Of true and false histories

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SLANTING THE STORY Sarnath Banerjee: `I've had to wade through a lot of truth to get to the integral lie'
SLANTING THE STORY Sarnath Banerjee: `I've had to wade through a lot of truth to get to the integral lie'

With his second graphic novel The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers, Sarnath Banerjee explores the forgotten dark corners of history

Almost the first thing one notices about Sarnath Banerjee's characters, particularly those that people his second graphic novel, "The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers", is the size of their noses. Large, hooked and dominant, many of Banerjee's characters are defined by them. "I've always had a fetish for going out with women with large noses," laughs the author. "I was this strange, weird man that liked to look at women's noses. Of course, I ended up marrying someone with a normal-sized nose." So are the noses Freudian? "We're living in very Freudian times. Look at the size of our cars. The need for an extra bedroom is supplemented by the size of our cars, and Freud is poised right there in between." Banerjee himself is rather up front and unapologetic about his interest in human sexuality, an integral component of the exploration of scandal and the nature of secondary history that he carries out in "The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers". Sexuality is an integral component of our personality, he explains."It's high time we started talking about it. There are many other forms of pornography, which have little to do with sex."Those cringing at the idea of "The Barn Owl's... " being a pornographic text, however, can relax. The focus of Banerjee's work, is the relationship between real and fake histories. "The history itself is manufactured, but the rigour, the process of gathering information is where the history comes in. For instance, the gun used by Sir Phillip Francis in the novel is the real gun used by him. The process of getting history from gazettes, food menus, invites and so on is a rigorous process. I've had to wade through a lot of truth to get to the integral lie," he says. "I am interested in the history from the point of a stableboy, or a uniform-maker for instance. I want to bring the truth, but not give it the status that receives elsewhere." So it is, that besides the content itself, there are various other ways that the book explores the domain between the sacred and the profane. The images in the novel, for instance, vary from hand-drawn images to photographs to interlaced hybrid images where a hand-drawn character is superimposed over a photograph, thus creating a hybrid medium that is "trying hard to create its own identity. There is nothing sacred in the novel. I guess it's the curse of my education. I studied the anthropology of the image, and have always dealt in the philosophy of image-making, image-watching... The only sacred thing about my graphic novels is that I will not touch Photoshop, because I believe that is a desecration."This cutting crossways through the generally perceived shape of an entity is also clearly visible in the way Banerjee treats Calcutta, arguably the protagonist of the novel. "I've done the butcher's cut on Calcutta," he says. "In meat-eating cultures, the price of the meat is not just determined by the quality, but also by the hand that cut it. That's what I've done to the city. Calcutta was always a distinctly European city, and it was the second city of the empire. It was cosmopolitan even before people in other cities knew how to spell cosmopolitan. But look where it is today. Have we become like Timurlane's Samarkand, or like Khartoum?" Among other things, it is this question that Banerjee attempts to explore with his cut, he says, which achieves a similar function to what the film "Amelie" did for Paris. But the obsession with cities doesn't end at Calcutta for Banerjee. Instead, it stretches further outward, exploring the idea of phantom cities in general. "The ghost of one city lives in another. So if film crews want to recreate 18th century London, they go to Prague. This reversibility, these phantom cities that live in our heads interest me. I think, for my generation, it comes from living in the Nehruvian wasteland, when Nike had a mythical status because Carl Lewis used to wear them."And now comes the bad news. Despite all the fun he has had working with the medium of images, Banerjee will not follow up "The Barn Owl's... " with another graphic novel for at least another two or three years. "It's difficult to be the sole practitioner of an art. We live in a world of lobbies, and to be without a group of people who support you is difficult." Meanwhile, his next creative venture will be a series of operas that will see the creation of Banerjee's first real woman character, the five-minute woman who has an orgasm within five minutes no matter who she's with. "She's the kind of girl that men will want to protect, but they're the ones who need protection because she sleeps with men and forgets them, but she remembers the hotel rooms and the paintings on the walls." RAKESH MEHAR




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