(Published in India Today, January 2007)

The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers
Sarnath Banerjee
Penguin India,
Rs 395, 264 pages

There were no blogs or graphic novels in Kaliprasanna Singha’s Calcutta, but there were the funky local equivalents of 19th century India. Between 1862 and 1864, Kaliprasanna penned Hutom Penchar Nyaksha or the satirical sketches of “Hutom the Owl”. He had company in the patuas of Kalighat, whose art made fun of babus and bhadralok alike, and in the khemta-singers, so quick to convert scandal into verse and worse.

Sarnath Banerjee would have fitted right in with Kaliprasanna and company. Corridor, his first graphic novel and a pioneer in that field in India, could also have been called the first classic “adda” novel. A cheerfully meandering exercise in irreverence for its own sake, it condemned Sarnath to answer the “So, a graphic novel is a comic book for adults?” question for the next few years. I strongly suspect he wrote The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers in self-defense.

“This book is inspired by history but not limited by it,” says the epigraph. So the narrator wanders through 21st century Calcutta, searching for ghosts, lost loves and an antique book, meeting the usual cast of characters—a local Barthesian booklover, the scion of a zamindari family who is having an affair with a female footballer, a Writers’ Building clerk who is also the founder of The International School of Psychic Cartography.

Shadowing his journey are far more interesting ghosts from the past. Cartophilus, the Wandering Jew, ducks in and out of these pages, followed closely by Ibn Battuta, the man who never returned to his native Morocco so that he could complain there was no place on earth like it. And there is Kaliprasanna Singha’s menagerie of 19th century eccentrics from the pages of the original Barn Owl’s Capers–the zamindar who harnessed a zebra to his carriage to outshine his rivals, the babu who squandered a fortune on the world’s finest crystal because he loved the sound of expensive glass breaking, the Bird Club where many of these worthies met to worship cannabis.

This is already a more richly layered, dense narrative than Corridor, and Sarnath succeeds at one of his stated aims, which is to get us to sniff closely at “the dark armpits of history”. (This is the tropics, so what emerges is appropriately reeking material drawn from the old scandals of Warren Hastings’ time, the half-explained riddles of the life of Calcutta’s founder, Job Charnock.) His technique has shifted since Corridor, too, and some of the most successful panels are the ones where he combines line drawings with antique poster art, old daguerrotypes and modern photography.

But the real challenge is to take these complex parts and create an even more complex narrative out of them, and this is where The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers falters. In the absence of a tradition of graphic novels in India—we had patachitras, Amar Chitra Katha, Phantom and Chandamama instead—Sarnath invites comparison with the best in the field working elsewhere, which is unfair but unavoidable. From Art Spiegelman’s Maus to Joe Sacco’s Palestine, the dark and contemporary Fables series or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the most celebrated and most apparently iconoclastic graphic novels have relied on the most ancient of things—taut plotting, a great story, strong characters.

The best thing about Sarnath is that he’s such an imaginative thinker and writer, always willing to explore his obsessions—with the history of Calcutta and storytelling itself, or with more quotidian things, like the etymology of the word cannabis, or of the innards that go into the making of perfume. As Mandar De (identified confusingly as Mandar Ghosh earlier in the story thanks to a printer’s error) declares: “Whims give rise to civilization.” Sarnath, like a latterday Wandering Jew himself, is a restless traveler and an indefatigable storyteller, and his talents in both areas have grown considerably.

One of these days, India’s first contemporary graphic novelist will give himself time and space to rest, and perhaps his best stories will finally come home to roost. Until then, this book, like the Famous Cabin’s legendary Calcutta toast, is still delightful. From the ‘rock-hard’ bits of historical discourse to the ‘soft-grill’ version more suited to poets, there’s something here to suit all patrons.