Flipping through a copy of Kari at a bookstore in Pune five years ago, you were immediately struck by Amruta Patil's talent, by the speech bubbles filled with love, loss and longing and by the flowing, seemingly effortless illustration. You've shifted house many times in the last half decade but you've held onto that book and wondered when Patil, who you've happily stalked on Facebook, would be coming out with her next one. Would it be, like Kari, another paean of love to a woman, or would it be different? As it turns out, the exquisitely produced 274-page Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, that draws deeply on Hindu philosophy and the Mahabharata is nothing like Kari.
"I didn't' think of doing Adi Parva after Kari. It was something which was with me much before that. When I was 22 and doing my Masters show in Boston (She studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts), my thesis was on a segment of the Mahabharata -that was well before Kari," says Patil when you meet her at JNU where the School of Language and Literature invited her to be writer-in-residence earlier this month. "Luckily, I recognised early enough that I was not ready to do it and I kept the images in deep freeze," says Patil as we drink chai and munch biscuits under the trees outside a canteen plastered with protest flyers about everything from Kashmir to hostel facilities.
After that, Patil says she wrote a novel that couldn't find a publisher - "What that a 21 year old writes needs to be seen by the world?" - and continued to read different versions of the Mahabharata in both English and Marathi.
"Kari gathered a lot of love in certain kind of niche circles," she says referring perhaps to the adulation the book received from queer groups. "I could have kept writing that kind of thing but I didn't want to. I chose something that was not first person, not young, not urban, not contemporary, not black and white. Everything that was not Kari… was Adi Parva," says Patil who shies away from being boxed into categories.
"Post-Kari it was important for me not to repeat the same formula. Basically, I wanted to see whether I had it in me to speak in a voice that was not too close to home and also to tell a story that belonged to many people and was not just so intimate. Mainly, I wanted to not take the easy route of writing things that were too recognisably similar in age group or preoccupation or biographical detail," says Patil who has been working on Adi Parva's layered yet succinct text and vivid illustrations - everything from a sleeping Vishnu sheltered by the coils of Anant, "the infinite serpent" a lotus emerging from his navel, to Gandhari willfully rendering her world colourless as she ties on her blindfold, and the birds sheltering the abandoned child Shakuntala until she's discovered by Kanwa -- for about four years.
"The nature of the stories is very oceanic, expansive and there's an absolute throwing out of anything linear so, in a sense, making it a book runs counter to the very notion of having an ocean; it forces it into a puddle," says Patil who has nevertheless managed to retain the expansiveness of these myths in her retelling. "The biggest challenge was to try to retain that quality of largeness and open-endedness, of things being connected and being read at multiple levels," Patil says revealing that she very consciously whittled away at her text "like somebody who works on jewellery", constantly reading and refining it until the words became "like bullets, like these sharp slivers". Indeed, the text in the speech bubbles and in the explanatory panels sometimes has the depth and resonance of the voice of an oracle. Patil leavens the seriousness of the sections to do with the churning of the ocean and Yayati's misadventures with playful dialogues between the story's sutradhaar, the goddess Ganga, and her audience of villagers representative of everyman.
"I was very concerned because its so easy to get the voice wrong when you're trying to make everything fit into these little bubbles with three sentences. There's a danger of sounding trite," says Patil who concedes the sutradhaar dialogues prevent that dread air of pseudo intellectualism from creeping in. They also serve to deflect the cynicism of Patil's own readers. "I preempt the jadedness of a lot of people vis-a-vis these themes. People don't want to read about apsaras," shelaughs.
Patil's trick then is to leaven the heavy sections with playful dialogue. While the oral retelling of these myths allows the teller to create limitless worlds that merge and shift seamlessly, writing and drawing these tales as Patil could get difficult with readers finding themselves lost somewhere between Gandhari's 101 lumps of breathing flesh that would become her ill-fated children and the story of the winged white horse Ucchaishravas who rises from the ocean. Patil makes things easier for readers by interspersing the full colour mythical sections with the sutradhar sections in charcoal.
"All the stuff that Ganga's talking about happens in black and white and that could be Kaliyug, it could be now, it could be Banaras thousand years ago… It could be any of these things," she says revealing that the next book in the trilogy will have Drona's son Ashwathamma, who was condemned to wander as a suppurating being, a creature of contamination, for 3000 years for his sins, as the sutradhar.
"He's carrying forward the story to the Kurukshetra war, which is what everybody anyway thinks the Mahabharat is about, but he's taking it beyond that," says Patil who doesn't "see the point of having a book that is entirely about bloodshed" and so will be working on a version that weaves together the battlefield and the playing field; the essence of Kurukshetra and Vrindavan, as it were.
Patil who admits she currently inhabits planet Hastinapur has taken ageless myths and breathed contemporary meanings that touch on everything from sexuality, culture, politics, morality, the idea of right and wrong, the pull of blood and the complexity of love and lust, into them.
"I like myth because it is very clever, its very sly, it tells you stories that look very simplistic but they are not. They are like Apple products, basically. They don't have lots of buttons and toggles and baubles on them. They're sleek and have a way of passing along similar lessons to history could but in a way that is a lot smarter and a lot less bound by region and time, lot less accusatory," she says quoting Nassim Nicholas Taleb's words about aphorisms being beautiful because they don't need expansion.
There's plenty of wise aphorism in Patil's text and great beauty in her illustration. Knowing how painstakingly she works, it might be a few years before
you get your hands on the next book which will, no doubt, be well worth the wait. While Kari with its personal and private preoccupations announced Patil's arrival as a gifted graphic novelist, Adi Parva with its grand canvas and universal resonance is that rare thing - the instant classic. You will continue to hang determinedly onto your copies of Amruta Patil's books.