Page 45 Review by Stephen
Dont dream so much, its painful to watch.
Four chapters on the thwarting of artistic ambition. Dreams can be dashed by circumstance, happenstance or even intentional often parental intervention and these specific streets of Mumbai - although teeming with life, energy and colour - are far from conducive to seeing them come to fruition.
Theyre 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 wont be), and there is the pressure on the young from older generations to jettison lofty, artistic aspirations 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 ones 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 wont 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 hes forced to wear a bandana featuring 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 theyre ever likely to see. Albeit a bit bruised, hes rescued from arrest by Jay, using Marios 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 Im not meant to be. Like sneaking into someone elses world and leaving a mark.
Back home, his mothers cooking dinner, greets him tenderly but adds ominously...
And Suresh? Your fathers home.
It starts of quite well, his father stuffing his smoke in his mouth to inspect his sons sketchbook.
Mm-hmm. >snf< These are pretty good. Youre 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?
Its then that he utters the opening quotation, squeezing both Sureshs cheeks together with a single powerful hand. Its then that he does something awful.
Sureshs 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 whats 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. Hes 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 inspectors office with greasy hair curling from under his backwards-on baseball cap, three pale plasters comically covering bits of his swarthy, unshaven face. They wont seem so funny soon.
As to those streets, theyre 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. Its 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 whos 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 theres one nocturnal moment of terrifying power when Marios 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 arent funny.
Its so tightly plotted. For example, poor Jays kind deed to Chasma in taking away the free wrap of speed or cocaine which Mario attempts to addict him with... well... youll see.
Chasma is writing letters. Initially, I infer, theyre 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. Theres 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.
Chasmas 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 cant 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 its worth noting, on the authenticity front, that writer Ram V grew up in Mumbai and artist Radhakrishnan still lives and works there. Its 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 theyre not for sale.
Each chapter concludes with a full-page portrait of Sureshs titular, remnant piece of free-standing wall which he discovered on his own turf amongst so much rubble the sort of thing youd find in a war zone. Its 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 Jays plight at precisely that point, but the epilogues startlingly unexpected conclusion is so profoundly moving that it brought a choke to my throat, then made my heart soar.
Thats what the best dreams do: they make your heart soar. And its one of the very best feelings that a graphic novel can leave you with.