28 September 2007

Getting There

The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers
By Sarnath Banerjee
Penguin Books India
Pages 263
Rs 395

In the West, the graphic novel is an exploding category in publishing. Graphic novels win Pulitzers and figure in the Top-100-Novels lists of influential magazines. They tackle pretty much the same ground as literary novels do, hence they can be complex, difficult, and even simply obtuse like any other New York Times bestseller. Like their picture-less cousins, they are a form that is being defined with every new exemplar.

In India, though the comic form enjoys as much popularity as it does in any culture that has bored, housebound school kids, the graphic novel only emerged recently with Sarnath Banerjee’s charming Corridor. Just over hundred pages long, it is a soulful, witty take on Delhi’s city-town mix, trying to capture “the alienation and fragmented reality of urban life.”

In his second, more ambitious work, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, Banerjee brings Cartaphilus -- the Wandering Jew of the myth, who was cursed by Jesus to roam restlessly around the world till the Second Coming -- to Calcutta. The earliest cosmopolis of the Empire, Calcutta has since long been home to the Armenian diaspora. The Barn Owl conveniently uses one of them as an avatar of the peripatetic Jew: A self-appointed chronicler of the city’s oddballs and their capers, a connoisseur of scandals -- its earliest gossip columnist, who puts it all down in a book called The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers.

Banerjee’s narrative cuts to modern day Kolkata and London, where his alter ego, Pablo, a deracinated, funds-starved, oversexed, long-haired flaneur, juggling non-relationships, a flagging libido, and insatiated Viking Amazons, one day decides that he will go to Calcutta to claim three objects his deceased grandfather had left him in legacy: A pair of Humboldt binoculars, an old Murphy radio, a Norton Pre-War, and the antique book that could fetch a small fortune, the scandalous The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers.

The Barn Owl chugs along from that point as novel of quest, which gives Banerjee an excuse to bring alive Paris, London, and Calcutta in his deceptively casual pen-drawings. The story also traverses time-periods, scouring the armpits of history till it becomes a heady mix like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code -- a potpourri of the occult, history, afternoon sex and other obsessions, and of kooky secret societies.

A compulsive raconteur, Banerjee regales his readers with stories within stories, stories obliquely told, stories that read like exquisitely written shorts and essays. While not contributing much to the plot, they yet add a lot to the graphic novel’s texture and make the form alluringly footloose.

Those who have read some of the celebrated graphic novels -- like Chris Ware’s magnificently drawn exegesis on loneliness, Jimmy Corrigan; Marjane Satrapi’s engaging personal-political memoir, Persepolis; or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, whose sophistication reinfuses Holocaust literature with new poignancy -- are struck by their autobiographical intensity, sustained narratives, depth of characterisation and fearless individuality. Banerjee’s works, though equally nonpareil, choose to be less introspective. His infectious, childlike inquisitiveness about the possibilities of this mix of word and images, is the engine that powers his works. They are not, however, short on something deeper to convey: both Corridor and The Barn Owl could be together read as a meditation on desire and possession. Suffused with the exhilaration of pick-and-choose postmodernism where everything -- even time and space -- coexists simultaneously, Banerjee’s art aspires to be entertaining and cerebral at the same time.

Banerjee’s most abiding contribution to the graphic novel is that so early in the form’s history, he has developed an idiom that is unmistakably Indian, yet world-class. But it will need more than one Sarnath Banerjee to unleash in India a Manga-like tsunami.

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