A half-century and more ago, when I was growing up, there was a comic book series in the United States called “Classics Illustrated” which retold novels, myths and—my own favorites—history in a format normally reserved for Spiderman. These were probably not the most accurate introductions to Marco Polo or Caesar, but they stirred the imagination.
Nikhil Gulati’s The People of the Indus is a different magnitude: a full-length treatment of the archeology of the Indus Valley civilization in graphic novel (as comic books have come to be known) format. It is not, of course, the first such book: Jing Liu, for example, did a multi-volume “Understanding China Through Comics” set a few years ago.
The People of the Indus is a difficult book to review, not least because it intends to introduce serious scientific, historical and even contemporary political concepts and issues in what is still a non-traditional format. The graphic form is much more inefficient per square inch than text in conveying information, but one might invoke the old 80/20 rule: the right 20% of the text might suffice to convey the basics and the images might help with absorption.
At least for kids: it’s less clear that the same calculation applies to adults. While The People of the Indus is nominally directed (primarily) at student readers, the ideas and discussion (to say nothing of the vocabulary, which includes such usages as “constructs” and “imagined orders”) are complex and sophisticated enough that only the oldest students are likely to profit from it.
Further, while it is clear why, for an Indian or South Asian readership, Gulati chose the Indus civilization to cover as a combined introduction to ancient history and archaeology, it is not the most obvious choice for a graphic novel treatment. Unlike Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, China, Mesoamerica or even Stonehenge, the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro have no great buildings or monuments—no pyramids, no ziggurats—to draw pictures of. Nor, because the script remains indecipherable, are there any stories or names of people: there is no Harappan Ramses, Gilgamesh, Sargon, Romulus or Agamemnon. There is as result very little to build a story around. Nikhil’s solution is, in part, to insert himself as a (friendly) graphic guide and to introduce some (entirely invented) stories and characters.
Gulati also apparently—and, given the target audience, understandably—felt the need to introduce and explain some basic concepts of archaeology, such as stratification and the development of agriculture and writing. However, any reader outside the region likely to pick the book up will equally likely have come across these concepts before. Conversely, Gulati can reasonably assume that his readers have some basic background in the culture of the Subcontinent: the significance, for example, of equating the Saraswati of the Vedas with dried-up river Ghaggar is something that might be lost on readers from elsewhere in the English-speaking world.
Gulati has set on the whole met the challenging task he set himself rather well. The book is full of fascinating tidbits and asks, if not always answers, a series of intriguing questions: what did the people of the Indus not build pyramids and why is there no real evidence of either kings or warfare?
The black and white artwork is appealing, expressive and (to my eye) culturally neutral, although the stylistic consistency has resulted in the often stunning artifacts and often well-known objets-d’art of the period being rendered as drawings rather than as photos.
The text is clear, although there is occasional use of terms like “trade networks” and “arsenic bronze” as though their meaning and significance were obvious, something one cannot perhaps assume when targeting a first-time readership.
He invents a few stories, some very short, all quite evocative, to provide a human connection. One is of a family of craftsmen moving to the city; another of a young man traveling to Mesopotamia to try his luck in international trade; a third is a several-page wordless story of how precious stones end up in a necklace. While based on inference rather than actual evidence, they seem reasonable enough. But one is of a girl learning to write along with boys and becoming a scribe: one can understand why Gulati configured the story in this way, but it risks projecting modern social concerns onto a very different Bronze Age society.
Gulati also dives headfirst into the various controversies that swirl around the topic, including those driven by the attempt to force Bronze Age India into the pro-Hindu historical narrative of the current Government. Gulati has made the decision not to attempt to be definitive but to identify the known unknowns and to indicate that there are unknown unknowns: he leaves many questions open-ended. This was a choice, and perhaps the right one, but which makes the book as a whole less accessible to readers outside South Asia for whom the politics, at any rate, are a somewhat obscure issue.
For a book otherwise careful about what is known and what not, it contains a few unfortunate statements that look like errors. One of these is that “The first cities were where we would … pioneer the use of metals and the wheel, and explore chemistry and astronomy …” The wheel, it is now commonly accepted, was developed by nomadic societies on the steppe and astronomy (as evidenced by such sites as Stonehenge) predates cities. Gulati in general equates urbanism with civilization and this in turn with a higher state of human existence, which—I think it is fair to say—is a somewhat outdated view.
Elsewhere he says that “Malaria and cholera are easily spread by contaminated water”; malaria is spread by mosquitoes. Less seriously, perhaps, he writes that “Sea trade with places as far as Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and parts of Iran), Oman and Central Asia began.” Central Asia is land-locked. The latter perhaps qualifies as a typo, but with professional archeologist, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, it should perhaps have been caught.
Given the speed with which our understanding of pre- and ancient history is advancing, The People of the Indus is likely to need updating within a few years. If Gulati undertakes this, one might hope he would also turn his evident abilities to other Bronze Age civilizations, both as additional context, but also to provide a still rare non-Western perspective on developments which all too often portrayed, especially in books for younger readers in the English-speaking world, as leading inexorably to what is known as “Western Civilization”.