Our Toxic World
Project by Toxic Link
Script by Aniruddha Sen Gupta
Illustrations by Priya Kuriyan
Sage Publications (2010)Four Green Stars (very good indeed)
Most of us don’t like to think about the poisons that surround us. Oh sure, we may get worked up about radioactive material being sold in the scrap market. But the stuff that kills us slowly is somehow easier to ignore. As dirty as Delhi’s air is, we have to breathe, after all. And even though we know that all kinds of toxic substances can be fatal, the ways in which they kill are typically not as easy to identify or understand as, say, a swift blow to the head with a blunt object.
No, toxics are not exciting; they do their damage over a long period of time, through complex chains of events and interactions. Because of this, they provoke both anxiety and boredom: a deadly combination for those trying to educate the public on the subject.
Toxic Link, a Delhi based NGO, has used a novel approach to confront this problem. Working with Sage Publications, they’ve come out with Our Toxic World: A guide to hazardous substances in everyday life. Our Toxic World is part informational text, part graphic novel. The narrative follows the Sachdeva family and other residents of Rohini East as they confront, in different ways, the toxins that surround us all. From air pollution to heavy metals, from household waste to industrial pollution, this book covers a lot of ground.
I read Our Toxic World in one sitting—it took just about two hours. It probably won't win the next Commonwealth Writers' Prize, but it held my interest throughout, which is quite an accomplishment, given the subject. And I learned a lot. Did you know that washing your vegetables thoroughly in running water is the best way to deal with the high level of contaminants they almost certainly contain? It's nice to know there are some things we can do that will help. I also learned that by the year 2050, residential, commercial and institutional buildings are expected to account for up to 38 percent of global energy consumption. Investing in green buildings makes more and more sense.
Our Toxic World is organized into sections that cover broad topics. Most include a short narrative, followed by some condensed informational text. Honestly, when I saw this book’s subtitle, “a guide to hazardous substances in our everyday lives,” I expected the stories in it to be…painful. Fortunately, I found Aniruddha Sen Gupta’s script surprisingly effective. The stories make sense; the dialogue works. And the book is populated with a large cast of interesting characters. They include a government factory inspector, an environmental activist, a housewife, an architectural apprentice, and a high school student. We get cameo appearances from a thoughtful auto rickshaw driver, a clean cop, several waste pickers, and many others.
Part of what makes this book work as well as it does is Priya Kuriyan’s art. Without the illustrations, Our Toxic World would be nowhere near as interesting or easy to understand as it is. I love the opening “City of Bones” sequence and the panels that show the widow of a construction worker remembering a visit with the Doctor who had treated her dying husband. "Dust had eaten him away, transforming him into itself." This is powerful stuff.
I attended the Delhi launch of Our Toxic World back in April. There was some debate about whether the book could be used in schools, and about whether it would be helpful to students. I find myself agreeing with the people who said that it would work for children, if presented in the right way. As one woman said, none of us understand everything we read, but we can all learn a lot by reading challenging things anyway.That includes children.
I suspect that many children will find the illustrations simply irresistible. Though this book would probably be most effective for students 12 and up, my own ten year old read it on his own, just because he liked the pictures. Later, when I asked him about it, he admitted he’d skipped most of the “complicated stuff” and “just read the stories.” But he volunteered several important things he’d learned, including three ways toxics can make kids sick (pesticides get into rivers and poison the fish people eat; children eat lead paint dust; and children suck on toys made out of poisonous stuff.).
And if that’s not proof enough that this book can work with children, last night I overheard my sons debating the mosquito coil I offered: “No way, it’s toxic!” said one.
“That’s easy for you to say,” said the other. “The mosquitoes don’t bite you!” Yes, life confronts us with many difficult questions. Our Toxic World won’t answer them all. But it will get you thinking!