This graphic novel is about Bengalureans who remain invisible
What is the quintessential symbol of modern Bengaluru: the Malleswaram cafe or the construction worker of Mandya? The lavish computer park or the taxi driver who migrated from Tumkur? It’s pretty obvious which of them would be celebrated by city guides and Instagram reels.
Across India’s cityscape, those who build our homes, collect our rubbish and facilitate our hectic lives in myriad ways often remain invisible. French graphic novelist Simon Lamouret attempts to pierce this veil of invisibility with The Alcazar. This is the story of a future apartment complex, the Alcazar, somewhere in Bengaluru and the many lives that intersect with the construction of the building. Mehboob, his wife, Salma, and the couple’s relative, Rafik, help build and maintain it and live on the site.
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They are among the 4.3 million migrants who live in Bengaluru, according to the 2011 census (the highest of any city other than Mumbai). Mehboob’s life is typical of the migrant experience. He “escaped” a life as a farmer, a major life expense – a debt from his marriage – forced him to take construction work, but he dreams of one day being “his own boss”, even if it means returning to the village.
L’Alcazar: By Simon Lamouret, Comix India, 212 pages, Rs. 200.
Although Lamouret has a background in design and architecture (he taught the basics of perspective at a college in Bengaluru), the book’s approach is surprisingly often journalistic. There are nuggets about the gender pay gap in construction work (Mehboob earns 30% more than Salma); the site engineer is a young man straight out of college named Ali, whose salary is only slightly higher than that of the workers; the person with real influence on the site is the chief mason, Trinna, a sleazy operator.
Despite these glimmers of insight into the world of real estate, the book doesn’t offer a compelling narrative with well-balanced characters. Very little of Mehboob’s or Rafik’s life outside the construction site is accessible. Their identity is confined to the site. Thus, the book reads like a series of snapshots or vignettes of a construction site. In fact, the most moving passages are those where Mehboob or Rafik nonchalantly dream of a life far from cement and brick. In a panel, Rafik claims that he has already held the wheel of a car. That should be enough to snag the role of an app-based taxi driver.
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While the pacing and depth of the storytelling isn’t necessarily top-notch, the artistry is. The recurring double-spread panels that follow the progression of the building are breathtaking, recording fine detail and marking the regular replacement of tree cover with concrete. In the end, the best thing about the book might be that Lamouret mustered up the courage to walk into a construction site. Books that delve into the lives of migrant/guest workers who make and remake our urban landscapes are rather rare. And without a deeper appreciation of their stories, our understanding of the cities we live in will forever be incomplete.
Ajai Sreevatsan is a Delhi-based writer and journalist.