Vol. 5 Num 1046 Sat. May 12, 2007  

Book Review
The Wandering Jew Indianized

The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers by Sarnath Banerjee; Delhi: Penguin India; 2007; Rs. 395; 263 pp.

The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers is a graphic novel. And what is a graphic novel? Author Sarnath Banerjee, who is on the fast track to becoming a cult figure among India's small but tightly knit cohort of graphic novel readers, answered it best when asked what kind of a 'writer' he was: "I am a comic book writer. 'Graphic novel' is a term publishers use to segregate comics which have a certain literary quality. And have concerns which are novelistic…whatever that means."

Graphic novels have been around for 25 years in the West, in Germany, in the US and UK. Japan has followed the trend aggressively, with its now famous manga comic works. Some of the more celebrated graphic novels have tackled fairly heavy themes such as the Holocaust and tales of migration and exile. The term came about accidentally, when the first man to write one, Will Eisner, fearing the publisher he was talking to over the phone might hang up if he called it a 'comic book'. They haven't looked back since.

This is Sarnath Banerjee's second such book. The first was Corridor, which was notable not only for its drawings, but for its characters: Jehangir Rangoonwalla, Digital Dutta, Brighu, Shintu, and D.V.D. Murthy, all of whom were shown spinning in various post-modern ironic modes in the urban bylanes of Delhi and Calcutta, strung between home-made aphrodisiacs and Karl Marx.

Characters from Corridor make appearances in The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers, which otherwise is a far more complicated and ambitious book, difficult to get one's arms around it at first reading. But then for the beginning reader, the beauty of graphic novels is that one can enjoy it at the level of drawings, and Sarnath's drawings, the sudden bursts of colour panels amid the black-and-white with their iconic skylines, the skewed perspectives, the dhuti mingling with the hip-hugging jeans, the urban scowl, are superbly modulated to his own satiric, layered, postmodern vision of Indian life.

The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers has been inspired, as the opening panels reveal, by the myth of Cartaphallus, the Wandering Jew who has been cursed to roam the corner of the earth till Judgement Day. Sarnath has Indianized the legend, and the book thereby spans cultures, cities and history, deconstructing our/Indian assumptions of linearity and historiography. The most enjoyable part for the Bengali reader will undoubtedly be the Calcutta parts, with its palpable hits at 18th-century decadent zamindars and repressive Bengali middle-class attitudes (male sexual anxiety for example, is a recurrent theme in his books). It has been compared in tone to the Bengali classic, Hutom Pechar Naksha (1862) by Kaliprasanna Singha.

Readers resistant to this form should open up their minds and try Sarnath. He argues that his works are not a gimmick, that "an image can explore the larger realities of life", that there is a "creative tension between word and image" and that the "final tango between reader and text" is an unpredictable one--in other words, one might end up thoroughly enjoying oneself.

Given such articulation, Sarnath Banerjee's works might just achieve a wider readership than expected.

Farhad Ahmed is a free-lance writer/translator for The Daily Star literature page.