Book Review: Delhi Calm
The year 1975 was an eventful one. Watergate, the Vietnam War, the opening of the Suez Canal after the Six Day War, the assassination of Bangladeshi president Mujibur Rahman, the coinage of the word Microsoft by Bill Gates—it all happened in 1975. In India, it was the year when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the nation was in a state of emergency. For the next 18 months, civil liberties were suspended. To most young fans of graphic novels, the Emergency is probably a blurry bit of history. Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s graphic novel Delhi Calm is a reminder of that period of Indian history which is too recent, and perhaps too controversial, to figure in school history syllabi.
Ghosh’s illustrations are the colour of old tea stains, a dense sepia that is dark with shadows. Aside from his drawings, there are carefully crafted replicas of newspaper articles with their smudgy type. Delhi Calm looks striking and the visuals will draw you to reading the story, despite the handwriting-esque font that is sometimes difficult to read. Ghosh tells the story of Delhi in the Emergency era through three characters: VP, Parvez and Vivek. All three begin as young men, suffused with Marxist idealism and inspired by a character called The Prophet. The Emergency and its repressive policies, like the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, plunge these comrades into an atmosphere of paranoia and fear. They can trust no one, not even one another despite appearing to do so. Through the eyes of these three young men, we see the political chess played by the country’s leader, Moon. Her only opponent appears to be The Prophet, although increasingly VP, Parvez and Vivek become doubtful about whether his ideals can be realised.
Most of Delhi Calm is barely-disguised historical fact and the fictional elements are easy to spot. Moon is obviously Indira Gandhi. Her sons are The Pilot (Rajiv Gandhi), who stays away from the action, and The Prince (Sanjay Gandhi), whose sterilisation campaign is shown to be the cruel monstrosity it was. It’s easy to recognise Jayaprakash Narayan in The Prophet. Ghosh even gives him the tag of Baul, which was Narayan’s nickname. Equally real are the suffocating sense of anxiety and terror that prevailed over the city—and country—during the Emergency and how insidiously the ruling party tried to prevent opposing parties from gathering strength.
Ironically, it’s Ghosh’s decision to be factually accurate that makes Delhi Calm suffer slightly. VP’s, Parvez’s and Vivek’s stories become casualties as the author focuses his attention upon history rather than the novel. At the end of Delhi Calm, Ghosh devotes a panel of text to each of his characters, outlining where they ended up. We wish he’d shown, rather than told, us how VP, Parvez and Vivek landed upon their eventual professions. However, that’s a minor quibble. Delhi Calm is a powerful work that commits to printed word and image an era that the political establishment would probably like the nation to forget.
Delhi Calm, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Harper Collins, Rs499.
Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently developing a keen appreciation for lazy brunches and coffee breaks in Bandra while working on her freelance assignments.Tags: book reviews, Books, Deepanjana Pal, Delhi Calm, Graphic novels, Vishwajyoti Ghosh