Babycha’s wager

Published : Mar 07, 2024 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

A panel from The Pig Flip.

A panel from The Pig Flip. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Joshy Benedict’s immersive visual storytelling strategy is propelled by handmade watercolours drawn with the patience of a cathedral-builder.

Some years ago, at the film appreciation course at Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, we watched one of the slow-moving but richly realised rural dramas by the renowned filmmaker G. Aravindan. In the discussion that followed, one of my classmates called Aravindan a “painterly” filmmaker. I was reminded of this while reading The Pig Flip, a graphic novel by Joshy Benedict. In a hamlet in Kerala, we meet a youngish man named Babycha, who is addicted to gambling, to “spot flip” in particular, which, according to him, is the “king of all card games”. He and the village gamblers gather past midnight on a haunted island to try their luck in all-night sessions.

The Pig Flip
Written and illustrated by Joshy Benedict, translated by K.K. Muralidharan
HarperCollins India
Pages: 120
Price: Rs.499

Parallel to this desire to make it big, Babycha also woos the moon-faced Paulikutty from the “upper hills”. The naive Paulikutty does not know what she is getting into when she accepts the courtship of a compulsive gambler; as Babycha says “in the throes of romance, all my deeds seemed good, and all my words sounded wise to her”. His own family has its doubts, and the marriage is agreed upon only after Babycha’s mother extracts a promise that he has given up gambling and reformed his ways. Once the initial marital bliss wears off, the feverish rush to gamble takes hold of him again. And he ends up in hock to the slimy moneylender, Money-thommi.

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Soon he is pawning Paulikutty’s jewellery and stealing her cash to feed his habit. Their relationship comes under severe strain as he lies and compulsively gambles. In an attempt to pay off his mounting debts, he starts a pig farm with the help of his brother-in-law, Tommychettan. But no amount of honest toil can douse his itch to try again, to flip the cards one last time. Paulikutty makes a barbed joke that he has given up “spot flipping” to take up “pig flipping”, and this sets off the resentful Babycha on a course of action that forms the spine of the narration. This precis obscures what Benedict is after: to carve out the small moments in life, the ones you go back to again and again, when you cannot sleep at night.

Hypnotic rush

Addiction is not unfamiliar to Indian audiences. It is at the heart of the longest epic, with Yudhishthira sinking into the gambler’s eternal sentiment: one last try to recoup the losses. In the fourfold division of Time, our present degenerate age is Kali, named after the fourth and worst throw of the dice. Too well we know the probabilistic ways of the gods, conferring ruin or fame with each spin.

“Benedict eschews the normal digital workflow. Instead, each page is hand-drawn and coloured, with Photoshop used only at the end of the process for the panelling.”

Benedict conveys this hypnotic rush through a highly effective visual storytelling strategy, which is driven forward by his verdant watercolours. Like any fan of the “9th Art” (comics), I read the book twice, first just to look at the parade of images, and only then in the normal manner, to absorb the balance of text and pictures. Benedict shows a particular cast of the face with a few deft lines, and then sets them against a lushly detailed background. This produces an immersive experience as we sink into the narrative.

A panel from The Pig Flip.

A panel from The Pig Flip. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The usual apparatus of speech balloons and thought bubbles gives way to an innovative arrangement, a kind of “libretto comics”, where Benedict places the text in the white spaces formed at the meeting of panels. This visual storytelling strategy is propelled by the handmade watercolours drawn with the patience of a cathedral-builder. The crease of a lungi, a sunset filtered by coconut fronds, the distinct yellow of a rain-fed river, the blue of a husband-and-wife fight in a darkened bedroom—all are rendered perfectly through his brush.

But Benedict reserves his greatest attention for the natural world. The ambiguous location of the village, in the foothills of the Western Ghats, somewhere between settled agriculture and wild growth, mirrors the elusive narrator, who is shifty and unsure of everything, including himself. As a confrontation with his brother-in-law brews, Babycha says he “experienced the same anxiety you feel just before you see the card you’ve been dealt”. A pulse of suppressed rage constantly runs below the surface, threatening to break out.

Cover of The Pig Flip

Cover of The Pig Flip | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Bravura sequences

Beyond this human drama, however, the character and the artist return time and time again to the island where the gamblers try their luck. It is “a piece of land that has drifted away from their world” and “stands fermenting in the acidic smell of fallen, rotting, cashew fruit”. Benedict shows his chops in a bravura sequence of painstakingly observed panels of dappled foliage, where you can almost feel the wind soughing through the trees. It brought to mind the French philosopher Michel Serres’ exhortation to listen to “the language of the world, emitted, received, stored, processed by all things, inert, living, social, you and me included”.

Benedict also eschews the normal digital workflow. Instead, each page is hand-drawn and coloured, with Photoshop used only at the end of the process for the panelling. First published online as Pannimalath in Malayalam in 2015, The Pig Flip failed to find a publisher. After a growing clamour on social media, Benedict self-published it as print on demand. Now with K.K. Muralidharan’s seamless translation, the book is out in English and will hopefully reach a wider audience.

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Benedict calls his works “village stories”; while there are traces of the influence of bande dessinée, his is very much a distinct, individual style. The best part is that there is apparently more of his works awaiting translation; this promises a feast for the graphic novel fan in the years to come.

Jaideep Unudurti is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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