Thursday, December 17, 2015

The vanished path illuminated by drawings

Review of The Vanished Path: A Graphic Travelogue by Bharath Murthy (New Delhi, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015)

By Dibyajyoti Sarma

With the air rife with cultural dissent, this is perhaps the right time to read and appreciate Bharath Murthy’s breezy and sharp Manga-like graphic novel The Vanished Path.

While Buddhism remains the fastest-growing religion in the world, it’s ironic how in the country of its origin, the teachings of the Buddha is largely forgotten. Today, we discuss Buddhism in the context of the Dalit issues, as political shorthand for caste issues and that’s that.

Yet, the historical Buddhist sites, from Gaya to Sarnath, dotting Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, are the major tourist destinations visited by thousands of Buddhists from all over the world. These locations are part of the Indian geography, yet they seem to exist in a separate time-space continuum, where the idea of the ‘real India’ is suspended.

What happens when a recently converted Indian Buddhist travels to these sites? This is what The Vanished Path is all about.

After his conversation, Murthy, who teaches film direction at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, undertakes a journey from Sarnath to Nalanda, accompanied by his wife Alka, and returns to document his experiences in the form of a graphic novel.

It is the graphic element that gives the book, which has been nominated for Shakti Bhat First Book Award, its heft and power. Murthy is clearly inspired by the art of the Japanese Manga comics, which celebrates black and white line drawings, focusing on impressionistic description than real representation.

So, we have the couple navigating their way through hinterland India, by train, taxi, auto and other means, meeting assorted characters on the way, and visiting the landmarks associated with the life of Siddhattha Gotama. This modern track is interspersed with historical facts and musings from Buddha’s life.

Murthy’s narrative is largely straightforward. He goes, observes and reports. Yet, the political undertone is unmistakable. It is no accident that he is in Varanasi on the day the Ayodhya dispute verdict was to be announced. He observes how Buddhist Asian countries have invested heavily on these sites. He meets a Dalit kitchen help in one of the lodges, who tells him that though he is Buddhist, he did not really know the teachings of the Buddha.

Yet, what’s fascinating about the book are the drawings, the monuments, the scenes from rural India, and even the retelling of Buddha’s life. In all this, Murthy makes a curiously interesting choice of representing Buddha not as human, but as the dharma wheel.

While the country is seeing resurgence in publishing in the recent years, we still have very few graphic novels. For this reason alone, The Vanished Path is an important book, and the best part is that you can finish it on one sitting.

(In the years, HarperCollins India has published some groundbreaking graphic novels, including Amruta Patil’s dazzling Adi Parva. For the best Japanese Manga based on India, check out Yukichi Yamamatsu’s Stupid Guy Goes To India.)

(The book review was first published in Sakal Times.)

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