Sarnath Banerjee’s third book is a fat marvel of slim delights, says Gaurav Jain
EVER SINCE his debut seven years ago, Sarnath Banerjee has been punctually denting our collective imagination. He has been our native graphic novelist. He has been our young literary figure. He has been our performing public artist. In all, he has been our very own wondrous, feckless phenom.
After two inimitable graphic novels, his third book begins with a conspiracy conceit — a secret think tank of public policy boners called the Greater Harappa Commission (est 1998, the year “Sri Sarnath Banerjee” became unemployed) are cataloguing their society’s changes, and this book is their findings, their ‘files’. The Harappa Files is not a graphic novel, it is “loosely bound graphic commentaries” to “cut a ‘society of anxiety’ into thin chewable fillets”. It is also an accurate and brilliant invention.
First the familiar. Files has the same capering, mincing, cosmopolitan sensibility we watched in Corridor and The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers. It again presents his palace of ‘looks’, variously penned, pencilled, painted and pastelled, mostly watery but also with sudden hulls of colour. Banerjee is still using that lovely font alongside his drawings. Of all his international characters, his Bangla bhadralok still have the best faces.
Each chapter is usually only two to four pages and only mildly connected with the next one. Mostly we get vignettes of Nehru’s children and their iconic products like Boroline, Lifebuoy and Vicco. Banerjee has found a new swiftness here, a shorthand able to terminate just in time, so that in the early chapter ‘Cracks’ it’s just enough to show a soldier wading through water in his underpants and exclaiming, “Fucking Maoists”, and leave it at that. This shortness, we discover, works superbly in the medium, so that “the pragmatic housewife” smiling on the tree stump she’s just axed doesn’t have to say more than “No more dry leaves on my cement porch”. Which leads us to why it works — unlike his dutiful fellow-practitioners, Banerjee pays attention to his language. That adjective “cement” is loaded with his sly wit and the panel is idle enough to make us pay close attention. The book’s slightness makes its pages spry and sensitive to the press and pull of sentences.
Banerjee’s pinning of cultural frippery remains acute — urban families like the Kukrejas who still use scooters are “upper proletariats from lower-middle-class colonies”. (This also leads him to his occasional cliché, as on the next page: “The proletariat knows how to wait.They have waited all their lives.”) He remains an alert transcriber, so you get the distinct haircuts you’d expect in the episode set in South London. His gags work because they’re slight, such as Ratan Tata suddenly appearing at the end of a long-ish chapter on the upward mobility of Jaguars. Or casually inserting a bromide of recommending coconut water to calm IIT aspirants.
Banerjee’s specialty has been the deliciously arcane trivia that he somehow loops into a narrative, and his internationalism holds good again, from JC Bose in Calcutta to Che Guevara in Tanzania to downtown Chicago’s great L. He takes pleasure in naming people and their products. He explains neither his foreign nor his Indian references (“History is written by garment exporters”). He ventures with an oblique, light touch. He remains incorrigible. These urbane books have been his slim genre, and in our literature of unvarying intellectual slimness, they have been a fat gift to his readers.
The last page lists collectors who’ve acquired some of the book’s graphic panels. Contracting the form has produced a winning book for Banerjee, but it is his writing — his protests notwithstanding — that fuels the success of Files. He has the best Indian sentence I expect to read all year:
“The same year, JC Bose was looking at two fornicating ants, wondering whether to cremate the pair with his magnifying glass or let his good upbringing come in the way.”
Anand Giridharadas’ flabby memoir isn’t the next big India book, finds Sanjay Sipahimalani
YOU KNOW a nation’s economic prowess is on the ascendant when the non-fiction sections of bookstores groan under the weight of titles that claim to explain how and why. Anand Giridharadas’ India Calling is the latest addition, another “intimate” look at how India has changed. At times a family chronicle, at others, a collection of journalistic sketches, it’s a book that is disappointingly limited in scope.
Giridharadas writes about how his parents moved to America in the 1970s and his upbringing there. On trips back to India, he found scarcity, bureaucracy and frozen beliefs about one’s place in the world: “India, in my limited and impressionistic view, seemed a land of replicated lives, where most people grew up to be exactly like their parents…” There is much here that reads like one of those commonplace novels by second-generation South Asian-Americans. However, borne on winds of change, the author, at 21, finds himself on a flight to India for a stint with McKinsey, later becoming Mumbai correspondent for The New York Times and its allied publication, The International Herald Tribune.
Most of the book appears to be a survey of the country from the confines of south Mumbai. Giridharadas does travel, of course, and there are accounts of trips to a hamlet near Nagpur, to Ludhiana and to Hyderabad. He tells us the stories of a migrant in Mumbai, his city of dreams; of a small-town young man on the make; of a Naxalite ideologue and his disdain for globalisation; and of a Punjabi joint family facing a rupture between its traditional and modern factions. There’s also an unremarkable interview with Mukesh Ambani, as well as a potted account of his family’s rise. Though Giridharadas demonstrates a fluent prose style, there’s much use of often heard words such as “revolution from below”, “new regime” and “flowering of self confidence”.
In every case, the author draws parallels from his own family, not only from his parents’ lives but also the differing attitudes of his maternal and paternal grandparents. In conclusion, he asserts that globalisation and economic growth have made Indians achieve “an independence of the soul” by growing into roles beyond those laid down by their caste, parents or society. Of course, he hastens to add, the country still has to lift itself out of “the family relations of guilt, the never-questioned rituals, the intricate taxonomy of castes and sub-subcastes, the rural cruelty, the poverty…”
Issues such as what it means to be modern without reference to the West, the perils of runaway consumerism or venal politics are glancingly touched upon, if not ignored. The vexing outcome: half-memoir, half narrow-prism portrait.