Discovering Mr Barkotoki

SHISIR BASUMATARI talks to Teresa Rehman about his graphic novel “The Real Mr Barkotoki”

What made you conceptualise this graphic novel?

Munin Barkotoki’s daughter approached me a couple of years ago. She wanted me to try and decipher the handwritten diaries of her father. Her father had a terrible handwriting and things did not go too far with the diaries. But whatever I could decipher, were very intense and interesting. Therefore, a decision was taken to use these diary entries and make them accessible to readers. But the information from the diaries was incoherent, disjointed and scattered. An attempt was made to write a film script to present the life of Barkotoki. But that did not happen because I felt that a cinema needed action to hold together, while the diaries were mostly his thoughts. The idea to write a biography met a similar fate. Eventually I felt that a graphic novel might be an ideal medium to pack in information in the form of newspaper clips, letters and diary entries without getting too dull.  A graphic novel also escaped the limitations of a conventional biography, allowing me to bring in fiction to move the story forward without compromising on the facts around the life and events of the real Barkotoki.

How many years did it take you to turn it into a reality?

Reading the diaries, letters and books and articles on Munin Barkotoki took atleast two years. Another year when dabbling between a film script and a biography. The graphic novel took another four years to take its present shape. It took around six years in total.

What kind of challenges did you face while making this novel?

The biggest challenge with writing a graphic novel was to decide on a style.  While it might be not too difficult to draw out a single page; it only becomes tricky to sustain a stylistic uniformity for the entire length of a graphic novel, running into hundreds of pages. I was inspired by the style elements of the graphic novel, “Palestine,” by Joe Sacco.   

How easy or difficult was it for you to delve into the world of Munin Barkotoki?

Having access to the personal diaries helped me connect with the world of Munin Barkotoki. I had access to his most personal thoughts and daily habits. Without access to the diaries and the letters, it might have been very difficult to do so, as I had never met him in person, while he still alive. The other element that helped me delve into his world was the well-preserved articles and books on Munin Barkotoki, most of which had been brought out by the Munin Barkotoki Memorial Trust.

How the novel reflect his love for music and books?

I had come to understand about Munin Barkotoki’s love for music and books. But The Real Mr. Barkotoki mainly deals with his love for books, as is evident when his lifelong friend Krishna Bhuyan tells that, “Literature, music and patriotism were Munin’s favourites, but his first love was acquisition of knowledge. So, when we were out in the streets seeking fun…Munin would retire into the privacy of the Curzon hall library and read for hours late into the night.

Munin Barkotoki was also a literary critic. Is it inherent in the novel?

The element of literary criticism is what helped me in binding the story together. This aspect of his life surfaces and resurfaces throughout the novel.  For instance, in this book, I have presented an article by Nalinidhar Bhattacharjee where he writes, “The chief basis of his criticism is his vast expanse of knowledge and therefore his stance was both courageous and neutral. In the field of criticism, Munin Barkotoki is the connecting link between the Romantic and the Modern.” In another part of the book, it is Munin Barkotoki’s critical essay on Arun Sarma’s play Nibaran Bhattacharya that aids in moving the story forward.

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman is an award-winning journalist based in Northeast India. She had worked with India Today magazine, The Telegraph and Tehelka. She is now the Managing Editor of The Thumb Print. She has been awarded the WASH Media Awards 2009-2010. She had recieved the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for two consecutive years (2008-09 and 2009-10) for the category 'Reporting on J&K and the Northeast (Print). She received the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity 2011, Sanskriti Award 2009 for Excellence in Journalism and the Seventh Sarojini Naidu Prize 2007 for Best Reporting on Panchayati Raj by The Hunger Project. She was also featured in the Power List of Femina magazine in 2012. Her two book are 'The Mothers of Manipur' (Zubaan Books) and Bulletproof (Penguin).