporary sense.

This ‘attractive complexity’ is wonderfully expressed through Balagopal’s bold visual style and penchant for cinematic editing. He retains a black and white graphic feel throughout, bringing in colour occasionally.
Juxtaposing masses of heavy black against spacious fields of white, he builds up detail with surprisingly fine line work and patches of dense, scratchy texture. The look and feel is minimal, but not overly so for a story that seems to demand mood, setting and characterisation at all times. Though Simian manages the overall balances rather well, Balagopal’s powerful visualisation is hobbled by a draftsmanship that at times proves inadequate for the task. There is nothing more distracting to the heady flow of narrative, for example, than having to stop and peer at something disturbing in the corner of the frame and wonder if it’s the arm of an intruder that has appeared on the scene, or merely some portion of the lizard one saw in the previous frame!

Given all the other fine qualities of this first work, I, for one, am disinclined to dwell overly on its shortcomings. However, it must be said that the art and craft of comics and graphic novels rest very heavily on rigorously executed drawing, and authors and publishers who do not, or will not, take their artwork to the highest possible levels ultimately do a disservice to themselves as well as to the slow but sure evolution of the form in this part of the world.

The episode of Hanuman entering Ravan’s palace at night to look for Sita is one of my favourite sections of the book. The moonlit silence of the pillar lined passages, the somnolent mystery of a darkened doorway, the sleeping women in the halls  “like blossoms strewn in a careless heap” are all hauntingly evoked, and transported me into another world. When Hanuman finally espies Sita, alone in the garden, from his vantage point on a tree branch, we too see her through his eyes, lying huddled below in the dappled light. Even as we strain along with him to pick out her features, our author drops us suddenly down to ground level, to give us the viewpoint of a caterpillar crawling past at that very moment. Sita’s face looms, filling the frame. Her eyes are open, glistening, moist; her lips parted as she stares, unfocussed, into dark space. This final, dramatic frame before we turn the page tells us all that we’ve wanted to know about Sita’s whereabouts and condition, from the first moment we learnt of her abduction more than a 100 pages ago. No words are needed. We will now turn the page, and the story will move onto a whole new phase. This is the magic of graphic narrative at its best.
Orijit Sen is a graphic novelist and artist living in New Delhi when not in Goa

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