IN one of the most striking panels in Parismita Singh’s The Hotel at the End of the World it is revealed that a regular father and husband is, in fact, not mortal at all. He’s a nightwalker – one of Death’s porters. He’s a ‘chosen one’ and has a Godlike demeanor when he’s going about his fearsome duties. But once his task is completed, he turns pale and sickly. Devoid of all energy after the monumental struggle between his soul and his duty.
This is just one of the supernatural elements that walk in and out of The Hotel at the End of the World so casually. A full glass of drink set out for the ghost of a Japanese soldier. An island floating free of this world of violence and mistrust. One could almost call it a good example of magic realism.
It’s also a profoundly Indian book. Sure, it doesn’t have the typical Hindu North Indian names one is used to reading and hearing in popular culture. Here the characters aren’t Raj or Simran. They’ve got names like Pema and Keising, and the folklore – borrowed from the Northeastern region of the country – isn’t familiar to a lot of us. But that’s precisely what’s so refreshing about it. At least this isn’t another Ramayana/Mahabharata-inspired tale, because the wealth of inspiration that the two epics have provided have made them a little trite as sources.
Various stories are woven together to form the main plot of The Hotel at the End of the World. This is a hotel located somewhere in the densely vegetated hills of North Eastern India. One can’t be sure which state this is located in, not only because it’s never mentioned, but also because of the peculiar time and space that the story seems to occupy. A couple of the stories discuss the very real history of the region, with one character fearing another Chinese invasion and a lost Japanese soldier’s ghost from the Second World War still trying to figure out what happened to his comrades and how he can get back home. On the other hand, as mentioned before, there are many supernatural elements, which definitely place the story in another sort of world. This is an issue that Singh never resolves and that’s perhaps all to the good: the gentle allusions just make the story throb with so much mystery .
I’m glad I wasn’t looking for a solid plot, with a clearly demarcated beginning, middle and end in it, because I didn’t get any such thing. Time, in this book, has its own rhythm, and every character has bizarre tales to tell, which don’t all tie in together. As one reads, one senses that Singh is trying to say more than what the stories say, that she’s trying to make some great big comment about the world we live in. But that statement never appears so baldly and one is left to one’s own conjectures. I like that: why should a book do all the hard work of laying out a story cleanly? Why shouldn’t we exercise our own brains and try to figure out what the author might have been trying to say. We might never arrive that the exact answer, but the journey towards this destination could provide some interesting and insightful detours.
I can’t really comment on the artwork, since I have no expertise in this area. But as a layperson, I found it mostly functional, although certain panels were highly effective in how they conveyed the ambiguous reality that the book’s characters inhabit. Particularly haunting, for me, was the panel with the Nightwalker in all his fearsome glory.
Usually, I’m not a fan of graphic novels. Very often, I just find them pretentious and much too self-conscious. The coloured illustrations offer great scope for depicting violence as sensationally as possible – 300 is a very good example of a book, where the main motive of the author seemed to have been to show as many different acts of violence as possible. Often, I also find that they take themselves too seriously. The experience of reading Watchmen, for instance, was occasionally marred for me because I kept imaging Rorschach’s voice like that of the hardboiled, cynical anti-heroes in bad noir flicks. There was not even a glimmer of humour in the author’s self-appointed task of writing a Great American Graphic Novel.
The Hotel at the End of the World, however, was a different reading experience for me. It was peppered with a winking, knowing sort of humour. The kind that brings in stock characters like the reticent innkeeper and his efficient wife, the enigmatic prophet and the boisterous, happy-go-lucky friends. But Singh gave each of them an ambiguous, unnerving backstory which takes all your preconceived notions and tosses them out the window.