An artist with endless ink of unconventional imagination. A seasoned cynic now in a "bright and cheerful" guise. A style statement that embodies the "typical Bengali repressed male". Sarnath Banerjee is the country's first graphic novelist.
With one book, Corridor (2004) tucked under his arm, and the other, The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers (2007), on the window sills of bookstores now (both published by Penguin India), he will be soon known as, in his own words, "the great uncle of Indian graphic novels".
Born in Kolkata, Banerjee studied image and communications at the Goldsmith College, University of London. His reason for writing graphic novels, he says, is to explore the medium of visual storytelling.
Along with friend Anindya Roy, Banerjee founded the year-old comic book publishing house, Phantomville. His endeavour is to promote new writers and nurture his brand of comics that, as he puts it, will bear no resemblance to the popular comic series, Hanuman.
But is there actually room for graphic novels in India? "The possibilities are less now, but they will increase in five years' time," he says. "Graphic novels have already started building a niche in the market. In Europe, for instance, the graphic novel once ushered the 'post-literate' age. Today it overspills with the white man's angst. In India, there are great stories waiting to be told in this format, stories that can be pulled from urban mythologies."
By 'urban mythologies' he means intertwined tales of characters with names like Financial Rao, Keshto the Cobbler and The 5-Minute Woman — each portraying real people slipped into a playground of fantasy. Banerjee confesses he'll get dirty when he has to — The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers, for instance, has doses of illicit sex and drunken religiosity.
The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers narrates two parallel stories — the legendary tale of the Wandering Jew reappearing in post-modern Europe and the other set in 18th century Kolkata that teems with scandal, gossip and rumours.
To truly appreciate a graphic novel, he says, one has to read them several times, to observe the hidden ironies and subtleties within. "Each frame in the book has micro details that forms a complete picture," Banerjee adds.
"This book is inspired by history but limited by it", reads the opening line of his new book. "I see history written in lies, whoever held the gun or the pen at the time was forced on us, to be believed," he says. "I like to use history and then depart from it to recreate my own settings, in my own twisted way. I love to lie. When you lie, you have to be really convincing and that's when I really start enjoying."
The 'great uncle' is now working on his third book, but he drops no hints as he flicks his cigarette ash.
Email Jairaj Singh: jairajsingh @hindustantimes.com