India today, in doodles

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Crocodile in Water,Tiger on LandHarperCollins IndiaComicsRs 599

A digital comic arrives as a physical copy, compiling four years of taking cheap shots at anything topical

If newspapers are the first draft of History, then presumably political cartoons are the doodles on its last page, the kind made by a backbencher during a boring class. In recent years, cartooning has found a natural home on the Web — and at the same time, digital comics is going through a renaissance in India.

So even if you are a frog in a well, you’ll appreciate Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land, which compiles four years of the strip. For newcomers it is a handy introduction, while those familiar will enjoy the heft of the physical copy. Speaking of which, I first came across the collection crouching atop a magazine stand in a bookstore chain, thanks to an uncaring staff. The cover with its square of red enclosing canine-encrusted jaws in a scythe of black seemed to devour its anaemic fashion and lifestyle neighbours. If you’re wondering whether a strip published through Tumblr really needs a physical copy, turning the page provides the answer: the book is worthy of all those dead trees.

One is immediately greeted by strong design: the stray-dog themed endpapers are yellow with the vehemence of a government anti-malaria programme. The slabs of black of the half-title page, followed by the cartoon grim reaper provide a foreshadowing of the take-no-prisoners attitude of what follows. The substrate provided by the thick paper holds up the architecture-like layout of the panels.

This top-notch production quality is a relief from some of the recent Indian offerings; I recall an anthology by a leading publisher whose spine cracked apart after the first reading, like one of those “Should you choose to accept” messages in Mission Impossible.

What of the contents? CWTL has been coming out every Monday morning (‘the best time of the week for insults’) since August 2010, with May 2014 as the last entry. Considering they are “below-the-belt cheap shots” at anything topical, the first question is: Can something so ephemeral stand up? Accompanying snippets explain context. Some are still fresh, their issues still topical, others have already faded into that dustbin of history.

Sad to say, the carousel of Indian politics means nothing much has changed. Many of the themes today — sedition, freedom of expression — were encountered in different guises back then; anyone remember Asim Trivedi?

The cartoon also serves up a fitting riposte to anyone who claims the NDA has been receiving unfair treatment. The years the collection spans coincide with the UPA’s most dysfunctional phase. Almost every example “lambasts” the powers-that-be.

Some stories are more dated than others. A strip that references SM Krishna delivering the Portuguese minister’s speech at the UN Security council had me scrambling to the archives to ferret it out (it actually happened!) Such moments of pleasurable viciousness are preserved like a fly in aspic.

The writing is crisp and punchy. There are plenty of zingers — “Look I didn’t really jump the red light” as one of the characters explains to a traffic cop, “I merely anticipated the green”; or downer observations, “There is something to be learnt from every tragedy. Namely there’s one to follow soon after that will take the spotlight away from this one”.

A cartoon strip, however, lives and dies by the art — the ability to convey complex subjects in as few lines as possible. I peeked under the hood to see the “graphic engine” it runs on. Immediately some elements came to light. One is to amplify meaning by reducing it to objects — a 1980s vintage TV stands for the Media, an unbuttoned shirt for the Police, and so on. Then there is the overarching vocabulary of the strip: a repetitive pattern of playing with scale — for instance, a wide shot of a neighbourhood is followed by a close-up of a roach clambering up a drainpipe. The strip is held together by a grammar of extreme zooms and close-ups, of a long “pan” ending on a telling detail, or repeating a visual but with new context.

Then there are tics — the noses of all the characters are rendered like little rockets with stubby fins. Some of the mechanisms are sustained by the rich tradition of cartooning. In Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, for example, President Bush was shown as a floating asterisk surmounted by a Roman helmet to depict a certain imperial vacuity. Similarly, Narendra Modi is depicted as a hairy fist (in one amusing variation referencing the time he allegedly refused to wear a Muslim skullcap, the hairy fist immediately dons a bewildering array of headwear, including a tribal one featuring a dead bird). The mask-like heads of the characters are totemised, in a manner that reminded me of Steve Bell’s work in The Guardian, with his underpants-obsessed John Major and cyclopean Tony Blair.

My personal favourites include a wordless two-page layout where a woman riding on a metro is silently leered at by two men — a duel of stares and gazes. Another is a bizarre nested storyline featuring a severed hand and a boy studying the night before his exam. There are good laughs to be had when committee members interview a dog that has applied for membership in an elite club. Occasionally the work engages with critics — a character who expresses the view that the strip is too dark is promptly dropped into a manhole.

CWTL, with its anonymous writer-artist duo, is still running strong, so expect a graphic report card on Modi and Co in 2019!

Jaideep Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer and graphic novelist

Published on January 01, 2016

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