A saga about the male ego

Joshy Benedict’s The Pig Flip is an ode to the idyllic Kerala life, its blushes and blemishes unmasked
unmasked.
unmasked.

KOCHI: You must read The Pig Flip at least thrice. First, to blitz through the pages and enjoy the story. Second, as graphic novels mandate, to pay close attention to the illustrations, which augment the story by telling the reader more than what the text does. Third, and this is perhaps what distinguishes the work from others, to appreciate the marriage between the text and the illustrations to render this story as one quintessentially rooted in Kerala, and the work, hailed as a significant milestone in Indian graphic novels.

The story is not unfamiliar — at its core, it’s about gambling addiction. The protagonist Babychan can’t help but sneak away most nights to an abandoned island to play ‘panni malarthu’ [pig-flip], a popular card game in Kerala, with fellow no-do-gooders.

It’s likely you know a similar character in your surroundings. However, readers are careful to not dismiss Babychan as a social reject just yet. Under Joshy’s draftsmanship, we glimpse redeeming qualities in him. We know the perils that seem to cling onto him are only circumstantial.

Also, unlike regular depictions of gambling, the illustrations of games don’t hint at perversity or profligacy. Interestingly, they take on spiritual dimensions of sorts with these elements: the sanctuary of darkness punctuated by golden light, the waning candle, the putrid scent of rotting cashews, unsaid prayers and profound hope for a good hand.

What’s also evident early on is that there’s a defiance to Joshy’s work, in not sticking to the norm. Perhaps this is illustrated best in how each frame seamlessly blends into the next (physically and metaphysically), offering the reader an uninterrupted experience.

For example, a tree in one frame branches out to offer a canopy in another. The ripples of water hover over the face in a frame underneath to convey the frantic state of a character’s mind.

It’s noteworthy how each frame feels fresh and original. Each offers a different perspective. It is as if a cinematographer is moving their lens about and telling the story in ways that the reader had not envisioned it could be told.

Perhaps it is an unfamiliarity with the norm that has helped the artist achieve this, as Joshy tells TNIE that he was introduced to graphic novels quite late into his career. However, his rich experience with colours is on display aplenty in the work.

The colours, too, play a pivotal role in portraying the story and also unfolding an idyllic village. One frame in particular is noteworthy — a bird’s eye view of the island. In a smattering of yellow and green, Joshy seems to have effortlessly conveyed the intensity of the monsoon.

To continue the story: we are then introduced to Paulikutty, Babychan’s better half, who is quietly tolerant of her husband’s self-indulgence with the cards. However, his mother is not quite so, admonishing him for his wayward lifestyle.

In a quick flashback, we are introduced to a young Babychan being lambasted by his father for the same. “He belongs in a pigsty,” the elder said of his son.

Here, Joshy’s draftsmanship once again comes to the fore. The mention of the father is accompanied by a single, siloed illustration of a traditional armchair, followed by a hand resting on its handle.

We can immediately gauge the social dynamics of the house and our presumptions are immediately rewarded: the father is at one end of the verandah while the mother and her daughters huddle at the far end, the son between them and looking away as they discuss his life.

K K Muralidharan, who translated the work to English, has abandoned the rigid English syntax to make the dialogues read ‘Malayalam’. Also, the text used is very economical. The dialogue boxes, too, are also not in your face; instead melding seamlessly into the background.

Though Babychan had promised to give up gambling then, he finds it, as one can imagine, challenging. Even more so when he is lured in by local thugs, Money-Thommi in particular. It is incredible how easily a character’s quirks are reflected by their name. Joshy tells TNIE that portions of these are derived from faces he sees or has seen in his life and surroundings. Their caricatures, too, are emblematic of these quirks, and each character is easily distinguishable even amidst crowds.

The story is fairly simple — when Babychan’s gambling is at its height and when it is clear that Money-Thommi will snatch his property, Paulikutty and his mother devise a plan: to send him away to the hills, to stay with his in-laws for a while. Here, we are introduced to Tommy, Paulikutty’s brother, a get-stuff-done guy who made life easier for himself and his family by raising pigs. Babychan is also encouraged to start a pig farm.

Though our protagonist is aghast at the very idea, we see the same church-like golden glow (this time, of dawn) soaking him, thus hinting at a change on the horizon. Two pages later, Babychan’s pig farm is complete, and the illustration that accompanies takes up an entire page.

This is interesting, given how the pages that narrate the portions where his gambling problem got out of hand have a certain ‘hurriedness’ to them. There are no white spaces, and invariably, no space to think even, possibly reflecting Babychan’s state of mind.

However, addiction is, as we know, not an easy thing to overcome. Soon, backhanded insults from Paulikutty on how she has ‘tamed’ the husband, his mother’s growing reverence of Tommy (which comes at the cost of Babychan being overlooked), and his father’s words (that he belongs in a pigsty) has our protagonist slinking back to his old ways.

However, this time, he is put to the stake by Tommy, who had spent money and days to reform his brother-in-law. The ensuing tussle between the two ultimately reduces Babychan in this saga of the male ego.

The story does not end here. Well, on the pages it does. But we are not certain if Babychan will change his ways. There are signs that he might. But how can we be sure? Like this vagueness, the illustrations, too, have a ‘slippery-ness’ to them. “I wanted the readers to fill in the blanks,” Joshy tells TNIE.

The Pig Flip is a tremendous work that teaches us as much about gambling and Kerala settings as it does about how to write a good story and create a graphic novel. A must-read, and must-have at every artist’s home.

STRONG POINT

Observe closely how Joshy has drawn hands and legs (reportedly the most difficult of tasks when it comes to drawing) and used them to depict emotions — the quiet fall of Paulikutty’s hand on her husband, the concerned fist of the mother, the lazy way how the father’s hand rests on the armchair, Money-Thommi placing a leg on the verandah to imply he means ‘business’, the flick of the wrist to snuff out the lamp, among others.

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