Interview: Orijit Sen, author, River of Stories - ‘I realise the book was ahead of its time’
The graphic novelist and designer talks about the 25th anniversary edition of his lightly fictionalised account of the Narmada Bachao Andolan of the 1990s
How did you conceptualise this graphic narrative?
When my book first came out in 1994, there was very little interest in comics as a form of art making and storytelling. People in India were unaware of its potential, and most — including many publishers — thought of it merely as a kind of cheap throwaway entertainment for children. But I have been passionate about reading and drawing comics since childhood. In college, at the National Institute of Design (NID), I came across amazing works by comics masters like Art Speigelman, whose book Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, won the Pulitzer Prize.
In1991, after NID, I got involved with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and decided to start working on my own book inspired by the struggles of the people of Narmada Valley. I had a difficult time getting support to publish it till my environmentalist friends in the NGO Kalpavriksh in Delhi grew interested in the idea, and were able to secure a small grant to produce the book. We printed about 800 copies. But no bookshops were interested in stocking it, and neither did any newspaper or TV channel or magazine care to talk about it. The only review that appeared in the press was written by Khushwant Singh who, though he was ailing by then, used to still write a column in the Hindustan Times. That limited edition was eventually sold, mostly through a small bookstore called People Tree that my wife Gurpreet and I used to run ourselves. By 1996, the book went out of print — and has remained out of print till now.
It is gratifying that today, as I launch the 25th anniversary edition, I can feel the anticipation among a whole different generation of readers who have heard much about this book, and are eagerly awaiting its release.
How was the book received back then and why did it remain out of print?
My book was met with indifference by most people in publishing and the media. That was one of the reasons that I did not consider reprinting it. And then, I became busy with other work. As a person, as an artist, I don’t find the idea of looking back too exciting. I’d rather look ahead. Several prominent publishers have approached me over the years, especially after the book became well known as “India’s first graphic novel”, but I really wasn’t interested in revisiting old work. Also, along the way, I had grown and matured as an artist, and felt that some things in my early book no longer lived up to my own standards! But the question of reprinting it started to get asked more frequently and with greater insistence. So then I began to think I would redo parts of the book and bring out an updated version. But I couldn’t find the time and enthusiasm for it. One day, my daughter Pakhi (who, coincidentally, was born the same year as River of Stories) asked me the same question. She was very pragmatic, and said this book was a part of history, and I should not hang on to it or try to modify it. I should just bring it out as it was – warts and all. So that’s when I finally and fully agreed and decided to go ahead with the new edition. But then Covid intervened, and now it’s almost 28 years! Back in 1994, I had felt disheartened by the reception I got for the years of hard work and dedication I had put into River of Stories. Today I feel vindicated. I realise the book was ahead of its time then, but has now found its place and its audience.
You write in the introduction that the “question raised by the people of Narmada Valley in the 1980s - development for whom and at what cost?’ – remains unaddressed four decades later”. How are the issues and struggles of people of Narmada Valley still relevant?
The gigantic Sardar Sarover Dam has been built and was inaugurated in 2017 — the long years of spirited resistance to it notwithstanding. The Narmada Andolan itself has moved its focus from fighting the dam building to ensuring compensation, rehabilitation and justice for dam oustees. The question that they raised so forcefully back in the 1980s and 90s: “Development for who, and at whose cost?” remains unaddressed four decades later, as the Indian state continues to accelerate policies that usurp the lands, waters, rights and resources of forest dwelling people, farmers, artisans and others — as it sides more and more nakedly with the interests of large-scale extractive capitalists. As our environments continue to degrade at an alarming rate, the slogan of “Narmada Bachao, Manav Bachao!” acquires a greater significance than ever before. The Narmada Andolan is an exemplar, a warning, a lesson and a beacon for the country. More and more people need to understand it and be inspired by it. This is why I’m bringing my book out again.
How is the new edition different from the original publication?
Apart from the section of pages from my sketchbooks and travel notes, I have two wonderful forewords by people I respect — Arundhati Roy, who herself has been a vocal supporter of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and British comics historian Paul Gravett. I have also written a new introduction where I have attempted to contextualise this 28-year-old work for contemporary readers. It has a brand new cover, and it has been produced this time in hardback, as a 25th anniversary collectors edition.
There are several characters you have drawn in the book that provide multiple perspectives – the activist, visiting journalist, the maid, Adivasi people, civil and police officers etc. Did they emerge from your lived experiences?
Yes. Most of the characters in my book are loosely based on real people I got to know in the Narmada Valley. However, I have used my imagination to build them up and provide them the angles and perspectives that I was interested in portraying. Ultimately, River of Stories is a fictional work, and does not claim to be reportage in the true sense.
You show how Adivasis think and talk about their lives, living in harmony with their surroundings, fighting against development that threatens their existence and resources, while also not being totally against the ideas of development. This is in contrast to people living in cities, the government officials and policemen, who look down upon the Adivasis. Was this something you observed?
Yes. The story is built not only on my encounters in the Narmada Valley but also on my experiences and observations from earlier travels. I studied at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, and while there I came to know about the lives and struggles of Adivasi communities while working as an assistant on documentary film projects in Panchmahals and Dangs regions in Gujarat. Like most urban young people, I had been quite unaware of the lives of farming and forest-dwelling people, and I was both fascinated and disturbed by my experiences there. My colleagues and I were treated with a lot of warmth and generosity everywhere. We were welcomed into homes, offered the best of food and drink, and taken care of by people who had very little themselves. While the day-to-day lives of the Adivasis somehow felt purer, simpler and richer than our urban lifestyles, I saw that there was a lot of exploitation from government officials, forest department functionaries and the police. These authorities were always hand-in-glove with profit-seeking outsiders and encroachers — who came into Adivasi areas to extract land, natural resources and labour. I saw that the Adivasis faced an omnipresent deep struggle for survival at every level.
Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.