One of the few books I managed to pick up in India this time was the graphic novel Corridor by Sarnath Banerjee. Its jacket says:
“In the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi sits Jehangir Rangoonwalla, enlightened dispenser of tea, wisdom, and second-hand books. Among his customers are Brighu, a postmodern Ibn Batuta looking for obscure collectibles and a love life; Digital Dutta who lives mostly in his head, torn between Karl Marx and an H1-B visa; and the newly-married Shintu, looking for the ultimate aphrodisiac in the seedy by-lanes of old Delhi.”
The book pretty much delivers what it says it will, including, “….the alienation and fragmented reality of urban life through an imaginative alchemy of text and image.” In effect, as we follow the different characters, the threads of their narratives create a gestalt without really impacting each other. A strength if you are aiming for a composite portrait. But not so good if all the threads must somehow create a progressive narrative. Not a failing, as far as I am concerned.
What was striking for me was how the novel captured the sense of being a Bengali in a very Northern city. Its a very particular experience, being a skinny, short Bengali in a city full of people who are bigger boned and earthier than one’s family. Generally it results in neurosis of one sort or another, which the book captures very well.
I am sure Banerjee has no intention of speaking for me, or that the book should be read in such essentialist terms, but its just how specific the book feels to me as a short, Bengali (not so thin) reader. Perhaps its because it describes all the spots I loved in the city, the bookseller on the outer circle of Connaught Place, the area around Jama Masjid, and the ads for Sablok clinic as one went into Daryagunj, which brings me to my favorite parts in the novel, which are about all the gupt-rog hakims (hidden disease doctors) who can cure anything from impotence, to syphilis and the lack of a male heir.
A while ago, on a research trip with my pal Lalit Vachani, for some reason we came across several vaids and hakims in Uttar Pradesh. On talking to one of them, it turned out that they were all related. Interestingly they liked to advertise via graffiti and the backs of two rupee “General Knowledge” books, published by the sexologists themselves. These were books that had tenth grade level information that could help you pass low level bureaucracy exams, and were basically cribbed from their kid’s text book. (This connection between general knowledge and sexual problems will become clear in a moment) Our sexologist friend told us that most of the patients had some form of impotency, or they wanted a pill that would give them a male child (interestingly most of the patients were male). Now, this problem of impotency was quite interesting, it seems that most of the men really just needed some form of sex education, “don’t look for it under the armpit” kind of thing. On that trip I got interested in Hindi porn, and was even able to buy a few magazines without drawing too much attention. Most of the pictures were more or less from biology textbooks! a lot of the “scenarios” in these magazines were very clinical and usually involved relatives, a brother-in-law, a third cousin and so on. Unfortunately I had to ditch my nascent collection when I moved to the States.
One of the most interesting characters in the book, not mentioned in the blurb, is the narrator’s ex-girlfriend, Kali, who lives in a South Extension barsati and hangs out with the NGO crowd and makes serious films. Unfortunately we don’t really get a lot of her, and the narrative almost seems uneasy with this character. Somehow, a familiar Delhi experience as well– the peculiar erasure that male colleagues and friends exercise on their female counterparts. So if the novel reproduces this erasure, it shouldn’t surprise one, even if it disappoints, it is kind of a “guy’s” book. After all one of its iconic images uses this piece of poster kitsch (on the right via Boing Boing). The book may not be completely aware of its male privilege, but it is certainly aware of its bourgeois privilege, and its very accurate in its depiction of it, even as it spends a lot of time with the more interesting marginal characters who people the streets of Delhi. Perhaps another male privilege, since its not really okay for young women to spend time chatting with street-corner sexologists, damn!