Midway through Bhimayana, the upper caste man whose complaint about not being able to find a job thanks to the quota system asks the woman who has engaged him in debate, “How come we don’t read about all this in our history books?” The question throws light on this graphic novel on the whole: a deeply polemic text in the guise of a beautiful comic book, its primary impetus is the construction of pedagogy. It’s tempting to forget this, and lose oneself in the many little joys that Gond tribal artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam have brought to its pages – a water tank that grows eyes and becomes Ganesh-like on the next page, the assortment of animals and trees pretty as fabric prints, and the much-praised dispensing of the conventional panel/box format altogether. It’s tempting, but also difficult, because it’s not so much that Bhimayana tries to rectify history than that it tries to reinvent a decontextualised present. Its overarchingly simplistic, almost absolutely dichotomized narrative of heroes and villains may suit its physical form, but not its purposes.
The trouble begins with the nature of the discussion that leads into the story of Bhimrao Ambedkar. Rather than open with the iconic activist’s life itself, he is introduced to us via a difficult contemporary question: affirmative action policies. The setting is an Indian city of the present day, and the frustrated job-seeker and his bespectacled companion are waiting for a bus. One assumes that the target audience for this book is an Indian one, then, and that the practical complications of imagining an India free of the hideous hegemony of caste will be addressed satisfactorily.
This isn’t the case – by the end of the book, one is left not stirred by hope, but disturbed by the vocabulary of the struggle. This includes everything from the use of a phrase like “India’s hidden apartheid”, which suggests that casteism is an institutionalized, legally sanctified segregation in our country rather than a socially abetted one, to the vilification of Gandhi as someone who “could afford a first class ticket in a foreign country” without a counterpart explanation of how Ambedkar went from not being allowed to drink water at his school to studying at foreign universities.
And the explanation is necessary, as the book is clearly for a foreign audience, and while caste is an indubitably evil system, it plays out in Indian society in ways that are more complex than this book chooses to deal with. But this also makes it quite suitable for children, with its very basic writing, and an odd mix of occasional rhyme and incongruent speech patterns that does strike a charming and whimsical chord. The intriguing artwork, of course, is a major plus point.
But the ultimate lack of political sophistication when dealing with such loaded subject matter remains disturbing. Bhimayana’s end result contains just little too much vitriol, a little too much victim vogue. And just not enough vision to live up to the story of Ambedkar himself – a hero who deserves celebration not as a divisive force, but as an example for everybody. And therein lies its fundamental problem: it’s not enough to say that casteism exists and to recapitulate newspaper reports and statistics about this fact. The fact is not in doubt. The solution is. Bhimayana neither posits nor inspires one. Its methodology of hero-worship as a means of engendering change smacks of party propaganda, while missing in all of this is a sense of the one thing that will truly eradicate the problem in the long run: compassion, love and respect for all humanity.
An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.