by Sarnath Banerjee
Many moons ago Sepoy posted about the forthcoming ‘first ever’ graphic novel from India, Corridor, by Sarnath Banerjee. I picked up Corridor in Delhi a few years ago and recently learned that Banerjee had a new ‘second ever’ graphic novel coming out, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers. It wasn’t that easy to get a copy here, but after a few months, I did manage to get one through Biblio.com. Interested parties in the US should try persuading indiaclub.com to carry the book, since they seem to be the most reliable distributors of Indian books here, although others are claiming to carry it as well (unless you have a source in India who can send, or are willing to splurge for the $1500-$2000 ticket; totally worth it, btw).
After reading Barn Owl and rereading Corridor, I’m pleased to say that I don’t even know how to begin to describe Banerjee’s work. Penguin India is clearly pleased with the idea that they have published the first and second ever graphic novels in India. The blurbs on the book jackets and the press releases on their website are clear testament to their ‘first!’ mentality. Put these two books in those categories if you like, but really they defy generic classification. If ever I meet Sarnath Banerjee, I shall give him a standing ovation for getting such amazingly unclassifiable, intelligent and thought-provoking work published in a trade press, and convincing his publishers to launch a new genre for the purpose. Now that’s a first.
In a way, it’s not really possible to think of anything to write about these books that would be facile and reductionist enough for the book review genre. One can always try, however, so let us start by creating a list of things that are important in both Corridor and Barn Owl:
1. Urban geography
3. People hanging around
4. The origins of things
5. Abstract ideas
Corridor, Banerjee’s first work, is much thinner (in terms of its physical dimensions) than Barn Owl, and contains fewer themes. This is not a function of its length, but, one speculates, the ambitions of the author, and the nature of his many grants (this link contains lots of good images from Corridor), which, according to his account in one interview, may perhaps work to both limit and broaden the horizons of his work, like so many paths he stumbles upon and happily adopts, allowing them to choose for him his course of action as though they were, or because they are, a part of the creative process.
Corridor takes place in Delhi and Barn Owl takes place in Calcutta (and also London and Paris). Cities and urban geography are much more than settings in both books. Banerjee clearly enjoys recreating architectures and cartographies in his drawings. In Barn Owl, in a technique he employs on and off, he introduces photographs of Calcutta, of buildings, of streets, of landmarks, sometimes drawing and painting over parts or all of them, and sometimes allowing them to stand on their own. In Corridor, the mapping of Connaught Circle is of primary importance and serves to center the narrative, much of which takes place in a bookshop in the outer circle. In Barn Owl, the geography and buildings of London are carefully represented, as are sections of Paris. But we understand what’s really important when we get to the middle of the book and a section on the favorite Bengali fish hilsa: how to find it, how to buy it, how to eat it. The city settings have a deep red background and photography, drawings and paintings are ornately intermingled. Kolkata’s fish market is the Oz to everywhere else in the world’s Kansas. The layering of histories and drawings produces a remarkable atmosphere for Banerjee’s cities that is seldom found in books that just have words in them.
Lest we worry that the emphasis on cities and urban geography might be a tiresome nod to the current theoretical vogue of ‘The City’ (don’t forget to say ‘The City’ in the same tone you might say ‘Port wine reduction’ or ‘wild mushroom risotto’), rest assured that though these two books may well be used, or may have already been used, as fodder for the great Trendy Theory mill, they have not been written for the mill, and take a genuine delight in the cities they describe. In fact, Banerjee has already digested the theories that pertain to his work and openly incorporated them into the body of the text. Abstract ideas can be found throughout both books, but particularly in Barn Owl, where the author’s familiarity with philosophy and theory is made quite clear. I don’t think I’ve read many works of fiction, besides maybe some of those long Russian and French books, where characters and omniscient narrators feel so comfortable chatting about the complex ideas of philosophers and theorists. I think my favorite moment of this kind is a sequence of cells that begins with a drawing of Walter Benjamin, captioned with the following words:
In his celebrated essay on storytellers, Walter Benjamin, the great German theorist and the patron saint of many a budding philosopher, spoke of three categories of storyteller.
Then in the speech bubble coming out of Benjamin’s mouth, we see:
The first category comprises seafarers and travellers, mostly explorers or traders by profession. For example…
What follows is this series of drawings of the first category of travelers, which shows how these overt references to theory are woven easily into the work and embellished with imaginative details that feed into the visual depictions of the ideas. After listing four storytellers in this category, Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Hueng Tsang and Jules Verne, the narration continues from the mouth of Tintin, standing near a cliff overlooking the sea (with Snowy):
These were usually restless men with fancy headgears, given to telling slightly fabricated stories of their travels; frequently, they produced politically incorrect ethnographic accounts.
Banerjee uses text to describe the seafaring storytellers on the basis of his own drawings of Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, et al., which upon inspection, do show a predilection for fancy headgear. Tintin is then thrown into the mix, a cartoon character that just might fit into this theoretical category as well. The relationship between the words and the images allows for a type of ambiguity and connection through proximity that is not achievable in those words-only kinds of texts that some people are so attached to.
Theories lead us to the theme of…people hanging around, since many theories, histories and ideas are discussed in both works over the course of adda sessions in Connaught Circle and various cafes, streets and parks in Calcutta. Hanging around and shooting the breeze is the theme that binds Corridor, where the disparate stories that are told about denizens of the city are cohered in the conversations that take place over games of chess in a crowded bookstore in the outer circle. In Barn Owl, the first person narrator, who is sort of the main character, is engaged in a quest to find several items belonging to his grandfather that got lost upon his death. This quest mostly involves hanging around with various characters who have no information for him but have much to say on a variety of topics. His main guide in this is Digital Dutta, a character who appears in Corridor as well. Digital Dutta is the fourth type of storyteller, the kind that Benjamin had neglected to theorize:
There is also a fourth category, that doesn’t find mention in Benjamin’s essay. Digital Dutta belongs to this elite club of chroniclers who seldom travel in space and almost never in time. The traveler of the mind, uncramped by expensive trans-continental flights or unfriendly immigration staff.
We learn that:
Digital Dutta learned about life from the narrow by-lanes of North Calcutta and the french philosopher Roland Barthes, who taught him never to assume that what you see is what is. He knows everything he deems necessary from a library handed down tot him by three generations of ancestors. A library he continually feeds and waters to the point of bursting.
Digital Dutta, like Jehangir Rangoonwalla, the bookseller in Corridor, is the pivot around which the action takes place. Both of these characters are intellectuals whose vast knowledge and learning are contrasted with their unpretentiousness and absolute rootedness in the immediate geography of their city neighborhoods. The conversations between these characters and the protagonists, who are generally less intellectual and less rooted in place (and, presumably, spend more time being inconvenienced by trans-continental flights and unfriendly immigration officials) create an avenue for exposition, explanation and elaborate description through words and images in both books.
It is through these conversations that the origins of things are often discussed, although interestingly, in Barn Owl, many originary stories are presented in a manner that is not framed by conversation, and appear to stand on their own. In this cell, for example, we see the crescendo of a lengthy description of the origin of the term Babu, how it is used by whom, and what it means now. This image, with its real life photograph of the awesome piles of forms that paper the classic babu-scape of Indian bureaucracy, and the perfect drawing of the babu who might command such a post, ties this history together with the neat little punchline in his speech bubble.
Historical events are often narrated in what seems to be the third person, until a first person narrator suddenly pipes up and explains that he knows these things because he was there. No need to spoil the plot, if these elements of the book can be considered plot at all, but these first person intrusions, and the regular adda sessions, and the quest, and the geography of the city all intertwine, and it is only afterwards (and maybe after reading the whole book again a few times) that we realize the exact nature of the connections, and how they are linked by different forms of conversation, and who is holding the conversations with whom, and, most of all, that the origins of things, understanding them, tracing them, inventing them and embellishing them, contain the why of the book.
Banerjee has been interviewed quite a bit in the Indian press about his two books. The interviews are often quite entertaining and sometimes puzzling. One gets the impression that, more often than not, the interviewers don’t quite know what to make of the books, and know less what to make of Banerjee. Some interviewers deal with this quandary by simply quoting him directly at length in order to avoid summarizing what he has said. I have found only one interview with Banerjee in which his interlocutor gives him the space to be lucid, and his responses there are quite thought-provoking (possibly because the interviewer is science fiction writer Samit Basu, who has also written the stories for the Indian comic series Devi; the interview is for his blog, so Banerjee was able to answer fluently and at length in writing to his questions). I was most intrigued by his analysis of how graphic novels work in terms of the work that a reader does (this in response to a question about comics being used to convey simple public interest educational messages):
This is an error in Judgement, because comics requires a more complex (if not complicating) mode of reading. For example, the text and the image often run independent of each other, sometimes they even conflict or contradict the other, in some of the best of comics the text and the pictures are locked in some kind of creative tension, this I feel is very much the grammar of comics.
In comics the words and the pictures together create units of meanings that neither can by themselves. Then there is the gutter space that exists between panels, which is where the comics creator relies a great deal on the comprehension of the reader. In short the reader must participate in an active manner to read comics.
Therefore when someone says, “What do I read first, text or the image?” you know it is a lost case.