Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Stupid Guy Goes Back to India (the bewakoof chronicles contd)

The cover of Yukichi Yamamatsu’s Stupid Guy Goes Back to India has a “Hey Bewakoof!” in large font above a drawing of an irascible old Japanese man glaring at the reader, yelling that since this is a translation of a manga, we have to turn it over and read it from right to left. Both the drawing and the bad-temperedness will be familiar to anyone who experienced Yamamatsu’s graphic novel Stupid Guy Goes to India, to which this is a sequel. On the jacket of that earlier book, he gave us the same instructions with a simple “Hey!” minus the “bewakoof”. Perhaps he feels like he knows us better now, and can take more liberties. Yukichi first visited India in 2004, hoping to sell his comics, and his love-hate relationship with the country continues here, though there is a little more khandaani “love” in the mix than there was in the first book (where he was often scornful – or just brutally frank – about India, and honest about his own insularity).

The sequel begins with the artist – now in his 60s – surviving a bout with cancer. “What a waste of a life it was!” he grumbles to himself when he thinks he is dying; the self-deprecation is so mixed with genuine peevishness that the effect is funny rather than maudlin. At various points in both these books, Yukichi appears annoyed at himself and at the world in equal measure, and his exaggerated self-portrait is closer to the worlds of Noh theatre and the medieval Samurai than the reserved placidity we associate with modern Japanese culture. In any case, having lived on, he decides to rejuvenate himself by – what else? – returning to India, having finally earned some money through the earlier book.

This time he is more immune to culture shock, which is not to say that new misadventures don’t present themselves – and he often invites them with his ambitious but not particularly well thought out schemes for making money. He is routinely cheated by people who, when confronted, stare into space as if nothing has happened (or twitch their heads in that ambiguous Indian way that so fascinates Yukichi). He confuses an air cooler with an air conditioner, screams “Do you have any idea what the word PROMISE even means?!” after being let down by someone who had committed to helping him. (“VACHAN?!!? Do they not exist in India or WHAT?!”) But there are gentler passages too: he allows himself to get reflective about growing old, and there is even a tiny bit of social commentary when, after a set of public-toilet-related mishaps (this bit is not for queasy readers), he wonders how women in India must get along.

A notable difference between Stupid Guy Goes Back to India and its predecessor is that a much larger number of the conversations here take place in stilted Hindi (written in the Roman script, of course), reflecting Yukichi’s growing familiarity with the language over his two trips. The results are often very droll – “Sir ke andar theek nahin!” shouts a hysterical Yukichi, trying to explain to a married couple that their baby might have an undiagnosed mental problem; “Kya mazedaar hai AAPKO tay karna nahin!” he shouts, when someone suggests that his stand-up comedy routine might not appeal to local slum-dwellers – but this also means the reader needs basic acquaintance with Hindi to fully appreciate what is going on (and to see the humour in the mixing of the shuddh and the profane).

The narrative itself - in its original, untranslated form - probably held some appeal for Japanese readers who don’t know much about life in India’s dustier, poorer crannies and might therefore be able to read this as a novel set in a fantasy world. For the Indian though, it can become repetitive and over-familiar after a while. The novelty value of the earlier book – which I enjoyed – has abated. Like the badly made Udon noodles that Yukichi tries without success to sell at a roadside stall (he belatedly learns that there is only one type of flour in India), the jokes can only be stretched so far before they wear thin and leave a rancid taste in your mouth.

A running theme through this book is Yukichi’s struggles to publish and sell a slim manga titled “Cycle Rickshaw Wallay ki Dukaan”. He includes that comic at the end of this book (“by “end”, I mean the first pages of a left-to-right publication, bewakoof), so that Stupid Guy Goes Back to India finishes on a note of grace, with a short story that doesn’t feature Yukichi at all but is about a gruff man whose path crosses with a group of orphaned children. Perhaps this is a sign that Yukichi did, after all, develop affection for life in this noisy, messy, complicated country. Or perhaps he is trying to tell us that like the cycle-rickshaw wala, he has always had a soft heart under his cold and self-absorbed exterior. Whatever the case, it makes for a warm ending to a book that otherwise has too many slack passages and too much forced humour.

[Did this for the Hindu Literary Review. My review of the first book, Stupid Guy Goes to India, is here]

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