“The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of stories,” says graphic artist and designer, Orijit Sen, in his re-published graphic novel, River of Stories. It was first published in the year 1994 and highlighted the plight of the Adivasis who opposed the construction of a dam in the Narmada valley in the early 1990s.
This agitation was part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and opposed the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river, which submerged hundreds of villages and displaced lakhs of people.
Sen visited the Narmada valley in the year 1991 and spent three years working on this book. He re-visited his sketchbook and photographs, mused over the events, encounters and impressions recorded in them.
Sen says, “I laboured not just to capture slices of life, but to absorb entire chunks of lived experiences in the Narmada Valley. I felt this was the only way one could tell the truth about a place and its people.”
When the novel was published around 25 years ago, it had hardly any takers. But, in due course of time, it garnered a tremendous response, especially from the community of artists, researchers, students, etc, and it is often described as India’s first graphic novel.
The black and white graphic novel, with 500 panels, was recently released in Goa and has been re-published by Blaft Publication Pvt Ltd without many changes to the original one.
The new edition has two forewords — one by writer and activist, Arundhati Roy, another by comics historian, Paul Gravett, and some pages from Sen’s original sketchbook, supported by an essay by him.
These pages give an overall idea about the research that Sen did in order to understand the lifestyle and people of the Narmada valley and how this river and its resources are part and parcel of their lives.
But, why did Sen bring this book back after 25 years?
“The question of republishing it had been on my mind since at least 2015. Many people had been asking about it and urging me to do it. But, I kept putting it off. Finally, it was my daughter — who, incidentally was born in 1994 — who pushed me to do it, saying that it was an important document of the time. Not only did it present a historical moment of the people’s struggles, but it is also seen as India’s first graphic novel, which has influenced many other Indian artists to work in the medium.”
The novel has an interesting mix of the creation myth of the Bhilala Adivasi people of the Narmada Valley and the story of a young journalist who is covering the agitation.
Even though the agitation and dialogues about ecology vs development have been made more than 25 years ago, they don’t sound dated. On the contrary, they reflect the current scenario of the ecological devastation that we witness in our everyday lives in different parts of the country and the world, as a whole.
Amazed by these uncanny similarities, Sen says, “Looking back on my book now, I am struck by how contemporary it feels. From the development vs environment debate, which is the book’s central focus, to the politicised use of words like ‘anti-national’, ‘Vedic science’ etc. Contemporary readers may not even realise that the story is set in the 1990s, except perhaps for the fact that there are no smartphones to be seen around!”
This novel also serves as documentation of the early 1990s and is largely about the people’s movement, that in many ways, has shaped our discourse around ecological and social issues and asks that pertinent question, “Development for whom, and at what cost?”
The chapter titled, ‘Epilogue: Under the Mahua Tree’ explains this simply through a conversation between a politician and singer, Malgu Gayan.
River of Stories conveys the point in a profound way with the help of words and illustrations. The reader is transported to that era, the villages around the river, and meets characters who tell their story in their own way.