Not many young people may know now but the Hindi comic book industry was very vibrant during the 1990’s. There were so many titles coming out every month. You had Raj Comics (my favourite), Manoj Comics, Tulsi Comics, Fort Comics, Radha Comics, Diamond Comics and then you had characters like Super Commando Dhruva (my favourite), Najrag, Ram-Rahim, Chacha Choudhary, Abedh, Judo queen Radha, Inspector Crookbond, Hawaldar Bahadur, Bankelal, and many more. And then there were other publications like Rajhans, Chandamama and of course Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle. I can say with pride that I had one of the early issues of Tinkle and a particular story of loan repayment which has always stuck with me. In short, my childhood was filled with comic books.
Not very far from my house was a tiny comic shop. Its owner, a Bengali, would display the comic books clipped to the line outside his counter. Almost every week, I would visit the shop to check for the latest issue brought out; I remember the price going up from ₹ 5 to ₹ 10. Most of them were written in Hindi and it is fair to say that reading those comics have greatly improved my command over the language. I fondly remember and I am proud of the fact that back in school, I would be made the monitor in every Hindi classes. As time went by the comics became rare. I could still get Tinkle but not the superhero comics which I really craved for. It was only many years later that I came to know of the collapse of the Hindi comic book industry with many publications forced to shut down. The reasons were many, but among them was the decline in quality over time. Because of the high demand, compromises were made in terms of story and art, and that proved to be the death knell for Hindi comics. The only title which still comes out regularly albeit on a smaller scale is Raj Comics. My favourite character Dhruva is still around (I used to comb my hair the way he did). I bought one issue few years ago from a train station in Bihar. I think the art work and the paper quality have improved but there is too much text for my liking. I wish that the Hindi comic book industry could make a comeback in a big way. And if it does, they have an avid reader waiting.
Around the same time I had become enamoured by the movies produced by Ghibli Studio. The stories were brilliant and the art works especially, the background done by Kazuo Oga were mesmerizing. Then Iron Man was released and suddenly one can feel comics becoming a big thing again, the Western comic books at least. Around the same time I become friend with Joshua Rynjah, a professor of English from St Mary’s college. Witty and warm hearted Josh had a deep love for all things artistic, whether it was storytelling, poetry or drawings. I didn’t know it in the beginning but he had written an article on a history of Khasi comic books. I was surprised that the comic books in the vernacular had a long history in Meghalaya, since the 1980’s. He had also brought his own graphic novel (actually I like to call it a comic book because I feel graphic novel is a pretentious term), ‘U Sier Lapalang’ which was a beautiful book. We were part of a collective called Kali Kit Kot (KKK) which helped establish community libraries in a couple of locations. Around the same time, I had got back to sketching after a decade. I brought out a few political satires which I really enjoyed. The one on ‘demonetisation’ was my favourite.
Around the same time, I started working on an illustrated book on ‘Ka Nam’. That got me thinking that maybe KKK could have its own publication and we could bring out a series of such books. With another friend from KKK I discussed about the possibility. However, that came to naught. I learned one important lesson during this: if you want to do something you cannot depend or wait for others; you have to fight for your own dreams. However, I did have to wait for circumstances to change before I could embark on my journey to make my dream a reality.
Last year I got back to drawing and I started working on another project; it was about sketching the different sights one encounters around Shillong. I was sketching every alternate day and eagerly look forward to completing the project. For some reason that again got stuck and I again became dormant for a couple of months. Then the pandemic struck and we were all made to work from home. Previously, the long walks during the weekends were my stress buster but weeks of being stuck at home caused my motivation levels to plummet. I got back to sketching and started sharing my sketches on social media. It was then that Lapdiang Syiem came upon my work and suggested that me and her boyfriend, Keshav Pariat, could start a comic strip of our own. Intrigued by the idea I asked Josh for suggestion for the name of the comic strip. He gave many names of which U Jler stuck and that’s how U Jler Comics was born. What U Jler is today is the result of the love and support of Lapdiang and Keshav (the matriarch and patriarch of the initiative).
I took the idea to my close friend Benjamin Syiem, a professional artist. If anyone one of you have bought a souvenir depicting beautiful scenes of the different indigenous groups and sights of Meghalaya, it is his work. If standing outside Secretariat you saw a huge signboard with the drawing of people crossing a living root bridge it’s him. For me, I can say without any hesitation, that Benji is the most versatile and accomplished artist of Shillong. He can work in all mediums and his fundamentals are very strong. Previously, he had worked in the corporate sector on projects like Wrath of the Titans, Little Krishna and designed the concepts for many national and international adverts, one was on Olympics. We had been friends since college days and in many ways he is my inspiration when it comes to art. Benji really liked the idea and though he could not contribute as much as he wanted but he did the layout for the published version of U Jler.
I had a target of completing 60 stories in 6 months after which we will select the best 30 or so stories and publish it in print. We reached our target in 4 months and immediately started working on getting it ready for print. The stories in U Jler are highly varied which shows the diversity of contribution. If the stories are witty and compelling it’s Josh and if it’s sombre and direct it’s me. Some stories were also contributed by Wari Lyngwait, a well wisher, and Janakpreet Singh, a colleague from NESFAS. We intend for U Jler to become a space where we are free to express ourselves so we try to work on all materials and not limiting ourselves to a particular genre. Occasionally, national and international events are also tackled through our works.
“U Jler is khasi word that refers to a person who brags and exaggerates. This is appropriate for a cartoon/ comic sketch as this is exactly what sketches and comics do. They take the ordinary and exaggerate and make it extraordinary. Things that people do not notice, or even ignore receive a special kind of attention when they enter the realm of comics and sketches. Thus, the word U Jler fits appropriately with the sketches. The second element is the use of humor. The humor does not directly depreciate anyone; it simply highlights certain aspects of societies, certain flaws and shortcomings. And finally, the short palatable format the sketches and comics bring is designed for a fast paced world where one cannot spend hours pouring over social treatise or moralizing essay. Instead one can enjoy the quick and straight forward messages that sketches and comics bring. What connects all the sketches together is a shared vision to show the readers the lighter side of life, the lighter side of society but at the same time to educate and create awareness about certain issues and plant a seed of thought, an idea, a doubt that will nudge the reader into asking questions, that will show them a different perspective and thus in the long run help them to look at their world in a different way” (Joshua Rynjah).
On a personal note, I am grateful to have good friends around me who have supported and contributed to this initiative. However, this will not be a onetime initiative. Future projects are in the pipeline and we hope to bring out more publications in the future. Life is too short to make plans but not act upon it. How far U Jler will go, ‘I don’t know.’ But I want to find out and hopefully this initiative will be modest contribution to those pioneers who started the journey of comics in these hills almost 4 decades ago. A long time from now, if someone picks up a copy of U Jler and says that ‘well, they tried their best’, that will be the best compliment for us.