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
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.
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!
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
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
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.
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, Burial of The Dead - Mystery in a Mohalla, and Yudi Yudi Dharmasya: Mahabharat - Through the Eyes of Kunti.