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

  1. James Salter in an indian blog! nice 🙂
    well that’s now i bumped into blog and then did a bit of browsing.

    i actually liked Sarnath’s Barn Owl more.
    as much i too cringe at all this india shining thing – critiquing it too can become a bit boring.
    it is too SB’s eternal credit that he has managed to get published by fairly mainstream publishers in India. which is great for the ‘genre’ / field – whatever you wan’t to call it.

    but, tell me, where is the Daniel Clowes of Delhi?
    Or Alison Bechdel? (no, Amrita Patil doesn’t stand a chance)
    would be interesting to read your review of Fun House

    but ya, keep the posts coming.
    all the best
    oh – speaking of Salter – have you reviewed Ruchir Joshi’s erotica anthology?
    my favorite there was the one that heavily channeled Manto in an interesting way. gosh – i forget the author – ah,yes Sonia Jabbar

    cheers
    AT

    • Hi AT, thanks for browsing and commenting! Thank you for reminding me about Fun House!!! I read about it a couple of months ago and I thought it sounded intriguing, but I clean forgot the title! I shall order it soon.
      And no, haven’t read Electric Feather, but I do want to. I certainly would love to read a writer who can channel Manto!

  2. you are welcome! 🙂
    ah, well – i have already biased you now about the sonia jabbar piece, but the empty cup is a myth anyway.

    yes, bechdel is special – and in my humble opinion, the Bechdel of Fun House is quite different from her strip persona – her long running dykes to watch out for.
    and although it has a following within the LGBT space, i think framing FH purely through the gender lens, is troublematic (gosh, such a stilted attempt to slide in that JB reference – but, what the heck!)

    cheers
    looking forward to your FH review
    AT

    • Definitely, seeing any work through a single lens is problematic. I read an interview with Alan Hollinghurst recently where he said that it took him years to shed the ‘Gay Writer’ tag, but he was happy to be looked at as a mainstream writer now. I agree with him completely….I mean, what a loss it would be is Oscar Wilde was pigeonholed as a ‘Gay writer’! It does disservice to the writer/artist as well as the reading public, if anything is put into a labelled box.

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