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The TANGO between panels

Sarnath Banerjee's graphic novel is freaky and post-modern. So is the man

Sarnath Bannerjee: His reader is someone whom he likes to "rather pretentiously call post-literate". — Photo: K. Gopinathan

WHAT ON earth is a graphic novel? That's what I wondered when told that Corridor, the first graphic novel of India by Sarnath Bannerjee, was being launched at Oxford Bookstore. And when I got hold of a copy of the book and leafed through it, my first thought was: now, why such a grandiose name for a comic book?!

But one Google search later, I felt a bit smarter. Oblivious as I may have been to it, the graphic novel, as a form, is a little over 25 years old. And when I actually read Corridor, I realised that it's most certainly not in the league of Phantom, Archie, or Tintin. As someone put it, it's "Kafkaesque, has sex" and is definitely an adult read. Adult, not as in porn, though Sarnath did research in the shadowy bylanes of Old Delhi for a month for all that stuff on aphrodisiacs in the book — no, it didn't come from Hustler hidden between the pages of physics textbook. But all that apart, Corridor is an awfully clever book and a delightful read: a freaky, multi-layered, post-modern look at the irony-ridden urban condition.

Corridor meanders through the lives of a bunch of confused urban youngsters — Digital Dutta, the north Kolkata man torn between Karl Marx and H1-B Visa; Brighu, a compulsive collector and a contemporary version of Ibn Batuta; Shintu, newly married and searching for the ultimate aphrodisiac; and D.V.D. Murthy, a malodorous forensic expert with a penchant for Keats. They are all visitors to the second-hand bookstore of Jehangir Rangoonwalla in a corridor in Connaught Place. Rangoonwalla tells one of his phirang, vipasana-learning customers that he received enlightenment ("that it all comes down to chewing your food well") in an elevator in Nariman Point. Past all seekings, he has reached a state where he considers his bookshop the centre of the universe, from where he doles out not only books, but also tea and wisdom in generous doses.

Corridor is witty, and yet so soul-searching and angsty. As Sarnath puts it, the book has about it an "underlying knowledge that in the city some people meet, chat and part, some never do, living with the frustrating notion that the person sitting in the train, three seats away could be a potential lover, or the woman who just walked in possesses a rare LP of Woody Guthrie, which she has no use for". Pity, cosmic accidents that bring people together rarely ever happen.

But graphic novel is a tag that Sarnath, who studied image and communications at Goldsmiths College, University of London, is not quite comfortable with himself. It's a publishers' jargon that one learns not to pick a quarrel with after a while. "It's an attempt at giving it the legitimate literature status, given that in the English-speaking world, a comic book is either obliged to be funny or adolescent power fantasies for boy-men," he says, pushing back his hay-like hair, even as the cigarette between the fingers threatens to set it on fire. The nomenclature, I learn, was an accident. Will Eisner, who wrote the first graphic novel in 1978, thought of it just as he was talking to a publisher on the phone for the fear that the man on the other end might hang up if he called it a "comic book".

Sarnath is as irked about the running word always being placed higher in the hierarchy over the visual image. Some have even dismissed a graphic novel as a gimmick. "But an image can explore the larger realities of life, and quite easily at that..." He talks of the "creative tension between word and image" and how the "final tango between the reader and the text" is completely unpredictable. "It's in between the panels that the imagination really works."

It does really work wonderfully in Corridor. Consider, for instance, the chapter where Digital Dutta has a Bollywood-style fight with goons. Jostling for space inside his head are Nargis of Mother India, the quintessential mother Nirupa Roy, and all the icons from the Left pantheon — from Marx, Mao, and Che to our own Jyoti Basu. They form a strange collage in the mind of the triumphant "hero" (just as they do on the pages), who is finally felled by a malaria mosquito. Later, as the aphrodisiac expert holds forth on good habits to Shintu, it is those typical images from a moral science textbook that tell you the tale. The film shown at the launch, based on the Tartoosie's sure-fire aphrodisiac episode, was brilliant for the way it travelled between various media — puppets, narrative, music, film, graphics, and so on.

But being able to read between the panels also means being someone "who can talk about Roland Barthes and Tintin in one breath". His reader is someone who Saranth likes to "rather pretentiously call post-literate". A little like himself, who is a "film geek", grew up reading Bahadur comics, and came to be greatly influenced by writers like Rushdie, Borges, and Proust.

But Corridor might work with even those who haven't read Barthes and Derrida back to back because it has about it a sense of humour — juxtaposing the heroic and the banal, the serious and the flippant, deconstructing these categories themselves in the process.

But Sarnath jumps up at the word "humour". "This book is unfunny," he insists. Humour is not something you put in, people often "are" like that. The book isn't autobiographical, but he does know a bookseller who is rather like Rangoonwala. And Sarnath's girlfriend is annoyed because one of the characters looks like her.

Intentions apart, the book comes alive in humour (or irony, if that sounds less pedestrian) in its tango with the readers. Would this form work if it didn't happen? Sarnath talks about the various experiments with the form: Palestine, by Joe Sacco, depicts the harsh realities of the ravaged land. It has an introduction by none other than Edward Said. Alan Moore's From Hell documents the search for the real Jack the Ripper and Art Spiegelman's Maus is one of the best memoirs on the Holocaust. One of his own projects in the pipeline — most likely in Bangalore — would be an attempt at mapping an urban neighbourhood in comic book form.

It's time we learnt to see a graphic novel as simply "a way of telling stories" and discover its own poetry, argues Sarnath. "Comics alone can redefine what comics can do," he adds, as he fishes out his cell phone from the pocket, which looks as if it has been through a concrete mixer. I discover that he has written his own number on a strip of paper and stuck it on the mobile, lest he forgets it. "I'm a technophobe!" he says. That strikes me as another irony in a man who works with graphics, a form that has seen great technological advances. Sarnath, who loves the "definitiveness of hand", keeps off the computer till the last phase of production. As Rangoonwala would say: "People are like onions baba, they have layers and layers..."


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