The Word is Not Enough
This new anthology challenges the way in which we read, says Samhita Arni
WORKING OUT algebraic equations isn’t an obvious corollary to the act of reading. But Somdutt Sarkar’s explorations of the 12th century mathematician Bhaskaracharya’s text Lilavati in The Obliterary Journal presents math problems that offer infinite narrative possibilities to calculate; the number of pearls that fall off a necklace as a couple makes love, for instance.
It’s this spirit of imagination and experimentation that The Obliterary Journal revels in. The anthology compiles miscellaneous visual material in a number of varying styles and forms — graphic short stories, collections of street art and hand-painted type. A one-page piece, Farooq’s A Squid Vixen, has a figure illustrated in the style of Amar Chitra Katha comics. It suggests that stories are not necessarily full-fledged narratives, but are for these pages, primarily ideas that hold a multiplicity of interpretations. Another theme, the conflict between visuals and text, is introduced in the foreword. Pictograms assert the premise of this book, ‘obliterary’ — to obliterate textual literature. The written word retaliates by beating the pictograms into a bloody, sprawling mess.
Yet, in the pages that follow, the written word and the visual aren’t always at odds. Roney Devassia marries content with style in Karuna Bhavanam, a creative non-fiction piece based on interviews. Devassia’s washed-out, grey-toned panels that blend into each other are the perfect way to explore the fading, blurred memories of a group of elderly men living in an old-age home in Kozhikode. The excerpt from The Hyderabad Graphic Novel by writer-artist duo Harsho Mohan Chattoraj and Jai Undurti is spectacular, not just because of Chattoraj’s stunning, detailed black-and-white art, but also for Undurti’s impressively researched tale that ranges across time and space, and features the mythic, first city of Aryan Vaejo, Egyptian Catacombs, Stonehenge, the Ice-Ages and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
Not all the pieces work, though. Nowhere to Run, an excerpt from Subrata Gangopadhyay’s graphic novel in Bangla, centres on Janardhan, an anti-hero with superhuman strength, but has a confusing narrative with too many characters and sub-plots. The textured, nebulous artwork of Amitabh Kumar’s piece (which has a visual title — an airplane enclosed in a heart) is exquisite but the concept is too abstract to grasp. But these shortcomings don’t mar its charm. The Obliterary Journal, by subverting and breaking with narrative conventions, challenges the way a reader thinks of a story and uses the full capacity of the visual medium to smudge the lines between math and literature (among other subjects), the real and the imagined, fiction and non-fiction.
Arni is the author of Sita’s Ramayana and co-editor of Out of Print