We learn to make lines before we listen for the light, before we lament love. We live in a lattice of lineages and lineaments, in which the letter L, a point on the written line, becomes an image of the parallel and the perpendicular, linked and latent with locomotion. We make lines when we decide, when we travel, when we think, when we draw. It is this primary element that changes the constituents of a substance, changes its story. The Partition and the subsequent division of East Pakistan from Bangladesh were big lines drawn on a small map, fissures whose faultlines — undimmed by dust or memory — continue to manifest.
It is with the varying thick and thin lines of the pen that the 47 writers and illustrators — the number draws attention to that decisive year — tell tales of the Partition that parted nations, waterways, rail lines, neighbourhoods, objects, ideologies, families and souls in This Side, That Side. The collection, curated by graphic novelist Vishwajyoti Ghosh and published by Yoda Press, is immediately metaphorical: the cover — scattered with a list of titles (Restorying Partition/an anthology of graphic narratives/ This Side That Side), postage stamps of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, an image of a barefoot girl playing hopscotch across borders, and all this cut by the red-blue-white lines of an air-mail envelope — portends the marriage of text and image, instructing readers to choose how they might view the pages so that rather than taking sides, they experience the collection as a polyphony of ideas and images, multiple and secular.
The book opens to a flurry of movement: the closed shapes of immigration stamps are marked and signed by the officers in charge, reminding us that these lines are human. The next page is quieter, but no less unnerving: This Side That Side stacked on each other with a line in between — the later appearing as a mirror image — as if it were a fraction divided by itself, equalling one, unified even as it is split. The alliteration creates a sense of duality, yet the phrase functions hendiadically, so that the dividing line becomes a conjunction.
This sense of synthesis between dualities runs through the narratives that succeed the initial pages of design and drama. The first story, An Old Fable, written by Tabish Khair and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan, tells the story of two women (one wears saffron and the other green) fighting over a single baby, and a King who, governed by Reason and Law, decides to ‘part’ the baby in half. The women, upon realising the consequences of this, are willing to relinquish their desires. The populous, however, regard this “as a wise decision”, “except [for] a very old and frail man in loincloth”. The problem of parting it vertically or horizontally arises, and the wise king in a top hat, towering over his courtiers on a floor that appears as a chess board, decides to “divide” the baby into three parts. A dotted line runs through a symbolic baby signifying an impending mitosis.
Subtle narratives on homosexuality, the English Enlightenment and the nonchalant, chance-like manner of making big decisions are made potent in the childlike tone of the language and the sharp lines of the generic, cartoonish faces of the characters. The drawings enhance the symbolism of the story while allowing it to remain in a fictional world that we, as readers, know to be real.
The last story is a textless one, but not without meaning. Orijit Sen’s Making Faces is a kind of choose-your-own adventure. As you flip four pages, each cut in three, yet held together by the spine of the book, the faces change: spanning men of diverse nationality, religion, ethnicity and race. No matter which combination you view the portraits in, the puzzle fits. As you play with the pages, smiling to yourself as a Sikh sportsman becomes a Muslim gatekeeper becomes a Bengali intellectual and an Assamese student and their characters continue to morph so that as you close the book upon the last page of immigration stamps, the shapes are no longer simply symbols of boundaries, but of the infinitude of possibility.
Bound by infinity, the image of infinity — the visual of the lemniscate that the title sets up — continues through the book, so that the line that divides also provides a sense of continuum. In Mehreen Murtaza’s Bastards of Utopia, “the end of the world is the projection of an internal catastrophe” so that the geological and the cosmological become macrocosms for the disruptions of the psyche. The metaphor of Siamese twins helps visualise abnormality, connection, disorder and infinity, as two faces, mirroring each other, appear to rise out of the sea and form a whole on a page divided into day and night, as throngs of people in white walk across a bridge, sit around a fire, waiting. Dividing the earth, she suggests, will hurt just as dividing ourselves would.
In Kaiser Haq and Hemant Puri’s collaboration Border, everything is out of scale: the font seems to zoom in and out as the drawings chalk cities on whole maps, and a single face on whole cities. Arrows form the stems of magnifying glasses so that we are allowed into the inner lives of buildings. A girl — the cover girl — traces a path across a game of hopscotch on a map. A family eats a meal inside a flag. A giant man lies “down on the fateful line/under a livid moon. You/and your desire and the border are now one”. The blurring of scale seems to speak to the delusion of perspective: how history and the present fuse, how memory and our minds dream in desires bigger than our tiny selves, bigger than our beings bolted to the line “that slices through the earth/without the earth’s knowing,/severs and joins at the same instant”. Then, “You raise the universal flag/of flaglessness”.
Particularly intriguing are the drawings of Ikroop Sandhu, which mirror each other to parody the fallacy of dividing the infinite; Mahmood Farooqui’s Dastangoi story, so that both the craft and the narrative are being revived; the sublime palimpsests by Sukanya Ghosh; Bani Abidi’s bathetic news strip; Ankur Ahuja’s story about imagining her father’s red account books as stories of adventure written in lunar script; Maria M Litwa’s photographic documentary of Dhaka’s Geneva Camp; Rabbi Shergill and Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Caberet Weimer and Priya Sen and Deewana’s collaboration on The Last Circus, which uses the surreal landscape of a circus to arrive at the absurdity of dividing that which transcends the limits of the possible. In between, the book is dotted with delightful details and imaginations where memory has faded. Some stories feel as though they end too soon — in a sense, history too is abrupt — and others are sometimes overdrawn or overwritten. In capturing a physical and a psychological fracture, the pieces sometimes foretell their own demise.
The book is a map, inviting the reader to situate themselves amid the three partitioned zones, and triangulate between them, until the triangle becomes a prism through which a singular light refracts into its parts, inseparable and infinite.