Home / Lounge / Features /  Memories of another Delhi riot

It is uncanny to read Chhotu in the shadow of the violence that erupted in Delhi recently. Set in the Partition era, this graphic novel, inspired by the American illustrator and writer Art Spiegelman’s iconic work Maus, tells a story that has elements of all that is happening around us every day. There is fake news, communal tension, migration of populations, riots. And then, there are also moments of love, solidarity, forging of bonds and the promise of scars healing.

Like Maus, Chhotu draws its characters from the animal kingdom—though from a much wider spectrum. There are cats and dogs, tigers and elephants, deer and birds—and everything in between. The diversity of the subcontinent comes alive in their voices. At the same time, there’s historical fidelity blended in with fiction: period advertisements, references to hit movies like Jugnu, travels through the labyrinths of Delhi-6, especially the paratha stalls of Old Delhi.

‘Chhotu’ draws from the authors’ grandfathers’ experience during Partition
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‘Chhotu’ draws from the authors’ grandfathers’ experience during Partition

Chhotu is an orphan, adopted by Bapu, a paratha-seller. Chhotu has a crush on Heer, his classmate. As independence approaches, the young are as thrilled at the prospect of freedom as they are fearful of its consequences. As Hindus and Muslims scramble to shift to India and Pakistan, respectively, mobs led by Shere, a failed poet-turned-gang leader, begin to spread havoc in Chandni Chowk. As the old world order falls, homes are set on fire and cries fill the air, Chhotu also discovers a tragic truth about his past.

Chhotu is an orphan, adopted by Bapu, a paratha-seller
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Chhotu is an orphan, adopted by Bapu, a paratha-seller

Varud Gupta and Ayushi Rastogi are cousins, who drew on the reminiscences of their grandfathers (they were brothers), to create Chhotu. Gupta was responsible for conceiving the story and writing, while Rastogi did the art and styling. It took them some time, but eventually they ended up developing a visual language they could both quickly relate to. In places, the animal imagery feels a bit stretched, but there are some spectacular panels too, such as the one where the animals fly across the newly drawn borders. Gupta spoke to Lounge about the making of Chhotu. Edited excerpts:

What inspired ‘Chhotu’? How faithful is it to history?

The inspiration for Chhotu came largely from two places: from the current political environment and the role of media today; and how, as individuals, it feels all too easy sometimes to feel small in this world. Fatigue sets in, you feel disenfranchised, so how do you overcome this feeling? Where can we find meaning? For Chhotu, the question also becomes: What does freedom truly mean?

Chhotu’s journey as a naive student sent stumbling through the events of Partition came from the stories of our grandfathers who lived in Chandni Chowk during that time. While their stories inspired the world and characters of Chhotu, we remained historically accurate to the backdrop of the events: Independence Day celebrations at Red Fort, communal violence, massive waves of migration, even a fire that roared through the town.

Graphic novelist Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ comes to mind while reading ‘Chhotu’. How did you choose your animal protagonists?

Maus was key for us, though in it animals are used to highlight different communities—the Jews as mice, German as cats. In Chhotu we wanted to drive home that Chandni Chowk was a mixing and melding of diverse cultures, religions and walks of life. Identity isn’t defined by just one aspect of our life, and thus, it became our proverbial “animal kingdom". Animals also helped with comic relief and relatability for the readers, but those were secondary concerns.

‘Chhotu’ has a strong resonance with our times. Was this deliberate?

Having worked on the book for two years, the past few weeks have felt surreal. There are elements in the story that existed only as satire, but have now become reality. We wish we were good at predicting the future, but unfortunately neither of us is psychic! A part of the book is very much our reflection of the current times, but it really is just a testament to the cyclicality of life. We drew on the events of 1947, only to find them reappear in the present, all around us.

What were your biggest hurdles?

In addition to the challenge of wedding text to image, probably the most difficult hurdle was losing our Nana (grandfather), who was one of our main inspirations, about halfway through the drafting process. It was a tough time, and we ended up missing multiple deadlines. But something quite strange happened along the way. As we were going through a similar experience in our lives, our thoughts and feelings started feeding into Chhotu’s tale. As Chhotu overcame his grief, he helped us find our bearings too.

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