Chronicling the past as well as documenting the contemporary, Banerjee playfully counts our losses
If nostalgia had shape and colour, it would look like this. Although you may not think so to begin with. The Harappa Files, Sarnath Banerjee’s third book, starts with a playful Postmodernist jab at himself, as Paul Auster and Italo Calvino were wont to do by placing the author within their own creations. He is, as he modestly puts it, ‘creator and publisher of small-time comic books’, called upon by GHRRR (Greater Harappa Rehabilitation, Reclamation & Redevelopment Commission), a ‘secret thinktank of elite bureaucrats, historians, ethnographers, social scientists, law enforcers, retired diplomats and policy makers’, to visually disseminate the decade-long Harappa findings. These are the results of a gigantic survey of the ‘current ethnography and urban mythologies of a country on the brink of great hormonal change’. The lively banter, albeit a tad long-winded, is characteristic Banerjee, and serves to set up a series of vignettes that range from the satirical and sharp to the hilarious and profane.
For a book that’s seeking to not only resurrect the past but also deconstruct it, it’s fitting that the central motif is a tap, and that the crux of the book lies within a sketch about Brighu’s meeting with Rakhaldas Banerjee, an archaeologist ‘credited with cracking the great mystery of Harappan plumbing’. The flow of history, often compared to the relentless current of a river, can be un-containable—just as the plumbing frequently falters in Brighu’s blueprint-less building, flooding his home, one of many within a sprawling, unplanned neighbourhood. ‘Since the Indus Valley civilization, there has been a steady decline,’ says Rakhaldas, and the artist seems to think so too. The Harappa Files, while also documenting the contemporary, is more about what we’ve lost.
Within the pages, cinematically brought to life by Banerjee’s illustrations, are stories of rampant consumerism (‘Jaguar Salesman’) and suburban paranoia (‘City of Gates’) that question the great strides of progress our nation is supposedly making towards a shiny, crystal-ball future. Also included are sketches from the mythical monster series that Banerjee created in collaboration with writer Samit Basu. The monsters—Gargoyles, Vampyr, Kobold—fittingly hold government positions, and make life as difficult as possible for everybody; Hydra, though, with her many heads and sneaky nature, represents an all-too familiar interfering landlady. Nestling in between, the ones that truly capture everyman’s quiet desperation, are tales of small lives and small failures. Banerjee, more social anthropologist than graphic story-teller in this case, documents quirky, vanishing professions—a man selling homemade Calomine X ointment on local trains, the prop-maker he remembers from school who made beards, swords and helmets and carried a trunk full of magical transformations, and the telephone sanitiser with his Coleman’s Beeswax and yellow flannel wipes. They are part of a nation’s unravelling fabric.
Banerjee’s visual technique, while offering little that is startlingly new or experimental, incorporates, as have his previous two books, an eclectic range of styles—rough colour pencil sketches, soft wash watercolours, photographic cut-outs, detailed pen and ink, and textured crayon. The colours, mostly muted and sepia, work well to capture a sense of the distant past. What you may miss is a sustained narrative to provide a more in-depth tackling of issues; yet, The Harappa Files needs to be dipped into and enjoyed like a fairground peep show—in short, sharp, entertaining bursts.