Taking a graphic view of real life

Published: Feb 04, 2019, 08:05 IST | Aditya Sinha

Graphic novels despite the superlative content of some of them have yet to get their due in an India that despises visuals of the truth

Taking a graphic view of real life
Part of a panel from Sarnath Banerjee’s graphic novel 'Doab Dil'

Aditya SinhaThere are still some who dismiss graphic novels as a sophisticated version of comic books. Given the mature subject matter of graphic novels, notably Art Spiegelman's holocaust memoir 'Maus' which won the Pulitzer prize in 1992, such dismissal is mere ignorance. I used to be an avid reader of graphic novels but haven't paid much attention in the past few years, possibly because in general there has been a drought of exceptional fiction. Suddenly, however, I recently came across three works within a short span of time that reaffirmed my faith.

Last month, the New York Times carried in its Opinion section a pictorial essay by Malik Sajad 'An 18-Month-Old Victim in a Very Old Fight'. It gave a sharp glimpse into the incessant repression and unending despair in Kashmir. Sajad's 2015 graphic novel 'Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir' was an intense, beautifully drawn account about life under the shadow of the Indian gun. It took inspiration from 'Maus' (or, further back, from George Orwell's 'Animal Farm') and used the endangered hangul deer to depict the ordinary Kashmiri.

His essay told the story of an innocent 18-month-old Hiba, whose mother Marsala and she flee their tear-gassed house only to run into a firing by security forces; one pellet detaches Hiba's retina. The essay is itself like a pellet to our eyes – telling us we have been blinded to what we are doing in Kashmir. Nowadays, though, many in India don't want to hear such truths. They instead believe second-hand narratives that depict anyone protesting in the open-air prison called Kashmir as anti-national. A few starkly black-and-white panels by Sajad punctures such fake narratives, and show the world the futility of India's muscular policy in Kashmir.

Not long before that I read Nick Drnaso's 'Sabrina' the first graphic novel ever longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It is a story of anguish and quiet dread. It begins in Chicago, where Sabrina, after an introductory conversation with her sister, goes missing. It then shifts to Colorado, where an airman hosts his childhood friend and Sabrina's uncommunicative boyfriend, Teddy. The airman never flies – he merely monitors cyber-communications and presumably drones.

Punctuated by media reports of the ongoing investigation into Sabrina's disappearance, particularly after a disturbing video shows up at a newsroom, the narrative shows us an ordinary, mundane life in middle-America – except that it is so suffused with anxiety that you expect the worst as you turn each page. Many of us can't quite grasp why it is that around the planet, though we're told that our economy is growing we increasingly feel unsettled – and 'Sabrina' perfectly captures that paradox. Beware of banality, it seems to say. The only thing preventing it from being the best fiction of 2018 is the lingering prejudice against graphic novels.

Lastly, I got a hold of Sarnath Banerjee's latest work, 'Doab Dil' (Penguin, 184 pages). Sarnath is one of the daddies of the Indian graphic novel, having made his mark 15 years ago with the ROFL-inducing 'Corridor'. Many other graphic novels have been published in India since – last year's excellent 'Indira' by Devapriya Roy and Priya Kurian comes to mind – but a bulk of it has been unsatisfactory. Like the eponymous two rivers meeting, 'Doab Dil' brings things back on course.

'Doab Dil' is Sarnath's take on the "daily decathlon" of life. His uncluttered drawings about the simple pleasures in living, such as Victorian England's love for walks and gardens, are given a slight, subtle but unmistakably Sarnathian surrealist quirk. Well, at least till you get to the chapter "The Daily Decathlon" which is full-on Dadaism (I mean that both in the 20th century European sense as well as the ageless Bengali sense). Sarnath's straight lines and pastel hues are a perfect foil for his sly sense of humour. I laughed along with his observation on the ease with which the Japanese fall asleep in public places – an art called 'inemuri' – and began to wonder that I may secretly be Japanese.

Sarnath's latest is a mid-life (or at least mid-career) meditation on the pleasures of naturalism and the struggle between the individual and nature – as well as between the individual and his/her own nature. His drawing of the interlinked act of walking and thinking touched me at a personal level, and was a reminder that you need not, like Haruki Murakami, resort to marathon-training to marvel at the interactions of the body and the mind.

This sampling of graphic novels/essays revived in me a love for the form. They demonstrate what distinguishes graphic novels from comic books: while the latter delve into fantasies, the former grapple with modernity and the human condition, matters that you cannot walk away from because of the lingering anxiety of what's around the corner.

Aditya Sinha is a writer and columnist. His latest book 'India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy', with Yashwant Sinha, is out now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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