One of the real treats for me, as the writer of this column, is that I get to explore (and, I hope, introduce my readers to) a pretty wide range of work that’s being done these days in comics and graphic novels.
There’s a lot to discover both on the indie fringe and in the mainstream-creators pushing boundaries, or redefining sub-genres, in interesting ways unique to what they need to express. A fantastic property of illustrated literature is that it so effectively crosses cultural and linguistic boundaries: witness the rise of the consumption of Japanese manga in the U.S. and in Europe.
The crossing and diffusion of cultural boundaries is a treasured theme in my own work as a graphic novelist, so I thought it might be a good time to do a short mini-series on international comics. I’m using a very loose definition: not just international in terms of provenance; I have a couple of books in mind that are themselves about cross-cultural themes (and not merely the product of another culture).
To start this off, I’d like to introduce you to an up-and-coming comics artist/graphic novelist from my own point of origin: India. You have almost certainly not heard of Amruta Patil (major points if you have!). But there are many things about her work that merit her being on your radar, and given how prolifically she’s producing new material, there’s a chance she’ll soon be known much more widely than she currently is.
The book that put her on the map is a graphic novel called Kari. This work is significant in several ways, not least because it is hailed as India’s first “gay graphic novel”-the story deals plainly with a character who’s a lesbian.
A bit of cultural background: India, as a collection of different societies, ethnicities, and religions, has had a long and convoluted history of accepting and rejecting homosexuality, whether for men or for women. Indian films about gay people have received a good deal of attention and acclaim in the U.S. and illuminate some of the complexities of the issue. For example: Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996, based on a short story dating back to 1941), about two women who fall in love with each other, and My Brother…Nikhil (2005), a story about a young athlete who learns he is HIV-positive and must come out to his traditional family.
India has had periods of what we would call not only acknowledgment and acceptance, but even celebration of same-sex love. Royal courts influenced by Persian customs cherished poets who wrote odes to their male lovers, and even texts like the Kama Sutra deal with homosexuality in a matter-of-fact way-although certain Indian societies either never discussed or openly persecuted gay people for one reason or another, sometimes religious, sometimes not.
The introduction of a Victorian colonial value system pretty much polarized all opinion on the matter. When the British Empire officially claimed India as its property, it introduced its traditional legal code. Among other things, it condemned (in its famous Section 377) “acts against the order of nature,” classifying all non-hetero, non-vanilla pursuits as being tantamount to bestiality and punishable by imprisonment. Britain itself abolished this aspect of its legal code domestically in 1967, but Section 377 persisted in India until it was finally overturned by the Indian Supreme Court in 2009. (Believe it or not, Section 377 is still on the books in Singapore, with an addendum specifically about sex between men, using the language of “gross indecency” that was used to try Oscar Wilde in 1895.)
In India, the law was used almost exclusively to threaten and blackmail consenting adults-creating a morass of conflicting social values that spawned bizarre arrangements like gay couples who would marry women and get houses next door to each other, establishing a sort of extended household that allowed them some time together. The attitude of rejection of homosexuality also led to a tradition throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries (and well into the 21st) in which provincials too illiterate to be familiar with Section 377 or the legal system, but nonetheless programmed into homophobia, committed crimes in the name of “honor,” killing or brutalizing men and women who were found to be gay.
Despite the illegality of any form of homosexuality before Section 377 was removed from the law books, gay pride parades started springing up in Indian cities, along with a tidal wave of popular, political, and celebrity pressure for the government to reverse the antiquated law, which it eventually did, a mere three years ago.
So this is why it’s a big deal that there’s a gay graphic novel coming out of India, much less one written by a woman who identifies as bisexual.
As for Kari itself, Patil’s narrative is pure magic. Many of the images-which we realize are part of what the eponymous character Kari sees in her fervid imagination-are phantasmagorical, alternating scenes of the mundane (walking through the smog-choked streets of Mumbai) with the fantastic (an image of the two female protagonists of the story, Kari and Ruth, jumping off opposing buildings and one landing in a safety net and the other in a sewer). Some of the most intricate and moving images are of the ad campaigns Kari devises in her day job as a copywriter in an ad agency.
There’s a lot of disorientation: the images shift from black and white, to sepia, to rich color, sometimes without an apparent reason. Symbols and spiral storylines intrude on the unfolding story so often, that by the end, you’ve consumed more than half dream-stuff threaded thickly around a basic scaffold of facts about a young lesbian making her way in a big city. It’s not even certain by the end that some of the characters to whom we’re introduced were ever even really there, or real at all. This is mixed in with such banalities as Kari’s traditional parents, who come to visit her and are scandalized by the physical affections passing between her (straight) roommates.
As a character, Kari forms strong associations with places and objects-at one point in the story, she’s going through a train station and ruminates, “This is the place where Ruth passed by me for the first time in my life”-and, when those places and things become metamorphic, turning into other things and echoing throughout the story, you’re treated to an experience that feels like recalling important events through the mist of time and a long chain of secondary associations.
As modern a work as it is, Kari, to me, has a healthy dash of the Indian epic in it. As odd as some events are to our sensibility, they are assumed to make perfect sense in the larger body of the story, and every digression builds the progression of the whole like branches on a tree. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much time we’ve spent in Kari’s visions or in her mind; what’s significant is that we’ve gotten inside of her, felt her thoughts reverberating, seen her unfold through her interactions with others, and become infused with the city in which she lives.
Kudos to Harper Collins India for publishing Patil, and specifically this book-not only was it commercially and creatively brave, it rises to the level of a political statement. Now that Patil has paved the way, I think there will be whole generations of gay Indian writers and illustrators that will follow her lead.