When Art Spiegelman came out with Maus during the 1980s, his work was considered revolutionary, ground-breaking. A graphic novel serialised from 1980 to 1991, Maus is a compilation of Art’s interview with his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Holocaust survivor, and his own journey of coming to terms with his family’s past.
Using a similar style, London-based author Dr Benjamin Dix and illustrator Lindsay Pollock have come out with Vanni, a graphic novel on the Sri Lankan conflict, focused on the 2009 genocide. The 260-page novel closely follows two Sri Lankan Tamil families torn by war. For the uninitiated, the book begins with a brief history about the country and its conflicts.
The story of Vanni
Benjamin, who was working as a photojournalist in Delhi and Mumbai, was 28 years old when he arrived in Vanni, the mainland in the northern province of Sri Lanka, for the first time in 2004. Vanni covers the entirety of Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya districts, and most of Kilinochchi district. During the war, Vanni was part of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) northern stronghold.
Benjamin was invited by a friend, who was already working in Vanni, to document relief efforts post the 2004 tsunami. He would then go on stay in Vanni for four years, working as Communications Officer with the Norwegian People’s Aid from 2005 to 2006 and as Communications and Liaison Manager with UNOPS between 2007and 2008.
It was during his stay in Vanni, Benjamin writes in the Afterword, that he was inspired to work on a graphic novel. “Whilst spending many hours sitting in a UN bunker in Kilinochchi under air attack from the Sri Lankan Air Force, I read two graphic works: Maus (Art Spiegelman) and Palestine (Joe Sacco) that inspired me to produce something similar about what I was witnessing in Vanni,” he writes.
When Benjamin had no choice but to evacuate in 2008, he shares that he was heartbroken and angered at the failings and hypocrisy of the UN and the international community. Back in London, coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he was finding ways to channel his negative emotions into something positive. That was when he was put in touch with Lindsay Pollock through a mutual friend, a meeting that would slowly culminate in the finished book almost 7 years later.
Vanni tells the story of two families – the Ramachandrans and the Cholagars – through the 2008-2009 battle of Kilinochchi, of unimaginable horrors, at the end of which thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils were killed and the LTTE was forced to surrender. Vanni begins with the devastation of the tsunami of 2004 and from there the story covers the constant displacement, war brutality, hunger and death, told with the help of detailed yet minimal drawings.
Lindsay who had not been to Vanni had to be acquainted with the story, its people and the landscapes. The two then made a field trip to Tamil Nadu in 2012 to observe Tamil culture and interview Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Zurich and London were also interviewed for this book. Frances Harrison’s book Still Counting the Dead and Callum Macrae’s documentary No Fire Zone were useful materials in the making of Vanni.
The story of Vanni therefore was an amalgamation of many threads of experiences drawn from several interviews the two did over a period of time. And there’s always the question of translating bone-chilling events into illustrations. Lindsay, a self-taught artist with a penchant for illustrating animals and children’s stories, shares that he hoped for the “beguiling, friendly appearance of the art” to draw in the reader.
“I wanted them to develop a quick affection for the characters – who have winning smiles and bouncy mannerisms. They are sweet drawings – and in many ways I want it to hurt the reader when brutal things begin to happen to them. Violence should always feel jarring. So I’m clashing terrible violence against relatable and warm aesthetics, to try and emphasise how perverse war and torture are,” he explains.
For scenes of torture, rape and killings, Lindsay used recovered footages. “I tried to be plain. Let the twisted nature of torture speak for itself. I just depicted it blankly,” he shares.
He refers to an especially brutal and difficult to digest scene involving rape and murder in the book. “I tried my best to show nothing explicit, and instead to break the whole page into fragments, representing the shattering, out-of-body horror of the scene. Whether I succeeded is for the reader, and particularly for survivors of sexual assault, to judge. For me as an artist this was an exceptionally difficult undertaking,” he tells us.
The heart-breaking charm of Vanni lies in this: As you flee from one camp to another along with the characters, your eyes flitting from one panel to another, eager to know the fate of each one of them, to know if the children ate, to know if their wounds are healing, to find out if the rains stopped, you pause. You take a deep breath and weep when the woman hurriedly hands over her son to the man while crossing a river, at the sign of imminent danger. You turn away from the black botches on the panel, depicting blood, away to the man who sits near the bank, waiting for someone to come asking for the child. Is it possible to depict this agony on paper and make the reader feel torn? Vanni does just that.
Vanni, published by Penguin Random House India, is available at Rs 799.