The Pearl on A Swine’s Snout

I feel as if I have walked into something in my sleep, and slowly, much as something resolves and takes on form, as I open my eyes and my vision adjusts, I am beginning to see the limitlessness of the tremendous, living thing that I have encountered. I have an encountered a story of such magnitude, such richness; a story that changes shape and moves, lives and breathes, constantly re-inventing itself. I am left with the feeling that I must have been blind all my life. It must be serendipity, that in my search for tellings and visual narratives that are reductive and singular, I have only been stumbling on tellings that are remarkable, unique; each, seeking a truth of its own. And every reading has seeped some of its indelible dye into my skin and my soul, changing me in some way.

A friend lent me this book. It must have been serendipity. Adi Parva took my breath away. I held onto it, as if it were some sort precious gift, turning the pages to take in the art, sometimes in awe and sometimes in sheer disbelief. One woman made this. And clearly, it is enough to turn a few pages and one can tell, this is her life’s work. Her purpose.

Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva is a graphic novel. One unlike any that I have read so far. The book captures the complex intratextuality of the Mahabharatha so well, stories nestled into one another, stories that lead to another and then to another, looping back to the main narrative and making complete sense. The story is narrated by a blurry, charcoal grey Ganga. She is a canny storyteller and senses the mood of her audience well. She is unperturbed, as she sits under a tree in the middle of the night and keeps her audience enthralled with her telling. She says, “In any case, you are but held captive by old narratives. Tales must be tilled like the land so they keep breathing. The only thing you owe allegiance to is the essence.

Amruta Patil says that she chose Ganga as the narrator as she was a Goddess, a queen and also a mother, albeit an unsentimental one, she was empathetic but not beside herself with emotions. And Ganga also inhabits both the celestial as well as the terrestrial realms. Having Ganga as the narrator of the story lends a unique feminine and feminist perspective to the telling. The story foregrounds its women and we see and feel along with them. Kunti, Ganga, Amba and Shakuntala’s voices are given their due. In one of the frames, after being rejected by Dushyant, as Shakuntala and her son Sarvadaman, walk away and she says, “When we walk out of here, I will not knock myself down for being rejected by the man I loved. Goodbye. I wish you all the best living with yourself.”

Patil has been reading and researching the epics for over 10 years and the art for the book took 3 years to do. As a writer and illustrator myself, I can only imagine what this must have taken. The eloquence of the visual imagery, with layers of textures, fabrics, styles and colors is simply breathtaking. Every page has poetry. Every frame can be a painting by itself.

Women with kohl laden eyes, outlines in blue, flowing hair and garments, sweeping lines and brush strokes filled with big daubs of acrylic add to the lyrical quality of the visual narrative. There is a sensuality to the images that Patil makes, an undercurrent of eroticism.

With each re-telling of the Mahabharatha, some new facet is revealed, a new understanding emerges, each reader finds his or her unique meaning and story, such is the richness of this tale. And as Ganga says at the end, “Swine wouldn’t know a pearl if it sat on their snout. And therein lies the safety device that protects the tale. I could lay bare every secret of the multiverse, but you will only hear what you’re ready to understand. You may sit atop gold like a clueless, territorial dragon, but what you do not understand can never be your own.”