Home / Opinion / A comic book called Connaught Place

There is a saying that if you find yourself going around in circles, then you are in Connaught Place. Another urban legend alleges that Connaught Place was originally called Cannot Place by bewildered visitors who frequently lost their way around the corridors. Built in 1933 by British architect Robert Tor Russell in the image of the Royal Crescent in Bath, Connaught Place started out as a plaza for the elite of the time; competing against the old, vibrant markets of Chandni Chowk and Meena Bazaar. After Partition, Connaught Place became a refugee market, or just a place of refuge for the displaced. It exists now as an amalgam and extension of both histories, in addition to occupying an important place in popular imagination as the site of fleeting encounters and flourishing urban legends.

Urban legend and fleeting encounters feature prominently in comic books that are set in cities. The framing of each panel within the comic gives form to features of urban life that are otherwise so quotidian and so omnipresent that they are almost invisible. In Sarnath Banerjee’s graphic novel Corridor, there is a character called Jehangir Rangoonwalla, who owns a second-hand bookshop in the outer circle of Connaught Place. Rangoonwalla calls it the “centre of the universe", just as Connaught Place is at the centre of our mental maps of Delhi, the common heart of the Lutyens’ dream. Rangoonwalla’s stacks of books between the Georgian pillars of Connaught Place are where each character in the novel wanders in, wanders out, shares a fragment of a personal quest before wandering away. Any cohesion in both plot and personal purpose is merely serendipitous. One character is in search of an obscure book, another in search of a fulfilling sex life, and yet another is attempting to reconcile an American visa with Karl Marx. The panels in the graphic novel capture the familiar, the fleeting, and the fragmented nature of contemporary Delhi, lending us a transformed recognition of the ordinary.

Comics such as Corridor are formidable archives of urban experience. The form of comics shares a common grammar with architecture in the organization of space into grids, layouts, panels. But more importantly, the comic form is able to capture space and time as a collision of historical and imagined events, architectural undertakings, collective practices and personal gestures. Urban fabric, which is otherwise a vague term, finds anchor here. Daryaganj, in Corridor, is depicted as a montage where “the immeasurably old rub shoulders with the very new". The space of Daryaganj is framed against the Mughal architecture of Old Delhi and modern municipal infrastructure, its streets are peopled with men waiting to extract teeth, set dislodged bones, and clean wax-filled ears. The space of south Delhi is framed against neat rectangular houses; the people are younger, savvier, dancing with gusto in bars, and described as “Delhi’s superbabies, taller than the tall, richer than the rich, and less and less like normal human beings". If you perhaps live in Delhi, this is familiar knowledge, but a comic is able to sharpen this familiar knowledge because of the vividity of the framing. As opposed to a photograph, which captures everything about a particular scene, every line within the panel of a comic book is drawn with the intention of making you see something particular within the scene.

What the form of the comic also allows one to do is to subvert the idea of history being linear and, worse, truthful. Comics do so through the insertion of urban legends that break the linearity of the narrative and blur fact and fiction. Urban legends are tangents of an arguable history, but such legends contribute to the mythic topography of a city.

Take a few of Delhi’s folk tales, for instance. Motorists travelling late at night are asked to avoid the Cantonment Road for fear of a lady wearing a white sari who tends to ask for a lift. Agrasen ki Baoli on Hailey Road is haunted by the footsteps of those who died walking down the precarious step well in a mysterious trance. Even the innocent-looking Chor Minar in Hauz Khas gets heavy with the ghosts of the beheaded thieves whose heads were displayed on spears from the tower’s holes. Urban legend finds no place in state archives, even if the subject of historical interest is common to both. It is an imaginative form of remembering past events in shared spaces, making it a very democratic narrative of history since it is produced, sustained and enriched by every retelling.

The genius of a graphic novel like Corridor is its refusal to present a coherent portrait of urban life in Delhi, mainly because such coherence isn’t possible. Framing a city within panels, with its interrupted spatial continuity and temporal linearity, is a way of acknowledging that a city is best understood in its fragments and glimpses. Within Corridor is a gaze that challenges a panoptic view of the city, or the “view from the top", from which the city is a neat tapestry of built form against natural environment. A panoptic view of the city would allow us to see Connaught Place as a beautiful set of concentric circles, a coherent schematic. But we live on the ground, in difficult cities, we go around in circles, we get lost in the corridors, stumble upon a bookshop, linger and wander away. This is what we know about Connaught Place, this is what comics archive about our lives.

Rihan Najib is a staff writer at Mint.

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