Rohan Chakravarty, author: ‘Humour is a great starting point in discourse’ - Hindustan Times

Rohan Chakravarty, author: ‘Humour is a great starting point in discourse’

May 08, 2023 09:57 PM IST

On immersing himself in discovering micro habitats and in whodunnits to develop his award winning detective mongoose

After winning the Atta Galatta Bangalore Literature Festival Award for Best Children’s Non-Fiction Book 2022, you tweeted that you “never thought a detective mongoose would be nominated for ‘non fiction’, a comic book with violence and sex would make it to the kids’ category, or a full fledged mischief party with no social message would win a book prize.” Why is it hard to believe that Naturalist Ruddy resonates with readers in this way? What kind of reception did you expect?

Author and illustrator Rohan Chakravarty (Courtesy: The subject)
Author and illustrator Rohan Chakravarty (Courtesy: The subject)

Please allow me to deviate a little because this detective has a back-story. I had first conceived Naturalist Ruddy many years ago, as a very simple and straightforward series for children, inspired by Slylock Fox, meant for World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) India’s education portal. After WWF rejected the concept because they have a policy against anthropomorphizing wild animals, I scrapped the idea, and instead developed a new series altogether for them, which eventually became my first comic book The Great Indian Nature Trail (published by WWF in 2018).

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It was 2020, and some of the worst environmental decisions in India’s history were being made such as the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). It was also the year of the first COVID lockdown. Both these occurrences had an impact on my work: the increasing depictions of political issues in my series of environmental comics ‘Green Humour’, that appears in weekly newspaper columns, began to make me a bit weary. I was in need of doing something drastically different from my usual work. The lockdown also meant that I could not travel in search of birds and other wildlife, something I rely on both for creative inspiration and personal enrichment. This left me with no choice but to explore the biodiversity in my backyard, and an entirely new universe unravelled before my eyes: spiders, dragonflies, skinks, stinkbugs, fungi and even frogs, hiding in plain sight right in my house! It was as if a detective had been looking for answers to a puzzle and found it right where he was not looking, under his nose. And then I suddenly remembered the detective mongoose I had conceived and put aside on my shelf in 2018!

Now that I did not have WWF’s guidelines to adhere to, Ruddy had nobody else to please but me! I decided to develop Ruddy to revitalize my creative juices, and create something from scratch: detective mysteries set in nature. I had set two main goals for Ruddy: 1. that I will have a blast doing it, and 2. that I was too sick of having social messages and calls-for-action in my work, so this would be a stark deviation from it. Any awareness on wildlife and nature that may result from it for my reader would merely be a byproduct. I went about the series with no expectation of critical acclaim or moolah, but simply with the thought of having a great time myself, and giving my readers a great time discovering and exploring nature through Ruddy’s ‘cases’. Now that it has unexpectedly won an award, I guess this is the best way to go about creating books!

How did this protagonist take shape in your imagination? Could you talk about how the work of Bob Weber Jr and Dibakar Banerjee influenced your writing and visualization?

Naturalist Ruddy was inspired by Bob Weber Jr’s ‘Slylock Fox’ right from the outset, a series of comics I consumed voraciously as a kid. I chose a mongoose because I wanted to explore a more micro universe than what human eyes are used to, and the apex predator of such an ecosystem is not a big, glamorous carnivore like a tiger or a leopard, but a less popular, much tinier and less visible predator. The way mongooses move about in their habitats: keen, curious and vigilant, always gives them the natural air of a sleuth!

A pair of mongooses. ‘The way mongooses move about in their habitats: keen, curious and vigilant, always gives them the natural air of a sleuth!’ (Pravin Kumar/HT Archive))
A pair of mongooses. ‘The way mongooses move about in their habitats: keen, curious and vigilant, always gives them the natural air of a sleuth!’ (Pravin Kumar/HT Archive))

Dibakar Banerji’s ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ has been one of my favourite Indian detective films. The element of neo-noir he had crafted in such wily ways for the film inspired me to make Ruddy quirkier, darker and wackier.

I had not read any detective book whatsoever until 2020 when I started preparing for Ruddy, which is probably why I enjoyed the process all the more. The first Sherlock Holmes and Feluda collections I ever read were in 2020 despite those books gathering dust on my shelf for over a decade.

Ruddy’s appearance is a result of an amalgamation of various sources of inspiration, primarily, a bit of Slylock Fox, a bit of Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Lab, Samurai Jack), Craig McCracken (Powerpuff Girls) and of course, Chuck Jones. A lot of readers compare Ruddy with Perry the Platypus but I have never watched Phineas and Ferb.

Would it be accurate to say that Ruddy is also modelled after the field biologists and wildlife conservationists that you personally know? Did many of them see themselves reflected in Ruddy when they read the book?

I have a feeling that you have not met too many field biologists. They are, with the exception of a few, extremely boring people who take themselves way too seriously, despite the wonderful work they get to do! Ruddy is quite the antithesis of a biologist, because he doesn’t just want to dissect scat to publish papers, he wants to satiate his curiosity, have a ball doing it, and jump away to the next case.

But having said that, Ruddy would be impossible to develop without the lived experiences of several field biologists I know. Many of the cases actually follow the journeys of these biologists, specially the ones about the Himalayan Forest Thrush and the Ochlandra Bamboo Frog, and I must tip my hats to those biologists for sharing their experiences in great detail with me and not taking themselves too seriously.

Tell us some of the fascinating or bizarre things you learnt while working on the book.

Immersing myself in the discovery of the micro habitats around me, as well as in detective fiction, was the most enjoyable part about developing Ruddy. In the process I ended up learning about hundreds species of invertebrates I had no clue existed, recording more than a thousand observations on my Inaturalist account, and even getting photographic records of a species of frog, the Maratha Cricket Frog, for the first time from central India! Now every time I look at bird poop on a leaf, I cannot rest without checking if it’s a caterpillar in disguise. I am cursed for life, thanks to Ruddy!

Naturalist Ruddy
Naturalist Ruddy

The book also reads like a travelogue since you take the detective to various parks, natural reserves and sanctuaries. Which of these have you been to? Were you trying to nudge children to ask their parents to take them to these places?

The places that the cases are based in, are simply places where you are most likely to see a particular creature (for example the Bolas Spider in Agumbe). One of the motivations behind making Ruddy travel to different national parks in India was also to give readers a sense of the sheer biogeographical diversity of our country, and to look beyond the usual documentary and encyclopedia tropes like Yellowstone, Serengeti and Okawango. I do hope though that the kids reading the book aren’t just pestering their parents to take them to new national parks every vacation, but are also exploring green spaces in and around their homes to understand nature and biodiversity better!

Agumbe National Park (Shutterstock)
Agumbe National Park (Shutterstock)

How did you ensure that the book is not filled with so many technical details that it becomes boring or overwhelming for the non-expert? Also, how did you keep yourself from oversimplifying and talking down to readers?

This is something I have also been doing with my series Green Humour, simplifying facts and trivia around biodiversity while trying not to oversimplify them, and keep things peppy. The simple rule I follow is that what I am writing and drawing should engage me, and help me retain the facts I am presenting. If it does the job for me, it is also likely to do it for my readers.

A lot of the discourse around conservation is driven by activists seeking accountability and justice. Their messaging might go unheeded because it is based on fear, guilt and shame. Would you say that humour disarms people, and makes them more open to listening?

Yes. Humour is like a good handshake, just the right firmness and just the right amicability. It is a great starting point in a discourse. I can say with certainty that a reader not just retains but also responds to information presented with a pinch of humour rather than that presented in grim ways.

Bijal Vachharajani and Radha Rangarajan’s book 10 Indian Champions Who Are Fighting To Save The Planet mentions that your Green Humour comics about illegal trade of pet monkeys and the cruelty behind civet coffee have made consumers reconsider their choices. How does it feel to see this impact?

To see your work tangibly affect people and influence their choices is to see it bearing fruit. Now if only my cartoons could drive people to vote with a sense of environmental responsibility in 2024, I would feel that I am doing my job right!

Civet Cat (Shutterstock)
Civet Cat (Shutterstock)

Please tell us about your upcoming books.

My upcoming books include a Penguin compilation of my Green Humour cartoons and comics published in the last two years’ columns, and a very exciting comic-cum-colouring book on the dolphins of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. That is in association with Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black and Mediterranean Seas (ACCOBAMS), being published in Monaco, to be distributed in Mediterranean and Black Sea countries.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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