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.

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