Bottom Shelf

If you love Indian graphic novels, don’t forget the one that came at the beginning

Weird people with weirder obsessions made for the weirdest cocktail of stories.

“People are like onions, baba, they have layers and layers...” These are the words of Jehangir Rangoonwala, enlightened seller of used books “in the centre of the universe,” which of course is a corridor in Connaught Place, Delhi. In Corridor, one of the earliest graphic novels to be published in India, artist and filmmaker Sarnath Banerjee uses text and image to portray the complex layers of contemporary urban Indian life.

When I was a child growing up in India, like most of my contemporaries I was introduced to Indian comic books through the Amar Chitra Katha series, those slender, colorful volumes that told stories about mythology, folklore and Indian history. These were the earliest Indian versions of graphic narratives, followed by the Tinkle and Chacha Choudhury series, both enormously popular among young readers. As for adult readers, it was comic strips in newspapers by caricaturists such as RK Laxman that they turned to for their daily fix.

Enter the Indian graphic novel

The first Indian graphic narrative in English, published in 1994 by Orijit Sen, was probably The River of Stories, which told of the controversial construction of dams on the Narmada River. However, it was Corridor, published by Penguin India in 2004, which introduced the mainstream publishing industry in the country to graphic novels. Booksellers snatched up copies of the book in the first month.

Since then, the graphic novel in India has grown in complexity and diversity of topic. Recent examples are Malik Sajad’s Munnu, which deals with the conflict in Kashmir, and Amruta Patil’s Kari, which shares insights about the country’s lesbian community. Since 2011, Comic Con has been taking place in India as well, highlighting the growing popularity of the genre. At least some of this interest can be attributed to the initial cult following of Corridor.

I must confess I was quite ignorant about graphic narratives published in India until recently. At the end of the busy academic year that just ended, as I began thinking of books to add to my bottom shelf. I sought to read something that would make me laugh. Much to my delight, I discovered Corridor. It brought back many memories for this expat Bengali, reminding me of so many people I have known. It combines irreverent humor with sharp observations of a rapidly changing Indian society.

Wild and wonderful

At the center of the book sits Rangoonwalla, the used bookshop owner who, after some 40 jobs and years spent seeking answers to life’s mysteries, suddenly attained enlightenment in the elevator of a skyscraper in Nariman Point. In an interview Banerjee gave back when the book was first released, he said about Rangoonwalla: “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.”

A scene from 'Corridor'
A scene from 'Corridor'

Since his moment in the elevator, Rangoonwalla has taken to sharing tea and wisdom, along with the occasional joint or game of chess, with customers at his bookstore. One such customer is the obsessive collector Brighu Sen, a young intellectual Bengali man whose existential angst and disaffected ways reminds me of that other Sen, Agastya, in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s first novel English, August. On good days, Brighu imagines he’s Ibn Battuta. Unable to commit to his documentary filmmaker girlfriend Kali, Brighu wanders around Delhi looking for rare books until he stumbles upon Rangoonwalla’s shop.

Like Banerjee himself did, Brighu has moved from Calcutta to Delhi. He represents the slightly pretentious, cosmopolitan young Bengali whom many of my friends will recognise instantly, the one who hunts for records on Free School Street and drinks beer at Olypub. In one of the most ironic panels, when Brighu visits his parents’ home in Calcutta, he contemplates the importance of one’s roots while listening to an Elnore James record and reading a Tintin comic, as a poster of the Rolling Stones watches over him.

Another of Rangoonwalla’s customers, Digital Dutta, lives inside his head and is torn between his Marxist values and the need to acquire an H1B visa. The bespectacled, nerdy Dutta is provoked to a frenzy by a bunch of goons when he is with his girlfriend Dolly, and, egged on in his head by Marxist leaders like Che Guevara, he beats them up only to succumb to a mosquito bite. Then there’s Shintu, who reads Cosmo for tips about sex. Newly married and unable to satisfy his bride in bed, Shintu visits hakims for aphrodisiacs. (Banerjee himself researched the bylanes of Old Delhi for a month for this section.)

Delhi in the belly

Besides the main characters whose layers are slowly peeled off, even the minor ones are etched with comic detail. The hakim who reprimands Shintu for his “bad character” and advises him to quit his “nocturnal pollution” and become An Ideal Boy, the forensic scientist who has three passions – poisons, reggae and John Keats – and even the stranger on the train who introduces himself as “Myself Murthy,” all come alive in these pages. Some, like the hakim and Murthy, are little more than caricatures. But together, they form a complex collage of people and lives in the teeming Indian capital.

The narrative is non-linear and switches between the stories of the different characters. The sketches in this first book are somewhat rough compared to the more polished illustrations of Banerjee’s later works. But like the city and the characters, this book too has layers. Some images are hilarious while others are touching. The black and white panels are replaced by sudden flashes of color. A vivid example is the long vignette where Shintu visits the hakim. The lecture he receives about morality includes a collage of images from film posters, advertisement billboards, etcetera, that look suitably kitschy.

In a stark contrast to those, the panels depicting the tranquillity of Old Delhi early in the morning, before the city explodes into chaos, are poetic and poignant. These images of the city also depict a different Delhi, a quiet, historic, soulful city, unlike the superficial parties and inane chatter described by Brighu’s girlfriend early on. Despite the brief section in Calcutta, this book is really about Delhi, a city that Banerjee clearly views with affection despite its many contradictions.

Banerjee, who studied image and communications at Goldsmiths College, University of London, has said he draws inspiration from visual artists and filmmakers. At the 2012 London Olympics, Banerjee was commissioned to do graphic illustrations for a “Gallery of Losers” (non-performers, almost-winners, underachievers, almost-made-its).

Some of the inside jokes and Indian idioms (such as “doing god knows what”) might resonate particularly with some readers. For instance, Brighu’s uncle, who reads The Statesman, the newspaper revered by Bengalis of a generation now almost gone, and wears a monkey cap to ward off a mild winter, reminded me instantly of elderly uncles in Calcutta.

However, it would be a mistake to think that this book would appeal only to Indian readers. While Banerjee’s works have been published in the UK and France, they have not been introduced to American audiences, which is a pity. The product of a fellowship awarded by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, Corridor offers a highly entertaining glimpse into several dimensions of middle-class life in India – much of which will be hauntingly familiar to readers everywhere. This book provides the perfect corridor from your bottom shelf into the world of Indian graphic novels, a world that I now cannot wait to explore.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.