If you ask me, there are too many details about my life that I find fascinating, right on the verge of wanting to write thinly-guised autobiographical stories. I don’t however, either because of self-loathing (PhD level), or the realization that I wouldn’t want to read a story about everyone who thinks they are special. Anything autobiographical needs to be handled with supreme caution and delicacy.
I did get attracted to a recent autobiographical comic-book in the market. The lion’s share of the credit for that must go to its whimsical title, “The Itch You Can’t Scratch”. But, alas, the title was the first, best and last really good thing about the book.
Author Sumit Kumar was one of the core team that organized the ComicCon recently at Delhi, and his greatest claim-to-fame is that he has served as a writer for the Savita Bhabhi series. This gold nugget was cashed in on at the workshop he conducted leading up to the ComicCon, as well as on the back cover for this book. For something so tantalizing, this episode of his life is glaringly absent from the actual contents of this autobiographical book. What gives?
But, this was confirmed only after I finished the book, while during it I also learnt something about Sumit Kumar. He has indeed had a colourful life so far (he’s 23, I think). He has struggled in the classic “birth vs destiny”, “nature vs essence” manner. And through it all he has displayed a will to overcome, and to change the present. That’s Sumit Kumar the person.
Sumit Kumar the comics creator is a different set of realisations. He has definitely gone autobiographical too early. He hasn’t been able to make his character relatable or likable. And his drawing, which appeared personalized at first, quickly became stilted and very limited.
According to me, autobiographies, in any form, should only be written for one of the following reasons:
- You are famous and people want to know your life
- You are not famous, but you have participated in something famous
- Your life carries an important message for everyone
If these are missing from an autobiography/biography, then chances are that the story is too personal to be a published book. Kumar even includes an entire appendix devoted to his uncle, who was a sociopath. Please don’t take this as a personal dig, it isn’t. This is exactly what is presented. It goes to illustrate the risk one runs when the story presents no guidance. Personal life becomes fair game when you put it out there, and you must be a very strong individual to present an interesting character, and to take the reception it gets. When we talk about ourselves to strangers it must serve a purpose, or else it can even become doleful for the listener.
The great experiment that Kumar undertook, and which I think is a brave one, is of using a mix of Hindi and English. He said somewhere that he wanted to use spoken language, which in India is almost always a mix of two or more. Unfortunately, the result was unexpected. This approach fails because of the difference between spoken and textual – we may speak in two languages, but we usually never write or read in two, not in a sustained manner. So while the conversation might sound perfectly natural in a play or a movie, in a book it is difficult to get used to. And moreover, it was visibly difficult for Kumar at places to choose when to switch between languages and it inhibited his flow of thoughts.
Kumar has enough opinions and sentiments to make a compelling character, but his story will be worth visiting only much later. A big question to think over is what would I like to tell a stranger about myself that would hold his interest? And the answer to this has to be reader-opiented, because he/she is the one paying to read about your life. That’s an honour and privilege that shouldn’t be taken lightly. 178 pages need to be much better utilized, or cut short.
‘The Itch You Can’t Scratch’
Sumit Kumar (writer-artist)
Published by Pop Culture Publishing, 2011