In an age of information overload, reaching out is not nearly as important as reaching out effectively. Text heavy, verbose data on the environment can put even the most eco-conscious reader into a snooze. The need of the hour is to develop methods of communication that are attuned to serve our ever-shrinking spans of attention. It is in this context that books like Our Toxic World: A guide to hazardous substances in our everyday lives make sense.
Part graphic novel and part information manual, Our Toxic World, brought out by Toxics Link, a Delhi-based NGO is an insightful read about the different ways in which harmful substances circulate and affect us in our daily life. Rich with illustrations, the book breaks down facts and statistics into tangible examples that readers can relate to.
Scripted by Aniruddha Sen Gupta and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan, the book comprises eleven narratives of members and friends of the Sachdevas, the archetypal Indian family. Using scenes from their professional and personal lives, the book attempts to highlight environmental concerns such as automobile pollution, industrial pollution, e-waste, harmful chemicals and toxins in the food chain, waste management and many more. The stories are often interspersed with information and guidelines to alter environmentally detrimental behaviour.
The book is quite information heavy with a full chapter devoted to the various legislations concerning the environment. At first it gives out some generic information on already evident issues like urban air pollution, and industrial effluents but then moves on to to some lesser known health and environment hazards. The sections that deal with toxins, heavy metals and harmful chemicals in the food chain are likely to have a greater impact on readers.
The links in the transfer of harmful substances from one medium to another are illustrated with detail. Also interesting is its take on household substances and the vast amount of chemicals used in them, which we are often not aware of. The book also deserves credit for not only concentrating on urban environment hazards but also on rural concerns. In fact it manages to connect effectively the two issues in quite a few cases.
A few snags do crop up. While the issues are well articulated, not much can be said about the thread of fiction, which it is couched in. The characters are unimaginative and are simply slotted to fit mainstream family roles. An attempt here and there is made to ground the characters in their context by the occasional use of colloquial Delhi talk, the scepticism with NGO work (they only pander to foreign donor agencies!) and Nano bashing, the mandatory anger with Tata’s one lakh contribution to traffic congestion. But overall, the stories merely serve as just an obligatory framework to support the concerns. While it is understandable that a book that is intended to create awareness, might not concern itself so much with this angle, an attempt to lend some depth could have carried the message better.
The artwork is well done but sticks to very staid visuals with few exceptions like the illustration of a man who loses his life to construction dust, which shows him literally turning into dust. The use of black and white further renders a dull effect where colours may have been more effective. In the rare instance, the language does tend to get alarmist. But almost all the arguments are well supported by facts and evidence rather than emotional appeal or opinion.
The book is not clear about the age group it addresses. While the stories are simple enough to be read and understood by young children, the information is a tad complicated and might be best absorbed by them if guided by an adult. Older children and teenagers however, may be put off with the simplistic narration.
Our Toxic World does not necessarily have the most compelling story lines but it does succeed in mirroring to an extent daily life hazards that we encounter knowingly and unknowingly. Whether used for individual reading or as a teaching aid in the classroom for creating awareness, it should definitely get children examining their daily activities.
The reviewer has a Masters in Communication from the SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.