Falling to Pieces: Observations on Contemporary Indian Life in Sarnath Banerjee’s The Harappa Files

One of my pet peeves is people who harp on and on about how much progress India has made. Look at the number of shiny new malls we have! We have so many new flyovers – sometimes one flyover soaring over another and it looks like Shanghai! Foreign countries are tripping over each other in their mad rush to invest in India! India is truly a shining country. Of course, it doesn’t matter that we’re producing fewer and fewer quality goods and services. The clothes we wear make us anonymous in their uniformity. They’re entirely disposable, because something can soon be found to replace them.

The same is applicable to everything –from bags to shoes to mobile phones to car. Service of any kind is astonishingly bad – logic would dictate that given the number of competitors in any sector, such as telecom (a big, big offender), the different parties would all be striving to out-do each other in order to rope in more customers. But they’re simply awful. If A won’t register your complaints seriously, you can be sure neither will V or R. Their preferred method of ensnaring more paying customers is to lure them in by dangling before them some new seemingly mouth-watering scheme. Like a shiny new toy distracts a child from a scrape on the knee, this brand new ‘exclusive’ scheme will keep customers mindlessly happy.

But I shouldn’t rant on. What this post is really about is Sarnath Banerjee’s hilarious send up of ‘India Shining’, The Harappa Files.  These files are the findings of the ‘Greater Harappa Rehabilitation, Reclamation & Redevelopment Commission’ which is a secret think-tank of elite bureaucrats, historians, ethnographers, social scientists, law enforcers, retired diplomats and policy makers.

“Sri Sudarshan Mittal, IAS, 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. Changes of such enormity, that they are barely comprehensible to its civil society”

This is not a book to be consumed in one sitting. Pick it up and dip into it once in a while. The individual segments really stand out when they’re read separately, since there isn’t a cohesive story or plot. Perhaps it’s not meant to be, since its randomness reflects the randomness that is India today. It contains truths about Indian society, acutely observed and skewered with such delicious wit. One chapter has a pedestrian musing on the impossibility of crossing a street on foot. He talks of two lifelong friends, waving to each other from their respective houses across from each other, “…as if two friends were waving across the Indo-Pak border”. They haven’t met or spoken in years, simply because they’re two afraid to cross the road.  There are just too many vehicles whizzing back and forth. Soon the Nano will be out and more people will be able to afford cars of their own. They’ll choke the roads and then, ironically, it may be easier for pedestrians to safely use the streets, since vehicles won’t be able to move anyway.

Other aspects of Contemporary Indian Life too are subjected to Banerjee’s gentle mockery: the bureaucrats who specialise in procrastination, armed as they are with paperweights that “magically erase every trace of guilt in the mind of their owners” and files into which even “the most audacious of wandering documents” disappear mysteriously; our education system that focuses more on competition and rote, and encourages students to collect irrelevant trivia such as the capital of Tonga and the number of medals Nadia Comaneci won at the Montreal Olympics; the modern buildings which have no plumbing blueprints, so one needs Psychic Plumbers whenever something goes wrong.

Certain sections are tinged with nostalgia, for instance, the ones that discuss disappearing professions like Telephone Sanitizers, sellers of costume wigs and beards, peddlers of balms on the local trains. Class difference is explored using different totems: the brisk scent of Lifebuoy soap conjures the image of the lower class man, his virility confirmed, because he wrestles and has two wives.  The more delicate, citrus scent of Liril brings to life the upwardly mobile middle class man, with one wife, a nagging sense of his own emasculation and whose idea of physical exercise is a game of badminton every Sunday.

So far, of course, I’ve only been discussing the text. This is actually a graphic novel, as I’m sure you would know, but I’m not sure I can talk about the images. However, I would like to mention one that I liked a lot: that of the inquisitive landlady, depicted as the many-headed Hydra. I suppose I loved this one, because I’ve suffered a couple of landladies exactly like this one who, on the one hand insists you’re like a son/daughter to her and then spies on your every move, prohibits you from turning on the tube-lights during the day, because it will “ruin them” and does not let you have friends over.

This book is less a commentary on Indian politics and economics and really an exercise in depicting India exactly as it is. India doesn’t exactly shine; it’s trying to get to the top table, but is hampered by its own aimless meanderings and whimsical detours. Ultimately, it’s a bit like the old fishing trawler in one of the many documents that form part of the Harappa Files. It has been fitted with a 1200 horsepower outboard engine.

“…the vehicle eventually assumes the speed that the engine promises. But somewhere on the high seas, far from shore…Cracks appear on the hull. Bits fall off.”

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Exploring the Human Condition with Book #18 Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colours

I know. I know. I’m really behind on my posts and I need to catch up asap. The number of books I’ve written about simply does not match up to the number of books I’ve actually read. But posts will be more frequent very soon. Certain major changes are happening in my life and before long, I’ll have enough time to write more on the blog. Until then, I can only ask my handful of regular readers to be patient.

Two years before his death, my father gave me a small suitcase filled with his writings, manuscripts and notebooks. Assuming his usual joking, mocking air, he told me he wanted me to read them after he was gone, by which he meant after he died…the first thing that kept me distant from the contents of my father’s suitcase was, of course, the fear that I might not like what I read. Because my father knew this, he had taken the precaution of acting as if he did not take its contents seriously. After working as a writer for twenty-five years, it pained me to see this. But I did not even want to be angry at my father for failing to take literature seriously enough…my real fear, the crucial thing I did not want to know or discover, was the possibility that my father might be a good writer…If true and great literature emerged from my father’s suitcase, I would have to acknowledge that inside my father there existed an entirely different man. This was a frightening possibility. Because even at my advanced age I wanted my father to be only my father – not a writer.

From Orhan Pamuk’s 2006 Nobel Lecture

I have read almost all of Pamuk’s works that have been translated into English, and much as I admire his lucid, evocative prose in fiction, I think I prefer his non-fiction; more specifically, his 1999 work Other Colours.  I like to float along with the gentle, contemplative tone he maintains, no matter what the topic – a massive, destructive earthquake, his trial for having ‘publicly denigrated Turkish identity’, the question of Turkey’s position vis a vis Europe. Pamuk may not have travelled much (he’s spent most of his adult life in the same area of Istanbul), but he’s read widely and he’s thought deeply about what he’s read. The reason he’s such a widely-loved and respected writer is because, no matter what he writes about, he is persistently exploring the human mind and heart. It may be a novel about lookalikes set in the Middle Ages, or it may be a love story set in post-Ataturk Istanbul, but Pamuk always links his subject to the essential human question: Who are we and why do we think and feel the way we do?

Let me illustrate this with an example: In his essay on Andre Gide, the great French writer and Nobel Laureate,  Pamuk starts out by talking about the idea of the personal journal and how it provided writers with another avenue with which to reach out to their readers. Gide was one of the first to realize the power of this new literary form. Journal is part of the Gide canon, and contains some of the writer’s most honest and heartfelt essays. Many writers worship the great Frenchman, including some Turkish novelists. These latter worthies – Pamuk calls them westernizers –  hail Gide as a great writer, despite being aware of the many derogatory, and racist, comments about Turkey that he recorded in his Journal. Pamuk uses this peculiar situation to explore the question of the Turkish identity: the clash between the country’s pride in its history and culture and yet its deep need to be seen as ‘more European’.  Amid recollections of how his table manners and sexual ethics were influenced by the constant argument that ‘that’s how they do it in Europe’, he says:

The Westernizer is ashamed first and foremost of notbeing European. Sometimes (not always) he is ashamed that he has lost his identity in his struggle to become European. He is ashamed of who he is and of who he is not. He is ashamed of the shame itself; sometimes he rails against it and sometimes he accepts it with resignation. He is ashamed and angry when his shame is exposed.

I’m sure many developing countries, which were once colonized or deeply influenced by Europe, will identify with this analysis of odd co-existence of national pride and shame.  Similarly, even when he discusses his favourite writers and their books, he prefers to link his literary explorations with human psychology. In his essay on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, he analyzes the Russian’s novel in terms of the human tendency to take pleasure in one’s own degradation. Here again, he’s not afraid to probe one specific work and find that it applies to all of humanity. He says:

Even as we tell ourselves we are worthless – over and over, as if repetition will make it true – we are suddenly freed from all those moral injunctions to conform and from the suffocating worry of having to obey rules and laws, of having to grit our teeth as we strive to be like others.

I would like to wrap up this post by saying something befittingly wise and profound. But it’s almost 1 am and anyway, I’m no Pamuk. All I can say is that I, for one, felt deeply connected to the writer as I read his essays. And I can’t say that about too many other writers.