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Knit Wit

Bellyful of Delhi

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A witty online graphic novel using Instagrammed pictures sets out to capture urban angst amongst the capital's twenty-somethings.

Arjun Jassal and Aazar Anis are seven chapters into publishing their graphic novel, Delhi Hectic. Using Instagram pictures, most of which were clicked by Jassal over a two-year period, the onlineonly graphic novel tells the story of a Delhi that the two writers know intimately. This is the Delhi of 80s-style retro parties where songs like Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy are played;of pretentious book launches where a young author says she wants to write a book about a "non-traditional" woman like herself;of bars where you meet painters who claim their chosen method of expression is painting toilet bowls and leaving them in the open.

"Delhi Hectic came about because Aazar and I wanted to meet people and we were a little obsessed with Scott Pilgrim, " says 28-year-old Jassal, referring to the series of graphic stories by Bryan Lee O'Malley about 23-year-old Canadian Scott Pilgrim. The fictional character is a slacker and part-time musician who lives in Toronto and plays bass guitar in a band.

Urban angst is also a reason. "It was December 31, 2011. We decided to stay in and play games instead of going out partying. We got really lonely that night, but didn't want to accept it. We felt it was really silly to be so lonely in a city of 16 million people, " says Jassal. The two friends decided to embark on a unique personal project - that of not turning down a single invitation, be it for coffee, beer or just "chilling".

"We did it for most of 2012, but no matter where we were and who we met, we didn't feel too comfortable and not really with 'it'. So we decided to write about how we felt and just put it out there, " he explains.

From Scott Pilgrim to the much more difficult to find Concrete series - featuring a man whose brain is transplanted into a large, stone body by aliens - Jassal and Anis have long been fans of graphic novels. Creating one of their own was but a step forward. "But what should it be about? The answer came to us almost instantly - about our lives in Delhi, " says Anis. Their first plan was to create a more conventional graphic novel/ webcomic with hand-drawn illustrations, but the artist they were in talks with suddenly decamped to Kolkata. "It served as a swift push for us to have a more DIY approach - from writing, to taking pictures to promoting it on the internet - now we could and were doing everything ourselves, " says Anis. While Jassal is an engineer by training who went on to study communications in India and the UK and founded his own digital media company, Anis has also studied communications, worked as a journalist and is an advertising copywriter today. Delhi Hectic considers itself more XKCD and Watchmen than a graphic novel like Persepolis, which came fully formed into the world.

The popular webcomic XKCD and Alan Moore's classic are serialised works: while one is an ongoing work in which every frame is independent yet part of a larger narrative, the other was famously serialised in a more conventional way as a limited series by DC Comics. Initially, Delhi Hectic was conceptualized in 12 chapters but now the two writers say they may want to extend it beyond that. "It is episodic in nature with a pattern that will emerge as more of the comic unfolds online. Yet, every frame can be seen on its own, " says Jassal. How do they write it? Once they have selected their setting and the story they sift through the 200-plus Instagram images Jassal clicked on his smart phone over two years. If they feel the need to do a fresh shoot to capture a particular place or mood, Jassal takes new pictures. Each chapter starts with a central thought and about 500-700 words, which get whittled until they distil the thought down to around 170 words per chapter. Each frame is dense with feeling and imagery, yet sparse.

There are no plans to create a dead-tree version of the online graphic novel yet, though one of the most frequently asked questions from readers - of whom there have been more than 17, 000 in less than a month - is if they can "buy it on Flipkart". "It is more a digital experience than an analog experience, " says Jassal.

At its core, Delhi Hectic is the story of two regular Delhi boys trying to connect to a tiny portion of the city's population. "It's also about trying to find a place to fit in this jigsaw puzzle where you sometimes feel you don't belong, " says Anis. It's a story about the peculiar loneliness one can feel only in the heart of a megacity, when you're surrounded by millions. "

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