Kari by Amruta Patil

24/04/08, Biblio

Given the central lesbian theme of both books, comparisons of Amruta Patil’s first graphic novel, Kari (which must count as a publishing milestone for it is, to my knowledge, India’s first gay graphic novel), with Alison Bechdel’s much-lauded memoir, Fun Home, were perhaps inevitable. Indeed, in a recent interview, Patil has acknowledged her great admiration for Bechdel. But the differences between Kari and Fun Home are much more eloquent. The obvious one, of course, is that Bechdel’s was a memoir, Kari is fiction. While Fun Home represented a rare example of a graphic novel in which the artist could also write soaring, singing prose, I find Patil’s graphics more evocative, more beautiful than Bechdel’s and her prose, although marred very occasionally by a tendency towards a posturing colloquial hipness, also a thing of radiant beauty: witty, smart and swaggering, brightly knowing without ever falling into archness, illuminated by frequent flashes of poetry. Here is an example, which talks about a fruit bowl in someone’s home:

I play with fruit that the girls and I are too broke to buy. Avocado, kiwi, mangosteen. There are some fruits you do not want to venture into alone. A peach, for one, creature of texture and smell, sings like a siren. A fruit that lingers on your fingertips with unfruitlike insistence, fuzzy like the down on a pretty jaw. Figs are dark creatures too, skins purple as loving bruises. A fig is one hundred per cent debauched. Lush as a smashed mouth. There, I said it again: Lush.

Keep in mind that the speaker, Kari (the protagonist), is entranced by the sexual/romantic possibilities of a new arrival at her office, Susan Lush from NYC, even before she has arrived; the very name, Susan Lush, sends her into a rhapsody: ‘my heart is an expanse of green grass at the sight of the name. … Can you see her the way I do? Susan, Lush against watermelon walls. Susan, Lush against Grecian blue or white. Susan, Lush and tan on a bone-white beach. Susan, Lush and succulent, all tan, all sun.’ Hold that in your head and the passage above swims into a different view and its sexualised excess becomes not only wholly pardonable but also tethered and necessary in vital ways: it sheds light on the inner life of Kari, thus giving her character more roundedness, making her more convincing and credible. This is not a free-floating moment of empty erotic-allegorising, or an unanchored bit of purple; it is a peek into a character’s interiority. That it is also smart, sassy and sexy is to its enormous credit.

But I race ahead. The story, first. Kari begins with the attempted double-suicide of a pair of lovers – Kari, our heroine, and her girlfriend, Ruth – plunging from the top of a building. Ruth is saved by a safety net and escapes to another country. Kari falls into a sewer – a potent, if obvious, metaphor, that, considering what is to come – and resumes her life in ‘smog city’, Bombay. All this unfolds in the first seven pages, leaving the rest of the book, over one hundred pages, for Kari to narrate her story. There are two immediate reference points to Kari’s life: home and work. The former is Crystal Palace, a 2 BHK shared with two other young women, Billo and Delna, and two permanent houseguests, Zap and Orgo, boyfriends of Billo and Delna respectively. Work is at a soul-destroying ad agency, where Kari and her co-copywriter, Lazarus, are on their thirty-sixth rewrite of an advertisement for an international hair-product brand called Fairytale Hair.

As Kari moves, numbed, through the twilight world of the newly-bereaved – for that is what the world feels like after the abrupt end of a life-changing love – we begin to see her in her other relationships and friendships, all delineated with precision, economy and the ringing clarity of truth. There is the long-distance relationship with her parents; the spiked, needy, irritating yet sustaining nature of female friendships in her interactions with Billo and Delna; the more ambivalent friendship with Lazarus, who pines away for a distant girlfriend but is not above writing the odd embarrassingly awful love poem for Kari. Above all, there is her friendship with Angel, who is in the terminal stages of cancer, ‘the first actively dying person I’d met in my life.’ Kari adds, ‘It’s as potent a connection as first love.’ In a book so strong on the subtleties and nuances of all kinds of relationships, this is its most powerful and most moving, its beating heart.

Woven through all this, like a bright seam, is a slowly unfurling meditation on the city itself, seething, polluted, overpopulated, hellish yet alive, the great survivor. ‘Mad Ireland’ hurt Yeats into poetry, according to Auden; a similar claim can be made for Patil and Bombay: it is possible to see Kari as a poem written to and for Bombay, incontestably the great metropolis of the country. Over the last few years, I’ve begun my slow acquaintance with the city, so my heart gives a little leap when I recognise familiar loci, such as ‘Soul Fry’, the restaurant in Pali Market, with its aquarium of half-blind tetras and guppies, where Kari and Lazarus dine frequently. Familiar feelings are articulated:

I try to breathe as little as I can to prevent smog city from choking me. I wish I could detach my lungs. Every day, the city seems to be getting heavier, and her varicose veins fight to break out of her skin. Soon we must mutate—thick skin and resilient lungs – to survive this new reality.

At other times, a darker commentary, encompassing both the huddled, poor masses and their involuntary observers, takes shape:

Laz and I have been walking around the city at night, camera in hand, watching homeless people deep in slumber. They sleep on roadsides, under carts and benches, on platforms. Arms holding bodies, legs under legs, a defensive ball against the threats that whiz past at night. It is an appalling thing, this watching. If our subjects were wealthier, we’d be arrested for being peeping toms. As it is, our walk makes for arty b&w pictures of grim urban life.      

It is amazing how much Patil packs into a book this slim.

That passage just quoted above also serves as a valuable point of entry into thinking about her style. Note how she modulates sympathy into scathing irony with that last sentence; throughout the book, this kind of clear-eyed, undeluded irony sings in counterpoint to the incipient pretentiousness of ‘While I sleep, Ruth must be striding towards a flame-coloured calling’ or to the more serious error of the jarring and unassimilated strand of fantasy/magical-realism in the ‘boatman’ theme: ‘The day I hauled myself out of the sewer – the day of the double suicide – I promised the water I’d return her favour. That I’d unclog her sewers when she couldn’t breathe. I earned me a boat that night.’ We watch Kari rowing on the sewers and waterways of Bombay, unblocking the drains and pipes, a gamine, androgynous cross between Charon, who ferries dead souls across the Styx, and Villanelle from Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. The latter, an unwholesome influence, is even checked in in a panel where we see Kari reading Sexing the Cherry, while the former allusion is laboured, especially when the dying Angel tells Kari, ‘You have a sign above your head that says “boatman.” People who are about to kick the bucket will be drawn to you in hordes.’

The book is saved from all this by its sense of humour – ironic, self-consciously bathetic, aslant and gleaming, sometimes even hitting perfect notes of well-turned jokes. An early moment occurs when Kari sees Bostiao, ‘a large orange-eyed tomcat’, sitting on a tree, ‘yawning and blinking in the sun.’ ‘He likes to be where there is a bird’s-eye view’, she adds. I suppose you have to be an obsessive cat-lover, as Patil and I are, to savour that joke but it is a good one. Towards the end, when Kari decides to mount a final rebellion against the intractable fact of her womanhood and its attendant cultural notions of femininity, all of which she finds stifling, she decides to get a 2mm buzz cut. The barber, who has assumed she wants a ‘lady’s boycut’, is shocked to hear that and opines, ‘Madam, won’t looking good. I have Lady’s patterns. … Madam, face looking boy type.’ Quite apart from the fact that the dialogue is spot-on, it shows through the perspective of a stranger’s vision how Kari’s furious chafing against all female attributes – breasts, long hair, menstruation – and her incandescent desire to be as boyish, as close to k.d. lang, as possible, are both endearing and absurd. This ability to laugh at one’s own self, while in no way negating the very real struggles with sexuality and the outer forms it takes, is a definition of not only good sense of humour but also a deeply intelligent good sense of humour.

For all the centrality of its theme of lost love and subsequent survival, to me Kari is overwhelmingly a book about friendship. The glances backwards to Kari’s relationship with Ruth, beautifully rendered as they are, pale beside the angular, idiosyncratic, waspish yet deeply affectionate bond between the cantankerous, dying Angel and Kari, who turns twenty-one three-quarters of the way into the book. The book is worth reading for this exquisitely witty and crackling friendship alone. In three unsentimental pages Patil sketches out Angel’s death; I could barely keep my hands from shaking after reading those three immensely vast, restrained, even austere pages. The final lines, under a page showing Angel’s utterly vacant room, cleared of all her possessions, with a diagonal shadow raking it in half, are worth quoting:

I did not ever revisit Angel’s street. There was no funeral. Her body was donated to the LMJ Medical College, not far from the ad agency I work in. Angel found it vastly entertaining that young medical school boys would be experimenting with her. (‘At my age, you take what you get.’)

More than anything else, I find it hard to quote my friends in closed brackets.

Here is a writer who knows exactly when to leave off, who has learned, in her first book, miraculously, the resounding, articulate quality of that last proposition from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, ‘Whereof nothing can be said, thereof one must remain silent.’