Sarnath Banerjee’s third book, after Corridor and The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, is a series of “loosely bound graphic commentaries”, produced three years after he promised his editor he would never write a graphic novel again. He volunteers this information in an introductory page to The Harappa Files. The book opens with Greater Harappa Rehabilitation, Reclamation and Redevelopment Commission, sketches which explain how a “secret think-tank of elite bureaucrats, historians, ethnographers, social scientists, law enforcers, retired diplomats and policymakers…set up the committee to conduct a gigantic survey of the current ethnography and urban mythologies of a country on the brink of great hormonal changes.”
The “Harappa findings” are made public in subsequent pages, in flashes of illustration and commentary, most two or three pages long. Some of them contain slices of life from a less momentous age. Bureaucrats are represented by gargoyles; “self-taught chemists” selling cures for the eczema caused by terylene shirts are memorialized briefly; we recall a time when “we knew what the capital of Tonga was and how many medals Nadia Comaneci won at the Montreal Olympics”.
The Harappa Files: HarperCollins, 215 pages, Rs 499.
Some look forward. File #0491 / 11C / Nano conjures up visions of a Delhi saturated with so many cars that pedestrians “can finally cross the road” when the jam ceases to move.
The Greater Harappa Commission notwithstanding, the “findings” in this book are presented entirely in Banerjee’s trenchant voice and visual vocabulary. The stories here are succinct and often funny; but most also resist the temptation of the anti-climactic sting, or the single payoff line or panel that might make them slapstick.
He is more susceptible yet to an annoying didacticism. This makes routine jokes of material that is otherwise sharp. Many of the sketches that look backward will be familiar—some may even recreate fondness—to readers who remember an urban India very different from this decade’s. Banerjee’s commentaries are too textured to evoke simple nostalgia, but what they do evoke is sometimes too reliant on that familiarity. In these instances (such as File #0022 / 12 B / Middle-Class Revolutionary, unsurprisingly about middle-class revolutionaries), the reader anticipates the sketch, instead of the other way around.
The most refreshing thing about The Harappa Files is its format, which offers many opportunities for readers to return to it, dipping into a story or two at a time, lingering over favourites. It will feel like holding a commonplace book—certainly in the medieval sense of the term, as a scrapbook of memory, fact and aphorism, but also literally, as a book about the commonplace.
Banerjee has a wicked eye for the ubiquitous visuals of life in Delhi and Kolkata, so often representative of other parts of urban India as well. There is an awkward vibrancy to the way his characters are drawn. Like their surroundings, in schools, government offices and yes, the homes of the bourgeois, their beauty is complex and ungainly; it coexists and melds with their ugliness, their indifference, their sense of semi-permanence.
Best-seller: The self-taught chemist hawks ‘Calamine X’.
Banerjee draws these imperfections without caricaturing them, and his colouring expresses their mood near-perfectly. Sometimes in black and white, sometimes in cool, solid colours, each piece of art acquires depth and clarity. In File #6851 / 5M / Jessie, Banerjee depicts the scientist J.C. Bose, who demonstrated a wireless telegraphy experiment in Kolkata years before Marconi, but lost out on a Nobel Prize because bureaucratic delays prevented his discovery from becoming international news in time. He is looking, Banerjee says, “at two fornicating ants, wondering whether to cremate the pair with his magnifying glass or let his good upbringing come in the way”.
There is a poignancy to the tea-stained sepia illustration of the great man, and to the nonchalant absurdity of Banerjee’s text, that no middle-class revolutionary can adequately convey.