There is a moment in all our childhoods that we want to remember, cherish and hold on to, especially when the going gets rough. For artist Anpu Varkey, that is the time she spent with her brother in their ancestral village in Kerala during school holidays. And some those memories, pristine yet elegiac, come alive in her latest graphic novel, Summer's Children.
Varkey describes the work as a silent graphic book, though there are stray words, or rather onomatopoeic sounds, strewn here and there, all along. The "kaw kaw" of birds, the "tchkk" with which an axe plunges into ripe jackfruit, the "pak pak" of chickens, or the "krr krr" of beetles are some of the noises that make up the soundtrack to the action.
The story, as such, is fairly simple. Varkey depicts the progression of a day spent in the wilderness of rural Kerala. The dense foliage, the flora and fauna, and the children's boundless sense of wonder bind the hours together. The artwork may look black and white from a distance but it actually has shades of grey and blue, tinges of brown too, rendered with dual felt-tip pens in the style of pointillism made famous by the French artist Georges Seurat. The effect is of the graininess of aged photographs, bringing in a rush of nostalgia.
Varkey began her career thinking she would be an introverted canvas artist, but life had other plans. She spent two years in Germany, where the vibrant public art culture left a lasting impression on her. Back in India (she lived in Delhi for some years and is currently based in Bengaluru), Varkey began to explore street art as a medium, travelling all over the country to paint stunning murals.
Then, in 2012, iconic American cartoonist Robert Crumb came to Comic Con India. For Varkey, meeting this legend was a transformative experience. It set her mind in other directions, away from the expansive canvas of street art. In 2014, she created her first comic book, Jaba, based on close studies of her cat around her home, and published in a limited edition by herself. Nearly all the 500 copies she printed were sold off quickly, mostly through word of mouth.
It has taken Varkey two years to create Summer's Children, even though the story was always there within her. "You have a story, and yet you don't know how to tell it," she says. Then, reading and re-reading Arundhati Roy's iconic first novel The God of Small Things, set in the village of Ayemenem in Kerala's Kottayam district, unlocked fresh thoughts about the format.
Like The God of Small Things, at the heart of Summer's Children shimmers the innocence of childhood, but it is also clouded by the anticipation of loss. Varkey shows us the world through tender eyes, under whose gaze even a tiny millipede or a dragonfly appear magnified. The clouds in the sky assume fluid shapes, the fish in the river dance, the chicken run amok, and the day winds up with snacks and a promised shower to cool off the summer heat.
With the waning of light, the creatures who hide in the shadows crawl out and bedtime stories about the stealthy fox, lurking among the hen pen, are told. It's the simulacra of a world that was once intensely real, and still is in parts, but it also isn't. It is this familiar conundrum of loss and gain that Varkey plays with through her imagery. What once seemed timeless and imperishable remains so only in the citadel of our memories.
You can buy Summer's Children on https://anpuvarkey.com/summers-children/