This novel could save your life

A new graphic novel aims to educate people about the dangers of the toxic substances

The Knowledge
The Knowledge
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Our Toxic World is a graphic novel borne of peculiar circumstances, published as it is by Toxics Link, a Delhi-based organisation that campaigns to highlight the dangers caused by hazardous wastes and pesticides. Illustrated in monochromatic tones by Priya Kuriyan, it’s probably – make that definitely – the most interesting health manual we’ve ever read.

The novel follows the lives of the Sachdeva family as they encounter food adulterants, insecticides, electronic waste and industrial pollution in innocuous ways. For example: farmer Altaf Mohammed, handyman Lallan
and Bonnie the doll are prime suspects in the theft of Anamika Sachdeva’s health. Anamika, a student who lives in Delhi, has always been a sickly child. Her perennial illnesses have been caused by the cocktail of hazardous substances that she has been ingesting inadvertently.

The first suspect, Mohammed, hasn’t even met the young girl, but the farmer’s pesticide-laden crop has damaged Anamika’s immune system. The girl’s next brush with chemicals occurred when Lallan used a toxic lead-based paint on the walls of the Sachdevas’ house. Adding to Anamika’s problems is Bonny, her childhood doll, which was made from polyvinyl chloride and leaked noxious chemicals.

And it doesn’t end there. Anamika’s father, Mohanlal, is in charge of inspecting factories in a country that is among the 10 most polluted places on the planet. ‘Our day-to-day existence has become so complex and intricately woven with chemicals and pollutants that we are rarely aware of our impact on the environment and the environment’s impact on us,’ explains author Aniruddha Sen Gupta, speaking from Goa. Our Toxic World aims to change that.

Sandwiched between the panels are research findings about hazardous substances and recommendations on products that could keep readers safe. ‘The products we buy are not labelled to tell us what chemicals
or heavy metals they contain, and what their potential health risk could be,’ explains Ravi Agarwal, the founding director of Toxics Link, in the foreword.

This is potentially life-saving stuff, but it sounds like information overload. Yet the graphic novel manages to turn a complicated situation into easy-to-digest facts. ‘The book is an outcome of more than 15 years of research and publication work,’ says Sen Gupta, whose previous work includes The Mystery of MindNet, an adventure series for children. ‘Their materials had brought the data into a form that we could digest. What they had not been able to do, perhaps, was to make it palatable to a larger audience.’

That’s where Sen Gupta and Kuriyan stepped in. ‘One of the drawbacks about the way the social sector communicates messages is that they’ve felt it necessary to lend weight to their work by couching it in a language that is forbidding or preachy,’ explains Sen Gupta. ‘This just tends to turn people away. The best way is to use methods similar to those of more meaningless but more entertaining media, but use them for change-oriented messages.’

By using the Sachdeva family as an example, Toxics Link hopes the novel will succeed in educating a large audience about the dangers they face from toxic substances. ‘I think books such as these help people to retain ideas more easily,’ says Kuriyan. ‘Also, it’s easier for kids and adults to identify with the fictional characters and see themselves as part of the whole system, and so raise their concern.’

Sen Gupta adds that it is crucial for more people to get involved in the environmental movement. ‘With more people asking for alternatives [to toxic products], we will reach a critical mass where producers, manufacturers and policy-makers will be forced to address the demands.’
Our Toxic World is available to buy from Sage Publications. See www.sagepub.com.

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