It is early evening as I make my way to George Mathen’s third floor apartment. For George (who publishes under the pen name Appupen), it is really the start of his day. And I am already his first interruption. Large mugs are out and the options are a strong and bitter coffee or a strong and spiced chai. The walls are painted with characters from Halahala (the imaginary world of his graphic novels) and interspersed with framed pop culture pictures and posters, some rather bizarre – I can’t tell you what, here. The small living room also doubles up as his studio with a drawing table propped in the centre. Bookshelves display his collection of what else but graphic novels, and a makeshift dining table for two overlooks the window. The view from the window is of a parking lot, that belongs to the Leela Palace, a 7-star hotel in town, which is being transformed into luxury apartments. I also spot the open-to-the-sky pub with its strange metal structures (“ugly pub” as George calls it, and that serves as a landmark to his home). George laments about the construction and the dust it brings in he also admits to spending hours watching it. The real world around him is changing rapidly and it is imminent then that Halahala should change too.
Halahala, George’s mythical world, draws from the real world in many aspects but plunging into a deep dark zone of its own at other times. George’s propensity for the dark with a side of humor is evident in his novels. Halahala also keeps changing in form and has become more layered and convincing with each book. While two titles already out, the third, a work-in-progress, White City, will feature a central female character who, as George describes, “falls into her own plot and represents the narrowness of our own freedom.”
It isn’t just the plot that George is experimenting with this time but the form too. With another year to go before its release, George is hard at work on 220 full-page silent illustrations.
“Using full-page illustrations automatically changes the pace of the novel,” he confesses. Taking me through some of the preliminary sketches, George takes on the part of an animated storyteller, this time outside of his drawings. He talks of the imaginary White City in Halahala in great detail but is careful to leave out plot-related twists. There is so much more detail in the drawings and I am riveted.
I drink chai and bite into some Christmas cake when George brings out a baking tin from the refrigerator and shows me some banana bread he’s baked. I am not allowed to try it; he’s not being rude, only certain that I won’t like it. “My sister calls it banana concrete. Somebody gave me a recipe long ago and I began modifying it. Slowly. And once there was no baking powder at home and it still turned out alright. I have since, eliminated the baking powder altogether,” he explains. Every week, he says, he bakes a fresh batch of this stuff and stocks it for his midnight munching. I seem to have stumbled upon a favorite topic with George for he speaks at length about food. “I cook my own food. I grill chicken and bake banana bread. I feel a lot more secure. In fact, just having my fridge stocked up can make me feel full.”
I nod vaguely; kitchen talk is not where I can wax eloquent. We go back to talking about his schedule for the next year which is dedicated to the new book, and supported by a grant. I imagine an easier life, more focussed and happily spent doing what he loves. “I try to spend 12-14 hours a day drawing,” he says, shattering my mental picture of what his day may be like. “While 14 looks ambitious most of the time, I can manage 12. I work through the night and sleep at 6 am. I have deleted the idea of weekends and work everyday. But I try not to push myself on days when I am tired.”
Sounds like all work and no play but George insists he has a social life, and that he hops out for a beer occasionally. Almost defensively, he even adds, “I had a few friends over last night.” But does working by himself in the dead of the night, on a silent book mean deadening silence. Even in the city.
“I‘m good alone and fairly possessive of my time and space. It’s a kind of meditation and relies on you being at peace with yourself. Conversations are distracting, and I am better without it when working. I need all my attention to make a better page. Almost a complete shut off.
A finished page will take at least a day and I’m working on a 250-pager now, so it’s not fair to expect company through it, even if I want it. It may not work out.
I prefer it alone when I’m ‘cracking’ the story too – it usually starts deep down on some thought. Once I think it’s taken form I like to bounce it off a few people to see their reactions, to see if I stressed on the right points.
I read or play a movie when I get sick of the work, or the silence, or loneliness. (Yes, it happens, but it’s part of the deal.) I go for a run. Music is always good. And I can take a crack at my drums [George was once part of an indie band called Lounge Piranha.]
Tarkovsky was asked if he had any advice for the younger generation and he said they should learn to spend time alone. I did hear this when I was much younger. Over time I think I’ve begun to understand why he said it. Also he said it a while back, so being alone with your phone doesn’t count.”
The Tarkovsky he mentions is the famous Soviet filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky. Theatre and film were George’s beginning. Living in Mumbai, he dreamed of making animation films. A publisher noticed his sketches and that led to the publication of his first graphic novel, Moonward. It was his publishers, he says, who pointed out that he was repeating himself in the speech, egging him to drop words from his work. And he has never regretted it. Nor has he regretted giving up film for the graphic novel. It’s a return to the basics, in a way, that’s been a conscious choice.
We subside into a thoughtful silence. Outside, the construction has stopped for the day. George’s desk is hollering for his attention but he is too polite to say anything. He offers to walk me out through the winding bylanes. And when I leave, I can see that he can’t wait to return to Halahala.
The featured banner includes sketches from George “Appupen” Mathen’s Aspyrus.