A new edition of ‘River of Stories’ by Orijit Sen, created for the 25th anniversary of the book, was launched in November 2022.

Orijit Sen sitting with his grey beard and long black hair indoors, his hand resting on a piece of wood, he is smilingOrijit Sen / Photo - Michael Pravin
Features Books Monday, November 28, 2022 - 16:31
Written by  Cris

Going by the larger picture, you’d think the 1990s were not all that long ago. What’s three decades in a four and a half billion year old world? That’s when you open a graphic novel of the 1990s, considered to be India’s first and still mysteriously went out of print for years, and realise that it was indeed a long time ago. It came as a thrilling bit of news when Orijit Sen, an adored graphic novelist and artist in Goa, announced that his book, River of Stories, published in 1994, was going to have a new edition. It was created for the book’s 25th anniversary in 2019, and launched days ago in November 2022.

Surprisingly the stories or the ways of the world did not seem all that distant. The long-ago-ness came just at the surface level. People were not looking at their phones, because there were no phones to look at. It was heartening to see a man on a train look at another man and open a conversation. Heartening to see a group of people sitting around a fire and not one of them with downcast eyes on a phone. It did begin with a screen, this was the 1990s after all and television was very much a reality. What then jolts you back to the present times is the stream of words coming from a politician on the television. Anti-national, patriotism, Vedas, development… it goes on. 

These words were written in the 1990s, yet when you read it now, it could be any of the leaders of the present day ruling party talking.

Orijit chuckles when this is asked. “I myself was amazed at how little has changed. You have to bear in mind this was a time when we had the Congress government forever. The BJP was slowly on the rise though, [BJP leader] Advani’s Rath Yatra having turned it around for them. But words like anti-national and all had nothing to do with the BJP. I had not read [my book] in a long time. When I started reading it again to bring out the new edition, I was freshly amazed. It is quite ironic,” he says.

If you are a follower of Orijit’s Facebook page, you’d know that this is an artist who has had no qualms critiquing the government. Evidently, he also had no qualms doing the same in the 1990s, when the Congress was in power and the book was published. River of Stories is, in parts, a very straightforward narration of the protests against the building of the Narmada dam and the apathy of the government towards the thousands of tribal people it affected. 

Parallel thread on Adivasi myth

The book also has a parallel thread running through the pages, where Orijit reverts to the Adivasi myth about the river Reva (Narmada), beginning from the story of Kujum Chantu who created the world in her palms and gave it life. The stories are sung by a singer called Malgu Gayan. Orijit says it came from the loads of research he did about the Narmada valley. He has the habit of doing that before starting something, he says, digging into local culture, history, folklore and whatever is relevant to his storytelling. In a strange way, Orijit gets away with presenting this myth as a sort of alternative thinking.

“I didn’t want people saying, oh yes, [there is a problem in the dam being built], but rather what is the alternative. We have to start thinking about an alternative, a readymade solution is not going to land in our lap. The Adivasi myth talks about the river in such a different way than how we look at rivers. Unlike the urban people who look at rivers as resources that they can exploit for their own use, the Adivasi way of looking at the rivers, nature and forests is so different. They say we are the children of this nature that nurtures and sustains us. I wanted to present that other view,” he says.

This other view is so beautifully illustrated that you tend to rush through the text bubbles and go back to the background, made with excruciating detail. With just black and white, the artist pours so much of the world and its feelings into the pages. Watching him put people’s faces against light, that came from a window or a night fire, is magical.

His own favourite moment is the page where the myth and the modern day story merge together, and the text talks about the mountains changing.

For the urban reader

Orijit had got involved in the Save Narmada movement after his graduation from the National Institute of Design (NID), where he studied graphic design. Even as a child, he loved to draw his own comics, he says. And in the NID library, he came across the works of American cartoonists like Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb, which largely influenced him. “I was trying to make longer stories but not succeeding at it. I realised that if I was to make a full length comic I needed a story and idea that I was deeply committed to. Becoming part of Narmada [Bachao] Andolan kind of paved the way for me to discover the story I wanted to tell,” he says.

He was also very clear about the audience for his book — the young urban reader, people in the city who were not aware of what was going on in the villages and only knew what came in the press. About the Narmada dam, they had heard only positive takes, Orijit says, on how it would bring electricity to so many people. “What was not explained was that this was a development that came at a tremendous cost to many impoverished people in order to benefit some urban people. Back then we were still in the post-independence positivity about India being a developing country, thinking we would become modern and developed. Very few people questioned the model, and those who did were treated as troublemakers. I wanted to take this story to these others, to young people like myself living in the cities,” Orijit says.

His protagonist, a young journalist by the name of Vishnu, appears to be one such urban city-bred man, assigned to report on the anti-dam protests. Earlier on, he doesn’t seem to have any particular view — listening to the story of Relku, his domestic worker who came from her tribal land to the city in search of work, and not expressing any emotion at her misery. When he runs into one of the supervisors of the dam, he denies being on any side of the story. Even when he hears all the stories of the protestors – including that of the farmers, the Adivasis and the activists – Vishnu only lends a patient ear and hardly comments on anything. But we see his transformation in the report he finally prints.  

Difficult journey of the book

If he were to write River of Stories, Orijit would have dwelled more on Vishnu’s transformation, his personality and what he goes through, the author says. “He is kind of loosely based on me, in the sense that he is like a stand-in for the process of discovery that I went through,” Orijit says. In the new edition, however, he did not however change and left most of the book untouched, following his daughter’s suggestion that he should not meddle with history to suit his perspective of a later age.

But back in 1994, the graphic novel was still a very new concept in India. It was not easy for Orijit to go on with his mission of catching the imagination of the urban reader. After he managed to get the book published, environmental nonprofit organisation Kalpavriksh came forward to print 800 copies of River of Stories – but no shop would take it. They didn’t understand the medium. The idea back then was that comics were for children, and this one was not even in colour (“because, budget!” laughs Orijit).

River of Stories eventually went out of print. But then the internet reached India and someone uploaded a copy online, and some others began downloading it. Quite a few also landed on the doorstep of People Tree, the studio and store that Orijit started with his wife Gurpreet, to take photocopies of the last book that the author possessed. From a book that hardly had a taker in a shop, it went on to become scouted by so many. Orijit thinks two things made this happen. One was, of course, the internet. The other was the revelation by Sarnath Banerjee in 2004, when Penguin decided to publish his graphic novel Corridor and began marketing it as India’s first. To this campaign, Sarnath said there was already an older graphic novel called River of Stories. And that was that.

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