Ambedkar? Never heard of him.

An Indian comic book that’s attained instant global fame.

Popular amongst the literati before it reached comic fans.

A story about the worst caste discriminations, but conducting discriminations of its own.

That’s a quick summation of the tribal art-English language biography of one of India’s most important, but least known, giants – ‘Bhimayan’, the story of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

The book is undoubtedly one of the most important works for the comics industry in India. It is a well-produced project that brings together an important story and a great shot-in-the-arm for vernacular art styles. Gushing statements from leading intellectuals adds a veneer of supra-comics respectability to this book.

The reason to remember this book isn’t its subject matter but its art. It imagines narrative graphic storytelling in a hitherto inconceivable way. I am amazed that despite being an art form that is so removed from the comics world it has understood the target medium so succinctly that it does not for a moment seem like an experiment, rather an “always meant to be”. The narrative symbology is inherent, it would seem, in Gond art, and it doesn’t take any great feat for the newbie audience, like me, to understand the communication.

I would go on to add that in fact I would have been harder-pressed to understand the method of Gond art in its native form. A single image, would be naturally constrained by my unaccustomed mind which would be searching for footholds of familiarity, which it would not find. But in the milieu of the comic book I don’t hesitate for a moment.

That is a spectacular moment of universal understanding.

But the book has an underbelly that betrays this universal understanding, which is in the viciousness of the story. As an urban, non-Dalit reader I am made to identify myself with the devil himself. I am, by my non-Dalit status, completely unaware of caste, social inequality, and unable to pronounce the name Ambedkar (though I must be able to say Tendulkar). The book smacks of trying to draw a ‘them’ and ‘us’ divide, ostensibly trying to reverse which is the ‘them’ and which is the ‘us’.

Why take such a pitifully incomplete stand? Why return misinformation about Dalits with misinformation about non-Dalits? Either approach will be incomplete, right?

Though it can be said that such a controversy is only in my mind, and not what the creators intended, or what other readers are feeling, I will point out the striking interpretation tool that is embedded into the speech balloons. At the end of the book we are told how the manner in which the balloons are drawn is anthropomorphic – conveying the speaker’s mood by shaping the balloon like an animal that represents those feelings. One such is a scorpion’s tail that we see repeatedly used, which is explained as: “I am full of words that carry a sting. Characters who love caste, whose words contain poison, whose touch is venomous, speak through me.” Return to the picture above and see who carries the poisonous barb.

Everybody who questions reservation is such a scorpion. Why so? I don’t condone caste-based violence or inequality, but I don’t believe that reservation is taking society closer to eradicating these problems. What can any of us say for the boy whose complaint starts with, “Super-qualified. Stuck in a dead-end job.” If he has worked hard in his life, and he has not perpetuated caste discrimination, can we say he has nothing to complain about? Is his ignorance or awareness of such discrimination a reason for his dead-end job?

These, and much more needed to be considered by the writers and publishers before their cross-eyed polemic was dispersed. If you read the fine print, you will see how much this book has ridden on the approval of Western writers and news media, and the fact that its large market is the urban, English-educated youth of the world and its sponsors are Dutch and British. A picture of inclusivity painting a portrait of exclusivity.

It is unfortunate that the book left me feeling the need to defend myself as a non-Dalit reader, but that’s what its blinkered vision impressed upon me. The book begins and ends with a non-Dalit who refuses to accept caste is a present and important issue. That makes one feel mute. I am willing to concede that that is not what would have been the desired effect. So perhaps a round of editing before the next edition could rectify these, or else by all means charge forth as is.

But, I think a complete picture by the writers is what the artists deserve for their monumentally talented work on the book.

‘Bhimayana’

Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam (Artists)

Srividya Natarajan and S Anand (Writers)

Navayana Publishing, 2011

Rs 395

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