I grew up with very little religion around the house. Instead, I had kiddie science books. I was taught early that the universe is incredibly big and old, and that humans are pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of space and time. I can’t say whether it’s a result of my upbringing, or whether I would have ended up with a similar worldview in any case, but I’ve never been very interested in the teachings of human spiritual leaders. The personality cults surrounding prophets or gurus tend to put me off, more so when they come with glitzy marketing campaigns. I’m no militant Dawkinsian atheist: I can enjoy the ritual aspects of religion, and I’m often moved by religious music. But I’ve never felt drawn to study scripture.
In particular, I’ve read virtually nothing about Buddhism, which is the main subject of Bharath Murthy’s The Vanished Path: A Graphic Travelogue. In this book, Murthy illustrates a journey taken by himself and his wife Alka Singh to visit the historical sites in India and Nepal associated with the life of “Siddhattha Gotama”. The narrative is interspersed with vignettes from the Buddha’s life, anecdotes about people the travellers meet along the way and digressions on topics like the Pali canon, the Chinese monk Xuanzang, and the Dravidian leader Periyar. Murthy describes himself and his wife as recent converts to Buddhism, and we get the sense that they are still in the early stages of learning about their faith. There’s a fair amount of historical information presented in the book, which I found quite engaging, as well as an introduction to the Buddha’s teachings, which I found less so. As they say online, YMMV (your mileage may vary).
Murthy’s comics have an extremely lo-fi, meandering style, influenced by the Japanese dojinshi or self-published comics scene (about which Murthy made a short film, The Fragile Heart of Moé). I was familiar with his work from his short comic autobiography Learning to See, and from another short, Kovai Gay Comic, that appeared in an anthology I edited, The Obliterary Journal. His style may not be to everyone’s taste. If you’re the sort of reader who looks for virtuosic artistry in your comics, you’re sure to be disappointed by Murthy’s rough, sketchy, black-and-white line work. Most of his frames appear to have been drawn in a hurry. There are a handful of full- or two-page spreads that are exceptions — a large tree at Kapilavastu, a panoramic view from a chairlift up Vaibhara Hill — in which Murthy proves he’s capable of drawing detail, but most of the time he’s just not bothered to make anything beautiful. The narrative doesn’t come off as carefully planned, either. The book reads like a journal or scrapbook. The inclusion of several photographs (taken by Singh) and a few Wikimedia images of ancient Buddhist art contribute to this impression.
With different subject matter, 218 pages of this slapdash approach could have been annoying. But here I actually found it refreshing. I’m used to books about religion trying to hardsell something, and this book never once felt that way — the humble sketchbook-y presentation makes it more palatable. Murthy has a charming tendency to get distracted by animals. When he and his wife arrive at Jetavana monastery, he spends a couple of small frames drawing the buildings, and then, noticing a family of monkeys, devotes the next two pages to drawing them. We get close-ups of several other characters with non-speaking roles — a grasshopper in the hotel room, a sparrow perched on a signboard, a flycatcher nabbing, a dragonfly in midair, a snail, a mushroom.
There are a couple of ways the book could have been more polished. Hand-lettering would have been better, instead of an always-centered font that often collides with the speech bubbles or gets clumsily pasted over the artwork. And I would have been happy for just a little more insight into the protagonists. The closest thing we get is when a lodge keeper in Nepal asks Singh, “So why did you convert?” She answers, “Essentially, I dislike the Hindu caste system, as it is extremely discriminative.” No doubt; but we never learn how they were introduced to Buddhism, whether they converted together or separately, or what prompted their tour. It’s never explained why Murthy always draws himself with mouse whiskers (is it a nod to Art Spiegelman’s Maus?). Singh, who we learn is of Bihari ancestry, is drawn with what appears to be blonde hair and yet still gets oddly surprised when people assume she’s a foreigner. Maybe there’s some sort of point being made here about the Buddhist concept of selflessness, but I didn’t get it.
What The Vanished Path does communicate clearly is the strangeness of the fact that a country so obsessively proud of its ancient history had allowed its Buddhist heritage to fall into ruin. You don’t have to be religious to find archaeology fascinating. The book may not have led me to spiritual enlightenment, but it did at least make me want to visit Bihar to see Nalanda for myself.
Rakesh Khanna is a founding editor of Blaft Publications, an independent publishing house based in Chennai...