Rain comes down in gusts. Jungle shrubs scratch hands and faces. Weapons, backpacks and exhaustion weigh down the captain and the men of the Indian Army unit as they inch towards the insurgents. A staccato burst of machine gun fire rips through the quiet dawn as the soldiers battle on resolutely — to finish off the hostile forces, or die trying.
Their heroism will be remembered at the National War Memorial’s wreath-laying ceremony to mark India’s 74th Republic Day. Under the memorial’s four circles (chakras) that showcase murals and tablets with the names of about 30,000 armed forces personnel who fell defending the idea of India, is Smarika, a souvenir store that celebrates military heritage. Among the memorabilia that jostle for space on the shelves are comic books of war heroes, some of whose names are inscribed in the Tyag Chakra above. The books, mostly published by Delhi-based AAN Comics, are combat narratives of soldiers, sailors and airmen who, since Independence, have fought wars, counter-insurgency operations and undertaken dangerous missions.
Rishi Kumar, 41, a graduate of the College of Art, Delhi, established AAN Comics in 2012. “AAN stands for Army, Air Force and Navy,” says Rishi the illustrator, who also does the story boarding and visualisation, and earlier worked in advertising. “My family has veterans, my brother is a serving officer. I grew up on a heavy dose of Commando comics and often wondered why we didn’t have any to celebrate our own war heroes,” says Rishi.
Much before the Indian Army became the modern fighting machine it is, it represented Kipling’s idea of a romantic India. The names of its regiments reflect our diverse origins and are synonymous with adventure. At a time when it was considered taboo to cross the sea, they fought in the Opium Wars, swarmed up the ridge from which the Turks dominated Gallipolli, stemmed the rush of Rommel’s forces in the western Sahara and stormed Pathan outposts in windswept, forbidding terrain. Post-Independence they continue to fight in the harsh valleys of Kashmir and the Northeast, come to civil aid during diasters and have been part of UN peacekeeping missions. “We remember some of their names — mostly Param Vir Chakra awardees. But most of the heroism slips between the cracks in our collective memory. These are the men whose stories I want to tell.”
Beginning with a 100-page comic book on the Siachen saga in 2009, Rishi has, over the past decade, brought out nearly 50 books. “The first, took two years to complete. I choose the stories randomly as there is such a trove of them and began with a series on the Ashok Chakra and Maha Vir Chakra awardees. I was approached to do the one on Lt Nawang Kapadia. Some others were also published even though they are not on gallantry award winners,” says Rishi, adding that endorsement and help from the Army’s ADGPI (Additional Directorate-General of Public Information) has resulted in a vast reach for the comics. “Apart from book stores, the war memorials in Delhi and Leh, and the Army Heritage Museum in Shimla, Army units also have my books. I try to cover stories from across units. So, readers are drawn from Karakoram to Kanyakumari.”
The comic strips are painstakingly researched and move from black-and-white pages to colour as the decades change. Rishi’s gutsy pencils focus on the human face of war without dwelling too long and hard on hyper-nationalism. Only the number of exclamation marks tell us the immediacy of the scene. “Through the ADGPI, the story is sent to units for verification and fact-checked for detail, language and uniform,” says Rishi, adding that he outsources some of the work but the onus is on him, with the family pitching in to run the business side of publishing. Recently, AAN tied up with Harper Collins for the Warrior pack containing 24 books. The comics, when translated into Hindi, have a wider reach, he says.
Currently working on the commando operations of the 1947-48 Indo-Pak War, Rishi counts among his favourites the book on Flying Officer Dara Chinoy who crashed his bomber in Pakistan during the 1965 War and then made a daring escape to India. “His story was charming, because the action was deep inside enemy lines,” says Rishi, adding that video games like Call of Duty have popularised the Allied forces. “We need to create games like that in India, focussing on our military training, acts of secrecy and valour.”
Until then, AAN hopes to bring alive these men who script history with bare hands, bayonets and bravery.
The comics are available online. For details, look up aancomics.com, @aancomics or write to email@example.com