Sarnath Banerjee is possibly India’s foremost graphic novelist as well as being an artist and publisher. A constant theme in his books, from “Corridor”, published 12 years ago, to “The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers”, “The Harappa Files”, as well as his most recent, “All Quiet in Vikaspuri”, is an ironic commentary on India’s middle class concerns. In “All Quiet in Vikaspuri” (a play on “All Quiet on the Western Front”), Banerjee posits a Delhi gone mad due to water shortages, where each of the middle class neighbourhoods face off in an apocalyptic battle for survival as Delhi runs dry.
He spoke to thethirdpole.net about the ideas in his book, the role of water – and plumbing – in the Indian household, the mythology of rivers and their connection to Indian cities, and the deep, deep necessity to keep talking to each other.
Omair Ahmad (OA): Why water? That is the first question that hits you about this book, the urgency, centrality of water in the lives of the people you have documented. Has this been a developing concern, a new concern?
Sarnath Banerjee (SB): Some people would remember how living in Delhi in the 1980s and 90s was centred around storage and management of water. In most neighbourhoods, it was supplied only for a couple of hours during morning and evening. People woke up in the night to switch on their booster pumps, and in the evening let go of their social plans if it clashed with the water timings. It was like having a small baby. My late uncle’s vitality depended on whether he managed to fill his overhead tanker during the summer months. He would gleam with satisfaction if he did, and if not he would slip into a sullen silence until next morning. My psychiatrist friend would argue that this eternal cycle -a rhythm of life that cannot be controlled by individuals, kept people’s minds healthy, free from manic depression and other related diseases. He would say that it gave purpose to existence, a chore to retired people, a responsibility to the youth and it brought human beings back to their agrarian roots. This secular ritual prevented them from becoming maniacally intolerant, rabid trolls.
In the new world, the water problem is a distant memory thanks to a better distribution system if not abundance. Now my downstairs neighbour can keep his pump on for hours letting his tank overflow an Olympic-sized swimming pool a day. I did alert him a few times, he politely apologised, reminiscing the terrible water problems of the 90s. Once in a while he does switch off the pump, but slips back to his habit. Later, I understood, that somewhere at the back of his conscious mind he thinks that by wasting gallons of water he will forget the trauma of the 90s drought. All that water is needed to wash off that faint yet resolute stain. The stain that reminded him of a time when resources were scarce and had to be used frugally, that we were a poor nation and the upper middle class Indians were not growing at a whooping 9% rate.
OA: Delhi is the city on the Yamuna, but you have made the mythical river Saraswati as one of the main themes of the book, why is that?
With the special brand of science and technology that the nation is currently encouraged, the prefix ‘mythical’ may not stick to the Saraswati for long [as parts of the Indian government try to find – or recreate – the ‘lost river’ mentioned in the Vedas.] An excavation plan too might be instituted. Remember the river interlinking project that the current government wanted to initiate? Beats the medieval era ruler Mohammed bin Tughlaq [known for his fantastical plans, including introduction of paper money and the wholesale movement of the capital, many of which failed, at great cost].
The Mughals and the Delhi Sultanate never used the Yamuna for drinking water, preferring rain harvesting, yet the river lends Delhi its personality and history. The river is destroyed to the point that it is best left in the hands of the environmentalists. Yamuna is too real for me. My narrative always tends towards the unreal.
OA: Can you tell us about the Psychic Plumber? He’s a character that came up in an earlier book of yours, but why a plumber? Are they so important in Delhi?
SB: I am really obsessed with plumbers. I like their confidence, swagger and philosophy. Left to myself I would continue drawing and writing them all my life. My fascination ranges from the Harappan times to the intricate pipe-works of south Delhi houses who do not have a plumbing blue print. It is as if plumbers are part of a larger cosmic design only to be unravelled by the psychic skills of a Kalkaji plumber. I learnt the real spirit of physics by watching plumbers, my brother learnt Hindi by communicating with a conference of plumbers, trying to solve the plumbing mystery of my flat in Delhi. The soul of a building is in its plumbing. Take away the plumbing and a building is without a circulatory system.
OA: You have posited a comical/apocalyptic scenario of water wars, obviously that is an exaggeration, but what were you drawing on to come up with this idea? Was there some event that led to this train of thought?
SB: Lately, there’s been a gathering consensus that the current politics of the country has brought about the death of irony. Which is okay by me, I never had a head for it. There are also talks that people have become sharply divided in their opinions and are unable to get swayed by anything that doesn’t adhere to their belief system. ‘Politics of belief ‘makes sure that a point made emotionally and with fire power can compensate for its factual thinness. Bullying has replaced rationality. Outrage has surpassed reason, the thugs are back.
My premise is the unreal. Lately it feels that the unreal has become more tangible than it ever was. Therefore, using the unreal one can create comment. There are precious few ways to approach the closed mind. I have never seen the country so divided in my adult life. Yes, there has always been a conservative lilt, but I remember I could still have a conversation with a rightwing, ex-Rotarian, cardiologist as much as I could with a closed-up communist who could only understand the world through class-struggle. Some people even “lurched” from the left and “right” with the blowing of the wind. But now the swords are already drawn even before the battle is announced.
OA: You are familiar with a number of large cities across South Asia – Calcutta, Delhi and Karachi – are these types of problems, and ways of looking at water, present across these cities, or is this a Delhi issue?
SB: In Calcutta the only water problem that I experienced was the big incidents of flooding that happened though the 80s. As children we fantasised about kayaking through Southern Avenue, where ground-floor balconies would lead to infinity pools, all the way up to the lakes and maybe stretching over to the Sundarbans. We all got thigh-length Duckback gumboots as birthday present. Great literature was written about flooding. None of that happens anymore. And there’s plenty of water in the taps.
In Karachi, the beautiful neighbourhoods of Defence and Clifton, their lovely architected houses and landscaped gardens are watered by tankers. Not unlike the massive apartment societies of Gurgaon. In my book I mentioned residents of Gurgaon, some of whom believe that water along with electricity, maids, gas, gyms are all provided by the building.