Making Waves: Amruta Patil
“In this day and age of rehearsal and performance, repeated ad nauseam in the search of instant gratification, you invest eight years in two books. What gives?” I quip. “I haven’t been led by practicality or economics — I should learn to be more balanced. But it’s good to take on idealistic and unreasonable projects at least a couple of times in a lifetime,” Amruta Patil says unfalteringly on a video call from France.
Shuttling between the small medieval town of Angoulême (she treats it as her hermitage) and Goa, she creates avant-garde objets d’art that are laced and interlaced with a delicate insouciance — coincidentally all words loaned from French. Each of her panels is deliberate and indispensable. Pregnant with meaning and delivering new realisations with every reread you invest in it, her painstakingly produced works that are decidedly feminist in character have acted as universal cues for young women irrespective of gender identity, sexual orientation and ethnicity. Take her debut offering Kari, for example. At 29, while working in her first job as a copywriter in an ad agency, Patil created her very first protagonist, the queer and eponymous heroine Kari, an alter ego subconsciously drawn from her own experiences. One of the first queer leads in Indian literature — and a first in the world of Indian graphic novels — Kari is significant because she saw the light of day exactly a decade ago, at a time when smartphones weren’t ubiquitous and the gender dialogue hadn’t progressed as much as it has today. ‘I think it was a coming-of-age thing for Indian young adult literature,’ she had declared about Kari, an urban exploration of female sexuality and psyche, in 2012.
Next, Patil sought to remould the Mahabharata — an age-old story that remains as familiar as it is unfamiliar thanks to its near-infinite multiverse — by creating new parallels, vantage points and realities. “Seemingly random things may suddenly appear but they are not actually random. They may not directly fit into the story being told but they are playing off a theme,” she says. Patil sees herself as a continuer in the long line of storytellers who have retold the epic. As an indispensable part of the bigger picture.
She has an agenda: to suffuse stories with the realities of the current time and examine them through the political, social and cultural filters that colour our views. The text ebbs and flows intuitively, always nuanced, ferrying ciphered clues via languorous winding rivers or short sharp pools, digging deep below the surface to churn up an alternative stream of ideas, even when words are economically (and resourcefully) used. In her asymptote-like pursuance of a multilayered reading, she highlights the inherently flawed nature of human existence, making the story relatable, relevant and innately human — even when it is wholly about gods, demons, boons and curses, as her Mahabharata-inspired duology is.
Excerpts from an interview….
Your Kari ended up speaking to a lot of people. What did you enjoy more — creating Kari or working with pre-existing characters like you did in your second and third graphic novels?
To my eyes, there’s no real difference. I may choose the narrative device of autobiography or fable, contemporary setting or old — but it is part of the same quest to piece together the nature of their realities. I like to know what makes people tick, what they pay attention to, what are the ways in which they will listen. I picked Kari because as a person I never found myself fitting in, never had a role model in Indian literature who resembled me, shared my dilemmas or who was my age and not the standard cookie-cutter 20-year-old protagonist. This was India pre-Pride parades, pre-LGBT awareness, and before ‘non-binary’ became a standard term. It was led by the absence of a beacon of light for myself and along the way it ended up being something others related to as well.
How do you view the #MeToo revolution?
When conversations aren’t flat and judgemental, it fills me with delicate hope — and that is what the #MeToo movement achieved in India. I was delighted at the tremors, and the diverse and quite polyphonic conversations they brought about. The confusion and lack of clear resolution is, to me, a healthy sign. It makes people factor in ambiguity, the greyscale of human nature. #MeToo India learned well from the movements elsewhere in the world and raised the discourse by a couple of notches.
Your graphic novels are rich, intense and intricate. Is creating a draining process? How do you recoup?
The most exciting part is the research and planning. Final artwork and page layouts make me restless because the big challenge is over. What the process drains in the form of physical labour, it gives back manifold in the form of personal evolution. I’ve been a different person by the end of every one of my books.
My apprehensions are of not being skilled enough (yet) for tasks I take on, of not having enough time to finish, of not being able to strike a balance between the picture and the details of life. I have no fear of writer’s block.
Mythology and fantasy lend themselves well to graphic novels….
The obvious reason is because lores are so rich in metaphor and imagery. My own reason, however, is that visuals allow me to bring a different dimension to concepts. I can play with allusion, mood, abstraction, lateral connections, unexpected humour. People of visually-led intelligence can access cerebrally top-heavy ideas with greater ease.
The first part of your duology (Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean) offers a fresh female perspective to a story we have all grown up with. But you chose a male narrator, Ashwatthama, for the second and final part Sauptik: Blood and Flowers. Why didn’t you pick another female narrator, for example, Draupadi?
I wanted to create a unit that locked into each other. Adi Parva is full of creation stories, Sauptik is all about dissolution. Adi Parva was led by a mother, a queen [Ganga]. She is the complete opposite of Sauptik’s awkward, wounded male narrator [Ashwatthama]. I chose not to use the obvious ‘feminist’ narrator [Draupadi] but rather to talk about heroic masculinity using an injured, non-heroic male voice. — hardly the person you’d expect as a sutradhaar for stories that have so much to do with heroic masculinity. Both Ganga and Ashwatthama are wild card entries. All my books (including Kari, which is urban-contemporary and non-mythological) have an outlier sutradhaar. When they speak, even an old story can never be the same again.
Ganga says that devas and asuras are embodiments of ideas, not bodily matter. Devas symbolise the higher aspirations while asuras represent the baser ones — like yin and yang? How are there so many common elements in origin stories across the world?
The fact that there are so many commonalities is because the stories are essentially of the human psyche. Origin stories can resemble because the fears and aspirations of humans across cultures are similar. In the olden days, people feared natural phenomena they did not understand, droughts and plagues they could not fight, they longed for rains to be on their side when seeds were planted — and their stories and prayers reflected these things. When humans went from hunting-gathering lifestyles to complex agrarian civilisations, there were still psychological commonalities, but the stories grew more coded. Some resemblances also exist because people were travelling extensively between lands, and carrying cultural influences with them. If there are echoes of Persian stories in our mythology or of Jataka Tales in Aesop’s Fables it’s not a coincidence. But the resemblances do end at some point.
How difficult was it to infuse modern contexts into the stories — environmental issues, for example?
I think if I’m not able to connect old stories to people’s current realities, then I’ve failed as a storyteller. It’s important to make these links, especially with environmental issues and such. Otherwise stories are like museum pieces. They’re dead. I’m not interested in taxidermied curios or placing people in a 3,000-year-old time warp.
Ramayana, for example, offers Ram as a role model despite his flaws and upholds patriarchy. Sita’s kidnapping warns girls to be obedient (she is kidnapped because she crosses the Lakshman rekha). How Draupadi became the wife of all five Pandava brothers is one of the most absurd ‘substories’ in the Mahabharata. How did you fight the lack of rationale in the embedded plot lines?
A take is that the stories were sometimes told by frankly misogynistic or patriarchal storytellers which is why they sound off. Old lore carries biases of a bygone era. This is why it needs to be retold in changing times. We are not an evangelistic philosophy, it never says, ‘This is the way’. You are meant to pick your path based on your temperament.
Not everything that makes us uncomfortable is bigotry, though. The epics are complex and feature plot twists that are meant to put you in a moral dilemma, make you wonder and feeel uncomfortable: ‘Hey, that hero I was rooting for, why is he behaving in this problematic way?’ Because that’s what human reality is, isn’t it? Subjective, every step dictated by context. Sometimes you are in morally ambiguous spaces, in situations that don’t add up. Sometimes you choose a good way, sometimes a dodgy way.
I think this business of not being too sure is something that is beautifully present in our stories unlike other world cultures which can be quite pedantic. Ganga’s [the sutradhaar in Adi Parva] audience members often challenge her, say things that are irreverent, even borderline insulting. Their scepticism echoes that of contemporary audiences. A reader would not always be sympathetic to me or be on the side of my sutradhaar.
Why do you write?
Primarily, I write to sort myself out, to better grasp reality. So, each book is dealing with a set of issues that I’m trying to resolve in my own head. It’s not led by a prime agenda of changing the world. But as a byproduct, I may lead other people on certain journeys.
Tell us about Aranyaka, your collaboration with author Devdutt Pattanaik that is due to be out soon.
Two years ago, Devdutt and I found ourselves speaking a lot about how differently people see the world. How hard it is to see from a viewpoint that isn’t your own, and to understand the hungers of another person. Out of this idea of human hunger and the act of “feeding” others intelligently, Aranyaka was born.
Devdutt and I are dissimilar in all ways except one fundamental way: we share a common desire to understand the world in its complexity rather than sit in judgement of it. Our collaboration was exactly what you’d expect out of two stubborn type A people who live very different lives in different parts of the world: sparky and eventful. We argued, cajoled one another (and sometimes just waited it out when the other was sulking) quite a lot en route.
This collaboration is unusual and yet very much in the Indic tradition of samvaad — a dialogue (as opposed to argument or vivaad) between two people who may or may not concur. This form of non-combative dialogue used to be a vital part of our philosophical discourse but is fast being forgotten in our times.
Do you illustrate as you write or after?
Always, words first. Afterwards, the visuals sweep in with the X factor and razzle-dazzle.
Somehow I didn’t expect you to have such a strong social media presence. What made you a fan?
Living in a non-Anglophone part of the world where I am the only Indian in town, Facebook is often my only window to people who speak the languages I think in. My relationship with social media is an inconsistent one. I don’t like the strident, aggressive tone that people adopt on a day-to-day basis, especially on Twitter. But I do enjoy the curated news feed. I also enjoy the nain-sukh that Instagram can be. My way is to alternate between being very present and taking long breaks away from the screen.