The People of the Indus

Once in a while a book – in this case, surprisingly, a graphic novel – comes along that upends what one thinks can be done through a medium for a subject. The People of the Indus by Nikhil Gulati – with the expert assistance of Dr. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer – is one of the moments. None too soon either, given the misinformation and general lack of truly accessible, fun medium with which to reach wider audiences with the facts and mysteries of the ancient Indus. This civilization, probably the largest of early human attempts to organize the production, habitation and system of successful governance in world history, has suffered much from a lack of pleasurable guides and repositories of knowledge. The People of the Indus, published by Penguin India and many years in the making, is a most welcome corrective. It is a moment of triumph for all involved and its readers to come.

The 165 page book is broken into five chapters that flow neatly into each other: 1. Mohenjo-daro (page 3), 2. Why the Harappans Never Built Pyramids (35), 3. Journey of a Bead (69), 4. Writing Your Way to Civilization (96) and 5. The End of the Beginning (131). While the book is absorbing and engaging from the very first panels, it really hits its strides in chapter 3 where enough information has been imparted to launch into a sophisticated exposition of manufacturing and trade relationships with ancient Mesopotamia. Chapter 4 underlines the role of script in maintaining control and the relationships that make production and exchange possible across vast expanses across what must have been rather different cities and cultures. Information, inscribed on clay just as we inscribe it on silicon today, was power. One really learns a lot about how writing evolved, here and elsewhere, and the book's focus on a scribe, the human glue who held it all together, is excellent.

There is so much to commend here: the fine mise-en-scene or construction of panels that make each page come alive and carry the eye and story forward; the clever interweaving of exposition with imagined scenes from Mohenjo-daro and elsewhere with early Indus dwellers, young and old, going about their ordinary business; the movie-like cutting between large and small frames. I particularly like how the birth of agricultural, sedentary civilization is punctuated by a large panel of an ominous, if not angry figurine – things had indeed “advanced,” but was it all for the better? What shadows were opened by the birth of the city?

Elaborate and helpful discussion of the evidence around the ancient Saraswati River, the Indo-Aryan invasion, the decline of the Indus civilization and its continuation in many forms make up the bulk of the fifth chapter, where the authors taken on the most recent discoveries as well as still open blank spaces with care and insight. In short, the book is truly up-to-date with all that we know today and do not know.

Despite being a kid’s or young adult book – that is, presented in the illustrated format these audiences prefer – The People of the Indus is equally informative and engaging for the adult reader because it carries with it clear and sophisticated explanations of facts and hypotheses about the Indus people. There are no bland simplifications here. Having the world’s leading Indus archaeologist to help you out and check all the drawings and suppositions is a great help of course, and it is this rigorous adherence to what is known as opposed to what is hoped or presumed based on prejudices or misconceptions makes this an exceptional publication, as enriching for the sophisticated adult as the kid. Speaking to both is an exceptional skill, and Gulati’s willingness to engage with scholarship and make it relevant and accessible is the secret sauce that will give this volume a long shelf life. Such a product has been sorely lacking relative to the wide-spread interest in the Indus civilization across the world. (Translations into Hindi, Urdu and other languages should, I hope, be in the offing.)

I do wish there had been a deeper engagement with pottery and its manufacture, the move from handmade to wheel-thrown pottery that accompanied the transition to the height of the Indus civilization, and perhaps an in-depth look at the “granary,” another one of those simplistic misconceptions that has haunted Indus studies. A bit more on Indus designs and motifs that still play their part in modern India and Pakistan would also have been nice, but you can’t have it all, and the flow of chapters as it stands now is very effective.

May The People of the Indus inspire others to take on the subcontinent’s rich and complex history with engaging, enjoyable and intelligent narratives. There is no reason why comics – whoops, graphic novels! – should not be any less rigorous than academic papers and they are so much more accessible. Nikhil Gulati and Mark Kenoyer have shown us how exceptionally well this can be done. The Indus people deserve nothing less than this splendid volume.

- Omar Khan, October 2022

Note: Below is a PDF excerpt containing the first 13 pages of the book.