Book review: Doab Dil by Sarnath Banerjee

A contemplative graphic novel filled to the brim with dil

The cover of Sarnath Banerjee’s Doab Dil tells a story of its own, well before the reader reaches the part of the book that provides any context for it. The clouds, the woman on top of the rocks with her cup of tea, the rolling brown landscape below, all of this provides so much fuel for the imagination. And that is the magic at the heart of this book — how much and how little is conveyed at the same time.

Doab Dil is prolific artist/author Sarnath Banerjee’s fifth graphic novel. He has also done illustrations for other authors’ works and co-founded a comics publishing house called Phantomville.

More recently, he has produced work for the Kochi Biennale (2014), the Pune Biennale (2017), and had a billboard series up for the London Olympics titled Gallery of Losers (non-performers, almost-winners, under-achievers, almost-made-its).

The doab in the title of the book comes from the Persian term ‘do ab’, which is ‘two rivers’, and refers to the fertile land that lies at the confluence of two rivers. Doab Dil brings together drawings and text like two converging rivers.

The book explores aspects of human life such as gardening, walking, night, history, libraries, even a beautifully touching passage on insomnia. For diehard fans of the author, and there are many: there is a small cameo by Digital Dutta, struggling with insomnia here. Also included are snippets from books Bannerjee has read, to which he adds his own flavour and interprets them through artwork.

The seemingly sparse pieces of text leave the reader with much to think about. Take, for example, the part about Richard Jefferies, deep topographer and author of Nature Near London. Bannerjee talks of the ‘terra-vague,’ a zone surrounding the city where ‘at the city’s edges, trees lead to roofs, grass ends in paving stones and beauty morphs into banality.’ The artwork for this infuses great feeling to the words, capturing both the straight lines of the city structures as well as their inherent drabness.

There are no specific storylines here, unlike some of his other work. Instead, there are snippets of story, lived experiences, information, observation. A chapter titled Work takes us through a journey of imagery with just a smidgen of text as explanation, telling us about the famous chef Kenichi Noboru who eats fish-and-chips for dinner, the bibliotherapist Kamran Ali Beg who knows that in order to write, one must read, read and read, and crime serial-aficionado Shokoufeh who starts to work at the Department of Criminal Reconstruction.

Another touching chapter is The Daily Decathlon, which again, without any text, depicts the hoops and hurdles one encounters as part of the daily grind, at home, at government offices, at the bus top, the train station, everywhere. The last part of the book has a series of artistic interpretations of songs in different languages, from Eddie Grant’s Gimme Hope Jo’Anna to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Sanu Ek Pal.

The drawings beautifully bring to life the text, and there are little quirks that the reader can spend ages poring over. There is much to see in the details — the length of the stride of a woman on her travels, the solidness of the superhero who watches over his sleeping city, the motion of an egg being flipped over on a pan. Each page is filled with colour that immediately engages the reader. A wonderfully evocative piece is that of Sam who wanders the streets of Rome at night and realises that, as he looks at the ruins, the ruins look back at him. One panel shows us Sam walking past the Colosseum with a statue in its niche, and the next panel shows us the statue observing Sam as he walks past. The cold navy-black colour of the night provides a stunning contrast to the warmly-lit Colosseum and its russet walls.

What stands out in this work? The fact that all characters, animate or inanimate, have a history and life of their own. It is there in their motion, their gaze, their stillness.

If there is anything missing, it might be the lack of a little more text, a little more story. But that is a mere quibble, the reader’s greed coming to the fore. Then, there are a few sections that might not make much sense to the reader, might not be something that the reader identifies with. But then, that too is part of the whole process of appreciating art. One might not always understand it, but it can still touch one. Or not.

Ultimately, Doab Dil speaks just a little bit differently to the reader every time.

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