Author: Sarnath Banerjee
Illustrator: Sarnath Banerjee
Published: 2007 by Penguin Books India
No. of Pages: 280
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subthemes: Scandals of East-India Company employees in Calcutta, History of Calcutta, Life in Calcutta, Legend of the Wandering Jew
Timeline: The timeline meanders from 17th to 18th century, in the beginning, hopping from multiple places in Europe (London, Paris) to Calcutta in India. A major chunk of the plot takes place in the 21st century itself. The timeline covered is largely from 18th century to 21st century.
A dark mysterious silhouette hopping from one country to another; scandalous accounts of British officers from the 18th century Calcutta; a young writer often reflecting on relationships, sex, and the rich history and culture of Calcutta, all in search of a leather-bound volume of one of the rarest books in the world, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers tears through time and space to tell a remarkable story replete with themes and interesting characters.
Starting with an epigraph of ‘the book is inspired by history but not limited by it’, Sarnath Banerjee’s second graphic novel experiments with historical fiction with various styles throughout the book. In panels brimming with abstract ideas coupled with historical accounts which are fictionalized, Sarnath’s work captures the geography, architecture, and lifestyle of all the cities we are introduced to in the graphic novel.
In this playground of various styles—simple pencil-style sketches; charcoal-esque sketches; caricatures superimposed on modern photography; the novel stands out as a testimony to the unique style of Sarnath Banerjee. This comes into effect from the very beginning, where there is a careful focus on setting the pace with an introduction of a mysterious element. This is followed by another layer of narrative which is rich in humor, satire, and an account of scandals inspired by history. The depiction of the British in Calcutta from the 18th century is both humorous and interesting. In a thick section which moves from history to fiction every now and then, the reader is introduced to both, some information and casual laughter.
In the second half, the artwork and the text, both read like a traditional novel. With a heavy use of metaphors and a sharp focus on capturing the activities of everyday life and the questions surrounding them, the contemporary timeline introduces another element of mystery and intensifies the plot. The approach here continually breaks the fourth wall as the protagonist is an alter-ego of Sarnath himself and is in search of a rare leather-bound volume of The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers which was previously in the possession of his late grandfather. In this layer where the novel introduces us to a rather rare studio in Calcutta- the celestial studio- the reader gets to travel through the streets of Calcutta while relishing on some panels where intricacies of cooking Hilsa (fish) are described.
A quest which coherently connects the event from the beginning of the book to the end, protagonist’s journey through Calcutta explores the Indian side of Calcutta’s history. From exploring the origins of the name of Calcutta to a cannabis club and the word’s etymology itself, the plot meanders through various accounts of daily habits to food and mercurially humorous Babus.
The symbolism in later half is much more pronounced, where Babus are often represented with avian or fish bodies to mock their habits. Also, the surrealistic and often photo-realistic nature of art mixes well with the element of mystery which is always lurking as one progresses through the story. One gets to witness the superhero-like intelligence of Digital Dutta- a character which is carried from Sarnath’s first graphic novel Corridor. The diversity of the plot and themes, however, don’t end here, from satires, scandals, sex-obsessed panels, to Babus high on cannabis and sexual activity, the novel lets the element of mystery in the first few panels loom over a rather tome-like length of over 250 pages, while being tight on history, geography, and architecture.
The final part becomes a converging point for all the themes covered by the graphic novel and the reader is left with questions and reflections about human relationships and the many regrets they often leave in the heart of a lover.
Largely experimental in its approach, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers introduces us to various symbolism throughout the book. Visual imagery and style are heavily reflective of the tone transitions, character attributes, and symbolism. Panels alluding to mystery follow an entirely different style using more text which reads like that from a traditional novel, whereas questions about life, death, and relationships follow a photo-realistic style and humor is largely shown through caricatures which use animal-human hybrids.