A little more than a year ago, I hoped for Parismita Singh to have a book launch in Mumbai. Something better happened: I got hold of a copy of the book itself.
With “The Hotel at the End of the World“, Singh turns from “comic book artist” to “graphic novelist”. The publishers are putting it across as a book that’s going to redefine graphic novels in India. Considering how nascent the genre is, I think every graphic novel that gets published redefines it but that’s ok. A little hyperbole is allowed, particularly since “The Hotel at the End of the World” is a wonderful read.
The basic story is simple and familiar: there’s a hotel at the end of Pema’s world and in it she serves pork curry, rice and country liquor. Among her regulars are a soldier’s ghost and a blind prophet. One night, they have new visitors – an odd twosome who have escaped the Chinese and are now looking for the Floating Island that most in the area believe is a mythical land of the plenty. Tongues loosened by liquor, the traveller’s are the first to tell their tale. One by one the others at the hotel follow. All the stories are dark and riddled with different kinds of cruelty and helplessness but they’re told in the cheerful tone of drunks. Singh’s stories feel like folk tales that have been passed down as bedside tales for generations and she draws each of them differently. Vintage comics, cartoons, woodcut prints, Tibetan thangkas – it’s a medley of styles in “The Hotel at the End of the World”. What struck me most, though, was the angular sharpness of her drawings. The clean and neat panels, the rounded faces and bodies from “Cleopatra” and the comical feel of her drawings have given way to a scratchier, darker style in “The Hotel at the End of the World”. The lines seem almost knifed rather than drawn in many of the stories. Technically, the book is in black and white but the black is what you remember. It’s in the sheets of rain, in the clothes, in their eyes, in the shadows out of which memories and ghosts emerge.
It’s impossible to not connect the despair and bitterness in the stories that make up “The Hotel at the End of the World” with Northeast India, particularly since Singh is from Assam. She doesn’t make a hue and cry about the book being about stories from the Northeast but she doesn’t try to hide it either. And why should she? Why not write about the world you feel you belong to, the one you dream about and the stories you’ve grown up with? The universality in Singh’s work comes from how well she has captured some of the ennui and bleakness of the Northeast. It probably wouldn’t have been done so well by someone approaching the region and its stories with the perspective of an outsider.
Singh’s storytelling is simple without being simplistic, almost as though it’s balancing the gamut and complexity she’s flooded her drawings with.While reading “The Hotel at the End of the World” I kept remembering Italo Calvino’s “The Castle of Crossed Destinies”. There are many similarities but it was actually a major difference that lingered with me. In “The Castle of Crossed Destinies”, the story told from tarot cards was an interpretation of images. The cards reminded us repeatedly that the story that was being read was only a narrator’s interpretation. What a graphic novel shows us is a more unambiguous depiction of the story because the images show you just what the novelist imagined. It’s as though the entire novel is one of the tarot card sets from “The Castle of Crossed Destinies”. It made me wonder what it is about the graphic novel that makes the reader so much more accepting of clichés and repetitions. What makes the phrase “suddenly a dark and stormy night” somewhat laughable when it’s just words and yet un-ridiculous when it is written on and accompanied by an illustration?
In “The Hotel at the End of the World”, the drawings of the stories carefully create dreamscapes full of odd and supernatural happenings. They show you the story but also fill each drawing with metaphors. Whether you want to tease them out or not is up to you. If you’re used to reading too much into things (one of the characteristic symptoms of having “an education”), then “The Hotel at the End of the World” is full of possibilities. The father who gives up his supernatural powers and his life in order to save his daughter’s life – is that a reference to the changing Northeast as it loses track of old traditions and ways of life in an effort to be modern and in step with the rest of the country and the world? Is China really the evil, satanic power that makes a mockery of people’s dreams and optimism, mocking and turning them into circus acts? Does the road to a brighter and more peaceful future lie in technology, symbolised by the mobile phone that sends its owner messages with directions to the Floating Island, even when it is switched off? Will the little girl and those two odd men find that little bit of Utopia that floats on one of the lakes in the beautiful pastoral of Northeast India?
I finished reading “The Hotel at the End of the World” over a few hours but the stories have stayed with me for the past 4 days. I can remember whole pages, as though my mind was taking snapshots as I leapt from panel to panel, reading about the people gathered at Pema’s hotel on a dark and stormy night. They reminded me of friends coming over and the friendly chatter at the roadside stalls of Sikkim where you get steaming thukpa and momos (or at least you used to). While reading about the soldier who can’t adjust himself to the fact that World War II is over, I remembered the marker rushing over the Ouija board, spelling out the words “soldier”, “Sarajevo” and “burial” in a rush. Meanwhile, “Brown-eyed Girl” wafted in from the next room. And then, just when the mobile phone in Singh’s book lit up with its last message, mine rang out to tell me it’s 7am and time to wake up.