A journey into the past with two graphic novels

 thehindu.com  01/17/2020 10:01:19 

Remember the gripping refrain from the opening pages of Ayn Rands Atlas Shrugged? Much like John Galt, Munin Barkotoki is this elusive but encompassing figure, a name imbued with mystique through constant repetition. It wouldnt have been easy to make a literary figures life story seem heady. But using sheer artistic flair, photographer and digital artist Shisir Basumatari tries to turn what might have been a routine biography into something of a psychological thriller in The Real Mr Barkotoki.

Released a couple of months ago, the graphic novel uses a bevy of dramatic tropes  hot pursuit, near-death events, schizophrenia and even a tangential anti-war message  to excavate the spiritual remains of the deceased Assamese writer and former News Editor of All India Radio, a very learned man struggling with loneliness and old age and bad handwriting.

Visual draw

Heavily cross-hatched panels keep the reader embedded in that dark chiaroscuro that straddles protracted pursuit and imminent discovery. The Joe Sacco-esque black-and-white noir style, a hybrid form suspended between fact and fiction, is, Basumatari clarifies, not the same as that of Art Spiegelmans Maus or Marjane Satrapis Persepolis, where the art style is tilted towards the comic. Noir can be used to extract humour as well as deepen gravitas.

Here was a medium that offered the space to tell the true story of Barkotoki and the possibility to present hard information without appearing like a documentary, says Basumatari, who spent seven years trying to decipher 17 diaries of the Assamese litterateur. Having dabbled with a film script and the idea of prose fiction, he settled on the graphic novel, a medium through which Barkotokis handwriting could be felt visually and more intimately.

Scraps of scribbled notes, letters and newspaper clippings from the diaries (journaled between 1980 and 1993) are scattered throughout the linear-yet-surreal tale. The protagonist is a disturbed sort, spiralling in his fixation with the literary figure and frustrated by the abstruse nature of his investigation. He drags us through a fragmentary narrative that brings out the disorientation of a disintegrating mind.

In writing

Basumatari admits the process was intimidating: & the fortress of Barkotokis bad handwriting just stood staring at me. But having been a diarist himself, he feels he was at the right place at the right time when the critics daughter, Meenaxi, approached him with her fathers diaries. These contained glimpses not only into Barkotokis mind but also life in Guwahati in the 80s.

The narrative may seem overdramatised at points  much of its paranoiac pacing reflects the protagonists own dissonant mood as he struggles to piece together Barkotokis life. And given the years Basumatari spent on the project, it makes sense that the output is part-autobiographical. As a documenter, he seems to have gone above and beyond the impersonal process that journalistic research usually calls for. But he takes the precaution of developing a persona (whose quiff gives you a whiff of Tintin).

Theres a febrile dreamlike quality to the panels, with elements of pop psychology, even some nootropic Shamanism, thrown in. The idea of the protagonist willing to court death dramatises his desperateness to solve the puzzle that is the mysterious Barkotoki dream, says Basumatari. And, as he reiterates, it is up to the reader to decide if that sort of dedication is worth the risk.

Published by Speaking Tiger Books (Tiger Print) and priced at 499

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