In a recent piece, I mentioned the pitfalls of writing simplistically about poverty and squalor in India. That’s relevant to a reportage-driven project, where the writer has a responsibility to understand historical and cultural context, but there are other types of writing where an individual’s honest account of his impressions can take precedence over providing a “fair” or “balanced” view. Take the case of a Japanese comic artist in his mid-50s who decides, almost on whim, to travel to India (a country he knows practically nothing about) to sell Hindi translations of manga publications. He lands in Delhi, fumbles through immigration, can’t locate the airport exit, is horrified to find his bags dumped near the conveyor belt, outraged to see a man using a simple calculator at the foreign-exchange counter…and all this in the first few minutes. The business of actually living in this country without being able to speak English or Hindi still lies ahead of him.
Little wonder then that Yukichi Yamamatsu’s graphic novel Stupid Guy Goes to India – an account of his India stay in 2004-05 – contains such observations as “It’s like the ground was entirely made of cow turds” and “People were eating something that looked like potato, out of something that looked like tree bark...with their hands!” Little wonder too that parts of this book feel like a horror story about an innocent abandoned in a crepuscular forest, even though most of it is set in Old Delhi in broad sunlight (and the people around aren't monsters but speak a strange language presented as geometric symbols in speech balloons).
In fairness, Yamamatsu makes not the slightest pretence of being worldly wise. Uninformed and provincial, he is devastated to discover that homegrown Indian comics exist (he was expecting to single-handedly introduce a new art form to the country!) and this shock is conveyed in one of the book’s more amusing panels, where Yukichi’s head appears to be sliced by a samurai sword. He gets fleeced, goes around in circles and flies into existential rage when he learns the cost of printing a comic - he had figured it would be no more than 20 or 30 Yen, things being famously cheap in India. The more I read, the more I felt that the “stupid guy” in the title wasn’t just a sweet exercise in self-deprecation.
Still, I liked this book’s resolutely unsentimental tone. Yukichi is in India with a single-point agenda. He isn’t interested in the local culture beyond how it helps him achieve his ends (before his trip he half-heartedly goes through an India guidebook, but soon forgets most of what he’s read). Age may have something to do with it: this isn’t a spry youngster looking to discover an exciting new place; this is an irritable elderly man who is set in his ways and who worries about walking around for long periods because of a bowel incontinence problem (it doesn’t help that the ubiquitous song “Dhoom Machale” sounds to him like “Unko Tare”, meaning anal leakage!). When he describes playing an impromptu game with street kids, it’s more a way of passing the time than an attempt at being friendly (or at least being friendly in the elaborate Indian way). There’s even an irreverent, unexpectedly pornographic passage when he acts on a friend’s suggestion that Indian women are “probably pretty good for sex”, and makes a trip to GB Road (he proceeds to detail his inability to sustain an erection, which led me to happy thoughts of Stupid Guy ... being placed in the children’s section of bookstores, something that often happens with adult comics).
But the lack of sentimentality doesn’t necessarily make this a cold, detached narrative. Part of its charm comes from how Yukichi, in spite of himself, gets absorbed into the Indian way of doing things, such as the vague bob of the head that indicates direction (and which he dramatises with a "wik" sound). He is often very funny when he describes his struggles to have conversations in broken Hindi, and hyper-dramatic wails of “Nahin!” punctuate the story when he gets stressed (which is often). And since he is so passionate about what he does, one comes to feel invested in his heroic attempts to get comics translated, properly lettered and typeset. The magnificent culture of manga will bring a new dawn to India, he exults at one point, in the foreground of a drawing that shows the sun rising above “the cold, dark Himalayas”. The effect is mainly humorous, but by the end it’s a conceit almost worth buying into.
Stupid Guy Goes to India is a breezy tale that begins quite slowly (especially if you’re not enthralled by descriptions of a foreigner making his first acquaintance with spicy food, low-budget hotels and auto-rickshaws) and becomes more involving as it goes along. But it also worked for me on a level that the author may not have intended. We are surrounded by self-congratulating India narratives these days – even the ones that aren’t explicitly about The Shining tell us that the rest of the world looks towards us with respect for our cultural wisdom, our glorious past, our economic future, our ability to manage social complexity, our film-stars, our graceful, sari-wearing women. There is more than enough affirmation for those of us who seek it. Amidst all this, it can be useful to sit down and read a book by someone from a nearby country who isn’t particularly impressed by us, and who makes no bones about it. Sometimes it’s good to be tersely told “Indians tend to barge into your room without warning.” Or that “Indian marbles are smaller than Japanese ones and they are not perfectly round but flattened”. (Yukichi is really talking about marbles here, but again, who knows.)
P.S. This English translation of Stupid Guy Goes to India (by Kumar Sivasubramanian) has been printed in the traditional manga style, meaning it has to be read from right to left. (Perhaps the idea was to make a non-Japanese reader feel as disoriented as Yukichi felt in Delhi!) I found this reasonably easy to do when I read it the first time from beginning to end, but not so easy when I tried flipping through passages later to refresh my memory.
[A shorter version of this appeared in The Sunday Guardian. And here's an old post about Osamu Tezuka's excellent Buddha series]