Amruta Patil is a graphic novelist who has her own compost pit, and wears colours that are likely to make one’s eyes pop out. Unlike her own colourful person, her debut novel, Kari, was black and white. The book chronicles Kari’s life in the strange smog-city after Ruth, her beloved, leaves; it was like a breath of fresh air in a world full of heteronormative novels. For her next works, Patil turned away from the twenty-first century, urban concerns, and monochromes. Done in colour, Adi Parva and Sauptik are retellings of the Mahabharata from the points of view of the traditionally-ignored Ganga and Ashwathama respectively. Our conversation with the Nari Shakti Puraskar winner revolved around her books, the environment, and the relationship between the two.
The Mahabharata is a looming presence in India. The cultural stature of the myth could explain why the Mahabharata spawns not just spiritual explications, but also management guides, self-help books, and more retellings. However, Patil is an outlier where motivations are concerned—she isn’t sure what drew her to the subject in the first place: ‘I don’t actually have a reason why I chose the Mahabharata. It’s not like I grew up with the iconography around. In fact, I was not told these stories by any grandmother.’
Turns out, it is not just the Mahabharata, but mythology that Patil is drawn towards since ‘it does what history stops short of doing. History will document what happened and mythology will tell you the lesson in a way that is not accusatory—which is fantastic. I don’t see it as pure entertainment; I see it as a very smart effort to understand the human psyche. The same book, for example the Mahabharata, has got cowards, kings, borderline rapists, godly people, sages, you know. They have actually tried to understand the workings of very many sorts of people.’
In terms of content, Kari is very different from reimaginations of mythology. For Patil, ‘the book happened much more fluidly. Even today, Kari is the thing that resonates with people more. Maybe because it is more need-of-the-hour, or just that this space—an urban female of this sort—doesn’t have that much literature. But for me that was just an extension of me, and therefore not needing that much fixation, whereas th[e] beasts that [were] the epics, they needed all of me.’
Another reason for Kari being more successful, compared to the retellings, may be the different market it appeals to. The Mahabharata already holds a large audience captive, but since none of Patil’s books have been translated into Indian vernaculars yet, a huge chunk of the Indian audience that would love her retellings simply can’t enjoy them. Kari has been able to occupy a niche corner in urban areas, and thus the lack of translation hasn’t significantly influenced its market as much. In either case, however, the accessibility of her work is low. Patil finds this limited reach of her books ‘very frustrating.’ Increasingly so, ‘because with the first book and second book, it’s like “meri awaaz suno. I have to say something.” After that, you are like I want you to listen to something I am saying. It’s not just that I need to come and purge, vomit something on the table. I am not satisfied doing that anymore. So as one becomes more headed in that direction, it is actually, to me, now a problem that my books are full colour, hardback, priced at something thousand rupees. And I am not happy with that.’
While none of her works have been translated into vernaculars, both Kari and Adi Parva have been translated into French. Patil lives in France now and is acquainted with the language, but she was not when her the novels were translated. Being unfamiliar with the language that your work is being translated into must be a strange experience. The story stays the same, but the words, sometimes even the script, changes. Patil’s experience was no different: it was ‘very strange because in French you just use a lot more words to say the same thing. It’s kind of funny because my words need to fit, they have to have a box in which to sit. It sounds kind of silly, but it was very important for me because it was messing with my compositions. I am guessing that what could be done was done in that setting, but I will figure out with more proficiency whether it was effectively done or not. And in some ways, I am probably best off not knowing. The terror of knowing it was not done right is too large.’
Patil shifted from writing about an urban space in Kari to mythic spaces in Adi Parva and Sauptik, which might also explain why Kari resonates more with people. Patil herself has moved around a lot and has lived in Goa, Mumbai, Boston, and France. We wanted to know how living in different places fed her art. Patil believes that globetrotting ‘enriched it and some art came about as a rebellion to it. For example, Kari’s interaction with the city is visceral. She is responding to the city in a very tactile way. She is talking about the textures, the smells. You know, the form of the city. It is partially an affectionate relationship but she [also needs] to escape it.’
But the spaces in which the epics took place are no longer accessible to us. The towns and villages of the myths have either vanished off the face of Earth (some have been swallowed by the sea) or have turned into a modern prototype of sameness (and popular tourist spots). We wanted to know how Patil, as an artist, envisioned the settings and went about painting them. For her, the epics are ‘set in mythic spaces. But they are [still] set on land and water and mountains. In a sense, while the geography may not be indicated with names that are recognizable, the setting is very much [so].’ The natural world was the same, so Patil used it as the inspiration for her artwork.
But then, of course, the natural world is vanishing too. With more buildings and more greys surroundings us, this natural world itself could stop being an inspiration for anybody. Patil feels that ‘the more forests—and this is a line from Sauptik—the more forests disappear from our reality, the more they profuse and grow in our literature or our imagination. There’s more and more of this kind of almost nostalgic literature connected with the disappearing natural world that is coming about.’
Her own works seem to speak to this nostalgic literature. In Kari, the smog-city is in itself an important character of the book. The absence of colour in the novel signifies the murky pollution of the smog-city. Her later works, which are done in full colour, are an attempt to ‘be in a place where the palette is pure.’ Patil deals with the environment in her work because she ‘feel[s] that it is extraordinarily important to establish a connect; for me, if we have a shot [at] saving ourselves, forget about saving cities and worlds—that’s not in anybody’s capacit[y], it is by establishing contact with the elements. When I say forest I don’t mean like “jungle” jungle, I mean prakriti—soil, clouds, lightning. Anything.’
As we reflected on humans need to distance themselves from nature, Patil concluded that ‘most people are seeking orders—they are seeking patterns. And when there is not a clearly identifiable pattern or order, they want to impose it. Everything about nature tells you that your rules, your order, and your patterns are bollocks, over here it means nothing. Your driving principles in civilization are aspirations of justice and legality. This is absent in nature. So it basically puts people face-to-face with the rejection of every human value that they have been holding dear. This is very uncomfortable for people. Mess is uncomfortable for people. Nature is messy; nature is violent; nature is many things. It is also extraordinarily beautiful, [but] the absence of order terrifies people.’ Patil tries to embody chaos. She embraces the mess through her art and illustrations. And, she does have her own compost pit.