Kari, Amruta Patil, HarperCollins India, Rs 295, ISBN 978-81-7223-710-3
Comics are clearly the Next Big Thing in this country. For a serious artist, there is nothing more galling that being seen as a practitioner of the Next Big Thing, however tangentially. Now I understand why Amruta Patil was so reticent about her book Kari (she was on the Fresh Off the Shelf session before me). This book is not a ‘comic book’. It is (some would say is not) a graphic novel, but it won’t lie down in that box, because it uses picture-book layout as well as traditional frames and even bleeds. However, these are questions for theoreticians to bang their heads over; it is not the author’s purpose in life to make existence easy for critics. Kari could hardly be summarised in the five-minutes-for-talking-and-two-for-powerpoint that Amruta had, so she wisely didn’t try. And a few selected images out of the book told you nothing, because they were totally out of context. It’s impossible to describe this book (perhaps an even more impossible task when you ask it of the author); one has to read it or be silent.
Kari is a tremendously enjoyable, courageous and clever book. It has been beautifully produced and reasonably priced by HarperCollins, and its pages are satisfyingly thick and ink-friendly, showinf off the artwork to advantage.The art, done by Amruta Patil herself, cleverly uses colour in pathces to push the story along and highlight certain bits. What is particularly impressive is Patil’s ease with her medium. She uses the occasional photograph and objet trouve in her layouts, but they never overwhelm the other elements of the design nor show off their post-modern post-realism post-art angst. Every innovation in the design is subordinate to the story, which is why one has to focus in order to notice its brilliance.
===WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD===
The story — or stories — is not easily summarised; the book moves forward episodically with many jumps forward and backward in time; occasionally the time lines get a little tangled, as when Kari alludes to her role of boatman (which she’s supposed to have acquired when Ruth leaves) in a bit of the story where Ruth is still around. Ther are also confusions between drawing and text, as where a character is called ‘Delna’ but clearly has Billo’s face. But these are minor beefs and are probably the result of inexperience in dealing with graphic novels on the part of the editors. Nothing time won’t cure. They don’t distract from the story, and you have to be making notes (as i was) to catch it. Believe me, you have no reason to be taking notes.
Kari herself is well-drawn, deeply thought out, and a pleasure to have around. Patil is able to differentiate her characters quite well, even the walk-on parts: her art only wears a skin of naivete, and her figures are always people. Kari’s eyes and her adorable frown differentiate her from the others, and the mixed message of her aloofness and her vulnerability immediately mark out a space for her from where she can comment (often ironically) on all the other characters. Her sexual orientation also closes off much of the world of her friends from her; she is an observer in her friends’ love affairs, apparently tough and unmoved but in fact intimidated and a little repelled. Her difference drives her into myth and fantasy, where she can explore worlds no one else sees, indulge longings that no one wants her to acknowledge, except perhaps her close-to-death friend Angel who can afford to be disinterested. Throughout the book, whether with Ruth, or Angel, or Laz, Kari remains alone, and the clear yet impervious film of her isolation is never punctured. The intertwining between Kari’s daydreams and the outside world are cunningly set up; so that Kari’s dreamlife becomes raw material for her ad agency work: an exploitative connection, and she knows it.
She is also aware of the self defeating aimlessness of her non-relationship with Ruth, who is saved from their double suicide by a safety net, and leaves ‘smog city’ (Bombay) for some unnamed Western city, while Kari’s fall is broken by a ‘sewer’. This sewer is the city, the uncaring mother that Kari is trying to save. It forms part of the myth-world where Kari becomes ‘the boatman’: exactly the right role for her. She belongs on neither shore, has no companions, enters people’s lives only to leave again. And so she ferries Angel’s soul across the divide.
=== END SPOILERS===
Having hugely enjoyed the way the book refuses again and again to follow any of the rules, I can see it’s going to give tidy-minded people a lot of trouble. Although it uses many of the standard props of what I am reluctantly forced to call chick-lit (the attempted double suicide, the boyfriend and roommate trouble, the commentative monologues that stand outside the action, the pseudo-chic ad agency job, the romance/angst) it overflows the boundaries of that hype-ridden, pink-jacketed, red-smooch-decorated genre. For one thing, a lesbian protagonist will stick delightfully in women’s-page-editors’ craws. For another thing, the depth and complexity of the story won’t allow people to shut it in a little box. It is equally impossible to treat it as right-on, politically correct gender-bending post-modern fiction: at the end Kari describes herself as ‘armchair straight, armchair gay, active loner’. Moreover, she says, ‘the circus is in my head, not in my life.’
There was quite a bit of discussion at the FOTC session on whether Kari oversteps the boundaries of the graphic novel (I think not). This was a polite way of saying that the book demolishes quite a few little boxes, not the least that of the traditional comic strip frame. The end of the book promises a sequel, which shall be eagerly awaited.