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Book Review | Simian

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-05-2014 Arshia Sattar

Simian | Vikram Balagopal

Magical monkey

It’s been exciting, over the last 20 years or so, to see how Hindu myths and epics have captured the imaginations of illustrators, animators and graphic artists. Something about the larger-than-life characters, the non-human creatures with their magical powers and shape-shifting capacities, the fabulous weapons, the ostentatious battles—all of these have drawn makers of comic books, animated films, games and graphic novels into ever-more complex and intriguing ways of depicting the fantastic. Understandably so, for as the Mahabharat says of itself (and which we might usefully extend to all of Hindu mythology), “What is not here is not anywhere else.”

Most retellers do their research pretty thoroughly before they embark on what is surely a daunting task—they read some among the scores of tellings and retellings of these ancient tales and then combine elements and themes and events from them in novel ways for their own new narratives.

The latest in this growing sub-genre of revisiting classical myths and stories through text and pictures is Simian, a graphic novel by film-maker and cartoonist Vikram Balagopal, which recounts the exploits of the charismatic monkey Hanuman, so beloved to children and adults in the subcontinent and beyond. Each of us has our own reasons for being partial to Hanuman. For some, he is the paradigmatic devotee, for others a mighty superhero, and for still others, he is the object of worship. As for myself, I have always been fascinated with the idea of a monkey who flies and speaks Sanskrit, who can grow to the size of a mountain and shrink to the size of a cat, who alternates between ridiculous but entirely endearing monkey behaviour (kapitvam) and an unexpected, world-weary sagacity.

Balagopal’s story opens with the meeting of the “brothers” Bhima and Hanuman, both sons of Vayu, the wind god, deep in the forests of the Mahabharat. As they settle into a night of getting to know each other better, Hanuman’s story unfolds in his own words. It is a tale we know well, obviously, but Balagopal infuses the monkey’s life journey with nuances and shadows, doubts and fears, giving Hanuman a psychological depth that one would not have otherwise imagined.

Simian—Parts 1 and 2, Volume I: HarperCollins India, 260 pages, Rs 750In order to do this, Balagopal diverges from the story as it is most commonly known. For example, Hanuman leaps for the moon and not the sun and the moon, reappears in the person of the mysterious woman in the underground cave, the leap over the ocean is not a fearless triumph, the guardian deity of Lanka is not a hostile creature. Balagopal takes Hanuman’s kapitvam, his almost comical anxieties about what he has accomplished and what he has ruined in Lanka, and turns it into a full-blown existential crisis. Hanuman returns to Ram a changed monkey and this is where volume 1 of Balagopal’s ambitious project ends.

From his conversation with Bhima, we know that the next part of Hanuman’s story is going to be about the ravages of war. In the traditional Mahabharat, the episode with Hanuman is often thought of as Bhima’s Gita, for the monkey explains the nature of time to the Pandava and shows him his gigantic and glorious form, his own viswarupa. Given the hints so far, we can assume that in his next volume, Balagopal will stay with the fundamentally didactic nature of the Mahabharat encounter, even though the lesson Bhima learns might be a different one.

Simian is in black and white, with a few startling images in colour. The visualization of the fight between Bali and Sugriva is quite remarkable, capturing the desperate and poignant savagery of that fratricidal encounter. Hanuman’s leap also has its visual moments but I am surprised that Balagopal did not make more of the splendours of Ravana’s palace or even of the gathering of the vast and varied monkey clans who come together to search for Sita.

You can see Balagopal’s cinematic sensibility at work in many of the individual frames but the general layout of the pages of this graphic novel makes it look more like a conventional comic book. The text that accompanies the images is sometimes clunky—the use of “noisome” where “noisy” is implied is a dreadful slip. Personally, I don’t care for a locution that favours a falsely archaic register such as, “I will not let you pass. You’d best desist and go back the way you came, so you don’t meet with destruction if you force your way.” “I am not asking you about my destruction or anything else, monkey! Give me passage. Arise! Don’t come to grief at my hands!”

In the same way that we all have our own reasons for favouring Hanuman as a mythological character, so too we all have our own ideas of what he looks like, despite the dominant iconography of devotional art that surrounds us. It seemed to me that Balagopal has chosen to depict Hanuman with the physical characteristics of a baboon—an odd choice, given that baboons are native to the African continent and do not occur anywhere in Asia. Perhaps he saw in the baboon greater possibilities for the images he wanted to create, which is fair enough. But I must confess that the pedant in me was irked more than once.

I have to presume that simian is a translation of vanara, which is the most commonly used term for the magical monkeys of the Ramayan, and certainly carries more gravitas than the word “monkey”. Balagopal does refer in passing to various species of monkey that come together, the langurs, for example, and so his use of zoological taxonomies such as simian is, I suppose, appropriate, if not felicitous. He names the woman in the cave Swayam-Prabhat, which rankles because her name in traditional sources is Swayam-Prabha, “self-illuminated”, a name too beautiful to lose in translation, and also so much more suited to a character that Balagopal re-visions as the moon.

There is much to enjoy in Simian and as one reads an old story anew, it’s a good idea to not cling tightly to what you already know and love—else the old trees will make you miss what is fresh and fragrant in the new forest.

Arshia Sattar is a scholar, translator and writer based in Bangalore.

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