Omar Khan and Nikhil Gulati in conversation about The People of the Indus.
Omar Khan (OK): We’re sitting here October 21st in Madison, with Nikhil, the author of this wonderful new book The People of the Indus, which by the way, you should know, I’ve just loved reading it, I think it’s so skilled and it’s such a good point of view and scientific and rigorous.
Nikhil Gulati (NG): Thank you so much. That means a lot.
OK: Let’s just start briefly where did you grow up, and where are you from, and where were you educated.
NG: I grew up in Delhi until I was 15, at which point my dad, who worked for the UN, moved our family to the US. I finished two years of high school in the US before pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Maryland. Wanting to stay in college, I then pursued a Master's degree in Computer Science at the University of Texas-Austin, although I wasn't entirely sure it was the field for me. Despite this, I enjoyed certain aspects of it. After two years of working in Austin, I knew I had to return to India. I felt that India was the place where the most exciting things were happening, and there was a lot of potential for new ideas. The economy was booming, and people were experimenting with new things. Although at that time I didn't know that I wanted to tell stories, I was excited to try something innovative in a place where there was a lack of local stories and ideas. That excited me. So I moved back to India.
OK: What year was this?
NG: I moved back in 2010, so about 12 years back. After I moved back I didn’t know what to do. One of the reasons I moved back was because the H1-B visa was very restrictive. You have to stick to a certain type of high-skilled job, but I was looking to experiment. I couldn’t do that in the US, so that was another reason why I left. After I went back in 2010, I didn’t know what to do, so for a year I just traveled, I did also get married at that point, but I traveled, I volunteered, I went to a small village in Rajasthan and lived there for 6 months which was completely different from what I was used to having grown up in a city.
At this point I was wondering what to do with my life. I knew I had a bent towards the creative fields. I had been drawing since I was a kid but I never really pursued it seriously. I would pick it up, draw for a while, then stop for 2 years, then again get excited upon seeing some nice painting or sketch and pick it up again. I remember, as a kid, whenever I saw a pencil sketch that was well done, it would do things to me. I would get moved. And I would wonder how are they doing this, I want to do this. So I would keep going back and forth, keep picking it up, keep giving it up.
I was also really into music. I was starting to learn a lot of music, the guitar, I picked up a few Indian instruments, first I tried a santoor, and in Austin, there was a professor I met, Dr. Slawek, who was teaching Indian classical music.
OK: I love the santoor, it’s fantastic.
NG: Yeah? So I played that for a while. I even gave a performance. But then it had too many strings, and tuning itself would take an hour. Moreover, my teacher was a Sitar player, and there were 6-7 Sitars always sitting there. So I thought let me play the Sitar for a while. Then I met some people in Austin who wanted to perform qawwalis. I remember I was practicing Sitar one day, and there was this tiny room for Indian music, and somebody came in and they started singing a qawwali. I loved qawwalis. So I went and said hello, and they said they were starting a qawwali band, and asked me if I wanted to join. So I joined them. They needed a harmonium player, so I started playing Harmonium. That was really fun, we did that for a year. That group is still going on, it’s called Riyaz Qawwali.
So, I was into all those kinds of things , and when I moved back I was looking for things to do, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I wasn’t sure art or music could be made into a profession. So, like a good Indian kid, I went and did an MBA. (Laughter)
Because throughout my twenties I was waiting for some good work to come to me. I was hoping that something will fall into my lap that will excite me and become my life’s purpose. Even the decision to do an MBA was with that hope. But in the middle of the MBA two things happened. One, I did an internship with one of the most prestigious companies, which paid a lot of money, but I hated the work. I could not see myself working for a company like that.
The second thing that I happened was that I turned 30. I had always thought that by the time I turn 30 my life would be set. I would have everything figured out. I would just be coasting along. And 30 came, and I was totally lost. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. I was not excited by the things I was doing. During my Master’s I had seen people work on things that they were very passionate about. I saw professors of Computer Science, Mathematics, Theoretical Computer Science, and other things, who were so passionate about what they were doing, that I used to get influenced by that, I used to get excited by their passion. I realised that’s how I wanted to work. That’s the level of engagement I wanted with my work. So when I turned 30, I decided I’m just going to go back to my childhood interests. Forget about everything else, I’m going to simplify things , I’m not going to wait around, I’m going to take my own decisions. It doesn’t have to be a passion, it only has to be an interest. I’ll start with that.
I was also very lucky at this time to find a couple of mentors who really changed my life. We can talk about that also later maybe. But because of all that, I then decided to go back to drawing. It was a bit longer story than that. It wasn’t that I suddenly picked up drawing. My journey to comics was a lit bit more windy.
OK: Tell me a bit about the mentors too.
NG: Sure. One of the mentors was one my professors at IIM-Ahmedabad. She was there as a visiting faculty, and she was a triathlon athlete. She was teaching a class on Intellectual Property Rights, but other than that she was also a very successful athlete. She gave a one-off lecture about “excellence”. I was there, and I heard her, and I was very interested. So I wrote to her and said, hey listen I want to come and just hang out and meet with you and talk to you about stuff. At that time I had just turned 30, I was not sure what to do. So I went and hung out with her. And she was around my age, maybe just a couple of years older, so we became friends. She told me something very interesting. She said, if I have to run a marathon, it means I have to practice, I have to run. And if I have to run at 6 in the morning, then I have to run no matter what. If the night before I couldn’t get proper sleep, I still have to go run. If my grandmother died, I still have to run. If it’s raining and it’s cold, I still have to run. That’s one thing. But I said, you know I try to do something, but 5 days later I lose interest, and I give up because I’m struggling. So what should I do about that. She said, don’t set yourself very big goals. Set yourself tiny goals that are achievable. And she said tell me one thing that you want to do. So I said, I want to do the readings before I go to class. She said, then don’t decide that I’m going to do the readings before all the classes, because you’re going to fail at that, and you’re going to beat yourself up about it, so don’t do that. Pick one class and decide that you’re going to do the reading for that one class, and the others just forget about them.
I didn’t apply this to the readings for class but instead I applied it to my drawing. Because I was thinking about starting to draw. I decided I will draw for 5 minutes every day. Five minutes in a day is doable no matter how busy you are. So I started drawing for 5 minutes every day. Within a week it was turning into 10-15 minutes. By the end of the month it was turning into an hour daily. And the interest was only growing. The pressure had been taken away completely, it was relaxed, and so when I started drawing, I got excited about all the things I wanted to learn. For example, I could see my perspective was not good, my faces were wonky, so I could learn how to do those things. I would look up tutorials and read books to learn.
At this point again, no clue I’m going to be making comics. The idea started with my desire to start a mobile library of comics. That was my idea, and this was during a class on entrepreneurship taught by Dr. Anil Gupta. There, I made a presentation about starting a mobile library of comics (as a business). My idea was - it’s going to be a bus with around 500 comics and graphic novels, and it’s going to go around the city. Every day it will visit 3 locations, so in 7 days that would be 20 locations. And every week it will do the same circuit and lend out comic books. That’s how it’ll start, and if it’s successful I’ll just multiply the number of buses.
So I started collecting comic books for the first library. But immediately I discovered that there were only American, Japanese and a few European comics. And nothing else. Not many Indian comics that I felt were good enough, of that high caliber that I would want it in the library. There were a few, but very very few.
So I thought I don’t want to keep telling American and Japanese stories that have been told a million times already. I want to tell new stories. So I decided I will become a publisher. I’ll get writers and artists, I’ll put them together. I’ll give them the ideas and they’ll create the stuff. I’ll pay them and they’ll create the stuff and then we’ll have good comics. Then, I realised the writers will write what they want to write. They’re not going to write the story that I want to write. So then, maybe I’ll write the stories and hire artists. So I spent a few months and wrote the script for a graphic novel. When that was done, I started looking for artists. However, it turned out the artists were very expensive, and I couldn’t afford them. So I was stuck. I didn’t know what to do.
Now, this is when the other mentor shows up. There’s another professor, Sunil Handa, who is himself a big entrepreneur, and he is very heavily involved at IIM-Ahmedabad promoting and encouraging entrepreneurship in general. He encourages people to start their own things and even gives seed money to people. He would say don’t just go and become a cog in the machine in some big company, just do your own thing. It’ll be a struggle for a while, but it will be struggle that you will find fulfilling. And he was very compelling. So I spoke to him about my idea. That year there was a scholarship program that had started at IIM-Ahmedabad for the graduating class where if you chose not to take up a job you could apply for this scholarship. It was a 2-year scholarship where you get a small stipend every month, and for the first six to seven months they wouldn’t even ask you any questions. You could take the time to ideate, to experiment, to do whatever, you can sit at home if you want, they will not ask you a single question, the idea being that eventually you will start something, and you will get a stipend for 2 years. I applied for it, and I got the scholarship, but I chose not to take it, because I chickened out at the last minute, took up a job, and went to Hyderabad.
Eight months into the job, I couldn’t take it anymore. I just got up one day, went to the boss, and I said, listen I can not do this. I quit. Then I called up Professor Handa and I asked him, hey listen, that scholarship that you had given me, can I please have it back. He said, well we don’t have any more scholarships, so not right now. Three months later he called me up, and said, listen, one guy dropped out of his scholarship, so we have the money left for a year and a half, do you want it. I said, yes of course. Then I got that scholarship again. At this point, Professor Handa asked me, what do you want to do. I told him about my dilemma that I’ve written a script but I’m trying to hire artists, but they’re very expensive, what should I do. He asked, what do you want to do? He said forget about everything. If it was an ideal world, what would you be doing? He asked me. I said, in an ideal world, it’s simple — I would be writing as well as drawing my comics. There was no question about it. So he said, then just do that. I said, but I can’t draw. I don’t have the skill. He said just do it. You have to draw your own comics. And he said that if you finish a comic I’ll give you the money to print a thousand copies. And then you can sell it.
At that time I was living in Hyderabad, very close to the fort of Golconda. So I decided to make a comic on Golconda. I wanted to do historical comics, because I was really into history and I felt that this medium of comics is very well suited to history. For me history was always visual. I don’t want to know about this or that coin released by Chandragupta Maurya or whoever, which has so and so design and this or that motif. Don’t tell me all that, just show it to me. Don’t tell me Taxila was like this or like that.Can you show me what it looked like? At least can you show me the ruins now? Because even when we talk about Taxila for me to go look up the ruins it’s not like I see it everywhere. It’s hard to find. I have to go digging to find photos of even the present day ruins. Forget about recreating it as it was in the past. Nobody does this. I wanted to do this. And I felt comics was a great medium for doing things like this. So I thought why not do history. And Golconda happened to be right there, plus I had the money to print a thousand copies of any comic that I created.
I spent the next 4 months creating a 60-65 page comic on the fort of Golconda and its history. And Professor Handa gave me the money to print a thousand copies. Then he said a hundred of these copies you must send them out to people. Just make a list of all the people you can think of, professors of History, tourism departments, just people who have written on Golconda or any historical topic, authors, comic book artists, just send it to everybody. I hadn’t even thought of that. So I sent it out and a few people wrote back, not many, but a few did. One of them was Romila Thapar, she sent me a letter saying, I got your book, I really liked it, but the mother of a young kid just took it away from me, so can you please send me two more copies, this time with an invoice. I said, I’m going to send you two copies, please consider this my guru-dakshina. That was kind of nice and encouraging. And that’s how I got started making comics.
OK: It’s kind of funny, when my first book came out, she got a copy and wrote me a long letter saying what a nice book it was.
NG: That’s so beautiful.
OK: That’s so funny. How interesting.
NG: That was very generous of her, and very nice of her.
OK: And then what happened? That must have been very exciting.
NG: Then I tried to sell the comic, and it was a big challenge. I went to bookstores in Hyderabad. The bookstores said can you come through a distributor or publisher. We like the book, but just the accounting overhead to deal with one individual author is too much for us. We have hundreds of books. Can you just go through the distributors. I didn’t really actively try to look for distributors, I spoke to a few of them, but it didn’t seem feasible for me for whatever reason. So I just started selling the book myself. I sold it outside the fort. There were these people who were selling these pamphlets for 10-20 bucks and I asked some of them, why don’t you sell my book. A few of them took the book on, and they were selling a few copies. Then I went to organic food bazaars every Sunday, where people came to buy veggies and stuff, so I just took up a table and started selling. And everyday I would sell 5-6 copies, so I just kept on doing that for a long time. I still haven’t sold all 1000 copies. I think I still have some 200 copies sitting at home.
Then, I started making short comics, I tried some fiction, and then one day I decided I’m going to do a big project. And I was really into the Indus Valley by that time, because when I was in Ahmedabad, I had gone to Lothal and got super excited by this thing.
OK: That trip really opened up Indus Valley. And before that you didn’t have that much interest.
NG: I didn’t even know much about it. I always had an interest in History, so I was curious, but I just hadn’t made the effort to go digging. And I was just shocked by how outdated the popular knowledge of the Indus Valley is. Like the stuff we know about the Indus Valley was basically that they had drains. I don’t know how that’s supposed to excite anybody. But that’s pretty much the only thing we’re told. And of course, that oh yeah, it’s very old, and it’s one of the oldest civilizations et cetera. But when I started researching I found the civilization to be absolutely fascinating. Why don’t we know about this, I wondered, and why are we not talking about it globally. It’s not just Indian or Pakistani history, it’s world history. I’m curious about Egypt, I’m not even from Egypt. Why would somebody elsewhere not be interested in South Asian history. This is really global history. And anyway, all these things are interconnected. These things are not happening in silos. So why don’t we know about this. The fact that it’s so different from Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, and subsequent periods in South Asian history. Why don’t we talk about this.
So yeah, when I decided, after my Golconda book, that I wanted to take on a big project, Indus Valley was an obvious choice. And just as I was thinking of starting on this, just out of the blue, one guy reached out to me, he’s a PHD student who was excavating Rakhigarhi, and he said I heard from someone that you’re making comics. Have you thought about making a comic on the Indus Valley. I said, I’m literally thinking about this right now. How is this even happening? It’s one of those serendipitous things. And then it was decided. Then he really helped me find the right literature and sources and guided me where to research. And I would start reading some scholar, and I would ask him, what does the academic world think about his work, then he’ll tell me that this is a little more controversial, that is highly respected, or this or that viewpoint is more prevalent among the scholars and this other one is a little more “out there”. Those things I didn’t know about. And I think it’s very important because no two people agree on the same things. And so how do you figure out what’s correct and what’s not . I mean, nothing is known to be absolute truth. Especially when it comes to this far back in time. But there are some theories that are a little more reliable and more scholars, scholars who have done the work, support them, so I can more confidently say that this is more likely to be what happened. And that the other theories also you can also talk about but say that some people also believe this, but there’s not enough evidence or whatever. So he helped me out with that a lot.
I had thought that I’m going to finish this in a year. I’m going to take 3 months to do the research, 3 months to write the script, and then I’m going to take 6 months to draw it, and a year later, it’ll be out in the market. And that was 5 and a half years ago. And the book has come out a week back (Oct 7).
OK: Five years. Wow. So why do you think it took so long, and how did you support yourself in the meantime. Did you get a contract with Penguin.
NG: No, there was no contract. No publisher in sight. I just knew I’m going to do this anyway. And it wasn’t five years of full-time work, I was doing other things also. But, the way I was supported myself was, I was still getting that scholarship at this time, and I had saved up a bit of money. Those 8 months I worked after my MBA I saved up pretty much everything. And what I did was I decided to move to the mountains. I thought I’ll just move to a tiny village. My partner at that time, she was also up for it. She had seen me for a year working on my own projects, while she was working a job. And she’s herself a writer and an excellent poet. She said, I also want to do this. I see you working on your own projects, I can also do this. So we both decided to move to the mountains, we went to a tiny village where the rent was very cheap. There were no places to go out to. You had to cook everything at home. We just cut down our expenses by a lot, so we were practically not spending anything. That was the way I sustained myself. I was there for 3 years, that’s where the bulk of this book was done.
It took five years, and it took so long because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. At one point in the middle of the project I basically got exhausted. It felt like I had decided to run a marathon without training for it for even a day. Like imagine, one day you show up to a marathon and you say I’m going to run 21 miles today. And after 5-6 miles you have no energy left, but you still keep going, and by 8 miles, you’re practically dead, and you’re on the ground, no energy to even get up. That’s where I was in the middle of the project. Maybe half-way into it, after I had illustrated the first chapter. I was exhausted, I had no energy. While I was working on this, I was learning how to write, I was learning how to draw, I was learning how to research. I did some research and then started writing the script. As I began to write the script, a lot more questions came up, and I had to go back to research those questions. Going back and forth I realised the research I had done was not enough, and I was constantly revising my views. While doing this, at the same time, and I’m realising that my sentences don’t even follow each other, my paragraph structure is garbage. It makes no sense. I don’t know what I’m talking about in these paragraphs. Then I would pause, I would read other people’s stuff, oh I like the way this author writes, oh you have to stick to one subject in a paragraph, you shouldn’t talk about 3 things at the same time. So I learnt all that.
Then, it’s not just sentence by sentence, but sections. It has to make sense over a sentence, it has to make sense and flow in a paragraph, on a page, in a section of the chapter, it has to make sense and flow over the course of a chapter, and then finally the narrative has to work over the entire book. All of those are slightly different skills that I didn’t have. So there was a lot of dealing with that. I was simultaneously learning to research, to write and to draw.
Then there was the self doubt - nobody is going to read this, I’m not good enough, look at what these other people are doing they’re doing great stuff, what am I doing? This is garbage. Why will anybody read what I’m saying about the Indus valley, I’m not a historian or an archaeologist. I’ve never even done proper research before. A lot of that chatter was going on in my head, and that was the toughest challenge. Because it took me a while, almost two years, to learn to deal with. I didn’t get rid of that chatter, it’s still there, and will always be there. Some part of it is healthy also, cause it’s pushing you to be better, but at some point it became so overwhelming that I just couldn’t go on. I just couldn’t do any more work. And I started not enjoying the work. And that’s when I realised that it’s not healthy if I’m not enjoying the work. I might die tomorrow, do I want to have lived my last few days not enjoying what I was doing? Of course, not. The process should be enjoyable no matter what. So I realised I had to do something to deal with it. It took a lot of inner work, a lot of meditation, and a lot of just trial and error in how to deal with this, to get to a point where the pressure was off, and I started enjoying just the day to day work. I realised that even if my work is not good, even if nobody wants to read it eventually, or everyone thinks it is boring, I would still do it. I had this firm belief that if you keep working you will get better. If you keep at it, it will get better and better. The only way to get better is to keep doing the work. So even if it turns out to be garbage, it doesn’t matter. You will be better off at the end, and your skills will be better. You’ll just take it from there. If you stick to it, eventually it’ll become good enough that people will want to read it, they’ll enjoy it and they’ll want to pay for it. So with that belief I continued.
OK: What graphic novels inspired you? Were there any writers or books that made you feel like this is what I want to strive towards or not?
NG: There were many. I make graphic novels but it’s not like I’m a great graphic novel buff that I’ve read everything. I’m inspired by films, documentaries, music, non-fiction books just as much. One of my inspirations was Jared Diamond. I like his storytelling, the connections he makes, the scope of his thinking, and that topics he picks up. That really inspired me. In graphic novels, there’s a few like Maus by Art Spiegelman, it’s a famous one, it’s almost a cliche to say it, but it really is a piece of art and it really inspired me to make comics. It helped me realise the power that comics have.
You know, comics is a medium, it’s not just superhero stories. It’s not a genre, it’s a medium. You can pretty much pick up any genre and make comics in that. You can take any kind of story. In Japanese Manga you see that, they pick up all kinds of stories, in American comics it’s been a bit limited, but even there the graphic novels that are coming out in the last 20-30 years they were addressing all kinds of things. Same in France, if you see graphic novels in France like this beautiful one called Weapons of Mass Diplomacy which was a huge inspiration, which was about the foreign ministry in France at the time when America was trying to convince the UN to go to war in Iraq, and the only country to veto that in the Security Council was France. So that graphic novel is set in the foreign ministry that took that decision. It’s written by the minister’s speech writer. And is illustrated by an artist. It’s very entertaining, very engaging and beautiful. And these are the kinds of things that inspired me.
Of course, as a kid, the love really started with Asterix & Obelix, TinTin, Chacha Chowdhury, Phantom. There used to be a magazine called Champak, where I used to skip to the comics sections and never read the other stories. I used to only read the comics.
OK: Tell me how did you learn. One thing I like so much, is how you vary the panels, the story, then something comes up, there’s a big image. Just how that whole art history, and mise-en-scene whatever you call it, how did you learn that? Cause it seems like it would take a while to figure that out.
NG: I didn’t learn it. If I started to feel that my panels are getting boring, I have this trick for when I’m really feeling stuck and have no ideas, I just go to a random page in a random graphic novel and I’ll copy one thing from that page. Any one thing. It could be something like oh this one has 6 panels, ok on my next page I’ll have 6 panels, it doesn’t have to have the same shapes, but one thing I’ll copy randomly, just to force myself to think differently. Or if I see, there are two panels at the top, two at the bottom and in the middle there’s a big science, fine I’m gonna copy that structure. And that would get the ball rolling. So, I don’t know, I don’t feel there’s much artistry when I look back I feel there’s so much stiffness in this book.
OK: The way you sort of jump into a big panel, you see the boat for a moment, suddenly you’re introducing a big theme, you see the seal of the boat. You ended one with the city where it shows this woman’s figure, clay figurine, it’s kind of scary too, because actually city life was a little bit scary. It was a big dangerous place for humanity to go, so there’s some way in which you have to be thinking about these things fit together.
NG: I think there’s a lot of things that come into play. When I’m writing the chapters, I knew beforehand that this part I love, this I have to emphasise, so I would plan out the beats of the story so that it builds up to a particular reveal. If a big reveal is coming before that the tension has to build up slowly. You can’t start with a big panel, unless you want attention up front. So that kind of storytelling is another skill that I was learning and struggling with. But lots of things play into it, sometimes it was just as simple as I don’t know what to draw here, I only have 3 things to draw on this page, and I don’t know how to fill up the rest of it, so you know what, one of them I’ll just make it really big. So sometimes it’s calculated, sometimes it’s random.
OK: How many panels do you make, compared to how many that get published. Do you write panels then throw them away and restart. How much editing goes on.
NG: There’s a lot of editing, at every level. I start with the script. First it’s just a dump, like textual dump of everything that I want in there. There will be certain things that I know for sure I want in those very words, and others will be stream of consciousness type thoughts, I want to talk about trade, oh it would be nice if I can show a character on a boat that actually travels somewhere to do trade. It’ll be a lot of stuff. Oh yeah monsoon winds, somewhere I have write about monsoon winds, did they use monsoon winds or not to sail. There will be a lot of stuff like this. From that you start moving to an actual script. On page 1, this is what I want to say — Harappans really like good quality things. Ok, that sounds like something nice to start off with, cause this chapter is going to be about material things, and why they were expending so much time and effort into making high quality things - their pottery, their metal tools, their shops. Their pyrotechnology is really advanced, which is what allows them to make their faience jewellery and their metal stuff. So I start like that. And then, of course, it’s like there’s no flow on this, what should I do, go back revise, go back revise, go back revise, okay now I’m sick of it, I can’t even look at it anymore. Just leave it, move on to the next thing. Work on something else for 2 weeks, then come back to what you had written earlier. Then, sometimes things become obvious — ah yes, this is good, let me keep this. This other stuff not so sure. I would say there’s about 7-8x that was written compared to what made it to the final product. Because a lot of it was fluff, at some point you realise that this doesn’t add to what I’m trying to say.
There were also other things that were close to my heart that I couldn’t put it. There’s a seal that shows two comets.
OK: Two comets?
NG: Yes, two comets. There’s a seal that shows two comets. And I wanted to put that somewhere, but what happened was my research skills were not up to the mark, so I had the paper, so I had put this in, and when I was drawing it, somehow I lost that paper. Where did I put it? I just didn’t put the source in my notes, and then I couldn’t remember where I had read it, there was a title of the paper somewhere and I couldn’t find it. I must have spent days looking for it. I wish I had been a better scholar and researcher, but again those are skills that you learn and you do your best. And I just couldn’t find it, so I couldn’t put it in the book. After I had finished the book, that’s when I found the paper again. But by then it was too late.
OK: Do you have someone read this along the way as you do section.
NG: Yes, my partner at that time. She’s a pretty harsh critic. And she was good in the sense that she would point out just the right things. She would just not say it in the most pleasant way. I would make her read it, and then I remember one chapter she read, she closed it and put it down and she just walked away. I asked her, at least say something, tell me something. She said, it was boring. I was just bored. That made me feel really bad, cause I took it personally, that maybe you’re mad at me for something else, but just taking it out by telling me my work is boring. I would try to find some defence like that, but eventually I would realise that she was spot on. That this section is not grabbing interest. Then I would think about how to fix it. Because the interesting stuff would be there, it’s just that I hadn’t told it well, I hadn’t led you to the climax.
When I had sections done, I have a few friends who were into comic books, and into history. They were very helpful and at that time when I just had the script the problem was I had the text, but I didn’t have the drawings, I just had notes about what will be drawn where. So it’s a little bit hard for someone reading that to get an idea of the final thing. But there were a few people who gave very good feedback.
But there was no proper scholar or archaeologist who looked at it, which happened much later when Dr. Kenoyer came into the picture.
OK: So how did that happen. You did your research by reading papers and books.
NG: Yes, and poring through pages upon pages of excavation reports. Because when I was researching for the visuals it was the same old stuff, the priest king, the dancing girl, some seals and pottery, but that’s it. When I went through the excavation reports there were pages upon pages of drawings of pottery fragments and whenever I saw something interesting I would just pick it up and make sure to put it in my sketchbook so it can show up in the book. But yeah, nobody had looked at it, no historian or archaeologist looked at it, until I had finished the whole thing. I had spent almost 4 years writing, researching, drawing and I had the whole manuscript done. That’s when I sent it out to a bunch of people. And I had used Dr. Kenoyer’s work a lot, because I found his work to be very compelling, very well written, and because he’s one of the few people who has excavated one site for decades. I don’t even know if there are others who have done it for that long on one site. People have excavated one site for a few years, then moved on to a different site or different time period. But he’s one of the few who have done that one site for so long. I had used other scholars’ work as well but a lot of my major theses, like how society was organised, what happened towards the end, etc. were drawn from Dr. Kenoyer’s work.
So I sent the manuscript to a bunch of people. I sent it to him saying hey listen, I’ve created this, I’ve used a lot of your work, thank you for inspiring me, and I would love to know what you think. I wasn’t expecting to hear back. From most people I didn’t hear back. But he wrote back. He said I’ve read a few pages, it looks really nice, but there are some issues, there are some misinterpretations of the academic literature. Some of it is subtle, but a few are also major. That hurt obviously, but at the same time, I knew that even though I had spent a couple of years researching, I was definitely not an expert, there are people who have done this for decades, so of course, I understand it would have gaps. So I just asked him can you suggest somebody, I was hoping he’ll suggest a PhD student who can look through it and give suggestions. At which point, he very generously offered his own time and help. He said I don’t want any compensation or anything but it’s going to be a substantial effort on my part, so if you’re interested we’ll do it properly, and all I want is that I get some credit, cause then it’s a thing I’ve worked on. He said if you are open to that we can collaborate. I was very open to it, even though I was just happy that I was finished finally.
At this point Penguin had started showing some interest. I had sent the manuscript to several publishers, earlier but they had asked to see when I had more stuff done. So I sent the manuscript to publishers once I was done with it. Penguin showed interest and said let’s take it forward. When Dr. Kenoyer came on board I was happy to have somebody like him on board, because then it gets a seal of approval from an expert and from none other than Dr. Kenoyer himself. So I said, let’s do it. Let’s work. I know it’s going to take more time, but I was ready for it. Because, it’s the thing of excellence, you know you are not doing this because you want to make money. I do want to make money, but that’s not why I came to this. It’s not like I thought oh comics is lucrative so let me make comics. I came to it because I wanted to make really cool, compelling and high quality stuff. So Dr. Kenoyer and I spent a good 4-5 months going over every word, every line, every illustration, and it was nice to have him because he’s himself an artist and he has already visualised a lot of things — the hairstyles, the jewellery, the clothes, the architecture, even things like the bullock-carts I had drawn them differently, so he showed me this is what they looked like, make it like this, I had made on the first page itself, this front-yard had a wall around it, he said there’s no evidence for walls like this, if you do want to show a front yard make it a bamboo fence. So there’s that level of detail that got worked on after he came on board, and of course, even in the things that are presented got refined. Most of the narrative stayed the same, I was happy about that, because I felt then at least the work I did wasn’t totally up in the air, I didn’t just make up stuff, it was based on good research, so the narrative and most of the thesis stayed the same, but there was a lot of refinement that happened. There were one or two major changes. Like the Lothal dockyard which is a debatable topic.
OK: You could have seen that on my site, we’ve said it’s disputed.
NG: I knew it was debated, but I wanted to believe it’s a dockyard, because it’s an exciting idea. My first cover for the book had a recreation of Lothal with that dockyard and ships standing in the dockyard, and Dr. Kenoyer said I’m not putting my name on anything that calls this a dockyard. So that section of the third chapter, which is set in Lothal, it got reworked, and I think now it’s stronger than it was. So I’m very happy with it. Because then I could put in the ship-building stuff that happens in Gujarat today. There are some shots from the ship-yards that are there today. That’s where the narrator walks around instead of in Lothal.
Penguin was very happy to have him on board, they didn’t need to do the fact checking. And I was happy secretly, because if his name is on it, I can sell it better. Because now nobody can say you’re not an archaeologist, or historian, so what do you know about this topic. Well now I can say that I have one of the senior-most authorities on Indus archaeology.
OK: How did Penguin work on this. Did they edit?
NG: They did only minor edits. In the images there wasn’t much editing. One interesting thing happened. There’s a lot of breasts visible in this book. Because women would have covered their tops, but not always, so Dr. Kenoyer said if you want to sell it globally, in some countries this would not pass. So why don’t you change it. So I went to Penguin and asked if this will be a problem in India, they said no it’s completely fine. So we went ahead with that. But there were not any major edits in the images. In the text, yeah grammatical errors were fixed, some line editing. They helped with how we were doing citations. Actually this book had twenty times more references. The bibliography is the same, but in the text I had a lot of footnotes and all that, but Penguin said let’s not do that. I think it was a good idea to pare it down and have only enough, like where I’m quoting words directly did I cite things, but obviously the bibliography at the end is the whole thing. So in that sense, Penguin helped give the book a good shape.
OK: How’s the response been so far. When did it come out?
NG: Oct 7th , so it’s been 2 weeks now.
OK: Okay, so any reviews, any feedback.
NG: Penguin also really helped getting it to people. I could get in touch with people like Manu Pillai only because of them. And the others also, like Sarnath Banerjee.
OK: Oh, he’s very good.
NG: Yeah. And Orijit Sen I knew personally, so I reached out to him, and he was very generous in the quote that he gave. So Penguin was very helpful in that. They’ve been very helpful in selling and marketing it now. It’s in pretty much every bookstore in India, which I would have never been able to do if this was self-published. So their reach is amazing.
OK: Fantastic. What did you leave out that you felt you could have put in, or is there no such thing.
NG: The best thing about working on your own projects, is that you get to put in all the things that you want, and so I pretty much put in everything that I liked. The whole narrative is woven around things that I wanted to put in. The book started with — I’m going to do recreations of Mohenjodaro, there’s going to be a birds-eye view of the excavated ruins today and then a few pages later the same birds-eye view of Mohenjodaro back in time, there will be a rooftop view. So these are the kinds of things. Like the dancing girl, she’s always shown from the front, but she’s more beautiful from the back, like the hairstyle and the folds of the body, is really nice, but it’s never shown anywhere. So I decided no matter what I’m going to show her from the back. So you’re able to do that. And I love maps, so I have to put maps everywhere. I could do that. So it pretty much has most of the things I wanted to put in.
OK: Did you think of colour? Maybe every chapter having colours in the beginning?
NG: I made a choice to not do colour. One reason was time, because this was all me working on it, and no money coming in. So it was a matter of time and sustenance. Plus I wasn’t so comfortable doing colour at that time. It’s another skill to learn. So I decided not to do that. The second reason was printing costs, the printing costs go up with colour. So I decided I’ll keep it black and white for those two very practical reasons.
OK: What’s next for you?
NG: I’m doing a lot of things. I keep doing freelance work to pay rent and groceries and everything. But I do have personal projects. One project that I’m doing is with Penguin, which is on the Mughals, which will come out in a few months. Someone else is writing it and I’m only doing illustrations, and it’s a full colour book. It’s going to be targeted towards younger audiences. That’s one. And we’re going to follow that up with another book on a different dynasty, and we’re thinking it’s going to be a South Indian dynasty because those are not so talked about. So that’s something I’m working on.
The second thing I’m working on is I’m going full digital. I’m not going to do print for a little bit.
OK: So this is all by hand?
NG: I mean even the digital is all by hand, but it’s not all on paper. Half of this book was drawn on an iPad. But it’s still done by hand. There’s a pen you use, it’s just that you’re not using paper.
OK: So what does full digital mean?
NG: Full digital means where it’s going to be presented. The product is going to be presented digitally, not on paper. It’s going to be most likely an app. I want to do comics connected to music. The only way I can do it is if I put it on a device, and while you’re reading the comic there’s also sounds and music.
OK: Why not a movie then?
NG: Because reading and watching are two completely different experiences. I love animations and movies but I consciously chose to not do those. One, because I wanted to work alone and movies and animations require way too much resources and too much time. Secondly, there are lots of people making animations and videos, not enough people doing comics. And I like the reading experience, where the fundamental difference is that you go at your own pace. In a watching experience, you press play, and then it’s a passive experience where you just sit and watch. Whereas when you’re reading …
OK: You control time.
NG: You control time, you can move fast in some sections and slow down in others, you can go back, you can read something twice, you can look at one illustration for however you long you want, and others you look at within milliseconds. I like that format, I like keeping it a reading experience. And anyway, the world is moving towards watching experiences way too much. So let’s balance it out. Let’s have other things also, cause this is also cool.
So it’s going to be on an app, but still a reading experience. But with a device you can do other things. Did I show you my Corbett comic? I’m working on a comic on Corbett.
OK: Jim Corbett, the tiger guy?
NG: Yes, I was living in Kumaon, and I had grown up reading his stories. And when I was in Kumaon, I found the landscape to be beautiful — the villages, the birds, the plants, the animals, the people — they’re stunning. Corbett’s stories are set in the locale where I was living. So I really wanted to illustrate his stories. And they’re not in copyright anymore, so I can just take his text and use it. So this is what I’m working on. It has a little bit of sound, minimal sound effects, a little bit of motion, like this bird flying around. You can just read it vertically, you keep scrolling, it moves like this (showing it to Omar). It doesn’t have a lot of movement but it has a little bit parallax and some gifs [images].
OK: Is that the santoor?
NG: It is but it’s played on a keyboard. It’s emulating that sound.
NG: It has a little bit of this kind of stuff.
OK: Very evocative, yes it works.
NG: So I’m working on this kind of stuff. With this I’m starting to go back to my coding days. Cause that skill I have and I think it’s very powerful tool (coding) that allows you to make very powerful devices do things for you. So I’m starting to get back to that with this, and combine the two (coding and stories). It does a lot of other things. People are already glued to these things so much (mobiles) and to grab them by the neck and ask them to look over here, look there’s this thing called paper, and you can flip through these books, it’s very difficult. Books in print, if somebody wants them in Europe or South America or Africa, I can’t send it to them, they just become expensive and I can’t send it to them. Digital products you can sell them anywhere.
OK: So how do you make this?
NG: I use Unity [a program].
OK: So now you can bring back your coding skills and make stuff like this. But I would say that books still have their place, and people reading physical things rather than this. You have more stuff to play with in digital, but somehow this has an endurance too, so maybe you’ll end up doing print.
NG: I do have some ideas for physical books which will only work in physical books and not digitally, so I know I’m going to get to those at some point. Because the page-flip is very important and that’s something I want to use. I have one idea for a history which needs that page-flip. The idea is that each double-page will be one generation of a neighborhood, and every time you flip you move forward 25 years. That’s it. That’s the only format, moves forward 25 years every page flip. In 200 pages you’ll move toward 2500 years. That’s one way I want to tell stories, and it’ll have no dates. I’m starting to move to history with no dates, no over-arching concepts, more human level. That’s something I want to do next. I will get back to this kind of history but I want to experiment with.
OK: Last question for you. What did you learn about the ancient Indus Valley, that you did not know going in, even with all the interest you had. What do you feel you’ve learnt or experienced about the people the way they lived that surprised you.
NG: What really surprised me was that our models of how we organise as a society, how we do things, they’re anything we choose them to be, they don’t have to be absolutes. Like for example, my understanding was that you need a leader, you need one powerful leader, we always had one powerful leader, that’s how things get organised and get done. And then warfare was of course a very normal thing, it’s always been around. So these things must be very natural to us, to resolves conflicts through warfare. But here it seems like that’s not the way they resolved conflicts, that’s not the way they did things. It’s not because they didn’t know what warfare was, that they were not smart enough to come up with weapons, because they were traveling to Mesopotamia all the time, they would have traveled to Central Asia all the time. They would have known about warfare and weapons. It was a conscious choice for them to not adopt warfare as a way to resolve disputes. So these things like kingship and warfare are not absolutes, we can figure out new ways of organising, new ways of doing things. This is something very relevant to our times. Right now we almost take it for granted that a capitalistic system is the default system, because socialism doesn’t work. This is the only system. Capitalism is very powerful and does great things too, but look at the environment, look at the disparity between the rich and the poor today, and the disparities between who has access to healthcare and education and who doesn’t.Is this the kind of world we want to live in? So where do we go from here. The Indus Valley shows us that these models are not absolutes, we can change them, we can live differently. That’s something I find very inspiring from this time and place, it’s so unique and so different, not just from other places that are its contemporaries, but from other societies in India and Pakistan at different points of time. That’s something I felt should be out there. This is one of the main focuses of the book.
Omar Khan: Great point. Thank you so much, Nikhil.
Nikhil Gulati: Thank you!