A candid chat with graphic novelist Vishwajyoti Ghosh

Twenty-year-old Shabnam has been living the life of a refugee ever since she opened her eyes. She hopes to complete her studies, get a better job and move out of the Geneva Camp, a refugee camp set up for Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh. She and thousand other individuals like her live in makeshift homes, with no privacy at all. Inside the Geneva Camp is a short photo story that highlights the plight of people affected by the 1971 war that lead to liberation of East Pakistan into now a sovereign nation called Bangladesh.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh
Vishwajyoti Ghosh

This is one of the 28 stories that have found their way to This Side That Side, a graphic anthology of the Partition curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh. The book is a result of efforts by 40 individuals from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, offering a fresh and contemporary outlook of Partition. In this candid interview, Ghosh, who himself lived in a refugee camp in Delhi after his family moved from Bangladesh to India, talks about why there's a need to re-tell the story about Partition, and how it happened.

Many second and third generation Indians, who were born after India's Independence, have no link to the trauma that people from the three countries underwent during and after Independence. Some may even find it difficult to accept that a brotherhood existed. What is the relevance of stories on Partition in today's time?
Not all the contributors are necessarily from a partition family. Some are. And they manifest themselves through visual renditions. If you look at mankind negotiating with history, you'll find a pattern of how different generations deal with it differently. One of the biggest myths this anthology tries to break is that Partition is a chapter from 1947. Whether based on reasons of faith or economics or family, it is still happening across all the three countries. It is something tucked permanently under our collective chin and we are all negotiating with it in very many ways.

I, for example, whose family too moved from the present day Bangladesh, grew up in a refugee home in Delhi where my grandmother was a part of administration. She looked after the inmates who came into India after partition and I grew up on those stories I heard mixed stories of my family. Similarly two young men -- one from Delhi and the other from Lahore, meet in London. Upon discussion they realise that the house the Lahori now lives in was actually built by the Dilliwaalah's great grandfather. Too much of a coincidence, and too good to be true!

There are so many love stories of our generation that never went any further because of the maps redrawn in 1947. Even if the later generations did not witness partition, they definitely grew up on it. And now in the online world we live in, sans borders it is interesting to see how we interact with the other side with equal passion if not more.

When you take a regular comic or graphic novel and This Side That Side, not only do the stories differ, but there is also a huge difference in the art style as well. Did it make it difficult for you give the book a uniform feel? Or was uniformity never in the picture?
The core idea was to explore Partition and its role in our lives through the medium of comics and graphic narratives. Hence a visual perspective was critical. The book has fiction and non-fiction, poetry, song, dastan, reportage all rendered in different visual styles and forms. I hope this book adds to the already existing documentation, with many fresh voices that have been brought in to bring in another dimension, however small but significant. As a curator, I was aware of the range of subjects this collection could bring together yet there's so much more to tell. It was tough to bring such narratives into a graphic form, but yes, it was also the contributors who must be lauded for taking up the challenge both in terms of writings and the visuals. Overall, it's the various perspectives and renditions of the common theme that brings a uniform feel (if there's one) to the book.

A Bangladeshi or a Pakistani is as foreign to me as any citizen of another Asian country. In fact, I feel like I know more about a European, American or other Asian countries and their people than I know of those in the Indian subcontinent. How do you think should we address this lack of interest among people of the Subcontinent?
One of the biggest discoveries while working on this project has been the partition of our memories. For many of us Indians, Partition is something to do with Punjab on one side and Bengal on the other. But we often forget that Gujarat and Assam were also affected. Similarly, in the neighboring nations, memory often begins from 1947 only, often missing the centuries of common legacies and on the other side, whereas for many I interacted with, everything began from 1971. Now, the real deal is somewhere in the middle.

The amount of curiosity that exists on all sides is something this book explores to a certain extent. Trust me, every contributor has at least 20 more stories in their kitty and over 50 aspects they would like to go and find out in the other nation. And that would range from "what happened to that ancestral house" , "how do you make that particular dish" to "what if the rivers run this way than the other" and all valid curiosities. It's these curiosities that have the potential to open a dialogue. Hence, I don't necessarily agree that there is a lack of interest among people, just that itâ's clouded by more dominant prejudices.

What was the most challenging part while curating this?
Partition has been a huge area of my interest. But I was curious to explore contemporary narratives that interact with some aspect of partition in ones daily life' There's one solid set of narratives we have grown up on. In school, the moment someone said, "you know my grandfather's house in..." we knew where the story was going. Whether its fiction, non-fiction, theatre or cinema, partition narratives over the decades have slotted themselves into a template. This has been extremely helpful for our generations to understand partition. But what we would like to tell is our understanding, processing and retelling some of it. Hence, the stress was on re-storying than restoring.

What was the brief given to the authors and designers?
The call for contributions welcomed any sort of a narrative that engaged with the sub continent's partition in any way. Memory as one, but dialogues, rethinking perspectives and stereotypes were as important. Its only then we can come together to re-storying partition than merely restoring it. Each artiste took it up his/her own way as long as it was in sync with the production specs. The only stress was on re-storying the text and not merely illustrating it. It had to be processed and visualized in one's individual style. In an anthology like this I was sure of the varied styles and art forms it would bring. Putting them together itself is quite a challenge. Hence it was important to pair up a writer with a right artist/illustrator for that piece and then see the work progress as a collaboration.

The artwork is amazing, and many of the stories are filled with symbols, which bring to life the time of the Partition and the decades after it. How big and important role do you feel these symbols play in telling the story?
Iconography is a part of our lives. Especially when it comes to visualising issues like nation hoods, identity and regions. There are symbols we have grown up with, symbols that have evolved in our growing up years and icons that have been invented in the recent past. Any visual narrative acknowledges them and retells them in one's own way. These icons and symbols give a window into the familiar and takes off from there. They are both a necessary tool and a necessary evil.

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