Synopsis – ‘The Harappa Files’ is Sarnath Banerjee’s third book, after ‘Corridor’ and ‘The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers’. It is a collection of observations, or commentaries on Indian society, presented as the findings of the fictitious Greater Harappa Commission.
Sarnath Banerjee is not lenient with his readers. He doesn’t wait for someone to pick up the basics, choosing rather to be like the bird that pushes her children off the branch, or the borderline sadistic swimming coach who plunged me into the deep end and left me to gargle my way out of the watered chlorine.
But behind these acts of violence, eventually fearlessness emerges. One learns to pull through obstacles and unfamiliar states of matter. Horizons are broadened.
When I read The Harappa Files a few weeks ago (I am posting this late because I tragically forgot to take sample pictures of the text before departing on a sojourn) I was struck by how genre-blastingly deconstructive this is as a comic book. I don’t pretend to know the theoretical meaning of deconstruction, but here I refer to how our very basic understanding of comics is recast – like building a whole new house out of the bricks from an older one. The Harappa Files is not a graphic novel (Banerjee’s earlier works were), it is almost not a comic book, it is hardly a story, and yet when you try of formulating a new definition, you fall short. Banerjee will help with that too, worry not.
The premise of the book is that an organization called the Greater Harappa Commission has been carrying out studies on changes in Indian society (I am condensing the book’s own language here since I find the Banerjee’s words a tad too convoluted at times). The findings are to be released, and the most suitable medium the commission agrees on is that of comics (Hallelujah!). So a certain Sri Banerjee is called in to do the needful, and the rest of the book has the faceless Sri Banerjee’s illustration of the Commission’s findings. The chapters range though neighbourly relations suffering from road traffic, the unwritten rules of selling luxury, the failure of education and the success despite, the auctioning of peace-infusive tea and the role of soap as a social identifier.
Banerjee gives a very interesting name to this collection, “graphic commentaries”. They are not connected by any theme or standard. There is almost no connection between pages, between chapters or even within chapters. Pictures of Boroline cream rub shoulders with Che Guevara. So, by calling them commentaries Banerjee expresses that he is not offering a plot with a twist or a protagonist to identify with. Some of the chapters appear to be interviews rather than commentaries, since they involve individuals and their personal opinions. An exception to the rest of the book is the last chapter, “Single malt, single woman”, which is a short story, not a commentary at all, and definitely not a part of the Commission’s findings. Maybe it is my eagerness to come across a story after a long period of drifting, I liked this piece the most, it is short, passionate, and has a beautiful finale.
And here I return to what I was saying earlier about Banerjee jumping into the field like a frenzied creature, ripping the limbs of comics as we have gotten to know it. In a nation that is getting into the thick of comics just now, that is trying to elevate comics without really knowing much about them yet, Banerjee appears adamant to throw stones at these glass houses from the very start. I don’t know how he does it, but I am thankful that he does. A shake-up every few years seems important at this nascent stage for comics in India. I think we are making tremendous leaps in a very short period of time, and are not far from becoming a culture of excellence in comics, just like we had become in the written novel.
An image that jumps into my mind is from an old computer game where the player has to ski downhill, trying to avoid trees and rocks, but suddenly gets eaten alive by an abominable snowman who then proceeds to jump like a cricket. I never knew the snowman was really a celebrated comics creator.
|Story||3/5||No story, just commentaries. Sometimes the language gets in the way of the story|
|Illustrations||4/5||Subtle, never trying to be explosive, almost always soothing and well-matched with the subject|
|Production Quality||3/5||Expensive since it is a hardcover, yet the edges tend to bend and|
|Overall||4.5/5||Promises to re-draw the way comics are understood, and will probably give rise to many imitators|
‘The Harappa Files’
Sarnath Banerjee (writer-artist)
Published by Harper Collins India with The India Today Group, 2011