Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Don't dream so much, it's painful to watch."
Well, this is a little bit beautiful on every level; but it's brutal too, as the thwarting of aspirations does tend to be.
Dreams can be thwarted by circumstance, happenstance or intention by individuals, and these specific streets of Mumbai - although teeming with life, energy and colour - are far from conducive to seeing them come to fruition.
They're impoverished and crowded with elements of corruption, but the local police inspector is not the worst worry. That would be Mario, the local drugs baron, who is flash, charming when he wants to be, seemingly paternalistic but vicious and way too well informed for you to want to cross him. The shanty town designated a slum is under threat of being pulled down without any regard to those who will need re-housing (so won't be), and there is the pressure on the young from older generations to jettison lofty, artistic ambitions which they consider pie in the sky in favour of buckling down to work for a relative pittance.
Gradually, in a narrative relay race during which a new baton is passed while the old one's retained and continues to be run with in parallel, we are introduced to four young individuals, Suresh, Jayesh (who prefers "Jay"), Chasma and one other whom I won't reveal, for I want their inclusion as the fourth perspective when they rise from the background to remain a surprise.
Each harbours artistic aspirations in different fields - art, music, literature and [redacted] - but only one of them (Chasma) attends college, while working long hours at night at an Indian version of a Chinese restaurant where he's forced to wear a bandana featuring The Rising Sun. Oh ridiculous, I know, but there are plenty of Chinese Takeaways in Britain (in Nottingham indeed) called The Rising Sun!
Suresh draws constantly in softcover sketchbooks he carries round with him, then slips into areas more closely patrolled by the police to spray walls with the most elaborate, intricate and gorgeous graffiti they're ever likely to see. Albeit a bit bruised, he's rescued from arrest by Jay, using Mario's drug money to bribe the inspector, who asks why Suresh does it when "half the chawl would love to have you paint something on their walls".
"I guess I just like the idea of being somewhere I'm not meant to be. Like sneaking into someone else's world and leaving a mark."
Back home, his mother's cooking dinner, greets him tenderly but adds ominously...
"And Suresh? Your father's home."
It starts of quite well, his father stuffing his smoke in his mouth to inspect his son's sketchbook.
"Mm-hmm. >snf< These are pretty good. You're getting better, eh?"
He tries to pour himself another drink, but the bottle is empty so he tosses it out of the window, into the garbage-bobbing waters below.
"You know something, son?
"Nothing is made here, in this place, not anymore. Everything is manufactured. Everything is bought and sold, you understand?"
It's then that he utters the opening quotation, squeezing both Suresh's cheeks together with a single powerful hand. It's then that he does something awful.
Suresh's face is a malleable joy. On the third page in, artist Radhakrishnan lends him all the power of deep concentration and creative consideration as he eyes what's on the wall already and contemplates what best to add and how. His deep, dark eyes are smoothly, deliciously hooded as hair falls over and on either side, while his top teeth pull his lower lip up and into his mouth. He's a handsome young lad, and I love his multiple-holster belt, criss-crossed round his waist full of different coloured spray cans.
Jay, meanwhile, bursts blithely into the inspector's office with greasy hair curling from under his backwards-on baseball cap, three pale plasters comically covering bits of his swarthy, unshaven face. They won't seem so funny soon.
As to those streets, they're exquisitely realised with an astonishing sense of three-dimensional, architectural space which almost paradoxically allows their cluttered confines to be rendered in full. A large, four-fifths panel looks down on a multi-tiered veranda, vibrant in floral colour and festooned with rope-suspended red lanterns. It's populated by residents all perfectly proportioned to fit comfortably within the walks with room to spare, one hanging out the washing, another sitting to read a paper, while others hang or lean lazily over the railings to watch young Suresh being chased down a shop- and vendor-crowded alley by the inspector who's just had his pride pricked and authority challenged.
That shanty-town slum is hardly lacking in draped detail, either, as seagulls circle up above. The light throughout is exceedingly well regulated to generate heat (Anand Radhakrishnan.is joined by Jason Wordie and Irma Kniivila on colours), and there's one nocturnal moment of terrifying power when Mario's eyes go blank with barely controlled rage, his skin behind glasses glowing a vivid, expressionistic orange, while spittle froths rabidly from his mouth. It is now that those plasters really aren't funny.
It's so tightly plotted. For example, poor Jay's kind deed to Chasma in taking away the free wrap of speed or cocaine which Mario attempts to addict him with... well... you'll see.
Chasma is writing letters. Initially, I infer, they're to his sister Mary back home in Manipur, partly to impart news of his updated circumstances but mostly for the love of writing letters. He likes letters.
"Someone took the pain and the time to make words and put them on paper. There's an endeavour to put down thoughts that have had time to linger."
To linger and thereby percolate: some things are important but now largely lost.
"And then, so many people passed the letters amongst each other to make sure it got to the person it was meant for."
Chasma's quite the romantic, writing to letters to everyone, anyone and no one in particular, then handing them out, even to strangers. Suresh liked his, Jay can't read, and some strangers react very strangely indeed. I like this:
"I left one in the back of a rickshaw in Byculla. It has a short story about a found letter."
The book bursts with the spirit of place, and the script is lovingly peppered with local language (some of it surprisingly spicy and therefore also surprisingly commonplace - I looked it up!) and it's worth noting, on the authenticity front, that writer Ram V grew up in Mumbai and artist Radhakrishnan still lives and works there. It's one of the tightest, richest reads of the year, about four people who are "in love with the promise of things to come... not yet resigned to things as they were".
At one point Jay protests:
"No... Because I have dreams. And they're not for sale."
Each chapter concludes with a full-page portrait of Suresh's titular, remnant piece of free-standing wall which he discovered on his own turf amongst so much rubble - the sort of thing you'd find in a war zone. It's increasingly embellished during the intermittent pages, in turns, to pay tribute to his three friends. The celebration of Jay as a master MC, decked out in the finest Day-Glo hoodie etc is particularly poignant given Jay's plight at precisely that point, but the epilogue's startlingly unexpected conclusion is so profoundly moving that it brought a choke to my throat, then made my heart soar.
That's what the best dreams do: they make your heart soar. And it's one of the very best feelings that a graphic novel can leave you with.