U Jler breaks society’s façade

Do we ever think before snubbing a street vendor for charging Rs 5 extra but happily pay Rs 500 more in an upscale restaurant? Have we thought about the disparity between our children in the city and those living in villages? When one section of the people was enjoying fresh air during the lockdown, did they spare a thought about millions of migrant workers who were walking for miles to reach home?

These are regular events of life which often go unnoticed. For many, this is the natural course of the haves and the have-nots. Those who worry too much, their concerns are shrugged off as foibles. But Bhogtoram Mawroh has his way, short and crisp, through the squalor and hypocrisy of mankind and U Jler Comics is his catharsis.

In the bilingual comic strips (in Khasi and English), Mawroh, a professor at North-Eastern Hill University Shillong, takes up several complicated and controversial issues, breaks them into human elements and rearranges them like a jigsaw puzzle, bringing out the exact picture that everyone misses. He calls it ‘visual rant’.

For instance, in one illustration, a woman addresses the invisible audience on the “most important thing” for Covid-19 prevention. “On the table are items you should not ignore and should not question. They are the most essentials. Khublei Shibun!” Among the items on the table are a mask, a bottle of sanitiser, soap and desk plates of the chief minister and the deputy, and various government officials. The humour is subtle and the message delivered. But one has to be sensitive and smart enough to see the twist.

Another set of two illustrations shows the hypocrisy of city-dwellers. In one picture, a couple admire the pristine beauty of rural Meghalaya. In the other, the same couple chide the “despicable” vendors from villages for occupying the road and not following health protocols.
“There is anger and frustration at how things are, so it is a rant in a way but a contemplative rant at that,” says the author.

In an article published in Raiot, Mawroh had said he got some of the ideas for U Jler, which is the Khasi word for a braggart, from friends and well-wishers.

“Quite a few stories I did it the way they were sent to me. For others, I added my own twist. For example, the story about the difference in how police behave in Shillong and the rest of India. I added a dialogue where the other policemen were goading on the superior officer to hit the common man harder. So in some cases, I add dialogues or add elements like the one on Ram Mandir. I changed the story to show the dilapidated Covid-19 ward after the story of such centres from Mumbai and the monkey from the story stealing samples in Uttar Pradesh. Both these elements were not part of the original story,” says the author and illustrator.

The Ram Mandir-pandemic comic — it shows bhakts chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’, a Covid-19 patient murmuring ‘Hai Ram’ in an ill-equipped hospital cabin and a monkey peeping through the window — is more than a comic strip. It is a political satire in pictorial form that is easy to understand for any individual.

“People don’t have a lot of time to go through long pieces of commentary but a couple of panels with a message is more feasible. There is so much decadence around and quite a lot of people don’t know that it exists. Once people realise it but don’t have to read pages of arguments, it becomes easier to bring about greater awareness and hopefully some desire for change,” Mawroh says about using illustrations to convey crucial messages.

The U Jler initiative started in May this year and the 60 issues of the comic were completed in August. Mawroh says the plan was for two issues a week but it became four a week. Printing took a month and the hard copy was ready by September end. The comic strips have been published by BCD Computers on Keating Road “for free”.

“We published 100 copies and gave them to well-wishers. The next volume will be for sale and we are looking to bring at least one more book before the end of the year,” he adds.
U Jler is the first comic strip in Khasi that has a political facet and comments on controversial socio-economic issues.

“I believe in Marxism and the Communist critique of Capitalism which is not just about the economy but the way how it affects the whole society. I think that is what U Jler is about,” Mawroh says.

The illustrations in the book are clean and the content not just tickles the funny bone but also enlivens readers’ faculties. The cover is a reflection of the thoughts and creativity of the author. The book is a must read, especially for young adults who are still naïve to spot the ‘U Jler’ in the crowd. ~ NM