Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
An engaging graphic novel about political violence in Nepal, as told by a perceptive child
Justice is educational historical fiction set during the 10-year civil war in Nepal during the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a graphic novel, it’s richly illustrated, bringing readers onto an idyllic farm in the Himalayas and walking us through the family’s humble home. Though it’s about war, physical violence isn’t explicitly drawn. Instead, the story shows us how the war shapes one girl’s life.
In a short introductory note, the author, Ram Khatri, tells us that the majority of people in Nepal are farmers and that they belong to over 100 ethnicities that speak nearly as many languages. This rural family has oxen, a buffalo, chicken, and goats, and they cultivate rice. They are happy, even though they must turn over half of their crops to Gokarna, who owns the land. They treasure their single radio, a source of daily news.
When the war begins in 1996, they’ve just welcomed a third baby, and the middle child, Tara, is not immediately aware how her world is about to change. Revolutionaries show up and explain to her father that, according to the Maoist ideology, his landlord is exploiting him. They demand that he stop farming, and they warn him that something bad will happen to his family if they persist in their old ways. Yet they offer the family no alternative job nor land; they simply order them to stop growing food. Now other villagers are nervous to be linked to the family. “It felt like the entire world was turning against us,” Tara recalls. The Maoists also take an interest in her older brother, Sudeep, pondering how he might be useful to them.
One curious feature is that while the story takes under 40 pages to tell, the book has twice as many pages. Here’s why:
The book is divided into two “sections.” It’s the same story, told twice. The words immediately sound familiar, because the words are the same. We’ve been here before. Sandipan Santra illustrates the first iteration; Ingrid Lilamani illustrates the second.
Khatri—who studied English literature at a university in Nepal and is an English-Nepali translator—made this choice to show the different perspectives of two artists, as he explains in an introductory note. In my opinion, the story’s repetition also plays with the idea of memory as variation on a theme. The first time, it’s illustrated in color; the second time, it’s in black-and-white. So too does our memory lose some details and reconstruct others as we retell a story. The repetition also plays with the idea of translation. We read the story in English, but this family speaks Nepali (as suggested by the helpful glossary of Nepali terms at the back).
The story is told by Tara in 2009 as a retrospective, so we know from the first page that her family will flee their farm and move to another village in Central Nepal. Eventually we do find out more detail about a major crisis they suffer, but we don’t get the whole story that precipitates their move. In both sections, the story ends with a “To be continued!” We can expect to find out more about Tara’s grief and regret when Book 2 comes out.
Justice is an artistic, character-driven way to learn about the recent history of the Nepali civil war. For those of us outside Nepal, it may be hard to imagine what such an internal conflict looks like. A war may creep up on a village slowly, and then one day the revolutionaries are standing at the doorstep making demands. Khatri has done important work in sharing his knowledge of this situation through these fictional characters, gifting us with great attention to detail. Through Tara’s eyes, we too try to make sense of the forces that will tear through her home and change her life forever.
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