Review: Chhotu; A Tale of Partition and Love by Varud Gupta and Ayushi Rastogi
Chhotu: A Tale of Partition and Love by Varud Gupta and Ayushi Rastogi is an endearing story of childhood love and youthful innocence set in a time of unprecedented violence and chaos. In a nation’s collective memory seismic events such as Independence and the Partition are seen as a singly unifying current. Few remember the impact these events had on individual lives. Chhotu is a bold attempt to rectify this memory loss.
The year is 1947, the British are about to leave and India is yet to be split in two. All of this is of little importance to Chhotu, who is currently besotted by his classmate Heer. Between wooing her and working at his foster father’s paratha shop, he has little time for anything else. An attempt to win her affections requires the preparation of aloo parathas but all of a sudden there are no aloos to be found in Chandni Chowk. During the search for the missing aloo, Partition is announced and Chhotu finds himself right in the middle of the communal clashes.
The art and the anthropomorphism immediately bring to mind Spiegelman’s iconic Maus. A multitude of animals is used to capture the diversity of the people who then inhabited Chandni Chowk. The historical narration is aptly done through radio announcements whose demagogic form builds atmosphere. The humour infused throughout the story is a delightful surprise. This is especially tricky given that we Indians have never truly made our peace with the Partition, with fairly regular communal clashes being the result. The radio announcements end with contextually cheeky ads such as, “Incidents of riots pour in from Lahore, Amritsar, and Calcutta. While it has so far been peaceful here in Delhi, who knows what might happen in the coming days. And that’s why you should head to ‘Chandu’s Commercial Bank of Chandni Chowk’, now offering fast cash for properties to anyone wanting to make a quick getaway.” Another source of humour is the intentional Bollywood-isation of certain sequences: the crickets chirping to denote the awkward silence at Chhotu and Heer’s first meeting; Chhotu’s aloo parathas giving Heer flashbacks to her dead mother’s cooking. Chapter titles are popular Bollywood lyrics or dialogues.
What the authors manage to capture so succinctly through Chhotu’s character arc is a growing knowledge of human behaviour and motives. The more Chhotu learns about the motives of Bapu, his foster father, and of Shere, the mob boss, the better acquainted he becomes with his own. His journey articulates the tension between the youthful passion for action and the moral paralysis of its consequences. In Heer, we see the fear of freedom due to the problem of choice. Bapu faces the same problem as he reminisces about his own mistakes and the burden of guilt he must carry as a result. Through the Teetar gang, the authors demonstrate the futility of violence and as Chhotu learns, those willing to dole it out are the first to run when it is handed back to them. In the radicalization of Chhotu and Shere’s back story, the reader understands that rage is simply unchanneled loss and grief. Bapu comes to terms with this truth when he lets go of his own need for justice to protect Chhotu. In Pandey’s advice to Chhotu, he channels David Foster Wallace from his speech This Is Water about how what we choose to worship consumes us. What is a letdown is Shere’s base premise. To justify the elimination of choice as a means of relieving pain has many expressions. The best known is Loki’s speech in The Avengers. The root of this evil is rather predictable.
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What makes Chhotu such a fitting read for these times is the plain truth that there will always be men like Shere. Varud Gupta and Ayushi Rastogi do a fine job of capturing the true cost of individual freedom as a nation comes to terms with its own hard-won independence: that it can’t be taken or given but is always a choice. They remind us that often we are blinded to the goodness that is inherently human. Hatred is rarely endemic; it requires manipulation. Even when the crowd hears of Shere’s confession, they are too shocked to act. Individuals rarely take the time to ask if they are being used and by whom; to question if a banal opportunist lurks behind the fundamentalist mask. Unfortunately, the cycle of violence is self-perpetuating. In the words of Chhotu’s best friend, Pandey, we can’t afford to keep our heads down, we have to keep trying. It is time to end the cycle. In these troubled times, Chhotu shows us how we can slay our old demons. To borrow from the movie Ratatouille not everybody can become a hero but a hero can come from anywhere.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two bi-weekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha