Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land is a book-length collection of webcomic strips which appeared online from 2010-2014, penned by an anonymous “we”. I spend a fair amount of time looking at Indian comic-related stuff on the Internet, but somehow missed this one and was somewhat surprised to learn of its existence. The topics of many of the comics will be familiar to any Indian who reads English news. There’s one about the Commonwealth Games scandals, one about the Jyoti Singh Pandey rape-murder case, one about Afzal Guru’s hanging, several about the Modi campaign. But my favourite strips were the ones that weren’t so closely tied to news items. There’s a rather brilliant wordless one about a boy dreaming up excuses to get out of doing homework. There’s also a sendup of “elite city club” culture, featuring a gang of street dogs who sniff the butts of prospective members for clues as to connection and lineage.
Often, the strips are presented as dialogues between a few recurring characters. There’s a guy with a cigarette and thick-framed glasses; a short-haired busty woman in a sari; a fat guy wearing what is probably, given the Bengali context, supposed to be a monkey cap, but I kept thinking it was a Mexican luchador (wrestler) mask. The line drawings are simple but stylised and reminded me a little of some American and Canadian alternative comics artists I’ve seen, particularly Ron Regé Jr. None of the characters are given names; they’re more or less interchangeable in terms of outlook and politics. They’re all portrayed as middle-class hypocrites attending virtual protest marches online and complaining about corruption while being totally materialistic themselves.
Indian comics artists, at least the ones who aren’t busy reimagining the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, have a tendency to be rather cynical. CWTL (as it is abbreviated on the book’s back cover) is just about as cynical as it gets, almost nihilistically so; the artists are so disgusted with Indian society, and humanity in general, that I sometimes found myself wondering how they managed to keep writing.
In the book edition, a short explanatory blurb has been added in small print at the top of each comic. These are meant to give some context to the topicality of the strip for those who don’t obsessively follow debates on Indian social media, or in whose memories some recent controversies may have started to blur. Above a comic about bribing traffic cops, we get the preface: “2011 saw social activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement capture the imagination of the urban population. It was a heady moment, and givers-of-bribes felt more honest than ever.”
These blurbs have an odd effect; they occasionally make the book seem like it’s published for a Western liberal arts college somewhere in New England, perhaps for the reading list of a course called “Contemporary South Asian Sequential Narrative Art”. I was reminded of RSVP, a clever comic by Vishwajyoti Ghosh from the PAO Anthology, where he pokes fun at the humiliating contortions Indian artists often go through to obtain foreign funding for their work, while still trying to seem rebellious and confrontational enough to be relevant.
At least CWTL is aware of its own bleakness. There’s one strip in which the guy in the luchador mask tells his friend, “Your comic is too negative. All it does is nitpick, criticise and crib!” He suggests a shift to “constructive positivity”, but then accidentally falls down an open manhole as he’s talking, concluding with “It’s difficult to stay positive when you have cold sewage lapping against your toes.”
I think the cynicism might have been a bit overwhelming for me, except that when I received my review copy of CWTL, I had just finished reading a very different book, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. It is a non-fiction popular science book about how humans are basically the worst thing that ever happened to our planet. Kolbert looks at the activity of our species through a very wide lens. She tells the story of how our ancestors first wiped out the Australian megafauna (giant wombats, two-metre-tall ducks) and then the American (mastodons, giant ground sloths). She details the ways in which international trade, international travel, global warming and ocean acidification are currently causing even more catastrophic damage to the biosphere — wiping out not just big animals, but whole families of frogs, corals, bats and trees. She compares the damage we’re doing to the other great extinctions, like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. She muses about how the extinctions we’re causing are likely to be our species’ most lasting legacy. Once you’ve accepted that we Homo sapiens are a disastrous evolutionary mistake, CWTL’s sharply focused hopelessness seems perfectly natural.
Rakesh Khanna is a founding editor of Blaft Publications, an independent publishing house based in Chennai
Download the all new Deccan Chronicle app for Android and iOS to stay up-to-date with latest headlines and news stories in politics, entertainment, sports, technology, business and much more from India and around the world.