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E for Emergency

A graphic novel on Indian democracy’s darkest years misses the story-telling for the atmosphere.

books Updated: Jun 26, 2010 00:10 IST

In the 80s, Alan Moore wrote V for Vendetta, his ten-volume story of a dystopic, totalitarian Britain in 1997. In 2010, Vishwajyoti Ghosh uses the past, the 18 months of Indira Gandhi’s opaque haze that covered the country, to flesh out a story about a clamped-down, Big Brothered India.

Unlike Moore, whose novel was made ‘graphic’ by David Lloyd, Ghosh is also the illustrator of Delhi Calm. The artwork mirrors the gouached-out tones of life in Delhi from June 26, 1975 when Mrs Gandhi announced on All India Radio, “The president has proclaimed Emergency. There is nothing to panic about,” to the days following the lifting of Emergency on January 18, 1977.

A story set in such a backdrop is teeming with possibilities: the bootstomp on individual freedom can be a powerful tale told through a strong against-the-grain narrative. Ghosh’s characters — Vibhuti Prasad a.k.a. VP, an idealistic young man mixing his Marx with his Mohammed Rafi; Parvez, a chilled out comrade-in-kurta and others — negotiate their ways in a shrinking space. But they come across as flotsam-jetsam, no one’s story providing a close-up of everyday fears and suffocation. The novel does build up a sense of paranoia as friends start suspecting each other. And caricatures of Indira Gandhi (Mother Moon, depicted as the girl-child ‘Indu’ with props including Mrs G dark glasses), Jayaprakash Narayan (the Prophet), Sanjay Gandhi (the Prince) provide a palpable ‘un-fictional’ backbone to the story.

But even as the powerful, dung-coloured illustrations make us come close to the bone, Ghosh dilutes the horror by focusing on atmosphere rather on story-telling. Delhi Calm ends up, rather ironically, smelling of a Film Division docu-drama. Perhaps, all that Ghosh needed was a writing partner.

Ishan Chaudhuri is a Kolkata-based writer