Book review

India’s first anthology of graphic short fiction will immerse the reader like Alice in Wonderland

This is the first of what is planned as an annual series of short stories in graphic fiction format.

Nature has been wreaking its wrath on Mumbai, with the rain lashing down and showing no signs of stopping. I was trapped in my home with no TV, no social life, and no work to set aside for the cheap thrills with which last-minute pressure provides me with. While going through all the books I had collected, which were now gathering dust in my cupboard, a relatively new one struck my eye: LONGFORM: An Anthology of Graphic Novels, Volume 1. A 400-page collection of graphic stories seemed perfect for this rainy evening, I thought.

The next two hours flew by far too quickly. I had finished the entire anthology without realising how quickly I had been turning each page, or knowing just how much fun reading every story could be. LONGFORM grabbed my hand and took me travelling far away from the flooded roads of Mumbai to so many parts of the world that pocketed beautiful stories I never would have stumbled upon otherwise.

Entering lives

The editors of LONGFORM – Sarbajit Sen, Debkumar Mitra, Sekhar Mukherjee and Pinaki De – have curated a unique collection of graphic stories illustrated by 30 artists from different places, with divergent graphic styles. From travelling in Iran, Kolkata, and ancient Bhutan, to the streets of Rome, Tehran and Kerala, retelling ancient mythological tales, representing the horror of caste-based violence, exploring one man’s romantic chase of women and food, and more, LONGFORM is a rich collection of stories that are as quirky as they are relatable, enabling me to find myself in many of them.

For instance, in the illustrations of a young girl enveloped by darkness in South Korean artist Heeseon Kim’s “The River”. Or in Avirap Basu’s “Journeys”, which explores the rut of routine that takes away the excitement and imagination of our childhood memories. And in Promit Basu’s “Fairness Cream”, which depicts the negative implications of fairness creams in our daily lives, to name a few.

I found myself as Alice in a great kaleidoscope of Wonderland, travelling to imaginary cities and dystopian dreamscapes, revisiting old stories that were narrated to me as a child, such as the myth of Kari, to which Prakash Moorthy adds an interesting spin and brilliantly illustrates caste violence and Indian mythology.

I felt personally empowered when Anirban Ghosh’s androgynous character Rai finally let her hair and gender fluidity swim freely, while simultaneously drowning all those who tried to inhibit her freedom. I spoke face to face with Buli, a young trafficked folk painter, whose interview is illustrated by Debkumar Mitra, who was able to draw the violence of rape and the softness of Buli’s childhood within the same frame.

I travelled far and wide with LONGFORM, entered the arcs of people I see every day on the streets and almost voyeuristically watched their private lives through the graphic stories. But most importantly, I heard the voices of people whose narratives are normally spoken for, and was able to empathise by actually “watching” their emotional turmoil and upheaval, since these were narrated through the graphic form.

The need for graphic narratives

In their introduction to LONGFORM, the four editors write:

“Like the Canadian cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry, we believe if there is a good story in you, it can be told in the graphic form even by those who ‘can’t draw’. This allowed us to rope in great storytellers (yes, they can draw) and some unwilling ones too...Within eight months, we got a fair amount of submissions – the book was on. Longform Volume 1 was no longer a mad dream!”

There is a great dearth in India of a one-stop-shop for the best graphic novelists to display their work, and for graphic novel readers to appreciate the talent of the best illustrators. LONGFORM Volume 1 is a beacon of hope that this is just the beginning, that there are so many more stories to tell, and so many wonderlands to jump into. The graphic novel breaks the barrier between text and reader, and through its pictures allows the latter to step into the former’s world.

I can’t wait for Volumes 2 and 3 and 4 and the many more that are yet to come. I can’t wait to meet new characters, laugh with them and cry with them, and find myself amongst the oddest of people, and in the oddest of places. I can’t wait for LONGFORM to do its job as the pioneering anthology of graphic fiction narratives and inspire many more artists to rise from the shadows of the unknown, and shed light on their worlds.

Longform Volume 1: An Anthology of Graphic Narratives, edited by Sarbajit Sen, Debkumar Mitra, Sekhar Mukherjee and Pinaki De, HarperCollins India.

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