Jehangir <g data-gr-id="56">Rangoonwalla</g> circulates memory. In his second-hand “bookstore” on the corner of one of the myriad bylanes of Connaught Place, you get “tea, wisdom and second- hand books”. But most importantly, if you catch him at the right time, the exact moment, where time and space come together to create a gap, you might even find a story. In the tradition of stories about storytellers, Sarnath Banerjee presents to you Corridor, in the form of a graphic narrative.
Seen by many as the first Indian “graphic novel”, Corridor has opened many possibilities for narratives, since its publication in 2004. Though Banerjee is not a big fan of the term graphic novel itself, the book has been oscillating between, and within, that hard-to-define space that comics in India seem to share. But comics in India have come a long way since the early days of Raj Comics, Diamond Comics, and the wonderful Nagraj, Doga, Super Commando Dhruva, and Chacha Choudhary stories that I’ve grown up with.
In the school library, where my classmates and I seemed to be spending a considerable amount of time, Tinkle and Champak were always presented to us as “comic books”. As one begins to gain more exposure to the comic world in general it becomes quite evident that Tinkle and its ilk were more complex than what they appeared to be at first, where people would mail in stories to be written and illustrated under the aegis of a lead, popular character.
Kalia the Super Crow was available to all of us, the readers and aspiring writers, to write for, to write as; and in that sense the everyday contexts one would be confronted with would move into the space of the comic, the familiar characters having to tackle some issues that any reader of that particular time would be able to recognise as something current, something contemporary, something dealing with the everyday.
By the time Banerjee writes, it is both this Indian context, and the growing graphic novel scene in America, that feeds his need to begin to write, and draw out, stories and narratives that one only comes across when walking aimlessly through the Indian city, without a need for a destination, a kind of walk that allows for conversations to be heard, for sights to be seen, and experiences to be recorded in memory – the walk of the flaneur. It is from this kind of need for needlessness that Rangoonwalla seems to emerge from; the one stable constant in the form of a second-hand bookseller on the streets of Connaught Place, where regular people like Digital Dutta, Shintu, Brighu, and even Angrez emerge as characters in narratives that this bookseller becomes a record keeper for.
This book exists in a strange space between fiction and non-fiction, where it’s difficult to pin it down as either. Of course, it is sold as a fictional work, but once you begin reading, you may not be too sure. The stories and characters within the novel, especially due to the graphic nature of the storytelling, seem to come across as people you might just run into at any given point in a day, but their “secret” lives, stories about themselves that they share with no one, are only for the characters that the bookseller decides to reveal them to, and of course, you, the readers. There is a constant back and forth, between <g data-gr-id="77">Rangoonwalla</g>, his stories, the people pausing at his store to buy books (which seem to have names, and identities), some reel-like footage/collages of historical figures, insights into the three major characters’ lives, and most importantly, the city (whether Delhi, or otherwise).
Banerjee creates <g data-gr-id="55">Rangoonwalla</g> as the entry point to, not only the books that earn him a living as a <g data-gr-id="61">bookseller,</g> but also the people who come for these books. It is his descriptions, and his narrations, that take the reader (and the listener) along into the depths of the people’s lives. Their memories, become his own, and through him, the reader’s.
Moving between one <g data-gr-id="74">characters’s</g> lived experiences, to another’s in a matter of a turn of a page, the reader becomes accustomed to the functioning of memory. This is what seemed to happen, for example when you sat as a child, perhaps, at a family gathering, around the elderly, and they began to spin tales of wonder that made your eyes <g data-gr-id="73">bulge,</g> and your heart quicken. This form of storytelling seems to move into the space of memory, as one grows older, gets caught in the cumbersome processes of trying to earn a living, and so on. It is here, in the space between remembering and forgetting that these stories exist, and it takes one overheard conversation at the local chai stand, or a metro ride, to bring them back.
There are stories in this city, and people like Rangoonwalla still exist. It is up to us, to pause one day while in between work and home, and decide to take a walk. Who knows? Maybe we encounter a bookseller tucked away in a corner, looking away into space, with an encyclopedic knowledge of his wares, and maybe, just maybe, we become part of his stories (to tell), and he becomes part of ours.
The author teaches at Delhi University