Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Lies and satire: a chat with Gautam Bhatia

A state chief minister flies over a drought-ravaged area in an aircraft that has been retrofitted with a swimming pool, a golf course, a bowling alley and a shopping arcade, so he can “view the horrible disaster with some detachment”. (“Drought can be quite painful,” he observes from high up in the clouds. “Why do you get so involved?” his wife asks sympathetically.) Movie-stars step out of the screen to assist a pregnant woman who has gone into labour in the theatre’s aisles, but when she gives birth to a baby girl the infant is deposited into the trash can with the family-size popcorn bag. At a conference to discuss poverty in a developing country, the pampered delegates mull what brand of expensive wine goes best with what topic: is Chablis especially good for a rural latrine seminar, does Bordeaux go with illiteracy?

You’ll find many such eye-popping passages in Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India, a graphic novel written by Gautam Bhatia and drawn by the Rajasthani miniaturists Shankar Lal Bhopa and Birju Lal Bhopa. This is an unremittingly dark work that satirises many aspects of modern Indian life, notably the class divide and the apathy of politicians towards their constituencies - it’s funny and shocking in turn, with hardly any light at the end of the tunnel, and capable of leaving most readers with a nasty taste in the mouth.

I wasn’t taken by the drawings – a few are good, but overall they are rushed and amateurish, and one often senses a disconnect between what the writer intended and how the artist interpreted it. At any rate the focus is on Bhatia’s text, which deliberately exaggerates situations, compresses time and space, and revels in absurdity, such as in the passage where the life-story of a corrupt businessman is rewritten to make it echo Mahatma Gandhi’s. The narrative moves between a number of characters, and back and forth in time, but the key figures are a politician named Bhola (formerly Rocky the smuggler), a poor farmer named Alibaba and a prostitute named Rekha who rises through the ranks to become the prime minister of India (eventually bearing a suspicious resemblance to Indira Gandhi). Their paths intersect every now and again, but that’s almost beside the point: this book is best treated as a series of discrete episodes, some of which work, some of which don’t.

I had this email exchange with Gautam Bhatia a few days ago:

In addition to being an architect, you’re an acerbic social commenter and a prolific writer. How do you find the time to juggle these disciplines?

Writing for me was an activity that grew out of architecture. Seeing how some clients had strange fetishes and dreams – demanding baroque villas and Venetian mansions in south Delhi’s Greater Kailash, for example – it was much easier to write about architecture than build it! But the time is always there. Luckily buildings go on forever, people run out of money during construction, or projects don’t get approved because the building agency has not received the bribe...Anyway, most of my writing is a reflection on the visible state of things. It can be done at bus stops and railway stations.

How did Lie come about? Did you conceptualise and write the narrative first, and subsequently work with the artists, or was it a collaborative exchange of ideas from the start?

Lie was initially an unwieldy 600 page book called An Indian Story. It was written with the idea of being used as the story for the project Desh Ki Awaaz, which was an arts collaboration between traditional, popular and graphic artists. I was the odd man architect in the group. This bigger story weaved together elements and themes from contemporary life, including politics, film, religion, cricket and family life. By using subjects to which everyone could react, the idea was to explore the moral, and social dilemmas that dominate Indian life: corruption, dowry, dysfunctional families, gender inequality, caste prejudice, communalism and other areas of conflict. Real and fictitious characters – ministers, movie stars, bureaucrats, underworld dons, migrant workers, child labourers, government teachers, cricket players, business executives and a range of other personalities - moved in and out of the story.

Lie was the shortened version of An Indian Story. Here the collaboration was on unequal terms. The storyline had to be followed by the miniaturists. It took a lot of free hand sketches and verbal exchange to convince them of the plot, its insane and outlandish characters. For people who have spent a lifetime painting Gods in reverential poses, the idea of portraying a minor being raped in a police station wasn’t easy.

Why did you and (graphic artist) Orijit Sen decide on Rajasthani miniaturists to draw the story?

The miniature form of painting most effectively lends itself to the size of a book. Miniaturists can cram a great level of detail in a small area. They are like watch makers, very comfortable with a square inch of canvas and extremely confident that the entire battle of Kurukshetra can be depicted on it. I was also intrigued by the complete and uninhibited use of the most brilliant colours. Sometimes the entire colour palette of Rajasthan is visible on a single page.

The book’s structure is non-linear and fragmented. Is this intended to reflect the chaos of the modern Indian experience?

It was not intended that way but certainly the Indian urban experience is so chaotic it defies any structure. The interweaving was the result of two parallel stories that connect briefly in the end. On the one hand, there’s Alibaba, a farmer in a small Bihar village, whose physical world is destroyed by famine. And Bhola Mishra, born to privilege, is the urban stereotype. Corrupt, greedy and loaded with the symbols of success, his life is a parody of India’s urban rich. The rest of the moving back and forth in time, across characters and terrains reflects the standard divisions of India – between urban and rural, poor and rich, corrupt and evil, rotten and really rotten.

There’s a lot of deliberate exaggeration here. Do you find this mode especially useful for writing satire?

Exaggeration and subversion are all intentional, to make the point more effectively. Real life itself is an exaggeration. In India when things are bleak they are really bleak; when things are good they are sublime. Sometimes you write an exaggeration of a real-life situation, thinking it is so absurd and outlandish it can only be read as farcical; then you read the same piece as a news story in the papers the next day. The absurd and the farcical are ordinary news. Compression of time, and using the familiar – as in fashioning a character’s biography from Mahatma Gandhi’s, or making another character look like Laloo Yadav – makes identification easier.

Is it easy to be a satirist in a society where many realities are already so twisted?

There is no satire in India. Satire really has no role to play in places that are wracked by fear. Freedom of exaggerated expression is central to satire. If each time you write something you are looking over your shoulder to see if a mob is going to lynch you because you thought you could write freely about religion or cricket or caste...well...

The book’s perspective is very cynical. Do you believe there’s any hope for the common man in India?

I think the common man is the only hope for India. But unfortunately he too will sooner or later be afflicted by middle-class addictions. The privileged classes have been granted far too big a stake in running the country. Owning industries and land is no eligibility for leadership.

I am hardly in a position to comment on what the country’s biggest problems are – I live a privileged and pretentious life, like others of the middle class. But I think our most serious cultural flaw is the inability to think for ourselves and work out our own future. I am forever designing buildings already built in Europe and America. Left to the present lot of decision makers, we will be a smaller, poorer America within the next decade.

Are you working on any more graphic novels?

No, it isn’t a medium that I can control. I am not entirely comfortable in elaborate collaborations. I am working with a few others on a small film script on the Uselessness of Religion, but given its content I doubt it’ll get beyond a word file on the computer.

[Bhatia famously invented the term "Punjabi Baroque", which is also the title of one of his earlier books. You'll find links to some of his magazine and newspaper columns here]


  1. Freedom of exaggerated expression is central to satire

    I'm not so sure about that. One doesn't have to show movie stars coming to life (reminds me of Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo) or paint revered goddesses nude to get one's point across.

    Satires can be effective despite being matter-of-fact and bereft of exaggeration. Recently watched Renoir's Rules of the Game - a very trenchant satire that works without overtly offending anybody. In fact Renoir empathises with the very people he is lampooning in the film!

    I'm not suggesting that there's no other way of making a satire. Bunuel makes a contrast to Renoir. Unlike the latter, he often resorts to "exaggerated expression" and fantasy. But he doesn't necessarily excel Renoir because of his liberties.

    Staying with movies, Lubitsch's Ninotchka works just as well as Dr.Strangelove when it comes to lampooning the Soviets, without any of the exaggerated farce we observe in the latter.

    I'm not familiar enough with literature to cite examples. But I'm sure there are several satires out there that manage to make their point in a good natured way without causing offence.

  2. Am reminded of Wodehouse, who managed to lampoon the British and American idle rich with great success in eminently readable books that do "exaggerate" but are very unlikely to cause offence!

  3. @shrikanth, Just offering my two bits on this. I'm not sure that the element of criticism in satire remains effective or even overt without anger. Mockery or broad exaggeration without a desire for change becomes something far more benign and less politically effective than satire. Wodehouse writes primarily to amuse and out of amusement; a classic satirist like Swift wrote 'funny' prose that was actually supposed to enrage you.

    Jai, thank you for an excellent post and interview.

  4. Shrikanth (hoo boy, here we go again!): I agree with most of what you say, but this bit I'm sure there are several satires out there that manage to make their point in a good natured way without causing offence is neither here nor there. ANYTHING, including Wodehouse's writing (which was never intended as explicit satire anyway), is capable of causing offence if the offence-taker is thin-skinned enough. And there are enough of those thin skins in today's India, as you can see by quickly perusing any newspaper.

    I've been on panel discussions about this subject and what I always wonder is: who gets to decide which set of "offended sentiments" is valid and which isn't? When you've gone down the very dangerous path of decreeing that satire/black humour shouldn't "offend", where does one draw the line?

    In an ideal world, no satirist would ever have to be mindful about treading on people's sentiments - the onus for coping with the "offence" caused would lie squarely on the offence-taker's shoulders. "Not causing offence" should be the very last thing any satirist (or any writer of integrity, for that matter - I'm sure Rushdie would have a thing or two to say about this) should have to worry about. Unfortunately, the world we live in is very far from that ideal world.

  5. Roswitha: saw your comment after posting mine - and yes, your Wodehouse-Swift analogy pretty much sums it up.

  6. roswitha, J'wock: I'm reminded of DH Lawrence's oft-repeated quote - Trust the tale, not the teller
    Wodehouse may not have intended his books as satires unlike Swift. But that isn't too relevant. The books themselves are very likely to have made several Bertram Woosters in 30s England blush and introspect!

    I've only read Swift in an abridged tome. His reputation precedes him. But I do find his characters and analogies somewhat forced.

    Also, I'm not sure if one can be an agent of change by angering people. Art is typically a lot more effective when it serves as a critique from within than from without. That's why I prefer Douglas Sirk style satire over the Rushdie variety.

  7. shrikanth: I use that Lawrence quote tediously often myself (was introduced to it by Robin Wood btw) but I think we have a case of "agree to disagree" here. The form of satire I like best is the strong, absurdist, nasty kind - which is not to say that milder satire can't be equally good. (But then, I don't really see the point in making a value-judgement between two films as disparate as Strangelove and Ninotchka, which use different means to achieve different ends.) I'm a little sceptical about any satire being a successful "agent of change" anyway, so that isn't really something I'm factoring in.

    Personal tastes aside, what I'm essentially saying is this: we can't make prescriptions for what a writer needs to do to avoid angering people, because there are absolutely no reliable guidelines for these things. (I should know: I write a jokey blog-post making an offhand remark about my un-love for human children and several deeply offended commenters will show up immediately.)

  8. Strong satire of the kind displayed here would work for me in short doses; a story or two. Its admirable somebody can enjoy it book-length.


  9. Jai: but like I said in the post, the book didn't consistently work for me ("discrete episodes...some of which work, some of which don't"). I found it a bit overwrought and on the whole I would have preferred it to be shorter.

  10. i havent read this particular book, thanks for posting about it. on some of the comments, i am sure satire could be used in a PC way without offending anyone, but my two cents would be that it could also be a slightly safer passive aggressive tool to point out the emporers wearing no clothes, slightly increasing your chances of being heard and not left a as fanatic or hanged for being in the wrong camp. and sometimes somethings just need to be said? which is not to say that satire for its own sake is any less in merit, but i think the two things are just different when taken in totality

  11. I do not agree with the author's limiting definition of satire.Consider Merchant of Venice, which is possible to not be read as a satire, but still is effective if you read it as one.

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  13. Lie looks more like a picture-book narrative than ‘graphic novel’. (I have come to grips with the term GN, now I can stand myself these days every time I blurt out: I read comic books) It’s refreshing, for once, to hear about content - satire - than merits of the medium. (That isn’t to say the art part of the medium needn’t improve) I hope a book like this, which is read mostly by the ones expecting it than the ones that aren’t, can, if anything, inspire the varied satirists (if the aim of satire is to effect change). If its aim is merely to shock and awe, still it can evoke bellyful of laughs. I believe the books in a library or a bookstore are interconnected.
    Voltaire, to most, is readable than de Sade. (Kevin Smith’s Dogma is bearable than the book Da Vinci Code.) For a thought, Satire can achieve what Dystopia cannot (especially when disruption of status quo involved). For a note, I could stomach Kick-Ass and not bring myself to read Wanted.
    It’s nice to read around here, once again.