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.”