Tales of Young GANDHI by Janhavi Prasada, publisher - Harper Collins in October 10, 2016
Chanakya Cinema, New Delhi, 1982. I was in Class V when the entire batch was packed off to watch Richard Attenborough's Gandhi.
The thrill of watching a film with friends, that too in a theatre exclusively for Hollywood cinema, was taken away by what now looked like a classroom exercise in watching celluloid hagiography. We were told to watch carefully, with the near certainty that a test would follow. This is what Gandhi can do to people.
The human side of the man is often missed or replaced by a certain economy of reverence, which extends to remonetized currency notes. Gandhi arrives as a pre-set template only to be worshipped, revered and accepted. The dialogue on the man and his mission is often missing.
More importantly, what is never discussed is the making of the man, his journey from Gandhi to the Mahatma. In this regard, Tales of Young Gandhi makes an important contribution to the young reader's bookshelf.
Tales of Young Gandhi ends just short of him becoming either Bapu or the Mahatma. His politics sorted, a few milestones achieved through his journeys and interactions, Gandhi is still very much a work in progress in this book.
Written with the curiosity of a young mind whose family history inspires her to discover the making of the Mahatma, the narrative has a childlike innocence. In the first-person, sepia-toned narrative, Gandhi is both storyteller and protagonist. His ideas and journeys are well laid out.
Well-researched and structured, the book brings out the human Gandhi, making him one of us, a man seeking answers. His journeys, influences, the characters and the people he meets come to life. Interactions within his family, especially his arguments and plans, his regrets and mistakes, are well articulated. His wife Kasturba's voice is an important part of the book. His interactions with his children are negligible, tucked away in the background.
The acknowledgments make it evident that the author has undertaken journeys from South Africa to Noakhali to Gujarat to follow in the footsteps of the great man, but that voice articulating the author's discovery is sadly missing from the narrative. That would have lent another layer to the first-person narrative, which often reads like an illustrated version of My Experiments with Truth.
But then, reading Gandhi is never easy, let alone writing or drawing him. The cover of the book holds a sense of promise and articulates the man's journey in a strong, single visual. However, the inside pages miss out on possibilities of graphic storytelling and the magic of visual mythmaking, which could have created a stronger visual narrative, beyond an illustrated exercise.
In such narratives, it is often imperative to create visual impact at critical points of the story. The centrespread of a young Gandhi alone at his father's funeral beautifully articulates his sense of loss. But in critical points of the timeline - being thrown off the train, that brings him face to face with apartheid, or his reading of John Ruskin's Unto This Last, on which Gandhi models his life - one missed the visual impact of storytelling.
As a cartoonist, may I point out the glaring simplifications of Gandhi's big ears and half-hooked nose, which are absolutely critical in drawing the man. I do not mean this in a caricature-esque manner, but a possibility that should have been explored even within the illustrator's style of drawing.
I must also say that this and every visual narrative (call it comic or a graphic novel) is as much the illustrator's book as it's the writer's. The illustrator Uttam Sinha should rightly be called this book's co-author with his name on the cover and a short bio along with the writer's. V for Vendetta is as much David Lloyd's as it's Alan Moore's. That's something the publishers of graphic novels should keep in mind.
The reviewer is an author