Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India
Tranquebar Rs 395 pp 181
'A hush descended. The baby was…a girl. Reena's mother-in-law snatched the baby out of the mother's arms and deposited it into the waste basket, along with the paper plates.'
Gautam Bhatia's Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India is full of such macabre scenes of excess. It has characters like Reena, the eternally suffering wife of smuggler Rocky Mishra, son of freedom fighter Sati Mishra. Mishra Sr was known for his experiments with truth. Sati would lie next to the best whisky in Patna, staring at it, and not yield to temptation. He would lie next to lit Havana cigars, and not get tempted.
Rocky joins politics and becomes Bhola. In the drawings, he has a mop of white hair that is reminiscent of a certain Yadav leader from Bihar. Bhola is depicted as a crook of the worst sort. He holds cash distribution melas to win elections, but still fails to beat his principal rival, Rekha, a sex worker and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agent.
Eventually one of them becomes PM, the country suffers a massive drought, and life and death just go on like they always do in India. The only character in the book that offers some hope is a farmer named Alibaba. But in this tale he's no saviour-hero.
Bhatia's text is darkly funny. He draws upon stereotypes for the characters and makes caricatures of them. He also sends up several national icons. Everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Amitabh Bachchan gets the treatment.
The artwork is interesting. The use of miniature painters from Rajasthan for the artwork is an innovative application of a traditional Indian art form to the modern graphic novel, and creates a proper desi look.
In its storytelling, Lie tells some hard truths about our country, truths that stare at us daily from the pages of our newspapers and out of TV screens. Like the facts of female infanticide, and the crookedness of politicians, and the culture of consumerism, explained pithily by the farmer Alibaba in a quotable quote: "The main thing is to despise what you have."
The problem with the book is that pretty much every voter in India knows all this already.
Nor can the book be read as fiction. It's much too preachy for that, starting with the abstruse introduction that says: "Lie is meant to act as a form of corrective measure to the real India, offering a set of unintellectual lenses behind which lies something of today's morality." Whatever that means.
And so the book is brought down by its own excesses. It tries to do too much — tell the story of all India's ills in one 181-page graphic novel and 'correct' them too. Even the artwork suffers from the same hubris with navigation being difficult. Single panels in themselves work well. Beyond that, the reader is often left to figure out a jigsaw puzzle of images in order to try and follow the narrative.
Had Lie been less ambitious, it may well have been more successful. And that's the truth.