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Issue Date: November 16-30, 2007, Posted On: 11/20/2007

Indian myths, as told in pen and ink

Saurav Mohapatra writes comics for a living


Mohapatra with his comic, Shiva.

SHREWSBURY, Mass. — When Saurav Mohapatra, 29, talks about comic books, his youthful face twists up into a grin and his voice raises a pitch or two, making it hard not to get as excited as he is about the topic. And he is very, very enamored with his current profession as comic writer.

"I love to tell people who ask me what I do that I write comics, which is another excuse to tell them that I'm sitting at home reading comics while my wife goes out and works," said Saurav Mohapatra, only half jokingly, over lunch at a local Indian restaurant recently.

"You grow up thinking this is a comic book — who created this? Who wrote this? And then, suddenly, you walk into a store and see your name on one," Mohapatra says. "Ahhh, man, it's a great feeling! It's a feeling of being recognized, of finally having reached the place where what you love doing has become what you do for a living, and that's a great place to be."

But it didn't happen overnight for Mohapatra, a resident of Shrewsbury, Mass., who currently writes three comic book series a month for the publisher Virgin Comics.  The graphic novel publishing company is developing a new wave of Indian-inspired original stories and epic myths for a global audience. The company was founded in 2005 by Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Group, celebrity author Deepak Chopra, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, and entrepreneurs Sharad Devarajan, Gotham Chopra, and Suresh Seetharaman.

Like most stories, even those involving the people who tell them for a living, a great deal happened to Mohapatra before he got to where he is today.

Born in Khurda, a small town in Orissa, India, in 1978, Mohapatra attended the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur and graduated with honors in 1999. He immigrated to the United States in 2000, taking a job with an information technology management company called CA, but left the job in 2006 to co-found his own startup company called Dimdim, a free Web conference meeting service based on an open source platform, www.dimdim.com. Shortly after, he said, he encountered an "interesting" situation with his passport status, and had to return to India for a year. This turned out to bring luck to Mohapatra.

It was while in India in September of 2006 that Mohapatra's wife, Preeti — who remained in the United States — sent him an email with a link to a newspaper article about Virgin Comics and the new publisher's desire to build a comic book universe based around Indian mythology.

Fiction had long been Mohapatra's passion. He was also a fan of comics — he'd written several web comics and, for a time, was extremely active in the Indian game development scene, where he even owns a credit as one of the authors of the Irrlicht 3D Engine. He said he was so excited when he heard about the new Virgin Comics line that he immediately "cold pitched" the publisher, sending his resume and portfolio to Gotham Chopra, Virgin's editor-in-chief and chief creative officer.

Virgin didn't like any of Mohapatra's pitches, but they did like his writing style, and countered by offering him a chance to write a series that the publisher was already developing, "Deepak Chopra Presents — Indian Authentic," which repackages and retells popular Indian myths and legends in comic book form for a modern, global audience.

"It was kind of cool to have Gotham [Chopra] reply back to me," Mohapatra said of the offer.

Nor did Mohapatra waste much time weighing it. Instead, he quickly accepted Virgin's offer, even going so far as to whip up a sample script focusing on the legend of the goddess Kalli (which, in a revised form, would become the second issue of the series) and shooting it back to Gotham Chopra in an email, and, as Mohapatra recalls, "things sorta happened from there."

What happened was that Virgin was so pleased with Mohapatra's work on "India Authentic" that the publisher soon offered him the chance to write two more of its series, "Devi" and "The Sadhu."

Mohapatra wasted no time in accepting both these offers.

"Devi," a monthly, was created by Shekar Kapur, the Academy Award-nominated director of "Elizabeth." Mohapatra took over after ten issues were completed and continued the female superhero story about a girl who discovers that she is the reincarnation of a goddess from ancient times who was created to fight a renegade god named Bala.

"In our time, [Bala] comes back from his imprisonment and another woman is chosen to host the essence of Devi. Normally, the human dies when the god enters her body, but this time the human survives, so it's sort of like she now has the human and the divine in her," Mohapatra explained. 

"The Sadhu" is a story set in 18th century British India about a British soldier whose family is murdered by a superior officer. The soldier is branded a deserter when he tries to take revenge.

"He is found by the Sadhu, who is like a mystic, who basically tells him that he's destined to become the greatest Sadhu of all time even though he's British," said Mohapatra.

Although it may seem like a grueling workload, Mohapatra says that juggling writing chores on three different series at one time is not as difficult as it sounds. In fact, it's actually rather fun, he said.

"As a personal habit, what I've developed, whenever an email comes in, I try to meet it then and there," Mohapatra says. "Any request or anything, if somebody requests a beat sheet or something, immediately I start doing it, so you don't have to plan your priorities. I guess I have multiple parallel threads running in my subconscious at all times, so when the request comes in, it comes in through the foreground of my mind, and I can dump it out. It's worked so far for me."

As a published comic book writer for only a little over a year, Mohapatra freely admits that he is still very much learning his craft, but is more than happy to share some of the insights he has already gleamed from working with the editorial team at Virgin.

"There are different modes of storytelling," Mohapatra said. "If you look at it, some people are good at certain things — some people are good with dialogue, some people are good at descriptions. Comic book storytelling entails a sort of halfway hybrid between an artist and a writer. The artist has to be a bit of a writer, and the writer has to be a bit of an artist. The visualization part cannot just be done by the artist."

As for the future, Mohapatra and his wife Preeti are expecting their first child in February, he remains active with Dimdim, where he serves as the company's director of technology, there's a novel that he's been working on, several screenplays he says he would someday like to write, but, at the moment, it appears as though more and more of his professional time is going to be devoted to his comics. And Mohapatra couldn't be happier.

"Right now I'm developing some other properties with Virgin, so that looks to be very exciting," he said.

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