Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mara and the Clay Cows

Mara and the Clay Cows
 Art and Story: Parismita Singh
Ages 8 to 12

Mara and the Clay Cows combines two things that Indian publishing still doesn’t see enough of – one, an original graphic narrative (as opposed to the innumerable graphic retellings of classics/popular international series and  TV series spinoffs currently weighing down the shelves at a bookstore near you),  and two, a story set in the North- eastern regions of the country.  Drawing from a Tanghkul Naga folktale, it tells the story of Mara, a young orphan with strange powers. Lonely and friendless, Mara fashions himself a couple of cows out of clay, only to have them come magically to life.  The cows, Rocky and Areiwon, are chatty and wise, and help Mara set out on a quest to discover himself and the purpose of his powers . Before long, he meets Shiroi,  who agrees to take Mara to meet her teacher, the Chief Magician, in return for a small favour.   But before he can find the magician, Mara is assigned a series of chores by a strange old woman who lives on a floating rock (‘Avatar’, anyone?). Are these merely chores, or tests of some kind? Will Mara ever meet the Chief Magician? And what exactly is Mara’s destiny?

Author and illustrator Parismita Singh has a very distinctive style of drawing I have enjoyed in her earlier work – ‘The Hotel at the End of the World’, an acclaimed graphic novel that came out in 2009, ‘Joro’ (a comic serialized for a while in a Tamil newspaper supplement) and her contribution to the ‘Pao Anthology of Comics’.   In Mara.., the author moves from dramatic black and white art to softer pencil colour illustrations. I enjoyed the textured art; however,  handwritten text might have been a better choice to the rather cold font used throughout the book.   

Mara… moves along at a brisk pace, and is easily read in a single sitting. The panels in which the illustrations are set are played with in innovative ways, making the first half of the book very dynamic – tight insets, artwork occasionally seeping to the corners of the page, and lovingly depicting the region’s hilly terrain. The book is driven almost entirely by dialogue, and I enjoyed the way subtle shades to a character are revealed entirely through the banter between its human and magical characters.  The author has a good ear for background noise, and some entertaining Aiees, Mhrruus, Hhhnnngguus and Shweesh’s punctuate the narrative.  

The mild, open- ended finale  might leave some readers a little dissatisfied – I know I was expecting the book to end with more drama. But Mara.. is a layered story and I found myself discovering facets to the book long after I had finished it. It is, of course, a story of magic and adventure, and a child’s quest for family. It also humorously questions  gender stereotypes, asserts the need for non violence and environmental preservation – oh, and reminds you never to underestimate  the powers of a really good burp as well.   I found myself smiling at the way  the book’s main characters , despite being powerful magicians, nonetheless  keep it real – the greatest of sorcerers must still  finish their household chores the hard way (unlike Mrs. Weasley’s  enchanted dishwashing brush) , and flying girls walk when the weather turns. And even young boys  on the threshold of a bright, magical future must first go home and make sure the cows are secure.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. The views expressed here, however, are my own.

Image courtesy

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