A strangely familiar world greets me on the cover of Sarnath Banerjee’s The Harappa Files. There are two boys, in karate gi, one with a tiffin-carrier in hand and the other with a thermos. A woman, one chappal-clad foot flying towards the reader and a no-nonsense expression governing her face, holds their hands. The image is in colour, set against a brown backdrop. It is a sight that one might see in contemporary India, but it is more likely than not that today the three would be in a car, windows rolled up, FM radio on, perhaps with the children playing with handheld devices. Anyone who lives above the lower-middle class these days would like to have all those things – commodities that have created a rift with their own lives from three decades past.
The image resonates with India’s children of the transition, those who were born in the 60s and early 70s, who experienced neither the excitement of the wave of independence nor the cataclysm of the wave of liberalisation. Most goods were out of reach, creating a longing for unavailable things advertised at the backs of imported comic books – shoes, jeans, cassette tapes, Twinkies, a Charles Atlas bodybuilding kit, x-ray glasses. In the first anthology from the graphic-novelists’ group The Pao Collective, Sarnath Banerjee (born 1972) recalls his desire for Nike shoes. A relative from abroad brings our hero his used pair. The hero’s father, “in one sweep of anger, disgust and embarrassment,” throws them away. Then, one night, our hero spies his father, “an open copy of Sportsworld by his side, a size 3 Bata keds in his left hand and a clumsily held paint brush in his right. Blue ink on white canvas. Cheap bastard.” Cheap, but nonetheless loving and – much like the erstwhile Indian government – desperately using techniques of reverse engineering and import substitution to generate commodities for a generation that seemed to want more regardless of the costs.
When liberalisation struck in the 1990s, most of the children of the transition took to it well. The upper ranks of the social pyramid would have had an easy time anyway; success was preordained for them, as were trips abroad that allowed access to foreign goods. Just below them, those who had relied upon relatives from abroad or on ‘fancy markets’ in major cities could now go to mid-market malls for their loot – and at least touch it. The vast bulk of the population – those who walked, for instance, and those who farmed the land – made few gains, and indeed lost a great deal in the new era. For them, the goods were a rebuke, the malls temples in which they had become untouchable. Liberalisation came, goods arrived, capital was freed from regulation, but the State did not disappear. Its bureaucratic apparatus now moves rapidly for those who oil its gears with ‘donations’, but lumbers to a halt before the entreaties of the poor.
Tiresome offices with babus sitting behind ponderous nameplates and copious amounts of self-assurance – this is how the ordinary chap sees the State. Banerjee draws the bureaucrat as a gargoyle, one of whom is S S Sivakumar, “a petty bureaucrat in the Department of Surplus Emotion and Nervous Breakdown”. In 1951, cartoonist R K Laxman inaugurated his Common Man, the ordinary chap of the old era, to bear witness to the limitations of the new democracy. “I had to create this mythical individual in a striped coat, with a bushy moustache, a bald head with a white wisp of hair at the back, a bulbous nose on which perched a pair of glasses, and thick black eyebrows permanently raised, expressing bewilderment,” wrote Laxman. “He voyages through life with quiet amusement, at no time uttering a word, looking at the ironies, paradoxes and contradictions in the human situation.” Banerjee does not have a figure like this to be the sentinel. Nonetheless, his India, with its committees and bureaucrats, its filing cabinets and triplicates, comes at you with equal parts Kafkaesque gloom and Laxmanian humour.
Land of the one-eyed king
To simply look at today’s India with ‘quiet amusement’ as Laxman’s Common Man does would not do. That is the pose of the critic of Nehruvianism – one who had faith in its ideals but scoffed at its practice. Banerjee has no faith in the vision of Manmohan Singh’s liberalisation. He paints the gloom that shrouds the ordinary person who must confront the State, but it is not enough to be gloomy for that would not capture the contradictions of ‘India Shining’. Banerjee’s drawings are lively, colourful and often funny. His are not the darkened pencil drawings that are so often used to evoke dystopia. India is not that; that would be too simple. As the Orientalists used to say – maliciously – India contains multitudes, a little this and a little that, with the palimpsest experienced differently depending on where you stand on the class ladder. Liberalisation emerges from the carapace of bureaucracy – the former benefitting those for whom the Nikes were within reach during the 1970s, and the latter encaging those who did not know what Nikes were or are. The new order does not invalidate the old but absorbs it. That is why the skeletal remains of the State and of cultural artefacts reveal themselves in Banerjee’s book, pestering those who would like to void life of its history.
Banerjee does not have a Common Man. He does not have a firm basis for his uneasiness with liberalisation. Nor does he profess adherence to an ideological stance from which to tear apart the inequities. That is not his style. Neither is his work of the new kind of stylistic ‘narrative non-fiction’ on India, like Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A portrait of the new India (2011) or Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the secret world of Bombay’s dance bars (2010). These works offer stories and reports that capture the lives and hopes of their actors, offering history as context but keeping the analysis imbedded in the prose. Nevertheless, even these careful and precise writers allow their adjectives to slip in and condemn this person or that one, revealing their preferences. Deb cannot help skewering the business-school magnate Arindam Chaudhuri anymore than he can help feeling kinship with the “ghost workers” of Kothur. Nor can Faleiro disguise her affection for Leela, whose philosophies of business and marriage allow Faleiro to become her stenographer.
Banerjee’s sympathies are less apparent; his voice is hard to detect. It comes off as fettered nostalgia – a glance backward at the advertisements of the 1970s selling Boroline and Lifebuoy, at the tinny sounds of All India Radio. Banerjee also seems to harbour a cautious admiration for the idiosyncratic and forgotten intellectual. There is regret that J C Bose failed to get credit for his invention of the wireless telegraph in 1895, largely because of bureaucratic delays (Banerjee doesn’t tell us that Bose pioneered Indian science-fiction writing). Banerjee introduces us to Rakhal Das Banerjee, the eminent pioneer in Indian archaeology and the discoverer of Mohenjodaro, whom he converts cannily into an expert in Harappan plumbing. These are the types of people that Banerjee and I would have learned about in our endless forays into brown-paper covered ‘general knowledge’ books in preparation for the Sunday Bournvita Quiz Contest, hosted by the Sayani brothers before it became a franchise of the O’Brien family. “Education for us,” Banerjee writes, “was what boxing must have been for the black man … the only way to overcome the caste/class barrier.” Banerjee’s is a stance that sets itself in the past, with an artist’s distaste for ‘high commerce’.
The binaries of the Orientalist invoke a mood of irony: how funny to see an 18th-century bullock cart as a 21st-century jet flies overhead! Banerjee sees the cart and the plane but does not mock them; he relishes the multiplicity, encouraging a new vocabulary to make sense of the contradictions. There is a sense in his work, and in that of the Pao Collective in general, that we are trying to find a voice to capture the totality of the Indian experience without reducing it to the stereotypes that pervade older works, without the mockery of the social condition that we otherwise inhabit as real, living beings. In search of this language, we can yet ask: What do you believe in, Sarnath Banerjee? How do you propose to makes things right? My sense is that he’ll answer: that is not my job. But this is incomplete. When art is still in search of a mode of representation for a shifting reality, it is hard to take a rigid stand. Equally, as Charlie Chaplin showed in his films, it is much more moving to see the wretched of the earth at the moment before they are politically aware than to see them already part of a major social force. Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ is the poor man, not the proletariat: his self-awareness ends at the doorway to social change. His films allude to reality, inciting awareness. This is what saves them from becoming propaganda. They are not ironic, nor are they earnest. Banerjee’s work is a cartoon version of the Chaplin film, in search of a future but unwilling to map it out.
Comics are delightfully democratic. It is easy to draw, even if it is hard to draw well. Boys and girls equally take to doodling. Sadly, the filters of the comic industry often chose the men and allowed deeply masculinist forms of drawings and story-telling to dominate. We got Tintin and Asterix, the male heroes who would save the day, while the women around them (Madame Castafiore and Impedimenta) were irritants for comic relief. We didn’t see the comic magazines such as Ah! Nana (1976-78) from the same French-Belgian world that produced our two aforementioned heroes. We saw the hypersexual women in DC Comics, but not It Ain’t Me Babe (1970). Both Ah! Nana and It Ain’t Me Babe were self-consciously written to elaborate upon the conventions of comic books from a feminist standpoint. It is a pity these works didn’t make their way into our lending libraries to broaden our aesthetic canvas. Reading the Pao Collective’s anthology, I’m struck by the vibrant worlds that fidget around sexual and gender stereotypes. Nevertheless, in Banerjee’s world there is the ‘five-minute woman’, and even one character’s Thursday-evening woman – both vessels for the sexual fantasies of others, but with no history of their own. The Collective’s members have produced works that try to go beyond this – books such as Parismita Singh’s The Hotel at the End of the World and Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm. Banerjee, however, remains below the barrier. This is a pity. It narrows the ambition of The Harappa Files, which otherwise reads like a neurologist’s report on contemporary India.
The book ends with a sensation of futility and fun. There is a story about Hillary and Tenzing reaching the top of Everest. The Kiwi is disheartened, so the Nepali says to him, “look behind to what we have achieved, not what lies before us.” We return to a bureaucrats’ meeting. There is disagreement. One of the men storms out of the room, climbs the stairs to the roof, takes off his shoes, and throws one shoe over the edge. He is at the summit. It appears as if he might want to follow his shoe into the abyss, even though Tenzing’s warning is with us – don’t look ahead, look back, we want to tell him. His shoe lands on the windscreen of a car driven by a jubilant one-eyed man. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
~ Vijay Prashad, a contributing editor to Himal, has two new books: Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (LeftWord, 2012), already published in India; and Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today (Harper-Collins, 2013), which will be available in a Southasian edition early next year.