#3 In conversation with: Sarbajit Sen

Sarbajit Sen is a graphic artist and filmmaker based in Kolkata. His wide-ranging work, which has been exhibited in India and abroad, addresses topics like climate politics, the Partition of India, famines and left politics in West Bengal. He is the recipient of a national award for the Best Comics on Environment (1994) and a national award for the Best Film in the Art & Culture Category (1995) for Painting in Time, his debut film on Thangka painting in Sikkim.


How I came to write Carbon Chronicles is an interesting and very personal story. But before writing about it I should say a few other things about myself. I was a student of English Literature at Calcutta University. I also dabbled in many freelance literary, cartooning and book design activities during my student days. Comics, although a favourite medium of mine, was not yet in the foreground. Incidentally, I was never a student of science as a discipline per se. But that does not mean that I did not know about its all-pervasiveness in our life. Still, I felt surprised and a bit embarrassed to know that you would like to include Carbon Chronicles in your ‘Archives of Science’. I feel honoured.

Your conversation with Prof Ashok Sahni was so interesting! I read it in one breath, something unusual for a person like me who never studied science. I thoroughly enjoyed his vibrant storytelling and the way he remembered his father as an avowed ‘Darwinian in soul and spirit.’ When he said that he has tried to follow the dictum of Kabir, a medieval mystic poet and saint, I felt all the more at ease. In fact, Prof Sahni unknowingly helped me to come out of my inherent shyness.

The first time I came to know about the gravity of the bizarre business ballgame of carbon trading I was dumbfounded. As a storyteller, I instantly felt the subject had tremendous potential as a graphic narrative. I wanted to communicate, like any other writer, with as many readers as possible. Visual narratives, it has been proven time and again, communicate much faster than data and index-laden reports or essays. I wanted to look at the issue from a commoner’s point of view and to narrate the story to the people around me. I was and continue to be one of them.    

It so happened that quite a few years ago I had a prolonged chat with a close friend about carbon trading. A nature activist, fighting for the rights of forest-living people in India, he is regularly in touch with his fellow comrades here and abroad. I was curious to learn more about his activities regarding carbon trading in India. Talks about world climate conferences followed. He then touched upon the core point of the story: climate politics. Carbon trading—an unintelligible concept for most people, even nowadays—was already in the news. But when he drew me into the labyrinthine maze of the Kyoto Protocol, UNFCCC, COP (Conference of Interested Parties), CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) and, finally, carbon trading, I felt silly. When he stopped, I finally quipped a joke by saying that all this sounded like a piece of nonsense literature—a concoction of Lewis Carroll and Troilokyanath Mukhopadhyay, a nineteenth-century Bengali writer, famous, among many other things, for his contributions to the tradition of Bengali nonsense literature. When I lightly told him that the subject had every possibility of a grotesque graphic novel he jumped at the idea and there was no stopping him after that.

Some of his activist friends from abroad were coming to Kolkata to attend a few conferences. He dragged me to their hotel, introduced me and told them all about what I had said. What had thus far been the pressure of one obstinate individual now turned into collective pressure. I tried my best to make them realize that I was no environmentalist or climatologist and knew nothing about the intricate rules of the trading game. They refuted my arguments and assured me of their total help for a better understanding of the problem. Soon I was given some journals and other documents. But the book that stood out as the biggest help for a layman like me was Carbon Trading by Larry Lohmann. Larry himself was there at our meeting and he sincerely encouraged me to go ahead. His book was and is all the more relevant and interesting because of his thorough understanding of the Indian perspective. I spent nearly five months reading the book over and over again. Then the process of writing Carbon Chronicles started. My activist friend joined as a co-author, chiefly to help me build up the story and supply me with the required statistics or information.

Copy of Carbon Trading. Photo Sarbajit Sen

My aim was clear from the outset. The common people were my target readers—people who were in the same kind of dark that I was in before being introduced to the subject. I wanted to make a story out of a subject which otherwise calls for hair-splitting debates and seminars, researches and classroom lectures. I clearly stated that I would never just illustrate some informative pamphlet or manifesto with data and indexes. Rather, I needed to tell a story that would reach out to people with the message in a catchy manner. That is how Raghu, a simple country boy from the coastal areas of India, was created as the protagonist. The story is about his Alice-in-Wonderland journey.

A bald, fat, corporatized ‘God,’ radically different from the familiar village deities, takes Raghu on an awareness/sensitization trip to the ‘holy’ core of the carbon world, where the god of all gods, Lord Carbon rules. Nothing is what it seems in this world. Here one burns more coal and oil than before in order to reduce ‘global emission levels,’ and uproots and destroys entire communities to ensure ‘poverty alleviation’ and ‘sustainable development.’ Caught in a whirlwind package tour of good pollution and philanthropic polluters, Raghu tries to escape from the topsy-turvydom of the bizarre logic of carbon offsetting, which acts as the basis of the market mantra of carbon trading and clean development mechanism.

Original artwork for the Carbon Chronicle. Photo Sarbajit Sen

Yes, the ways in which science ‘permeates our lives’ are myriad. Science is and is not projected in a very obvious manner in my project. Here my focus was more on the planned, systematic destruction and plundering of our natural resources by a handful of corporations that rule the world. Also, the mindless eviction of millions of people, creating countless climate refugees in the name of development.

It took me about four more months to complete the graphic novel. By 2010 it was over. All the artworks, from rough pencil sketches to black-ink finished drawing and adding a half tone, was manually done. I was not yet well acquainted with software like Photoshop or Illustrator. A friend scanned the pages and made them ready for print. Later on, I realised that my wife was meticulously getting all the pages back after the scanning was over and arranging them systematically in a file. In fact, my wife soon emerged as a tech savvy partner and helped me out as a technical assistant in many of my later works where both Photoshop and Illustrator were widely used. Her help is indispensable, from scanning to controlling the resolution of the black and cleaning up the artworks to fixing the panels and boxes when needed. This is all work that requires time.

Original artwork for the Carbon Chronicle. Photo Sarbajit Sen

The original book was written in English, keeping an overseas publication in mind. Our friends from abroad were also waiting for me to do some re-editing. Perhaps they had a plan to approach a publisher with the finished job. There have been many changes in the data and stats over the years. Now in this changed scenario—this too a dystopic one—the world order is even murkier than the grotesque Carbondom portrayed in the book.

A friend took interest in the work and published a Bengali version of it a few months after I had finished it. That drags us into another part of the story. Despite his best efforts, my small-time publisher friend could not think much about the book’s business prospects. Little or almost nothing was done to send it to the bookshops. Since it was a labour of love, I took every initiative to find out a good, yet budget-friendly printer. I chose the paper and even stood by him during printing. The book was launched at the Kolkata Book Fair. Those who are serious comics readers lapped it up. Some of them even took the initiative of carrying a few copies to some important bookshops where, as I later came to know, the copies were instantly sold and the shop owners waited for further communication with the publisher who was mostly unavailable because of his involvement with the organization of his own social and political activities. It did not receive any press reviews. Even nowadays, for a variety of reasons, there is a kind of mental block about this particular medium of storytelling, comics, in this part of the hemisphere. But that calls for a different discourse altogether, one that recognizes graphic novels as comics. Otherwise, much to my surprise, stray requests for the book, often from unknown readers, keep coming to my inbox or Facebook Messenger.   

Apart from a national award-winning comics of about six pages created many years ago and a wordless graphic narrative for children in a children’s magazine in the recent past, I have not made any comics exclusively on the topic of environment. Environment for me becomes important when the human element adds up to it. The Divine Escape, a graphic novel about the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Bhopal gas tragedy, is an attack on the big corporation-corrupt local government nexus. Carbon trading emerges as a monstrous game for the people in power, a game at the cost of the ever suffering common people. Environmental disaster looks all the more diabolical with climate refugees flooding alien cities and migration becomes a metaphor.   

Work-in-progress for a contribution to a famine anthology. Video Sarbajit Sen


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