Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land
Price: Rs 599
Two Bengali men are in conversation, purportedly about one of the Bengali intellectual’s many Pepsi-Coke debates: Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak? One of them is waxing eloquent: “Take Ray. Filmmaker, author, designer, typographer. A master in full control of his craft. An auteur. Or Ghatak. Distilling the essence of a whole generation’s fractured identity into a handful of films.” But the next line, where this goateed young man starts talking about Tagore, we see what he is doing while having this conversation: he zips up his trousers and says: “Kolkata is indeed the cultural capital of the world. We Bengalis have left our mark where it matters.” We see the pool of urine that he has left even as he finishes his little monologue.
The above one-page comic strip first appeared on the popular Indian webcomic Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land in 2010. It is also the first page of their eponymous collection, published recently by HarperCollins. For the last five years, this webcomic, written by an anonymous writer/designer team, has been the source of some exceptional, pitch-perfect satires in India. But Bengali chauvinism is just one part of the story (the name is a transliteration of “jawle kumeer, dangaye baagh”: a Bangla saying that means the same thing as “caught between a rock and a hard spot”): CWTL’s makers have lampooned politicians from across the aisles, it has ripped into some typically upper middle-class hypocrisies and it has also, from time to time, reflected on the privileges of droll Internet commentators such as themselves. The collection under review represents their best work.
CWTL followers will recognise the motley bunch of unnamed characters that appear regularly in the webcomic: the bearded guy with the ponytail who lives with this mother, for instance. In the book, we meet him for the first time in a two-page strip that criticises a tendency among the privileged classes: to make pithy speeches about merit and how they had to work oh-so-hard to get where they have, when in reality everything they possess was attained without much effort. We see the bearded guy in the middle of a lecture he is delivering on the phone.
“It’s not your fault, boys. It’s me. I spoil you. Things used to be different when I was your age. I was thrown into the deep end. And you know what? It made me strong. Hard. My bosses gave me no quarter. My neck was on the line from day one. But you… you are all so sheltered. Like chi—”
A lot of strips open with extreme close-ups of the characters, often no more than just a face and the beginnings of a torso: the emphasis is on the words, not the circumstances.
At this point, he is cut off and picked up by his mother, who is drawn comically larger than him. He protests, “Mother! Don’t do that!” But the mother strikes back: “Then stop moving. Mama’s trying to powder your back.”
A word about CWTL’s modus operandi is in order here. A lot of strips open with extreme close-ups of the characters, often no more than just a face and the beginnings of a torso: the emphasis is on the words, not the circumstances. For instance, we do not see that the Ray/Ghatak debater is urinating on the road. We do not see that the ponytailed guy is being bathed by his mother. This visual trick is an old one but still going strong: Daniel Clowes, for instance, uses it quite a bit in Wilson, his last graphic novel. In the context of societies like India, such a technique is especially relevant, because the level of inequality in developing techno-capitalist societies like ours often results in blinkered, frog-in-a-well viewpoints. As such, nothing should be taken at face value: investigating bias and social privilege is paramount. And this is what this technique does: by presenting a point of view both with and without context, CWTL shows us just how words can be manipulated to swing between even polar opposites.
There are so many old favourites here, comic jewels extraordinaire: a hilarious spoof of Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation drive, a darkly comic take on former External Affairs minister S.M. Krishna’s famous gaffe at a UN Security Council Meeting in February 2011 (he started reading his Portuguese counterpart’s speech for several minutes before he caught on), a scathing critique of over-the-top Durga Pooja celebrations (the most recent CWTL strip is a sequel to this one)… the hits just keep coming.
CWTL has only improved over the years: because this collection is arranged in chronological order, this much is obvious. If the makers can add endurance to their checklist, it has the potential to be a bona fide classic.