I have a complicated relationship with the gulab jamun. Actually, scratch that—I love them too damn much and while that’s unfortunate, I don’t know if it’s technically a complication. What I do know is that I weighed more at 15 than I do now, at 31, and this was almost entirely due to my lack of impulse control around the once and future king of Indian sweets. For the teenaged me, micro-waved gulab jamuns might as well have been sold in little plastic baggies, with names like ‘atom bomb’ and ‘WMD’.
This is why I instantly identified with the little boy at the heart of Varun Grover and Ankit Kapoor’s graphic novella Karejwa—in thirty minutes, the world is going to end, and Pintoo is worried about eating one last gulab jamun, Varanasi’s famed ‘karejwa’ (from Pandeypur), supposed to be super-soft and juicy like a liver. Based on a Hindi short story (of the same name) Grover wrote for the Bhopal-based children’s monthly Chakmak in 2015, Karejwa has been edited by the comics writer/artist Sumit Kumar (Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari) and hosted on Kumar’s website Bakarmax, in Hindi, English and Hinglish versions. The story follows Pintoo across the last half-hour on our planet (a ‘death star’ named ITR-688 is going to crash into Earth), even as Varanasi and the rest of the world deal with the apocalypse in their own ways.
As narrative prompts go, an apocalypse is a pretty good ‘constraint’ to work with—it’s like a petri-dish scenario, a high-school physics problem where the earth’s gravity suddenly shrinks to half its usual value. An apocalypse re-routes people to a kind of hardwired ‘default setting’, wherein they focus only on what’s closest to their hearts. This is why apocalyptic stories often feature offbeat/atypical protagonists. The idea is to make the ‘default setting’ whimsical, at least in the eyes of the Everyman characters around them (their contrasting reactions to impending doom hit harder this way). Like Lars Von Trier’s masterful film Melancholia, where the clinically depressed protagonist (Kirsten Dunst) is the only character who handles the prospect of an imminent apocalypse like an adult.
Karejwa does something similar with Pintoo’s story arc—at the beginning of the story, the child’s last wish (to eat one last karejwa) feels naïve at best. But by the end, when you’ve seen how the alleged adults of the world are spending their last hours, we’re forced to re-assess everything we assumed about Pintoo’s choice.
This is apparent, among other things, in the way Kapoor has caricatured the current Indian media ecosystem—one of the areas where the graphic novella expands upon the original story. In the story, Grover had made generic fun of TV anchors who’re high on decibels and low on common sense. In the comics version, Kapoor delivers superb caricatures of both Deepak Chaurasia (in his infamous ‘space suit’ avatar from September 2019) and Sudhir Chaudhary, inspired by their most recent shenanigans. Chaurasia looks as absurdly funny here as he did in his tinfoil Chandrayan segment. And I still can’t get the cartoon Sudhir’s smirk out of my head, there’s a chance it might haunt me like Pennywise the clown—that right there is good, solid comics art.
Also, the Chaurasia panel is (very lightly) animated, complete with a scrolling marquee at the bottom of the screen, delivering hilarious breaking news snippets such as “Antilla leaves Earth, Modi-Shah suspected to be on it” and “Elon Musk reaches halfway to Mars, says humanity not over yet”. Ask yourself: are these things really as far-fetched as they appear at first glance? Since Grover wrote this story in 2015, Zee News (caricatured here as, well, Pee News) has <checks notes> claimed that some Indian currency notes have embedded “nano GPS” (sic) technology. Who’s to say where realism ends and where poetic license begins, then?
As the appointed hour grows near, Grover and Kapoor pile absurdity upon absurdity. There’s a sudden, irresistible surge in violent crime. A different section of Varanasi starts chanting ‘har har Mahadev’ en masse, ignoring the fact that “parlay toh Shivji ka mukhya portfolio hai” (apocalypse is Lord Shiva’s main job). Netflix and Hotstar air a show simultaneously with Doordarshan—it’s an ‘explainer’ show about ITR 688, the star that’s about to hit Earth. This segment, about three-quarters of the way in, features some particularly impressive black humour.
Finally, Grover and Kapoor have also tweaked the ending of the original story—they don’t really alter the facts, it’s more of a refining process, tonally speaking. The final few panels are a great example of the things that comics do as a medium—things that are difficult to replicate in any other medium. The visual convergence of the karejwa and ITR 688, the way the lighting gradually changes with the star’s progress towards Earth… it’s all rather impressive, considering the artist (Kapoor) is just 23 years old.
And as for Grover, Karejwa is actually his second comics work, the first being the Nagpuri-language Biksu, illustrated in the Madhubani style by designer Raj Kumari (who also happens to be married to Grover). Both Biksu and Karejwa are children’s literature, or at least they were marketed that way, with little boys narrating the stories. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re an adult reader with discerning taste, I urge you to read both of these excellent books—from the mouths of babes we shall learn the essential truths of these ‘end times’.