Abhedananda Mahavidyalaya (West Bengal)
Definitions have underpinnings of the normative and totalitarian; they exclude much in the process of securing a structure (representations of things, ideas, concepts, experiences). They are not without the risk of being exploited at the behest of powerful grand narratives whose intentions in defining the world is fraught with politics that is highly suspect. Moreover, definitions are set on a ground that is often usurped by the ‘majority voice’ where all other alternate ways are either subsumed or silenced. For genres that have become hardened and driven by fixed rules of organising and presenting reality often tend to mark things they are unable to comprehend as unnatural, supernatural, or unreal. Hence they fall short in front of such mediums that are relatively more flexible. This scholar here attempts to relate this phenomenon with Parismita Singh’s The Hotel at the End of the World, which is written in the form of a comic book with polyvalent possibilities with its interplaying of words and images. With all its innovative form, it explores life in a corner of the world: India’s Northeast. Singh adopts magical realism in narrating her stories of the people of the region and in her hand the region turns out to be a land of mysteries. Since the stories are found to be organically tied with the sons of the soil and their distinctive ways of life, the paper attempts to study the design of Parismita Singh’s work in showing the umbilical connect between the narratives of the Northeast, nature and the sons of the soil.
Keywords: Comics, Stories, Magic Realism, Narrative, Nature
The Northeast India, or simply the Northeast is a single umbrella term that belies the multiplicity, heterogeneity, diversity, of the region that is made up of eight states with many communities and tribes. There are many realities around these lives that do not find space in the conventional forms of historiographies, documents, data, and surveys. What gets lost in them is the pulsating life of the people when they become subjects of anthropological and/or ontological study, what oft fails notice is their life of lived experiences, the stories they share and believe, their dreams, their imaginations, that is, all things which are vital in understanding a culture and the land which shapes the culture. The demographics of a land, its flora, fauna, nature, organic beings, experiences, and social relations have a major role in forming the faith of the people and the faiths people hold are central in understanding the culture.
Parismita Singh’s comic book The Hotel at the End of the World (2009) is about people of the Northeast (though she refrains from using the term Northeast to avoid the trap of a conclusive categorical thinking), their beliefs, their everyday life, and the magical that is infused with the everyday. Here the magical in their stories/narratives is born from the natural of the land and are like them- the gurgling streams, the flowing rivers, the stretching mystical mountains, the vivid and varied fauna and flora. By bringing in the magical she also shows the presence of the unrepresentable, setting out to define and seek comprehensibility of such things in the conventional way. What the paper argues through the said work is that- when truth is manipulated by systems of power and reason/rationality appropriated by European discourse of Enlightenment, it requires subversive modes like comics and magic realism to challenge definitions, stretch and break boundaries of the ‘acceptable’ in reality, to have stories told, heard, and have other realities (that have been pushed to the domain of the unreal) surface.
The first question that surfaces here is – why does Parismita Singh choose to see the Northeast through the medium of the comics when there are so many other narrative mediums at hand which have surveyed, recorded, represented reality? It is because she wants to make a different kind of intervention that works not through closures but through multiple interpretive possibilities. Comics is a medium which gives its author the scope to bring multiple forms to interact and interplay and form meanings in the process. When language seeks to make meaning with previously set rules of interpreting and understanding it falls short when it is expected to narrate a reality altogether different from anything it has known before. And what is worse, in the vanity of not being able to admit this shortcoming it still goes ahead to interpret and categorize it. The result is a set of binaries where all these different experiences lie at the ‘other’ end as unreal, supernatural, and even superstitious. This is where the comic medium and its unique narrative method provide the possibility of a freer and fluid play of meaning.
Comics in the first place are themselves difficult to define. Comic theorist Robert C. Harvey aptly brings out the difficultly of defining comics, he calls it “the abyss of definition”. Hence, comics can at best be described and not defined, and descriptions are not conclusive or final. Will Eisner describes comics as “a distinct discipline, an art and literary form that deals with the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea” (5). Usually this “interdependence of words and pictures”, notes Robert C. Harvey “is vital (if not essential) to comics” (20). However, the word and image can be combined in many different ways by its practitioner to explore multiple possibilities; meaning is formed in comics by reading the layers of interaction between the visual and the verbal (written) and the complex manifold ways in which they correspond. Comic theorist Scott McCloud in his seminal book on comics Understanding Comic: The Invisible Art makes a list of seven ways in which the word and image combine in comics (153-55) and even that we sometimes see does not exhaust all the possibilities. It is therefore its polyvalent interpretive possibilities, non-normative form, and constant visual-verbal interplay resisting closure that makes comics the medium of choice for Parismita Singh to see the Northeast.
There are many realities different from the ones authorized by hegemonic canons. A single unchallenged voice is not always a voice of unity, rather it has latent tensions of many muted voices; what is then sought is plurality of voices. Magical realism as opposed to literary realism allows this plurality. Zamora and Faris see magical realism as an extension of realism in its concern with the nature of reality and its representation, and yet at the same time it resists the assumptions of post-enlightenment rationalism and literary realism. Bringing together what are usually considered to be two opposing aspects of the magical and the realist, magical realism brings new perspectives in narrative, perspectives which resist monolithic narratives. Zamora and Faris consider magical realism as “a mode suited to exploring-and transgressing- boundaries, whether the boundaries are ontological, geographical, or generic” (5). Magical realism, they argue, “facilitates the fusion, or coexistence, of possible worlds, spaces, systems that would be irreconcilable in other modes of fiction” (5-6). Maggie Ann Bowers draws a distinction on the basis of their origin and use between ‘marvellous’ ‘magic’ and ‘magical’ realism. From her explorations of the modes it is magical realism as understood from Salman Rushdie’s words, the “commingling of the improbable and the mundane” (2-3) where magical happenings are presented in a matter-of-fact way, which is our reference here.
The narrative of the comic book The Hotel at the End of the World opens in a hut like hotel on a small hill amid stretches of mountains, conical trees. With no traces of human life around for far distances the little hotel stands resiliently against the heavy rains and carries out its life and activities inside. It is warm with welcome for the occasional troubled visitor knocking at its door for shelter from the rain and seeking its hospitality. The life that the inside of the hotel is marked by is not of one kind, they are various under one roof. We get a glimpse of it when its residents, regulars and visitors tell their stories one by one. These stories are glimpses into how varied their experiences, lives, dreams are in what appears to be one space of the hotel. Yet what connects these different stories is the element of the magical in them.
It is the hotel “at the end of the world,” or away from the workings of the world and living in serenity away from its complex machinations of capitalism and parameters of progress. But it does have an occasional knock on the door and an “odd traveller or two” (2) who are not from those parts. They generate curiosity from the residents and regulars of the hotel, but not before giving the hospitality of rice and pork curry to the famished travellers. The hotel exudes warmth and care but the experience of the people has made them doubtful of strangers as well – “And it was only after they had gone through a mountain of rice, lai saak and half a small pig that somebody asked a question” (4-5). This reflects the uncertainties, doubts that the people who are inherently caring now carry because of the experiences in the past they have had with strangers. This is a hint at the troubled past of the people of the Northeast that is scarred by bitter experiences of political upheavals and crisis which now makes them look askance at strangers and their motives. “Better to be careful, you never know with strangers. What surprises they hold for you” (3) – says a voice that reflects the fears of the people in the hotel when Kona and Kuja (the travellers) enter. But soon we find the residents, the regulars and the travellers, unable to leave because of the incessant heavy rain outside, sharing stories not just to pass time but also as an attempt to communicate.
It begins with the travellers Kona and Kuja’s tale of how they came about to this part of the world and what attracted them. Kona and Kuja to begin with are “odd” travellers with Kuja having half-legs that “stopped at the knees” and grew no more and Kona “unable to see what was in front of his eyes, though he could see what was miles and miles away” (9). It is their story which first reflects the magical that this land is connected to, and the mystical that attracts people to it. This magical is symbolized in Kona and Kuja’s search for the mysterious floating island that many say they have heard about, known about, but cannot still for sure say what it is- “an island on a lake that floats with many treasures” (26) Kona and Kuja are told by the dying Sibu. What are these treasures of the land remain untold; it is a signifier that can be taken as signifying something which depends on the person’s associations with the words – it can in limited material sense mean hidden gold, money. But it might also mean the bounty of nature and the riches of the earth that have blessed this land to become a treasure for the people who understand its significance. One need mention here the Loktak Lake in Manipur which has floating islands (called ‘phumdis’ in the local language) and does have its ‘treasure’ also. Together the lake and the phumdi or floating island has been the source of water for domestic generation of hydro-electric power, irrigation, and its biodiversity has helped sustain the local people with food, fish, fodder, fuel, medicine, and more. Hence, it is called the ‘lifeline of Manipur’ (UNESCO). However, here the floating island attains more the status of a metaphor which eludes those who try to possess it but embraces the ones who can feel its essence and connect their lives with it into an inseparable whole. Here these people are referred to as the Lake people.
This floating island later resurfaces in the Prophet’s (one of the regulars of the hotel) story as he tells about the people, the “new ones” as they called them, who “came in their big cars” (101) with “latest science equipment” (102). They “had too much money to throw around” (101), which they did to buy help from the locals, get guns, fighting men. They wanted to find the floating island like many others, clearly intending to capitalize on its treasures as they sensed its business prospects- “medicinal plants worth a lot of money for medicinal companies” or as popular material for “a TV programme” or lucrative business as “new tourist destination” (109) and more. But Prophet’s mother once told him as a child how the floating island took the Lake People and hid them as they wanted to live peacefully away from battles and bloodshed. And since then the Lake People have remained a mystery to the people outside. The magic and the everyday mix in the floating island because its people do not see the island as a landmass of capitalist possibilities but as mystical nature integrated to their lives, as a part of the community’s shared beliefs, lifeblood of their stories, a connection of the umbilical.
Failing to understand this ‘magic’ of the land, as Kona and Kuja try to decipher the mystery of the floating island and translate it into data and details that they think will lead them to it, what opens is a series of other stories that enter further and further into the magical. The stories of Pema, her unnamed husband, the Prophet, the little girl, do not serve to steer the narrative towards the way Kona and Kuja would want. They would have wanted the stories to be told in a way that would help them understand the mystery of the island. Instead the stories take their own mystical course; thus foregrounding the inseverable connection of the magical with their lives.
Pema’s story is of her life and love as a girl in a place elsewhere which like most other places in the book remain unnamed. Before she came to be in this hotel, tied to its routine chores of cooking and cleaning, we get to know that “there was another Pema once” (37) with a life that was more mysterious and mystical at the same time. Pema came to know even as a child that her father was often “struck down by a mysterious ailment” because he was “a night walker, one of death’s porters” (58). Night Walker is the one, Pema tells Keising, whom death sends to a man or a woman when their time comes “to gather their souls” (58). For Pema this reality, which scares Keising and makes him give up all plans of marrying Pema, is a part of her life that has been there ever since she can remember. It has become integrated in her very life, more so after her father died as a cost that he paid for refusing to be death’s porter when it came to taking her soul away. This reality of Pema as we see has shaped her life and for her it cannot be dismissed or discredited. The visual rendering of Pema’s story is also such that the images of the picturesque landscape juxtapose with the everyday of her life in ways that again highlight the deep connect she has with it and which make the mystical and the mysterious in nature to be integrally woven with her narrative.
The story of Pema’s husband is about the ghost of a Japanese soldier he can often see in the hotel as a visitor for a drink. For him there is nothing odd or surprising in this, the story he tells about him betrays nothing of the kind. The presence of the ghost of the soldier is as real to him as the visitors Kona and Kuja, to whom he can well extend the hospitality of the hotel by pouring a drink. Kuja might be surprised at the extra glass on the table but for Pema’s husband it is the regular thing he does ever since he first saw the ghost of the soldier one evening of fog and rain and heard his story. When alive the soldier had come to this part of the world “from the Japan war…when the Japanis [sic] came through the hills to fight the British” (81) and it is here he died fighting and longing to return home in Echigo, Japan. The wars went on, one after another, so many that even the ghost soldier got confused about what they were, the British had long left yet the battles continued (94). But in the life scarred by wars and battles, blood and death, what still made the soldier wonder at and keep recalling was the unbelievable magical moment of snow in Sangshuk (Shangshak, Manipur)- “They couldn’t believe it- snow in this land of rain and jungle?” (85). As war deprived the Japanese soldier, nature mystified him.
The story of the Japanese soldier is a reference to one of the gravest times in Manipur that saw immense human suffering during World War II when Japanese forces as part of the Axis Powers entered India via the hills of the Northeast to fight the British of the Allied forces. The Battle of Imphal and Kohima are now considered to be among the fiercest conflicts of World War II in which 30,000 Japanese soldiers died fighting the Allied forces (Bhattacherjee) and Manipur had to face near famine conditions after the war as no farming had been possible and many died in a cholera epidemic that broke out immediately afterwards. In the British recounting of these battles the Japanese are painted as the enemies whom they were successfully able to fight off. But contrary to the tales of cruelty by the Japanese troops, the local accounts of Manipur have “sweet memories with the Japanese in the interior villages” (Chakravarty). This view regarding Japanese soldiers is also reflected in Singh’s book where the soldier is picturised as a human depressed and distressed who is reminded of his home in Echigo from the snow in Sangshuk.
The book closes with the story of the little girl, Pema’s helping hand, when she hears the marching of troops. Curious to find the source of the sound she enters the jungle. There she finds no soldiers but a tank. The presence of the tank remains unexplained as many other things in the book where the magical is rendered in a matter-of-fact way. The girl enters the tank and then Pema and the people in the hotel at the end of the world see the sky light up with fires. The travellers Kona and Kuja read the lights in the sky as directing them to the floating island as they get another mysterious message on their mobile phone “[g]o east from the hotel to reach the lake where the floating island awaits you…” (136). As with the break of the dawn the travellers are tempted to walk towards the treasure waiting for them, for the people of the hotel life carries on with dinner and duty of the everyday in the midst of the mountains with treasures of nature.
People speak many languages, says Svetlana Alexievich in Second-Hand Time, a kind used with children, another for love, one for our internal monologues, others for the streets, at work, while travelling, the language of the day also differs from the one at night, everywhere one goes there is something different in the language. This difference is not merely a difference of words, but there is something else to. These vanish without a trace from history in want of mediums/languages that can narrate them, and Svetlana says her attempt has been to search for a language that can do so. This cannot be a language with boundaries and ‘barricades’ in literature and art, as “barricades are a dangerous place for an artist”, they are a trap that ruin vision and drain the world of its true colours (33). When visions have to be limited by fitting them into structures and their boundaries, they fail to present the possibilities outside it, the spaces of dreams, memories, hopes, of life. Parismita Singh’s The Hotel at the End of the World is about these stories of life that erase the distinction made by western canons of realism, and bring together the magical and the real, spirit and matter, unusual and the mundane, narrative and nature, life and stories. She shows that in the Northeast stories are born from nature and life- it is this umbilical connect which does not merely help them survive, but live.
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