I often lament that my life as a writer would have been so much easier if I had chosen to be a book or film critic, instead of being obsessed with deconstructing and understanding real life as it unfolds around me. I fantasize that fiction must be simpler to deal with than real life. But then I came across Biksu, a schoolboy in Raj Kumari’s graphic novel of the same name, Biksu.
I found myself reading the book in short spurts, keeping it next to me and travelling with it, even though the 136-page hard-bound book is 8.5x11 inches in size and it made me abandon my sling bag and carry it in a backpack instead. Does it happen to you, too, that sometimes a book becomes a silent companion; one is getting something from it simply by keeping it close?
I knew immediately that I really wanted to write about this book, yet I had to take it easy to let the relationship between the book and me reveal itself. Love at first sight is exciting, but we know from experience that one must slow down to make place for a comfortable familiarity too.
Biksu is a graphic novel based on a 35-page letter written by her cousin Vikas Kumar Vidyarthi. It is a classic coming-of-age story—Vikas, or Biksu, as he was called at home, starts telling the story from his first day in boarding school as a lonely, timid adolescent who can barely control his tears, up to his last day in school, when he dances awkwardly around a fire with his friends at a farewell ritual. Again, tears threaten to flow, as the boys wonder how or where they will see each other again.
What makes Biksu’s story special is the innocence of the narrator’s voice. The teenaged boy who was bewildered by the world he was growing up in and the grown-up Biksu who is recalling those years—both of them are outliers. Biksu feels deeply but as a boy he doesn’t have permission to feel his feelings openly. His vulnerability is palpable. He gravitates towards kindness wherever he can find it, whether it is in the brusque friendships with his peers or the compassion of a new teacher who wants the best for the boys.
Writing about Biksu makes me realize how hard it is to write about love. There is so much pain and loss wrapped in its folds that one struggles to find words that can express the nuances of true love.
Raj Kumari, or Raj as she is popularly called, has created illustrations that express the ineffability of Biksu’s feelings as he strives to recover his sense of self in a new school environment. The artist’s imagination comes alive as she draws Biksu’s inner dialogues, expressing his wonder and incredulity at new experiences.
Designed and illustrated entirely in the Madhubani style of folk art by Raj, the script has been written by her husband and screenwriter, Varun Grover. Raj and her cousin have translated the Hindi script into the Chhota Nagpuri dialect, spoken in parts of Jharkhand and in the homes where they grew up.
As I turned the pages of Biksu, and rotated the book at various angles to read the text and admire the details, I found myself distracted by thoughts about the person behind the painstakingly created, delicate drawings in the book. What would make an artist spend days and months, even years, making concentric lines and repetitive lyrical patterns? What is she healing from? What else does she become capable of as she completes these drawings, one chapter at a time?
I wonder if I am being too intrusive as I text these questions to Raj in advance. Do I even have the right to obsess about the artist instead of focusing my attention on the art?
“The whole process was one of self-acceptance," says Raj, when I finally speak to her after spending weeks reading the book, one page at a time. “At a personal level, I was negotiating with issues of my own self-worth. Growing up had been an endless quest of modifying myself to find acceptance and I was exhausted. I didn’t even know what to call it, it is only in retrospect that I can use these words."
Raj generalizes her self-awareness to the larger community. “People from Bihar and Jharkhand spend so much energy not wanting to be recognized as Bihari. I have seen this complex in myself. Because others berate it, we ourselves deny the authenticity of our art, cuisine and local culture."
“What happened when you reclaimed the language?" I ask her.
“My sole purpose was to give value to the life of the child," says Raj. “I chose this dialect because this is the original language in which the child Biksu thinks, even when he learns to speak Hindi and tries to erase his Bihari accent. When we abandon our mother tongue to escape shame and judgement, it creates an irretrievable sense of loss. It’s like a wound in the psyche."
“Understanding and accepting oneself is the core healing, I think," says Raj. “We are what our emotional landscape is. Our hearts ache for our own understanding. Even in Biksu’s letter, Varun and I felt that by writing about himself he was making those invisible years real once again. He was reclaiming his lost inner child."
The power of the graphic storytelling in Biksu is such that it awakens memories in the reader too. On the last page of the book, the grown-up Biksu runs into a classmate after years. Reminiscing about their school days, they recall a time when both of them had been made to bend over “like a cock" as punishment by their teacher.
“Memory is a strange thing," narrates Biksu on the page. “Whether it had been a good thing or a bad incident, recalling it years later always tastes sweet."
“This book hasn’t come from me only," says Raj. “There is something more. I feel deeply humbled when I receive feedback from readers. I have been the medium of its creation."
Raj Kumari’s words remind me that I have been treating Biksu with reverence too. More than a book, Biksu feels like a museum I can delve into anytime and always find something new. It is a treasury of art and language. Of childhood memories and healing too.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar