Literary Review

Middleclass myopia

All Quiet in Vikaspuri by Sarnath Banerjee  

Sarnath Banerjee’s fourth graphic novel is an epic tale that could have been. Set in a dystopic future (or is it past?), the book follows the journey of Girish the Psychic Plumber (introduced in his previous book, The Harappa Files) as he drills his way to the centre of the earth in search of the mythical Saraswati, the only source that can put an end to the bloody water wars of Delhi that set localities and neighbourhoods against one another. The narrative is in the form of a fable and that works perfectly for a story of mythical rivers, mythical wars and mythical punishments. The artwork is self-assured but not brilliant and so is the writing. But the story hits the jackpot with its concept. 

All Quiet in Vikaspuri belongs to that category of post-liberalisation Indian fiction that can now claim to be a genre (post-liberalisation literature, maybe?). It is of, from and by the urban middle-classes.

While the pre-liberalisation middle-class always felt victimised by the Kafkaesque licence raj, the new breed of storytellers recognises that the urban middle-class has long run out of excuses and, what is more, it is, in fact, the enforcers of corporate crime (by complicity or ignorance) rather than its passive victims.

This viewpoint is now beginning to trickle into mainstream visual storytelling. A case in point is Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai. Banerjee puts his points across quite well through sub-plots, musings and conversations, but the book’s weakest point is its characters.

They work well as tropes for satire but fail to become anything more than just names and back stories. He fails to come up with proper personal motivations for why his characters do what they do and even when he attempts it just once, he fails to rise above the Bollywood flashback.

This is normally only a minor irritant in a comic book. But what fuels indignation is the potential each character has before they lose Banerjee’s favour. 

The book is in panels, unlike The Harappa Files. His maturity as an artist is clearly visible, as he trades visual gimmicks for clarity and dynamism. But some of his full page drawings are too simplistic and devoid of character to be able to stand on their own.

The narrative and the speech bubbles are handwritten in Banerjee’s now established style, but one can’t help but feel that the font size could have been a point or two bigger for more ease of reading. The text has a couple of typos, which normally isn’t a lot, but in a book that has about a 1,000 words in all, this is quite unpardonable. 

Banerjee is at his best when he is dealing with the myopia of the haves. For instance, when Gurgaon residents are asked where their water and electricity comes from, they proudly reply: the building! The building provides electricity. The building provides water. The writer maps out the problems of privatisation, human rights violations and the culture of short-term solutions with a masterful hand.

In an interview, Banerjee revealed that this was a commissioned project that was later dropped by the company on the charge of being too communist! But that probably explains why issues within the story are dealt with much better than the overall story itself. 

At Rs.799 for a 150-page book, it might be a little pricey for students and struggling professionals but is standard fare for graphic novels and so one can’t complain too much.

The Indian graphic novel scene really needs a Chetan Bhagat who can pull down the price per copy by the assurance of selling enough numbers to turn in a profit. But drawings cost a lot to print and with phones replacing books as the medium of comics consumption, low-price graphic novels might just remain a pipe dream. 

If you are wondering if this book is worth the read, the answer is an emphatic yes.

It is humorous and informative without being too preachy or too much of a burden on one’s brain. The topic is current and even though the book is seemingly set in a dystopian future, the issues dealt with are all very much a part of the present (that is probably why the book’s setting contains more elements from the recent past than imaginations of a distant future).

So read it if you are a graphic novel buff, but read it even if you aren’t. Read it if you want to look at yourself in the mirror and engage with the reality that stares back at you.

All Quiet in Vikaspuri; Sarnath Banerjee, HarperCollins, Rs.799.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 5:40:54 AM |

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