A book that has given me immense joy is Making Comics by Lynda Barry. While she herself is a big inspiration, her books are inimitable and exceptional. Ms. Barry teaches drawing and comics to young children and this book is a set of those exercises and her unique insights around drawing, imagining, and teaching. I’ve often done some of the exercises with our little tornado and his friends when they needed to be calmed down, and soon we are all giggling at each other’s drawings.
Here’s an exercise where she asked us to imagine ourselves as Batman, and draw what we did the day before. I had gone to the Aadhaar Centre nearby, worked from home, and went for a walk with a friend.
Ms. Barry also believes that anyone can draw, and so do I. My drawing wasn’t anywhere near the best in design school, and in the animation studio where I interned, our boss had despaired over my unfit-for animation drawings. He used to challenge me to do 20 iterations of bird flight cycles, or 50 iterations of floating balloons, and I persevered. All by hand, of course.
What happens through repetition and practice is that you get better by training your hand to follow your eye or your mind’s eye, as closely as possible, without any gen loss. The repetition also allows your conscious rational mind and your ego, to quieten, and you’re in flow until there are just the forms on the page…
“There’s the drawing you are trying to make and the drawing that’s actually being made – and you can’t see it until you forget what you were trying to do.”
Lynda Barry, Notes from an accidental professor
If you think you don’t know how to draw, this book is for you. Ms. Barry starts with basic stick figures to help you start envisioning. She also says,
It’s not your job to judge whether your drawing is good or bad, your job is to keep drawing.
Here are some recent pages from my sketchbook, unedited, unpolished, straight from my mind to the paper, drawn in usually less than fifteen minutes.
This was the podcast episode I made notes of, though it’s not my favorite episode. And surprisingly, I have been reading more about spirituality all of a sudden, but coming in through poetry, like this wonderful, magical book In the Shelter: Finding Home in the World by poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, who also hosts the podcast Poetry Unbound. In the book, Padraig has an amazing chapter on prayer “Hello to the imagination” which changed my perspective of it as an opaque ritual that was not for me.
Mr. Labatut says, “I love the way that physics deals with fundamental questions. It asks itself certain questions, and it gives concrete answers most of the time, but not all of the time. I’ve always been fascinated by fundamental questions, and science is, to my mind, the only part of human awareness that is still asking those questions.”
Let me be honest, I don’t read Bengali literature frequently, so it was with a lot of trepidation that I started reading অগ্নিসম্ভব (Ognisombhov/ Inflammable ) earlier this year. It’s a novel set in the second half of the twentieth century in Kolkata. Written by my aunt Reeta Basu, it’s loosely based on the lives of my grandparents and their family.
For me, this book was a revelation into these two generations: the generation of my grandparents, who came over from the eastern part of Bengal (that is now Bangladesh) before the Partition of India; and that of my mother and aunts, who grew up in the late sixties/early seventies in Kolkata. It is illuminating how much society, and our outlook has changed within these fifty-odd years, especially in its expectations and attitudes towards women.
The second part of the narrative, called অগ্নিকুসুম (Ognikusum / The spark), is set in the past decade and the main character is drawn from our generation.
When I was growing up, the Bengali books I mostly read were the Feluda books by Satyajit Ray and the historical fiction by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Though I’ve also read a smattering of other Bengali fiction and our bleak literature canon in school, and apart from Pratham Pratisruti, I hadn’t come across a strong feminist perspective or many well-crafted female characters in the Bengali literature in my youth. So what stood out for me here was the specifically Bengali female gaze of the narrative, carried through by the inner monologues of the main characters, and the empathetic and compassionate depiction of all the characters.
For me, reading these two books was a very special experience.
Even though it was fiction, the characters that were based on my grandparents (my mother’s parents) were very lovingly drawn, right down to their inner lives and the little details of their day-to-day rituals. The history unfolding around them influenced their generous natures and community-driven values. Getting to know them through this book, learning about their challenges, the integrity of their choices, and how little they asked from life, was a proud and humbling experience. They have always been revered and cherished by us, and they are even more of an inspiration now. I felt lucky to get such a rare and deep connection to our family history.
The narrative arc illuminated how rapidly lifestyles have changed for middle-class women of that milieu – from being mainly confined to housework and child-rearing in their homes, to having the opportunity to be employed and financially independent in the seventies. Even then, it was no cakewalk – without a supportive husband, who didn’t see it as a detriment to his male ego, and an acceptable profession – it was fairly impossible. The academic profession, teaching in colleges or schools, was acceptable, but most other professions were deemed unsuitable. In these middle-class circles at the time, society and the norms it imposed were rarely questioned. In the second book, the daughters of the current generation make their own non-conformist career choices, and that creates great unrest among the parents – first for choosing an “unsuitable” profession, and then, the realization that their daughters were independent and empowered, and that their resistance was futile.
Another theme that was insightful for me was the rise of individualism in the second book. In অগ্নিসম্ভব, the sisters were good, dutiful daughters, who accepted their father’s decisions as final. On the rare occasions they had a different opinion, they did not dream of expressing themselves, and always accepted their father’s choices as the righteous ones. On the other hand, we saw ourselves reflected in অগ্নিকুসুম, where the main character doesn’t hold back in expressing herself through her behavior and life choices.
While reading this book, I finally understood the discord that had defined much of my adolescence and early twenties – my expectations and those of my parents were clearly at odds. Around me, I saw cousins being highly individualistic and took my cues from them, but what I didn’t realize was that the rules were still different for girls and boys! My parents were not prepared for this either and their tolerance (or the lack thereof) was the cause of some radical life choices.
Wise men have said if you don’t know your past, you don’t know where you are going in the future, and these books really serve that need – for us to know the world of women and their history, through their own voices.
Voices of Dissent by Romila Thapar: This essay puts today’s responses to resistance in perspective, by charting out the history and evolution of dissent from the vedic times. A worthwhile read, even though the language was quite academic. (If you buy from Seagull, you can choose your version of the cover, designed by the brilliant sunandinibee.)
The book is a collection of Ms. Pruitt’s journals over multiple years, and she touches upon so many of the dilemmas we ourselves have felt. We, as in, anyone trying to balance motherhood and artistic or creative pursuit, to begin with, but also, for any artist who has ever questioned intuition, instinct, and flow in their own work. Here’s a map I was making while reading the book.
Her thoughts on art are highly conceptual, and she articulates them beautifully. Ms. Pruitt was a psychologist before she became an artist, and maybe that’s one reason she is able to tease out details of her experiences and subconscious thoughts with such great clarity, and in such elegant prose.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book –
“The meaning of our experience is held in the infinity”
…which is about how we derive meaning from the short intervals between our sensory perceptions. As usual I drew it in my sketchbook.
By the way, WordPress was a bit of a letdown while making this post, and readers you may have some challenges here and there as well. First, the WordPress iPad app got stuck multiple times and so I gave up drafting there and used my laptop. And now there are other issues with the standard post format that I tried to resolve for the last half an hour. Oh well, tech.
We don’t often hear about graphic novels written by women. It’s not that they’ve not being made, but it’s just the usual process of whitewashing over women’s achievements by simply writing them out of history. We’ve all been there, in corporate work culture you would have heard of it as the Matilda effect.
It’s not that I have anything against Seth, or Guy Delisle, or any of the other authors we hear about. But sometimes we all like to be reflected through media. It validates our existence, it makes us feel seen. It universalizes us.
The book was so detailed it was as if we were right there, looking over her shoulder. I think she must have kept diaries to be able to remember in such great detail.
Here’s a sketch that I made while reading about what they usually ate there.
“Don’t watch it being made, or you’ll never want to eat it again!”
Every once in a while you end up reading something that you don’t usually read, and this was one such book. Ms Shaw’s voice comes through joyously through the pages after all these years, and I ended the book thinking that she must have been quite a nice person to know.
“When she was young, she’d sliced up her own flesh at the blink of an eye, she loved to get truly abject, but now she’d dried out…not appetising exactly, not desirable, but fodder for someone, a pigeon, at least. Was this getting older? Kathy was worried about ageing, she hadn’t realised youth wasn’t a permanent state, that she couldn’t always be cute and hopeless and forgivable.”
It takes place over a few days in her fortieth summer, and she’s about to get married. It’s not often that we see ourselves reflected so accurately in literature with all our fears and pimples and headaches, and Olivia Laing as Kathy Acker was spot on.