Thursday, April 22, 2010

The 'Different' Storyteller

When I was asked to do an interview of Parismita Singh, I had just a fair recollection that a friend of mine had earlier told me that she had recently released a graphic novel. A graphic novel by an Assamese writer sounded quite fancy to me. But it almost immediately slipped out of my mind then. When her name was mentioned to me the second time, I had heard that her graphic novel “The Hotel at the End of the World” (2009) was getting very good reviews among the literary circles. And when I finally met her for the interview, I came to know that it was nominated for the Shakti Bhakt First Book Prize.

Parismita, 30, who is now settled in Delhi and works in the education sector, initially came across as the reserved type in contrast to the boisterous image of writers that I had in mind. But as the talks progressed, I realized that I was talking to someone who was more conscious of her work speaking rather than her herself doing all the talks. As a first-timer novelist, Parismita has really taken a step into the sphere that is less-trodden, not just among the North-eastern, but among the Indian circles as well. Graphic novels as a genre of story-telling are quite a less-explored zone in this country. For Parismita, graphic novels are only a way of expressing a message or a story through words and pictures and not really some out-of-the-world sort of thing as some people may think. “It is just a genre orientation to work with,” said Parismita, “Art is something which I have always liked and I decided to explore it through a graphic novel for my first book.”

Parismita hails from Biswanath Chariali in Sonitpur District of Assam, from where she did her initial schooling. She later completed her schooling from Mayo College in Ajmer, Rajasthan. She then went to Delhi University where she did her graduation from the prestigious St. Stephen’s College. The intellectual environment provided by Stephen’s led Parismita to experience different genres, and also led her to explore her artistic capabilities. “Although I always enjoyed writing and art, I was never into the comic book sort. I was never into the Batman or Superman kind of stuff.” says Parismita. It was also during her graduation years that Parismita had her first brush with graphic novels. “Some of my friends were really into graphic novels,” said Parismita, “and their enthusiasm led me to explore this theme in depth.” She fondly remembers her most favorite graphic novel from those times- Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” which she describes as being “class-apart” from the rest. Another graphic novel which she strongly recommends is the series of graphic novels on the Buddha by Japanese graphic novelist Osamu Tezuka.

Her book “The Hotel at the End of the World” tells the story of a hotel in a nowhere land somewhere in the North-east. And the story is taken forward by a group of travelers who have their own stories to take the plot forward. The rather scratchy and angular images of the book which are in Black &White have such cultural connotations to the North-east that the reader keeps getting transformed into the rain-soaked hilly terrains of the North-eastern region that the book implies. But then again, there are no direct references as to where in the world exactly are the events in the book set.

So we have a host of characters who are from different ethnic backgrounds and in some cases, it is rather difficult to make out who they really are. For Parismita, keeping the cultural anonymity of the characters and the location in the book was a requirement. For her, it was integral to the strength of the story that the setting of the story be nameless that they may give away a feeling not just of any place in the north-east but of anywhere in the world. “Many people have been actually intrigued by the setting of the story,” says Parismita, “There have been so many questions asked about the location that my publishers gave me a hard time asking me to give in a locational setting of the story in the book. But thankfully I managed to keep the anonymity intact.”

The story and the treatment given to it give out the impression that the inspirations are myriad. There are numerous references to the North-east in the book. A road to China, a mythical floating island that holds everybody’s attention, cell phone networks getting jammed due to the incessant rains and last but not the least, Japanese soldiers who keep dreaming of the snows on Mt. Echigo are forced to fight a battle in the “land of rain and jungle” are strong references to the North-eastern region. Parismita does agree that the references point out in the right direction, but is yet again puzzled over the demand for authentication of the location. The influences have been many, she informs, and they have been taken rather randomly. This is seen by the strong presence of the Buddhist art that creeps into certain places in the storyline. “I agree that the storyline has many inspirations,” says Parismita, “But this is just another story that I had in mind and decided to give the shape of a graphic novel. I am not doing a reworked version of folktales from the region. So nobody can really point if a certain part of the story has been inspired from a so-and-so legend or folktale.”

“My basis of inspiration for the characterizations has been many. Some of which are from the old stories which our elders narrated to us when we were children.” said Parismita. This was evident as she has dedicated the book to her grandmother Durgamoni Saikia. She further said that the character of the Night Walker whom death sends to gather people’s souls is a familiar figure to the people of the region. Also, Kona and Kuja are Assamese folktale characters whom she modified to suit the storyline. “I once met a lady in Guwahati who told me that the original Kuja is a hunchback and not legless as I had depicted.” she said. “It is true that the names are the same. But that is where all the similarities actually end away.” She says that more inspirations for the characters came up when she saw a man carrying another on his shoulders at the AIIMS crossing in Delhi. That was when she started to conjure up the first images of Kona and Kuja as they appear now in the book.

Although having released her first book as a graphic novel, Parismita finds little difference between a graphic novel and a comic book in terms of graphical treatment. “I could have considered myself as a comic book writer,” said Parismita, “But then comic books are lighter fairs and graphic novels are more intense and serious in their nature and story treatment. Plus, in our country have a strong prejudice towards comic books as being things of amateurish or childish nature. And this also affects the way in which graphic novels are viewed as well.” She further informs us that earlier graphic novel writers had a really hard time selling their stories. “Part of this was the non-enthusiastic attitude of the publishers who saw no market in it. “Some years back, graphic novel writers were struggling to sell to find a publisher for their stories,” she said, “Also if a publisher was found, then the next big hurdle would be to convince book shops in to keeping them for sale. But thankfully now the situation is changing. Plus, I was really lucky to find a supportive publisher like Penguin.” She believes that the attitude towards graphic novels will change totally in a few years time and we will have more graphic novels from Indian authors in the near future. “I just hope the constant linking of a graphic novel to comic books end up.” said Parismita with a sense of desperation in her voice.

If there is one thing that Parismita finds puzzling as well as annoying, is to be slotted. “One review of my book described me as an ‘Assamese graphic novelist.’ I found it rather strange as I had written the book in English.” said Parismita. But here she also added that she would love it if her book is translated into Assamese. “It was my resentment at being slotted that I decided to keep the location of the story as nameless.” said Parismita, “I really didn’t want this book to appear as a story from one particular area of the region. My fun as an author comes when people read the book and make their guesses.” She also said that she will “always be an Assamese.” But still she wouldn’t want the book to be tagged to the Assamese slot because of her regional background. For Parismita, it is more important that people accept the book as any other book ignoring the regional connotations it may give away.

Here’s wishing Parismita Singh all the best with her book and also hoping that we will see more fascinating work from her in the near future.

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