EXPERIENCE Sarnath Banerjee, a recorder of reality, but not India's first graphic novelist. BARADWAJ RANGAN's slightly surreal encounter
It was my birthday, but all I expected, really, was the average working day. You're told there's someone to interview. You find out who, where, when. You reach there a little early, expecting to be kept waiting by a celebrity who likes to time his appearances a little late. You ask a few questions. You get answers, sometimes bright, sometimes contemptuous, sometimes bored. When you feel you have had enough (or when you feel there's nothing forthcoming), you take your leave. You switch on the computer. Within a specified word count, you try to convey a sense of the meeting — colour, feel, climate — with the scraps of information you've either recorded or jotted down in a chicken-scrawl fully legible only to ancient Egyptians. You scramble to meet the deadline. The average working day, really.
Instead, I find myself sung to — the birthday song, accompanied by an electric guitar, the first two lines in perfect tune, the latter two in a chorus of peculiar pitches — by two young women and a bespectacled man I've never met in my life, and a second man whose vaguely familiar face makes me think I might have nodded at him at a party a few years ago. A black Labrador sniffs my crotch and sets about chewing up the morning's newspaper by my feet, and the rest of us stuff our faces with creamy cake that has somehow materialised. Things have a way of becoming surreal around Sarnath Banerjee. I wouldn't have been surprised, five minutes later, to see a pink elephant with wings, ready to give us rides through a city that has become strangely overcast after days of sweltering summer.
Even his conversations are slightly unreal. One moment Banerjee talks about the loss of fantasy that links the series of disparate essays — known as The Harappa Files, and commissioned by bureaucrats — encapsulating the collective fantasy of a nation at the brink. “I was commissioned to make these findings public,” he says, which is why he wrote his third graphic novel. In his words, then, he has been hired by the characters he created in order to submit his findings to readers in the real world, a meta-undertaking at the level of Harold Pinter's adaptation of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. The next minute Banerjee refers to Conrad's heart of darkness and Edmund Hillary's “deep sadness” upon conquering Everest and the newfound confidence of the malevolent middle class.
Because he writes like he speaks, Banerjee's work is instinctively categorised as “Kafkaesque satire,” and he doesn't mind. “I have studied anthropology of image. I can take an image and endlessly pontificate about it. There are so many readings. The joy of being reviewed is that every reading adds a new dimension. I don't care if they call it Kafkaesque or Tunisian.” He turns to the Akbarnama, about our long tradition of visual historians. “You can read ten thousand books about Bombay or see a bunch of Mario Miranda cartoons and get an alternate understanding.” He says he is programmed to be a heretic, and when people like Anna Hazare spout big ideologies, he is there with a big pin between forefinger and thumb. “If you agree with everything, you're impotent.”
He denies that he is India's first graphic novelist, and says he's known that way only because his first book, Corridor, was the first graphic novel that found nationwide distribution. He points to Orijit Sen's River of Stories as India's first graphic novel, commissioned by an NGO and distributed locally in Delhi. Banerjee is not uncomfortable acknowledging that Sen's work predates his own. “It's not just generosity but also an act of empowerment to trace the people who led you to do this.” Other artists, he feels, don't do this because they are insecure and they have the lust to be original. “Nothing is original. I cannibalise. I don't have ideas of my own.” He gives himself a fancy name, a recorder of reality.
I ask if he thinks of himself as an artist first or a writer. He says he calls himself a storyteller, and then says, “That sounds pretentious.” After a pause, he says he'd rather call himself an author. “Because I have an authorial voice.” Banerjee fingers a book that promises its reader the power to learn Tamil in 30 days, and wonders how anyone can learn a language like Tamil in 30 days. He says he likes Chennai, which he calls Madras. He remembers a time he used to wake up to Murugan songs and hot vadas. The mention of food appears to have given him an appetite. A bowl of pomegranate seeds arrives. He looks for a dustbin. “People ask me what I do with my rubbish.” He laughs. “I just put it in my books.” His next story, which might have something to do with the revival of dead museums (or maybe just dead objects, like thrown-away slippers), may not have words or pictures. “Stories are gestures. You don't have to leave behind a trail of dog poo.” Only he knows if the Labrador milling around has triggered this thought.