A diary deciphering project ends up scripting graphic noir on elusive Assamese litterateur

Tora Agarwala
The jacket of 'The Real Mr Barkotoki', published by Speaking Tiger Books, a graphic noir by Shisir Basumatari, set in Guwahati of the 1980s.

The termites hadn’t gotten to them yet — 17 diaries of varying sizes, yellowed, tattered and comprising entries between the years 1980 and 1993. Its author, one of Assam’s most elusive writers, had died that year, and his daughter knew the diaries, written one page to a day, could potentially hold many answers. But there was a hurdle: the handwriting was simply incomprehensible.

And this is what got Meenaxi Barkotoki on a quest to decipher the many diaries of her late father, the iconoclast Munin Barkotoki (1915-1993), famous for his contribution to Assamese literature as for his indecipherable handwriting.

“We tried. We really tried. We got them (the diaries) magnified, we made photocopies. But there was just no way to read them,” says Meenaxi, an anthropologist based in Germany, “My father would write one page every day in his tiny handwriting. While we lost a chunk of them to termites, those that were written in the later stages of his life, from 1980s till his death in 1993, were equally important. He was never writing about his personal life but about the social history of what was happening in Assam at the time.”

Sometime in 2012, Meenaxi was referred to Shisir Basumatari, a thirty something who “likes to experiment” with the arts, be it photography or body painting. For a fee, Basumatari, based in Dudhnoi, a small town in Assam’s Goalpara district, was tasked with transcribing the illegible diary entries of Barkotoki, written in English. A couple of years passed before the young man, too, realised that he couldn’t understand most of it.

A page from the diary of Assamese writer Munin Barkotoki.

“Yet there was a lot of (fragmented) information that came to light about his (Barkotoki’s) thoughts, fears and impressions about life in the eighties,” says Basumatari.

And that had him fascinated. “I invested years on it. From whatever I could read of the transcript, I realised I had a very interesting character, who spent his life reading, thinking, and questioning. There were things about him that was not everyday, things that needed to be told,” says Basumatari. For example, his literary activism during the British rule, his walk to the District Library at exactly the same time every day, and of course, his notorious handwriting — one that triggered many articles about it in local newspapers. “Reading the handwriting became a story in itself. I started researching on kinds of handwriting online. I read how handwriting deteriorates with age and mental condition,” says Basumatari.

The diaries initially inspired  Basumatari to make a film, which then turned into a novel, and finally a graphic novel, almost seven years after Meenaxi had rung him up. The Real Mr Barkotoki, published by Speaking Tiger Books, is a 174-paged English noir novel, that journeys across time and space to unearth the life of Barkotoki. In the book, part-fiction, part-biographical, a young man teams up with his shrink and a friend in search for the subject of his recurrent disturbing dreams: a mysterious author who has terrible handwriting. 

The author Shisir Basumatari is based in Dudhnoi, Assam.

“The focus was not to create fiction but to string together the fragmented pieces of information on Barkotoki’s life and find an art style that I could sustain for the length of an entire book,” writes Basumatari in the book’s ‘acknowledgements’ section, adding that he was inspired by Joe Sacco’s Palestine, a non-fiction graphic novel set in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip between December 1991 and January 1992.

A spread from the 'The Real Mr Barkotoki'.

The Real Mr Barkotoki is primarily set in Guwahati of the 1980s and also weaves in characters and incidents from Basumatari’s own life thus making the book not strictly biographical.

“I find Shisir very similar to my father — and many times, I never thought this project would materialise,” says Meenaxi, “But I also knew that if it was completed, it would be really good too because Shisir, like my father, had very high standards.”

And those who know Barkotoki would agree. Born in Jorhat in 1915, Barkotoki spent most of his life in Guwahati working as a journalist, a theatre critic, while officially working in the Publicity Department, Government of Assam, and as an Information Officer in the Press Information Bureau, Government of India, before retiring as the News Editor of All India Radio in 1970. “He kept to himself and his world of books and set unrealistically high standards for himself. He would write something, and then throw it into the bin, saying it wasn’t ‘good enough’,” says Meenaxi. Perhaps that is the reason his literary output was sparse, with only one book — Bismrita Byatikram — published during his lifetime. It went on to win him the coveted Assam Publication Board Award in 1983.

According to information on his official website, Barkotoki suffered from depression and insomnia towards the end of his life. His diaries, too, reflect this. “In those, he talks more about death and loneliness and it was a very dark transcript. So that is why I did my book in a graphic format. To balance it out, and give it a comical element,” says Basumatari.

The English book has also been translated into Assamese by Sabita Lahkar and edited by Stuti Goswami, and is awaiting publication.

Munin Barkotoki, one of Assam's most important literary writers, on whom the book is based. Photo Courtesy: www.muninbarkotoki.org

“The book has transcended my father. It can be read by itself, as a work of fiction — the reader does not have to know who Munin Barkotoki is to enjoy it, says Meenaxi, “And that is a good thing. My father would have been very embarrassed if we came up with a biography on him. ‘What is the need for it’ he would say.”