A Graphic Novel from India

by AFP/Uttara Choudhury, May 11, 2004 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

NEW DELHI, May 10, 2004 - India's first graphic novel is played out in the urban jungle among the alienated and the enlightened and their offbeat views on reality have made it a surprise success in the country's book industry.

Sarnath Banerjee's "Corridor," the first Indian novel written entirely in comic-book style, is set for a reprint after its first 2,000 copies were snatched up by booksellers within just one month. The novel centres around long-haired, wiry Jehangir Rangoonwalla, a dispenser of tea, wisdom and second-hand books in New Delhi's cluttered downtown shopping hub Connaught Place. "Jehangir received enlightenment in an elevator in Bombay and then quit needing to seek the universe. The universe now drops by at his bookshop," explained Banerjee, a 31-year-old illustrator and filmmaker.

"He is a bit like me. He loves gathering trivia and knows obscure things like the way Marx preferred his eggs and details of Mick Jagger's constipation," said Banerjee -- who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to his fictional character.

Among Rangoonwalla's customers are Brighu, a modern-day adventurer desperate for a lover; Digital Dutta, torn whether to choose Marxist ideology or a US visa; and Shintu, a newlywed scouring Delhi's seedy bylanes for the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Penguin India, which published "Corridor," has the first rights to Banerjee's forthcoming second graphic novel set in his native Calcutta.

Once the preserve of nerdy teenagers, comics and graphic novels have found a much wider and more sophisticated reading public in recent years. Some treat serious themes -- such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, Art Spiegelman's dramatization of the Holocaust -- while others bring a new twist to the superhero genre and have been turned into Hollywood blockbusters.

Banerjee said the interest in his first book showed that contemporary Indian culture was "very parched and needs a bit of watering here and there."

"The cultural forms in India are closing down to a certain homogenisation. Our choices are limited to politics, cricket and fashion design -- and Bollywood, of course," Banerjee said.

Cartoons in India, Banerjee said, were usually political sketches drawn up after stuffy editorial meetings or syndicated works produced abroad. "There is a certain system of humour which Indian comics have never gone out of. So something like mine which is a slice of life that talks about normal people suddenly becomes wacky but it's not meant to be so wacky."

"We should have a shelf dedicated to comic books in India. We find ourselves in a cultural vacuum and need to redefine what is cool -- we need to find other forms of expression," he said. "Maybe that is why 'Corridor' has worked. Even my publishers are surprised by the reaction the comic book has received."

A senior editor at Penguin India said the positive response to "Corridor" was in part because it was the country's first graphic novel. "But we think its success really lies in the fact that it is everything a comic can be," the editor said.

Banerjee, who lectured and worked day jobs in London and Chicago as he completed his novel, has not always had such an enthusiastic reception in India. "I was rejected a couple of times -- a publisher even proclaimed we (Indians) were not sophisticated enough to read comic novels. For one and a half years I continued to make comics without anyone remotely interested." Banerjee also found the time to complete two short films, "Bengali Tourist" and "Hakim Tartoosie's Potency Oil" which returns to the theme of finding the perfect aphrodisiac.

But Banerjee said his first love would remain comics. "You pay me money, I will do comics, you don't pay me money I will still do comics," Banerjee said. "In films the quirky ideas always end up in the dustbin. The freedom you get in working on a comic book makes you dizzy, especially if you get a good editor who lets you dance around and do your own stuff."

* * * * *