Book Review: Humanising the Mahatma in the pages of a graphic novel

Book Review: Humanising the Mahatma in the pages of a graphic novel

By Keith Armando Gomes | | 15 April, 2017
A panel from the graphic novel, Tales of Young Gandhi, authored by Janhavi Prasada.
Tales of Young Gandhi, Janhavi Prasada’s new graphic novel, shifts focus from the public persona of Mahatma Gandhi to his formative years as a student of world politics, writes Keith A. Gomes.

Tales of Young Gandhi

Janhavi Prasada

Harper Collins India

Pages: 224

Price: Rs 499

There are two aspects which are pivotal while approaching a work of literature: form and matter. The two were proposed by Aristotle for all physical reality. But, in literature they act as means of accessing the work so as to make it more comprehensive. Matter is what the text constitutes and coveys, while form is the shape or medium it must use to convey meaning. In the case of most of literature, it is the written word that becomes the form, but in the case of some works the medium could differ from the usual. In Janhavi Prasada’s Tales of Young Gandhi, a graphic novel, the form is more complex: composit of the written word and artwork. The challenges of this form are multifarious, and can be easily neglected by most; a task that Prasada has taken on, quite bravely.

Will Eisner, who is the father of this form, in the introduction of his graphic novel A Contract with God, emphasised his break from the form of the comic book because he found it too deeply entwined with superheroes, which, according to Eisner, didn’t account as serious literary matter. His break from the comic book, and the coming of the graphic novel, is about using the graphic novel as a form of serious art — a literary art of gravitas, and to expresses themes of “ordinary” lives. It is this very beginning that Prasada’s work maintains loyalty with: her work wishes to understand the Mahatma as an ordinary human being. 

Janhavi Prasada

Tales of Young Gandhi takes the Mahatma (Maha= great, Atma= soul/spirit) and humanises him to the extent of making him accessible, comprehensive and demystified. Gandhi’s struggles of becoming a Mahatma are openly narrated, with utmost attempts made to maintain integrity and honesty. There is an evident effort made to stay as close as possible to how Gandhi saw his life and not how a third person, who tries to act as narrator, saw it.

The introduction of the work, which is in the form of a series of panels, where the author tries to ask her father about Gandhi, enables the reader to gain a direction and grants a purpose to the whole act of reading and visually indulging in this graphic novel. What is also worthy of acknowledgement is the fact that the author sets the introduction in terms of the contemporary state of affairs, where reality has become too “abstract and hard to grasp”, especially the problems that plague us. This sets up another important facet of the work: the story is made palpable.

The graphic novel by Prasada holds the reader primarily due to its matter. Many of us have learnt of Gandhi from school textbooks, discussions and conversations with people. The problem is that their details have been governed by the subject: primarily projecting Gandhi as the freedom fighter and Mahatma. The novelty is in taking up Gandhi’s life: as a child he struggled with his shyness, which lasted all his life.

The primary challenge of the graphic novel, other than the preliminary issues of plot and how to represent it in art and words, is organising the text on the panels. The text is broadly divided into two areas: narration, which informs the reader with details like where the protagonist is, what is going on, what the time is, and dialogues, which carry the substance of the characters with them. What happens then is that the reader begins to face difficulties as to who said what, in what order must one go, and which bubble relies upon which one for what it tries to says. The best method to get around this problem is to reduce the number of bubbles in a panel, thereby making it easy for the reader to follow. It, also, is easier when the bubbles are organised in a linear order. It is here that Tales of Young Gandhi gets caught in the draft. There come to pass certain panels during the read, especially when the life of Gandhi engrosses you due to its sheer normality, where the reader fumbles and gets confused with where to begin from and where to move to: which bubble to read first and which after.

Prasada’s graphic novel uses simple visuals: on white background, black marks are made to draw the characters and, over this, shadows of black and deep brown are added to provide depth. The visuals work successfully at representing the story of Gandhi.  The visuals in a graphic novel act as an appendage to imagination by granting them more definition and it is this goal that is successfully met. In Gandhi’s story there are many facets which glean through brilliantly via the artwork. Matters like the locations, which range from London, South Africa to villages in India, are simple in their pictorial representation and the clothing which is of significance is represented precisely to help the reader understand Gandhi’s varying outlooks.

The graphic novel, by Prasada, holds the reader primarily due to its matter. Many of us have learnt of Gandhi from school textbooks, discussions and conversations with people. The problem is that their details have been governed by the subject: primarily putting Gandhi in the light of the freedom fighter and Mahatma. The novelty is in taking up Gandhi’s life: as a child he struggled with his shyness, which lasted all his life. As an adolescent his experiments with smoking, meat-eating and even theft are presented in a somewhat endearing light. Gandhi’s approach to matters of sexual indulgence, marriage, jealousy and petty quarrels all humanise him in the eyes of a reader who only knows Gandhi the Mahatma who is on the bills of exchange. The book has been neatly divided into the different stages of Gandhi’s life, in accordance with his age, his location and the issues he dealt with. The book also provides some very interesting material on Gandhi’s experiment with meals and his study of religion and morality.

Tales of Young Gandhi, is in accord with Prasada’s aims to make Gandhi comprehensive, so as to make him palpable and thus inspirational. The book makes for a riveting read of an endearing Gandhi who resembles us all, but outdoes most due to his dedication to work on himself and society, always with the aim of improvement. 

 

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