A comicist comes calling

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 3.04.05

The comicist ? that?s what his visiting card reads ? is back. And this time, Sarnath Banerjee is penning a whodunnit about a book that was a ?page three of 18th century Calcutta?.

As India?s (and Banerjee?s) first graphic novel, Corridor looked destined to bomb or receive at best a warmish response. But 5,000-odd copies and three reprints later, its success has taken ?everyone by surprise?, including the author himself. ?Corridor went off really well,? admits Banerjee, ?but the only regret is that after the initial hype and hoopla we thought it would start a genre for comics which it hasn?t so far.?

The second book, The Barn Owl?s Wondrous Capers, due for release later this year, might help further the cause.

Pablo, the protagonist, gets a call from Calcutta that his grandfather has died leaving him an inheritance which includes an old motorcycle and a leather-bound book written in the 18th century by a Jewish traveller, Abravanel Ben Obadiah Ben Aharon Kabriti.

The book, entitled The Barn Owl?s Wonderous Capers, is a journal of 18th century scandals. Pablo returns to Calcutta to find that the rare book has disappeared. ?The rest is a whodunnit intercut with pages from the journal,? offers the 32-year-old- author.

The title is a translation of Hutum Pyanchar Noksha, Kaliprasanna Sinha?s cult Bengali novel ? also a tabloid of sorts of the 18th century. ?But the connection ends there,? clarifies Banerjee. Kabriti is a fictitious character based on many early Jewish travellers.

The only link between Corridor and Barn Owl?s? is the character of Digital Dutta, a software engineer who, in his head, has ?played the guitar with Django Reinhart, exploded the midfield alongside Garincha? and even been ?Chris Evert?s mixed-doubles partner?.

Three years in the making, the author had to spend months in London and Paris researching Barn Owl?s... ?There?s little history of the Raj in Calcutta. So for samples of Phillip Francis?s handwriting or what duelling guns looked like, I had to rely on the British Library in London,? he says.

Last week Calcutta saw ?the first exposure? of the book, with a reading session and screening of two animation shorts based on some of the characters and episodes.

Besides Barn Owl?s?, Banerjee has his hands full with other projects. Work is in progress for the French editions of the first two books. ?Corridor should come out from Vertige by the end of this year and Denoel is supposed to release the second book later.?

The French, according to Banerjee, are rather curious to know how the Indian comics scene is evolving. Thus, an anthology of Indian authors adapted into the comics form is being prepared for publication in France. ?There would be vignettes with strong emphasis on neighbourhoods? the global to local aspects,? Banerjee says.

The author has also started work on his third book with the working title of Route 36. ?A number of stories emanate from the upper deck of a bus travelling from Hackney to Victoria Station in London,? says Banerjee. ?It?s a closed space and people are travelling together? stories are bound to emerge.?

Subhajit Banerjee

A time for love

Amit Chaudhuri, Tarun Tejpal and Moon Moon Sen at the Calcutta launch of The Alchemy of Desire. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

He?s a man of words. Few people know the power of the pen better than Tarun J. Tejpal, journalist and now author. Post tehelka.com and with Tehelka the newspaper on the stands, Tejpal has launched his debut book, The Alchemy of Desire. On Friday evening, it was Calcutta?s turn, at British Council, launched by actress Moon Moon Sen in the presence of Tejpal and author Amit Chaudhuri.

The reading of five passages from the literary novel held the audience spellbound, as the author wove in and out of the lives of four women, the central characters of the book ? Ms Meanqueen, Bibi Lahori, Catherine and Fizz. Sentiments like ?No man is equal to a strong woman? and ?Who gave you the right to take away my rights?? struck a chord with the men and women.

?But it?s essentially a love story. And a very sad book,? was Sen?s declaration, although she admitted to not having done it justice in the one-and-a-half days she had to read it. Tejpal replied: ?In our deepest and most honest moments we are sad.?

The parley between Sen and Tejpal was intriguingly personal, as the actress broke off at one point to remark: ?If he (Tarun) invited me to dinner, I wouldn?t want it to end at dinner??

Chaudhuri recalled his first introduction to Tejpal?s writings as a book reviewer ? ?and I thank you for the wonderful review you gave my work in 1993? ? and talked of the ?immediacy of the physical world? in The Alchemy of Desire. Sen felt it was ?a beautiful love story, and a tribute to the women in his life?, adding that she was ?relieved? to find a writer who is not a woman-hater.

?The power of literature is its intimacy. My struggle was to find the right tone and voice for the book, to get as close to the skin of India as possible, but to also capture the steaming quality of the country. And that was my triumph,? Tejpal told the audience.

If the reading was pleasantly moving, the interaction afterwards was charged with emotion, as the two authors on the panel clashed with the audience over the right of reviewers and readers. While Chaudhuri felt there was an increasingly ?ladies reading group? culture of ?reading for identification?, Tejpal said reviewers had to ?earn the right to say something?. Some audience members felt it was a question of personal perceptions.

The questions posed to Tejpal ranged from the title (?it was there with me from day one?) to the exoticism of Indian culture (?daily life in India is exotic?), from film rights (?who knows, the book is just beginning its journey?) to whether he cared for reviews (?I don?t care about Indian reviews?).

But the clincher came from Rita Bhimani: ?The central character is an author, like you, who finds time in his busy schedule for love. Did you find the time?? The reply: ?I find time for that every day.?