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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Following a mountaineer as he reaches the summit of Mount Everest

Accounts from Vikas Dimri’s second attempt reveal the immense fortitude and strength needed to summit the Everest.

Vikas Dimri made a huge attempt last year to climb the Mount Everest. Fate had other plans. Thwarted by unfavourable weather at the last minute, he came so close and yet not close enough to say he was at the top. But that did not deter him. Vikas is back on the Everest trail now, and this time he’s sharing his experiences at every leg of the journey.

The Everest journey began from the Lukla airport, known for its dicey landing conditions. It reminded him of the failed expedition, but he still moved on to Namche Bazaar - the staging point for Everest expeditions - with a positive mind. Vikas let the wisdom of the mountains guide him as he battled doubt and memories of the previous expedition. In his words, the Everest taught him that, “To conquer our personal Everest, we need to drop all our unnecessary baggage, be it physical or mental or even emotional”.

Vikas used a ‘descent for ascent’ approach to acclimatise. In this approach, mountaineers gain altitude during the day, but descend to catch some sleep. Acclimatising to such high altitudes is crucial as the lack of adequate oxygen can cause dizziness, nausea, headache and even muscle death. As Vikas prepared to scale the riskiest part of the climb - the unstable and continuously melting Khumbhu ice fall - he pondered over his journey so far.

His brother’s diagnosis of a heart condition in his youth was a wakeup call for the rather sedentary Vikas, and that is when he started focusing on his health more. For the first time in his life, he began to appreciate the power of nutrition and experimented with different diets and supplements for their health benefits. His quest for better health also motivated him to take up hiking, marathon running, squash and, eventually, a summit of the Everest.

Back in the Himalayas, after a string of sleepless nights, Vikas and his team ascended to Camp 2 (6,500m) as planned, and then descended to Base Camp for the basic luxuries - hot shower, hot lunch and essential supplements. Back up at Camp 2, the weather played spoiler again as a jet stream - a fast-flowing, narrow air current - moved right over the mountain. Wisdom from the mountains helped Vikas maintain perspective as they were required to descend 15km to Pheriche Valley. He accepted that “strength lies not merely in chasing the big dream, but also in...accepting that things could go wrong.”

At Camp 4 (8,000m), famously known as the death zone, Vikas caught a clear glimpse of the summit – his dream standing rather tall in front of him.

It was the 18th of May 2018 and Vikas finally reached the top. The top of his Everest…the top of Mount Everest!

Watch the video below to see actual moments from Vikas’ climb.

Play

Vikas credits his strength to dedication, exercise and a healthy diet. He credits dietary supplements for helping him sustain himself in the inhuman conditions on Mount Everest. On heights like these where the oxygen supply drops to 1/3rd the levels on the ground, the body requires 3 times the regular blood volume to pump the requisite amount of oxygen. He, thus, doesn’t embark on an expedition without double checking his supplements and uses Livogen as an aid to maintain adequate amounts of iron in his blood.

Livogen is proud to have supported Vikas Dimri on his ambitious quest and salutes his spirit. To read more about the benefits of iron, see here. To read Vikas Dimri’s account of his expedition, click here.

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