Saturday, 26 September 2020

The Piano as an Object of Affection – review of Nandita Basu's graphic novel


Nandita Basu's graphic novel The Piano published by Duckbill, which is now an imprint of Penguin Random House, is a tale of a piano's journey through the sands of time and into the hearts of people whose lives it touches along the way (or doesn't). The cover art and illustrations in the book are also by Basu.

Hitting the Right Notes

The highlight of The Piano is its epic sweep, which takes in World War I, the Indian Independence movement. and the modern stock market crash. At no point, however, does it crumble under the weight of all the history. Refreshingly, it details characters who are often overlooked when talking of those tumultuous times such as the Sikhs who served in the British army and were sent abroad to fight a war they understood little about; Allied soldiers awaiting the end of war so they can return home; German nationals stranded on hostile shores when the war breaks out; the revolutionaries fighting against colonial rule who use the underground printing press; and coming to modern times, a single mother who invests in stocks and shares. Basu also throws a much needed spotlight, though fleeting, on little known freedom fighter Bina Das who made an attempt on the life of the then Bengal Governor Stanley Jackson in 1932.

The Beat of the Story

It may well make one wonder where the piano figures in all of this, and that is the beauty of Basu's graphic novel. It uses the piano as a prop that, in its movement, also takes the story forward, shifting from its origins in Leipzig, segueing through Paris and thence to Dorset in England before ending up in Calcutta and finding its last stop in Mumbai. This journey from 1912 to 2012 stitches together a tale of friendship, giving the book its title in full, The Piano – story of a friendship.

Delightfully, while the novel showcases that friendships can be of many kinds, crossing borders and generations - between a master piano craftsman Micah and his patron Victor, both Germans; between Allied soldier buddies; between a British employer Kenneth Morgan and Jogen, the young son of his Indian assistant Santosh - what Basu drawing from her own life prominently showcases is that friendship does not even require people. A piano can be a friend to a lonely child, be it Jogen growing up in British India or Meera growing up friendless in the nineties as the child of a single mother (see image below which poignantly conveys this).


The HeART of the Story

Coming to the illustrations in the novel, Basu seems to enjoy giving life to the inner thoughts, so there's much more detailing in those sketches. The human figures I'm not sure, it may be deliberate not to make them too expressive, so as to show that humanity worldwide has the same face, but at times it gets a tad confusing to have most of the characters with just a beard or the hairstyle etc., as the distinguishing feature. For instance, at one point the man with whom Jogen is speaking looks a lot like his British employer, Morgan, but without the beard.

The best illustrations in the book are those without text where the visual just nails the mood. This is especially true of the fantastic visual of Meera rushing home or the passage of time showing Jogen growing up. The posing of the characters is also wonderful. For instance, the crouching position of a young Jogen hiding and listening to music (image below).



One is curious to know the history behind why Bina Das is depicted draping her sari pallu over the right, rather than the left, shoulder. Basu's images also mark a departure from the common images of war. For instance, the wireless set. It's usually shown as a contraption with people hunched up over it or doing so in hiding in some underground space. But Basu depicts its use in the battlefield during World War I with all the characters standing up and shows how in its early avatar the heavy wireless set-up was actually carried around. Quite an eye opener that! The scene of the British soldiers taking a break in the bombed out mansion is evocative of another story and another time, of the true life of Wladyslaw Szpilman in Warsaw who played a piano in a bombed out house in World War II. And such scenes did take place among soldiers on the warfront in World War II. So, it's quite remarkable that it's depicted through sheer imagination by Basu.

 

A special mention must be made of the cover of The Piano for its art work and quality of printing. There's a kind of 3D effect given by the cut-out nature of the human figures, Indian flag and the German warplane. The glossy veneer on them as well as the lettering of the main title gives an almost tactile feel as one passes one's fingers across it. The dominant image of the piano seems to invite the reader to 'play' it. The only grouse is that the man holding the Indian flag sticks out like a sore thumb and somehow doesn't seem to fit in the collage. Or maybe it's just that perhaps a woman holding it would have been more apt, given the story.

Low Notes

Why oh why does the German wife of the piano's first owner, Victor remain unnamed in a story where even the piano gets a name! The revolutionaries remain anonymous, too, but that is in keeping with the nature of their role. Surely, if the husband and son have identities, she should have one, too? 

One also wanted to see and know more of Bina Das, who literally pops in and out of the story. There's also no build up on the fact that Jogen is hiding something for Bina in the piano. Would that not affect the sound of the piano when it was played? Wouldn't Jogen want to know more of what is being planned and follow Bina when she'd come to fetch what she'd given him, which is never shown? This does create needless mystery because one expects the hidden object to pop up later in the story! 

One can miss joining the dots because though understandable given it's Jogen's point of view being followed and the prime readership is children, Bina's failed assassination attempt is not depicted. The equation between Jogen and Bina also needed to be brought out more fully. It's like missing a much needed beat in the heartbeat of the story. Was theirs also a friendship or mere acquaintance? The relationship between Morgan and Jogen is much better etched, but given their equation dates from Jogen's childhood, his parting words to his mentor employer sound a bit bombastic.

The end of The Piano is a bit too pat and seems an attempt to conveniently bridge the historical time spans the story covers. The older Jogen doesn't quite explain why he thinks he knows Meera so well, given that moments earlier he couldn't even recall that his niece had a daughter and not a son. Although that was also a nuanced comment on how females who choose to be androgynous are often perceived!

Making a Pitch for why it should be read

The Piano is a fantastic feat of storytelling and utterly original. What adds to the charm is to discover that the story echoes Basu's own life (Meera's sketch resembles her) in terms of making friends with the instrument and giving it a name all its own, which she describes at the end of the book: "Fact and fiction always merge at a certain point, and then you begin to wonder what is real and which one is the story." The point of every instrument having a voice that has to be coaxed out is something one wishes had been added in Meera's part of the story although there is a reference to the unique sound of the piano in Victor's story.

The image below is of Basu's piano, which inspired the story.



Why it's a Jewel of a Book

The Piano is breathtakingly imaginative and Basu renders it with an effortlessly deft touch and light hand, such as how the British employer's profession as a judge becomes the reason for Jogen's estrangement from him. There is no clutter with too much text or graphics cramming the pages giving enough white space, which makes reading it a pleasure.

It is recommended for the 10+ age group and above, including adults. The historical events are helpfully mentioned in the end but even without knowledge of the history it is a simple story that can be easily grasped. Basu manages to portray working women and single motherhood without mawkishness. Meera on growing up also takes on a refreshingly unique profession. Basu also deserves kudos for keeping what may have happened to Victor, his wife and Jorge open ended.

The Piano is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes responsible management of the world's forests. So, go ahead and purchase a hard copy though it's also available as an e-book. Priced at INR199, you have the option to buy it from an indie book store. I got mine online from Funky Rainbow. It is also available at popular independent book stores like Kahani Tree through a WhatsApp order.

Why a hard copy? You have to touch the cover, which you can't do in an e-book. And because a graphic novel is a work of art to be passed on down generations - like the piano in the story is - as a cherished object of affection.

Author Note

Nandita Basu describes herself as a comic-book artist and a musician who loves to daydream, eat gummy bears, play music and draw. She likes to have conversations with animals and children (in that order) more than adults.

This book review has been written by Madhuri Kamat, author of Flying with Grandpa.

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