– Gursimran Singh
Simian – Parts 1 & 2
Author: Vikram Balagopal
Genre: Literature & Fiction, Religion & Spirituality.
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 750
It is an interesting perspective that artists, cartoonists, and storytellers across continents are bringing to myriad interpretations of Indian mythology. The fact that this is happening is also an interesting phenomenon. Vikram Balagopal’s graphic novel Simian, is a telling of the Ramayana. But that is where the cliché ends. The author, who is also a filmmaker, poet, illustrator, and cartoonist, retells the Ramayana from Hanuman’s point of view. Simian explores the lessons Hanuman shared with Bhima on the consequences of war. In times where conflicts linger in a vicious circle of tit for tat, and the effects are overlooked. In my book, Hanuman says, “For a war to be truly understood, one must start at the end. To see what it left behind.”
So in Simian, Hanuman is a baboon, and the sun is the moon. The book opens with an encounter in a banana grove, as two mythologies meet, through the personages of Bhima and Hanuman, and there ensues a discussion on the shared central theme of their respective stories: war. As Bhima rages against his cousins and their deceitful ways, Hanuman reminds him that war ultimately presents but two choices — to either die for one’s moral values or to live with compromised morality till one’s dying day. The ancients, it seems, were as obsessed with war as we are today, and just as unable to prevent it, despite their abundant knowledge of its horrors.
The narrator of Simian is as deeply wonderstruck as he is wise, courageous as he is complex, impetuous as he is introspective; and casts his spell as we follow him from his early days in exile with Sugriva, through his heroic leap across the ocean, to his adventures in Lanka. In his preface, Balagopal says that he fashioned his story and its protagonist by drawing from a range of sources — starting from his grandmother’s oral accounts, to popular publications and scholarly translations. And this, perhaps, is what lends his telling a psychological complexity that is attractive in a very contemporary sense.
This ‘attractive complexity’ is wonderfully expressed through Balagopal’s bold visual style and penchant for cinematic editing. He retains a black and white graphic feel throughout, bringing in color occasionally. Why in black and white? Vikram answers – “I didn’t want to make it attractive by using colors in war scenes. I wanted to show black, white and the greys in between, in relationships, betrayal, and loyalty. I used different tones, for example, to capture the poignant savagery of the fratricidal encounter between Bali and Sugriva, and to describe Hanuman’s leap.”
Juxtaposing masses of heavy black against spacious fields of white, he builds up detail with surprisingly fine line work and patches of dense, scratchy texture. The look and feel are minimal, but not overly so for a story that seems to demand mood, setting, and characterization at all times. Though Simian manages the overall balances rather well, Balagopal’s powerful visualization is hobbled by a draftsmanship that at times proves inadequate for the task. There is nothing more distracting to the heady flow of the narrative, for example than having to stop and peer at something disturbing in the corner of the frame and wonder if it’s the arm of an intruder that has appeared on the scene, or merely some portion of the lizard one saw in the previous frame!
You can relate to every character in Simian. Unlike the old murals, they are no longer fixed in motive or deed. Rama is a divine character unaware of his divinity, so his divinity has not been addressed directly. Sita is a strong figure, bold enough to make decisions. Ravana is not shown as evil; he had his own reasons for doing things that led to a war. Hanuman is not just a vanara. Simian explores why people do what they do. Nothing is inherently good or bad; people do what they think is right.
Raw, layered and inventive, Simian is a look back at one of the most enigmatic characters in mythology and literature.