Colin Stragar-Rice

Chhotu: A Tale of Love and Partition, released by Penguin publishing in December 2019, is a graphic novel that, ‘simply put,’ is a coming of age story. However, the context, references, writing, illustrations, and narrative form all make it difficult to ‘simply’ describe the book. Blending personal family histories with the historical memory of the partition of India, the authors entangle personal journeys of growth with the larger political and economic circumstances in which we live. In doing so, the authors interrogate individual struggles and the search for effective means of engagement.

Firmly set in 1947 old Delhi, illustrations in the book could easily be confused for Delhi in January–February 2020, as the country saw widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. As the movement against the discriminatory nature of the newly passed law grew, the anti-CAA protests, and the violence that followed, seemed to hold echoes of the past. Similarly, the visuals and discussions generated throughout the course of the protests travel over space and time and reverberate with the US in June 2020, as the unlawful killing and policing of African Americans have prompted nationwide protests. Both of these cases, the US and India, add to a growing number of global movements calling out and challenging the systemic discrimination and oppression of minority communities.

Although Chhotu is a personal narrative of a fictional character at a particular time and place (inspired by a composite of historical events and descriptions), it also travels over time and space as a contemporary and global story. The following is an interview with the authors, Varud Gupta and Ayushi Rastogi, discussing how Chhotu came together, connecting the multiple elements that makes it difficult to ‘simply’ describe the book.

Could you discuss the decision to begin the graphic novel with a fake quote by Winston Churchill? That is, a fake dehumanizing quote from a colonizer? What relationship between truth and ideology do you think exists with fake news?

We stumbled upon this quote during the research phase of the project. It was perfect to describe the past and current political climate in India. But after a little digging, we found that it was absolutely false – although we’d encountered multiple people who knew about this quote, one even believing that he’d read it in a history book.

The book doesn’t aim to be overtly political, although there are certain political messages inherent in Chhotu’s story. Starting the book with a recognizable quote that is actually fake became the perfect opening. For, this book hopes to challenge our perceptions of events told and remembered over time.

Additionally, the role that the media plays in propagating perspectives and fake news is an important aspect of the book itself. We often believe the news that aligns with our personal opinions – regardless of ‘truth’ – and this is a very important barrier we need to overcome as a country.

Could you discuss the theme of the radio and the corrupting influence of the media?

It’s historically accurate that back then the radio was the only real source of live news. Many have told us about how they’d gather around the radio daily for updates. It was the equivalent of today’s social media, Whatsapp forwards, and live broadcasts.

As a result, we made the radio into a character of its own in the book. In a way, the radio gives voices to the internal thoughts of both the society as a whole and, at certain points, Chhotu himself.

The radio broadcasts open each part of the graphic novel. Similarly, every broadcast begins with updates on the ongoing political struggles, violence, and events while never failing to pivot into a commercial. Finally, each title comes from an Indian pop song. What relationship are you tapping into? What are its effects?

On the one hand, there’s the entertainment and sensationalizing of the news. And then, there are the hints of bias towards the news’s ‘calls-to-action,’ namely advertising. So, over time you see the news broadcasts getting more serious in trying to capture the deaths and struggles of Partition. At the same time you also see those commercial pivots becoming even more ridiculous.

On the other hand, there’s the Bollywood angle. We could talk forever about how this came to be and why. Most importantly, we wanted to create a Partition story that was relatable to audiences. Bollywood is such an influence on our lives that it became a great vehicle for Chhotu’s story and a way of adding a touch of ourselves into the book. Humour and sorrow can go hand in hand when trying to not only capture the tragedies of the time but also make that story memorable enough to bring back to our lives, to us, today.

Not only does each item being sold thematically connect to the chapter, but they also perform an escalation of the item being bought (from pants, to selling property to leave, to security measures, to basic utilities) until it re-normalizes with umbrellas and food. However, the epilogue ends from the radio’s perspective, its hopeful tone, and its unifying powers (we see scenes stitched together by the voice of the radio). What does this say about the relationship between the commodity and social values or anxieties?

As we look towards our ‘purpose’, especially in heightened times, we as individuals can make an impact in many ways. Without spoilers, Pandey and Chhotu are trying to do their best in their own ways. 

The epilogue highlights that the news itself isn’t at fault here. India does have some brilliant journalists. Pandey taking to the airwaves is our way of supporting those brave journalists that fight everyday with their morality intact.

Could you discuss a bit more the connection between the themes of freedom and responsibility when feeling small and powerless? Moreover, on page 64 Chhotu and Teeter Gang member ‘Yours Truly’ discuss perspective – shouting to Chhotu from the top of a building, Yours Truly says, ‘You know you get a better view up here right?’ To which Chhotu replies from below on the sidewalk, “It makes me feel small.” Later on page 124, Chhotu has an enlightening moment with Pandey – a key point is coming to terms with one’s insignificance from a cosmological perspective. Could you elaborate on this idea of the power of perspective? That is, that, at least, two diametrically opposed views can be drawn from the same event? i.e. responding to cosmic insignificance with either compassion or despair.

This is probably the central theme to the book, in that it was in there from the very beginning. 

“Chhotu” itself as you learn in the opening is the nickname of ‘little one’ given to many in India. At its core, his journey is about learning that anyone, no matter how small, can make a difference.

This theme towards the end is where Ratatouille crosses with David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water. It’s an idea we respect in our own lives: take joy in the fact that you’re small and meaningless to the universe, that nothing is expected from you but to try to do something larger than yourself. It’s ok to fail, because at least you gave it a shot.

Does this bear on the mantra of keeping one’s head down? Or, the shifting sense that ‘keeping one’s head down’ undergoes from person to person?

Absolutely. This is very much a life philosophy that’s passed down generationally in India. We’re told to keep our voices and opinions to ourselves. Don’t ruffle feathers. Don’t speak up because what can you possibly do? Just put those horse blinders on and do your own thing.

We need to remind ourselves, and the generations to come, that we do have voices. It is through using our voices can we make this world a better place.

You both mentioned that your grandfathers were an influence on the graphic novel. In particular, they were both in Chandni Chowk during the time of partition. Would you tell us more about the influence they had on the graphic novel? Are there any particular moments that you’d like to share?

The both of us grew up listening to stories about Chandni Chowk from our grandfathers. When we decided to set the book during this time their experiences became central to building that lost world.

Aside from narrative building, our grandfathers also influenced the creation of our characters. For example, Chhotu’s story represents theirs. It’s a story of someone naïve and living in a world that’s dramatically changing. How do they come to terms with this new world? We also modeled the character Bapu in part off of both our grandfathers: thinking about what kind of people they have become after going through life being told to ‘keep your head down’ as well as their stubbornness in the ‘old ways’ and the regrets that come later in life.

At 6:20 of this interview you discuss the art of creating transitions. That is, how does the plot transition through illustrations? Could you point us to a moment in the story you’re particularly fond of and how the illustration carries the plot forward in a transition?

(Ayushi): There are 2 moments I really enjoyed creating. The first one is the use of intermissions after each chapter, where we told short stories about some of our characters that later tie in with the overarching story. For example, when Naee is playing her weekly game of cards with her friends and she is robbed by the antagonist. Later when Bapu tells Chhotu in Chapter 3 about Naee, the reader has a connection to what has happened and why it happened. It not only broke the traditional flow but introduced short stories about other characters as well.

The second one I really enjoyed was some of the silent pages where there was no dialogue. We wanted the readers to interpret it on their own. It’s quite difficult to actually communicate a particular feeling which we want the reader to feel through just visuals.  

At 7:57 in this interview you mentioned being unsatisfied with the first artistic style of Chhotu. More specifically, that he looked like a child’s novel character and you didn’t want to treat partition as a child’s story. What about the current artistic style lends itself to dealing with partition and the way in which you wanted to tell this story? If you had to approach an event like partition in the future for a child’s novel how would you? Or, how do you think stories change depending on the audience we are telling them to? 

The age group we were targeting was from teens and young adults to millennials. 

The way Varud has written Chhotu is light hearted with hints of darkness to it. So the style of illustration I chose is friendly enough but can easily be manipulated to being imaginative and abstract. We had a choice of introducing one color as well but we chose black and white as it takes us back in time.

If I was introducing an audience of children to the theme of partition it would be completely different. The graphics would be more playful and colorful. The story would be a lot simpler and shorter. 

Varud and I have two other children’s books, Elphie, around topics of inclusivity and disability. It’s in a completely different style of writing and visuals, influenced in part by Dr. Seuss. 

From 11:55 to 12:30 of this interview, you discuss the importance of staying true to pivotal historical events of the time. Could you elaborate on this idea? Are you thinking only of the aesthetic dimension (cloths and architecture) or of the role historical events play in your narrative, the relationship between your narrative and a popular historical narrative, or the impact of an historical event on the narratives that people tell of their everyday lives?

All of the above. The graphic novel isn’t a history book or a retelling of the events. We wanted to add perspective (both forgotten and relatable to today) through the journey of Chhotu. We did our best to capture the time throughout certain elements such as: the presentation of the historical backdrop, the depiction of the lives of characters and their styles of clothing, and in the varying ways our characters interpret the idea of ‘freedom’.

Responding to a question from 16:45 to 18:24 in this interview you both discuss how storyboarding was best for facilitating collaboration. That is, that storyboarding was the tool you used to stay true to your ideal while also having a working relationship. How do you think there is a tension between your ideal of the story and staying true to the historical events in your work and, if so, how do you think those two forces influence the other?

History is a constraint on the story in that it can’t be changed. In some ways this can be challenging, but, as with any constraint, I think it only pushed us to become more creative. For instance, Nehru’s speech in Chapter Two was initially his more popular Tryst With Destiny speech, but we had a conflict because that was actually spoken at midnight in parliament and thus Chhotu as a character couldn’t be present to witness the moment. Researching later, we found his other speech spoken at Red For that actually had some very relatable quotes to Chhotu’s story. 

As a result, our collaboration in building our storyboard was crucial to solidify our vision for Chhotu. Ours was a collaboration between a writer-illustrator, but also individuals with different upbringings. Varud was coming from a place of living outside of India and one perspective; Ayushi was born and raised there and thus had another perspective.  Throughout our creative process, we worked quite diligently to meld our visions and perspectives together. 

Similarly, at 17:05 this interview you mentioned the difficulty of making edits to the story. More specifically, you named that changing one thing can have cascading effects extending pages into the story, which show up as both dialogue and illustration problems. Is there any particular moment in the story that exemplifies that? Could you tell us the story of its creation

Chhotu’s story has evolved at least 5 times. The actual illustration work was finished in 6 – 7 months but the storyboard alone took us about 1.5 years to finish.

I remember sitting down together day after day, drafting the story and changing it as we go. We had quickly realized that until we had a solid story without any loopholes we would not start with the final illustrations. This decision saved us a lot of time and effort. In that process we actually developed a secret language where we both understood what was to be drawn just through simple shapes and smudges.

Looking back, the both of us are thankful for those hours and painstaking storyboards because with each evolution we grew along with Chhotu’s story.

Returning to the theme of ‘keeping one’s head down’. Can you say more about the moment where Chhotu and Bapu criss cross each other with their values? That is, right after Bapu dies, Chhotu begins to embrace ‘keeping one’s head down’ yet, at the time of his death, Bapu was admitting that he was wrong for keeping his own head down.

SPOILERS! As much as Bapu’s death was difficult to plot and illustrate, I think the exploration of his backstory and those effects on Chhotu are some of my favorite moments in the book. It really goes to prove how messy some of life’s moments are: that we might realize the most important things at the wrong time, or even interpret things events quite differently years after.

Earlier, we talked about navigating staying true to the historical events included in the graphic novel. I know that Bapu is a historical representation of Ghandi while Shere is a historical representation of the current prime minister of India. Do you see these two sides more generally as opposing forces like good-evil (or another binary)? Do you see them more as the embodiment of certain historical forces opposing? If staying true to the historical events of the time is important what is gained or lost by casting the villain as a contemporary figure?

Great Question! I don’t think either is a strict representation of the one figure, but an embodiment of ideals that surrounded each of them and their followers. Bapu does have some traits of Ghandhi, but, as explored above, is very much modelled off of the elders in India today: those that were told to keep their heads down and did so. Bapu is the ‘wise elephant’ stereotype, but is not without his own weaknesses.

With Shere’s characterization, we wanted to highlight how ignorance leads to people like Shere gaining power. Shere acts as the villain and assumes power because of the lack of action to stop him. Additionally, Shere’s characterization speaks to the underlying roots of some of the class issues in India today.

Is there a historical referent for the Teeter Gang?

There are two inspiration points for the Teetar Gang. One was Bandhu taking reference from Bhagat Singh and the underground resistance groups during the freedom movement. We wanted to capture their spirit and energy, but also the pitfalls of violence.

Then we combined it with a historical note of underground ‘teetar’ fighting that used to take place in the past.

Sorry, actually three points, because then we added the Bollywood spirit with one of SRK’s movies Josh where there were two rival gangs – the Bicchu gang and Eagle gang. Every Indian who has seen the movie always wants to be a part of the eagle gang.

So, in a great conclusion, the Teetar Gang represents a lot of what this book is: it’s about Partition and this idea of  ‘freedom’, it’s about Chandni Chowk of the past, and it has the flair of Bollywood to bring it all together.  

About the Author

Varud Gupta was bred for the business world until an existential crisis sent him travelling through the culinary cultures of the world. It was in documenting odd jobs as a cheesemonger or asador that his journey as a writer began. His first book, Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan, was a travel narrative through the faiths and foods of India. And the story of Chhotu, represents the culmination of the first chapter on this existential path.

Ayushi Rastogi was born into a family of artists and was quickly instilled with a drive to seek social responsibility in her work. With that spirit, as a graphic designer and illustrator, she’s created a board game for children with dyslexia, illustrated a children’s series that tackles topics of diversity, and designed books on pressing issues from nature conservation to pollution.