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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

An unsentimental, often hilarious work

n a recent piece for this paper, I mentioned the pitfalls of writing simplistically about poverty and squalor. That's relevant to a reportage-driven project, where the writer has a responsibility to understand historical and cultural context, but there are other types of writing where an individual's honest account of his impressions can take precedence over providing a "balanced" view. Take the case of a Japanese artist in his mid-50s who decides to travel to India (a country he knows practically nothing about) to sell Hindi translations of Manga. He lands in Delhi, fumbles through immigration, can't locate the airport exit, is outraged to see a man using a simple calculator at the foreign-exchange counter...and the business of living in this country without being able to speak English or Hindi still lies ahead of him.

Little wonder then that within the first few pages of Yukichi Yamamatsu's graphic novel Stupid Guy Goes to India — an account of his India stay in 2004-05 — you'll find observations like "It's like the ground was entirely made of cow turds" and "People were eating something that looked like potato, out of something that looked like tree bark." Little wonder too that parts of this book have the texture of a horror story about an innocent abandoned in a crepuscular forest (where the only people around speak a language presented as geometric symbols in speech balloons), even though most of it is set in Old Delhi in broad sunlight.

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We are surrounded by self-congratulating India narratives. Amidst all this, it can be useful to read a book by someone from a nearby country who isn’t particularly impressed by us, and who makes no bones about it.

In fairness, Yamamatsu makes no pretence of being worldly. He is devastated to discover that home-grown Indian comics exist (he was expecting to single-handedly introduce a new art form to the country!) and this shock is conveyed in one of the book's more amusing panels, where Yukichi's head appears to be sliced by a samurai sword. He gets fleeced, goes around in circles and is driven into rage when he learns the cost of printing a comic because he thought it would be no more than 20 or 30 Yen. The more I read, the more I felt that the "stupid guy" in the title wasn't just a sweet exercise in self-deprecation.

till, I appreciated this book's resolutely unsentimental tone. Yukichi is in India with a single-point agenda. He isn't interested in the culture beyond how it helps him achieve his ends. Age may have something to do with it: this is an irritable man who is set in his ways and who worries about walking around for long periods because of a bowel incontinence problem (it doesn't help that the ubiquitous song Dhoom Machale sounds to him like "Unko Tare", meaning anal leakage!). When he describes playing an impromptu game with street kids, it's more a way of passing the time than an attempt at being friendly (or at least being friendly in the elaborate Indian way). There's even an irreverent, unexpectedly pornographic passage where he acts on a friend's suggestion that Indian women are "probably pretty good for sex", and makes a trip to GB Road. But the lack of sentimentality doesn't make this a detached narrative. Part of its charm comes from how Yukichi, in spite of himself, gets absorbed into the Indian way of doing things. He is very funny when he describes his struggles to have conversations in broken Hindi, and hyper-dramatic wails of "Nahin!" punctuate the story when he is stressed out (which is often).

Stupid Guy Goes to India is a breezy tale that begins slowly (especially if you aren't enthralled by descriptions of a foreigner making his first acquaintance with spicy food) and becomes more involving as it goes along. But it also worked for me on another level. We are surrounded by self-congratulating India narratives these days — even the ones that aren't explicitly about The Shining tell us that the rest of the world looks towards us with respect for our cultural wisdom, our glorious past, our economic future, our ability to manage social complexity, our graceful women. There is more than enough affirmation for those of us who need it. Amidst all this, it can be useful to read a book by someone from a nearby country who isn't particularly impressed by us, and who makes no bones about it.

P.S. This English translation has been printed in the traditional Manga style, meaning it has to be read from right to left. Perhaps the idea was to make a non-Japanese reader feel as disoriented as Yukichi felt in Delhi!

 
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