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Sex, Lies and Single Malt combine in Harappa

Sarnath Banerjee’s third book is a mixed bag of undercooked and fascinating stories. The art is improved but it does not offer the best of him, writes Aditya Bidikar

ADITYA BIDIKAR  20th Feb 2011

Sarnath Banerjee's The Harappa Files

arnath Banerjee's first graphic novel, Corridor, is possibly my favourite modern Indian comic. It is definitely the one I've reread the most. Corridor was what I like to call a 'little black book' – a loosely linked compendium strung together as a novel. Focussing on episodic narratives and character sketches, it was an intensely amiable, irreverent portrayal of little slices of both familiar and unfamiliar India. His artwork back then was less sure, more tentative, but he did attempt a few flourishes, at least some of which succeeded.

The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers, his second book, was certainly more ambitious. It attempted a layered, complex narrative, winding in and out of the past and the present, trying to pin down portraits of some of the odder bits of Indian history. As a collection, it was excellent. As a novel, it failed – the parts were immensely superior to the whole.

The Harappa Files, Banerjee's third book, is closer in spirit to his first than to his second one. It is an unabashed collection of graphic commentaries, presented as a compilation of files recorded by the Greater Harappa Rehabilitation, Reclamation & Redevelopment Commission (GHRRRC) and converted to the graphic format by one Sarnath Banerjee. Each 'file' is designated by two numbers – a file number and another which is presumably a section number. It is thus a proper collection. There is little pretence of being cohesive, and as such, most of the sections can be taken on their own (although some do tie in to each other in a roundabout fashion). The sections themselves concern a variety of topics, with special focus on modern Indian culture, bureaucracy and the common man, nostalgic reminiscing (not quite 'oh, the good old days', but close) and assorted quirky stories."

Overall, there is less interplay between words and pictures, which is a shame, considering pictorial design is where Banerjee shows the most development.

ost of the pieces are expository narratives sans dialogue, propelled along by the pictures. As Banerjee puts it in his introduction, 'Nothing avant-garde, just going back to the old ways of telling pictorial stories'. Much as this is an admirable initiative, the pictures in this particular book serve the words too much. There is, overall, less interplay between the words and the pictures than there could have been. Which is a shame, considering pictorial design is where Banerjee shows the most development. He is in command of his artwork here, from the deliberately unfinished sketches of 'Nano' to the angles in the creepy, near-alternate reality Delhi of 'City of Gates' (easily the best story of the collection) to Che Guevara rendered as an Indrajal Comics hero (in 'Middle-Class Revolutionary') to the painted pages strewn throughout the book. It is, however, a shame that these styles don't get to properly stretch their legs. As it is, Banerjee cuts the stories short just as they reach a gentle canter.Image 2nd

The stories themselves vary wildly in content and quality. Banerjee is experienced enough by now to ensure that none of them are actually bad, but some of them come perilously close to...merely existing. The shorter ones suffer from being undercooked – they yearn to be longer, more considered stories. Many of them seem to have a point to them, bubbling below the surface, that never gets out. And the Sarnath Story Structure™ (the peculiar seemingly-out-of-left-field last line, for example) pushes them even deeper into a semi-morass of opacity. A few of them even feel like expansions of throwaway gags from previous books.

However, the longer ones are much more fascinating. All the weaknesses mentioned above fall away, the ideas get to breathe, and Banerjee creates little wonders with them. Stories like 'Nano', 'City of Gates', 'Single Malt, Single Women', 'Rakhaldas Banerjee's Plot' (more than one of which feature Brighu, the protagonist, if there can be said to be one, of Corridor) are tautly written, yet have an ease about them which reminds one of the best parts of Corridor.

Finally, coming back to the central conceit (the GHRRRC and its findings). The idea is well-put-together, and even amusingly self-referential, but it is debatable how useful it is in the context of the book. It functions to hide the lack of connections, but this doesn't really seem necessary, other than to cover for the fact that many of the segments really didn't need to be there. There is also a recurrent word-based flow, with the last words of a segment repeated in the beginning of the next, which is amusing up to a point, but again, works only on a superficial level.

Overall, this is certainly a more technically accomplished creation than Banerjee's previous books. The artwork is noticeably better, of course, but the creative progression from previous books that one might expect is missing. One might argue that the author wants to kick back and relax, but this book is too self-conscious for that. The Harappa Files is amusing in parts, bland in others, and occasionally excellent. But ultimately, the high expectations we have for Banerjee – a pioneer in his field and an accomplished stylist – make it a tad disappointing.

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