China as metaphor in graphic novel

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : China – the land that lies just across the mountains of northeastern India – is a strong metaphor in Parismita Singh’s Assamese graphic novel “The Hotel At the End of the World”.

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It is business as usual at the hotel as Pema dishes up rice and pork curry to travellers, who stop by for a drink and refuge from the rain. Everyone has a story to tell and at times they end up revealing more than they want to.

China comes across as an illusive land that beckons. The road to it is full of adventure, suffering, myths and terror, writes Singh, a grassroots education worker in Assam.

Kona and Kuja, two friends from a village, stumble upon the trail of the floating island – the promised land of plenty – on their way to China but they end up in the hotel instead, after losing their mobile phone signal and their way in the rain.

Pema, who is curious about China and also longs to see the mythical lake island, opens up about the love, pain and loss in her life, while her husband recalls World War II in Manipur. The couple, however, is resigned to their hotel and life.

A prophet, who is a guest at the hotel, makes prophecies and a little girl who comes to work in the hotel chances upon a terrorist hideout. The action unfolds as the guests are trapped inside the little hotel in the rain. The tanks roll out along the Sino-Indian border and there is gunfire at night.

The day after, the rain stops. Kona and Kuja set out again in search of the lake and China.

Singh’s debut novel reads like a Buddhist fable – nuanced with local lores and drawings that rivet the reader.

Singh creates a world that is different from the one we inhabit. It draws from local folklore, artwork, comics of World War II vintage and personal experiences that mingle with fantasy and philosophy to create a powerful pictorial narrative.

The concept of China, explains the writer, is an idea lifted straight out of popular culture. It is not her own invention.

“The ‘Hotel…’ is my first full-length book. I had earlier written a short story which was shortlisted for the Time Little Magazine award in 2006,” Singh told IANS.

The writer is not a trained artist. “I did not go to art school but I have always drawn as a child. It is something I always enjoyed,” she said. It took her two-and-a-half years to complete the novel.

Reading a graphic novel is slightly different from reading a conventional book, says Singh. “You have to learn to read pictures first and then read the text along with it. One has to develop two skills at a time.

“One of the reasons why I decided on a graphic novel was to reach out to a wider audience. Lots of people who don’t usually read books can pick it up and read. Graphic novels are like reading comic books.”

But she thinks a graphic novel is more difficult to conceive. “I had to put in rigorous hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It needed two drafts. First, I made the rough draft, it was chaotic. It was mostly drawings. Then there was the second draft in which I put the two together,” says Singh.

The writer refuses to comment on the multiple layers that she has woven into her book – border politics, the social milieu, the northeastern way of life, turmoil, shutdowns and insurgency, poor connectivity, economic and educational backwardness.

“I am not going to disclose the geography, borders or the politics in the book. It is up to the reader to find out for themselves. I was deliberately ambiguous. The more I talk about the book, the more it will detract from it. People ask me all kind of things,” Singh says.

The “Hotel…” has been published by Penguin Books India this month. Singh is now working on a graphic short story for “The Pao’s Collective”, an anthology of illustrated stories that a group of graphic designers-cum-writers are trying to put together.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])