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‘Berlin allows me to meet semi-sane people: Sarnath Banerjee

  • The Berlin-based writer-illustrator speaks about his new book ‘Doab Dil’
  • Banerjee’s love for history and his experience of parenting are woven into it

Sarnath Banerjee. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Sarnath Banerjee. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

In Doab Dil, Sarnath Banerjee’s new book, fact and fiction thrive together like twins. Did The Scriblerus Club (an 18th century literary association of British writers started by Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and others) dedicate itself to ridiculing jargon? Do recreational runners in Boston deliver goods too? Were “vegemeatables" introduced at the 12th International Conference of Nutribiologists? Did such a conference even take place? Such questions, and more, leave the reader intrigued.

But Banerjee would rather we don’t get caught up in sifting truth from makebelieve. Instead, he wants us to just surrender to the act of reading.

The book started off as An Encounter With Thomas Browne And Other Commonplace Utopias, a suite of drawings commissioned by Deutsche Bank and displayed as wallpaper prints at their new London branch in 2016. Banerjee intended visitors to walk through the drawings, treating the rooms like the pages of a book.

Lounge met him at the opening of his latest exhibition, Spectral Times (on till 26 May), at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. Edited excerpts:

Who are the characters of ‘Doab Dil’? There are historical figures we can recognize easily and there are those who are entirely fictional.

Doab Dil started with this idea of the garden and how class is defined through the garden. It moves from the garden to the suburbia, then to the city. The name for the book came from do ab, which, in Farsi, means the meeting place of two waters. All civilizations, even Delhi, are built in a do ab area, or next to a river. So the book is about civilizations and things in civilizations. Doab Dil is also an archive, a wander through things I have been reading for the last few years, and taking the time to assimilate. It’s a combination of deep reading and wandering through “fast" landscapes. A lot of my characters are wanderers, who walk long distances. There is a mountaineer who doesn’t like peaks—she just wanders without destination, visiting and revisiting places.

Many characters in your earlier works, such as in ‘The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers’, are flâneurs. Are the people in ‘Doab Dil’ like that too?

Maybe when I started out it felt okay but I just don’t find the flâneur an attractive idea any more. I find it too class-based and a dandy European concept. Flâneury is such a male privilege thing. In Doab Dil, I write about the dark side of flâneuring. The architecture becomes darker, the city is watching you. Rebecca Solnit writes about how famous walkers in history were men. But if you are a black in America, or a Muslim in Pune, or a woman, you cannot just walk around.

My walking is not for discoveries any more—it probably was—it is now for internal assimilation. It’s an inward journey. Take these two different aspects of walking that I write about in Doab Dil—how walking has historically been important as protest, such as (Mahatma) Gandhi’s, and how Søren Kierkegaard would exhaust himself walking till he arrived at what he wanted to write.

‘Doab Dil’ has characters who lie outside conventions. What draws you to them?

I love urban eccentrics. The urban eccentric is put into this world of mental health, but, luckily, what happens in Berlin is that even if you are bonkers, you are still allowed to live with “regular" people. Berlin allows me to meet semi-sane people, particularly in the S-Bahn after midnight. Unlike others who feel threatened around mad people, I am comfortable around them, even comparing my own sanity with them, knowing that I could, at any point, slip into that stage but still be allowed to travel and be with others. They are either precursors to my own personality or an advanced form of where I am getting to. So I like people who are not quite “right".

In this current neo-liberal world, all of us have to conform to what governments say and what our societies say. There is a unified world with unified decisions—so you need something! When I see an eccentric person who spends an entire day playing, with a lot of industry, with the rails of a street barrier as if the world depended on it, there is something inherently poetic about it.

Is ‘Doab Dil’ a visual journal?

It is a jatra, an interesting word in Bengali that means travel and theatre, and in Kannada it means picture stories. It’s pictorial storytelling, like Shahnameh it is a travel through time. It is not from the tradition of Joe Sacco or comic books but from an older tradition of illustrated texts, where the text and illustrations don’t match each other. The illustrations create a tonality around the text.

The book is dedicated to your son, Mir Ali Banerjee, and in some pages you seem to be considering what parenting is all about.

There is nurturing and over-nurturing. Gardening teaches you that you cannot have control over trees and you have to let them grow. It’s something true for super-parents too. Growing up in Berlin, my son is becoming increasingly German. You want to hold on to your Bengaliness not for the sake of identity politics, but just for the pure pleasure of it—I speak to him only in Bengali. I have been shaped by Bengali literature! Even if he doesn’t want to read the same things I did, I think he should know there are other systems of stories beyond Harry Potter and Europe-linked narratives.

So, every night, I tell him an episodic story about a city of djinns and the djinn master is a Chinese dentist and the city is Karachi. All the stereotypes of Karachi are part of this story and you can talk about buildings and class systems and Partition through these djinns. As I grow older, I am getting attracted to writing for young people, between the ages of 12-14. At that age, cynicism hasn’t crept in and they are intelligent enough to grasp fairly complex things around them.

The term “children’s books" is becoming inconsequential. In Bengal, even adults read books intended for an age before you become an adult but you are not a kid any more. My mother and I and lots of people read detective stories and horror through these books. We need a revival of these traditions from the vernacular.

There is an entire chapter dedicated to history in which you write, “But what if there are no original documents? No archives—just stories, testimonies, legends and song lines." What fascinates you about history?

History has suddenly become very fashionable, as it should be. People are somehow unable to write about contemporary India without getting hounded. They are perhaps trying to make a comment on the present through history books. It’s what my show (in Mumbai) is about. India is uncomfortable with history. Indians can live with myth because myth is easier. Indians are now learning to deal with history because our history means dirt, the horrible things we have done to each other, and our national identity gets questioned. As far as I am concerned, history is a conversation, it’s not about trying to get somewhere. I like the way historians put together a fact by reading documents, by understanding documents together, looking at artefacts, and getting different voices. Since I cannot be a historian, I am interested in the philosophy of history, in historiography.

Doab Dil: By Sarnath Banerjee; Penguin Random House; 184 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
Doab Dil: By Sarnath Banerjee; Penguin Random House; 184 pages; 799.

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