Author: Orijit Sen
Illustrator: Orijit Sen
Published: 1994 by Kalpavriksh
No. of Pages: 63
Subthemes: Narmada Bachao Andolan; Ecological damage caused by dams
Timeline: Early 1990’s
A scintillating tale woven around the Narmada Bachao Andolan, River of Stories by Orijit Sen is widely known as both—India’s first graphic novel and a masterpiece in semi-fiction.
The story begins with a dream sequence set in the drawing room of the protagonist, Vishnu, who is a journalist and is on his first assignment. The prologue induces nostalgia with its art and satire, building an ambiance which is highly reminiscent of the 90’s. Mostly comical in its tone, the prologue feels linear and crisp and most importantly it effectively introduces the reader to the insensitivity of political leaders towards the Adivasis, which is the central theme of the graphic novel. This, however, is introduced only as a narrative thread and becomes evident only on reading the novel completely. In addition to this, there’s a humorous allusion to how people with a humanities background are often seen condescendingly by people in power, especially with respect to their stance on sociological and ecological issues.
Next, we are introduced to the symbolism of a River which is the most important symbolism used in the graphic novel. After a brief textual introduction to the symbolism of river, the narration breaks into the next section titled- The Spring.
Through a semi-realistic style, the reader is introduced to Maglu Gayan, whose story works parallelly with the main storyline of the graphic novel. Largely inspired by tribal tales, we are introduced to the mystical tale of the creator the world, Kujum Chantu. All this is through the mellifluous voice of Maglu Gayan who is singing while playing a rangai (a string-based musical instrument).
The story beginning from the first part is largely interspersed with the stories of both, Vishnu and Maglu Gayan. As a part of his research, Vishnu talks to Relku, his domestic help, who belongs to Ballanpur and is an Adivasi herself. A major chunk of the plot about the Adivasis is then explored through Relku’s story which is beautifully sketched and is supported by a taut narration. The reader gets to witness the plight of the Adivasis at the epicenter of which is insensitivity from the government and its officials. Post-Relku’s narration, Vishnu heads to Ballanpur to cover the Andolan.
The most striking section of this part is the conversation Vishnu has with an engineer working on the project while traveling to Ballanpur on a train. The discussion is enhanced through another conversation in the background by a group of people playing cards and adds depth to the narration by using it as an allusion to the popular perception of masses.
Vishnu’s visit to Ballanpur covers the Rewa Sagar Andolan, introducing the reader to a more contemporary scene. Largely informative, the narration is highly intelligent and transitions seamlessly between Vishnu’s and Maglu Gayan’s story. Later the reader is also introduced to the article written by Vishnu and public’s reaction to it. The graphic novel ends with a comment by the author where he cogently comments (using all the narrative threads and symbolism) on the issue of building a dam on the river.
The epilogue is highly satirical and intelligent like all the other parts of the novel. To conclude, River of stories is a mature, mystical, and highly intelligent graphic novel which paved the way for the Indian graphic novel.
The symbolism of river is used throughout the graphic novel, to represent an ecosystem, the people dependent on it and their wishes, and intersubjectivity. The river is the focal point of everything in the plot, and the flux of narrative threads is handled brilliantly through the same.
Maglu Gayan’s song is used as another symbolism to show unity and also to tell the tale of the creation of Rewa.