In conversation with: Rohan Chakravarty

One has to try really hard to stay ignorant in today’s world, for information is so readily available. Yet most of the times we fail to understand the most important and urgent issues which threaten our own existence; enter “Rohan Chakravarty”! The Environmental Superhero of India who has pledged to spread awareness and aid environmental protection through his unique creativity and wit.

Superheroes do not easily agree for an interview, but Rohan’s humility and approachability was a breath of fresh air. So take a deep breath and read on…

Aditi: Hi and Good morning, thank you so much for your…

Rohan: Thank you for choosing me for this feature..

Aditi: Oh! I should be thanking you coz I admire your work so much and I have been following Green Humour for the last three years and honestly I can’t believe I am speaking with you.

Rohan: Thank you. I am glad you liked it.

Aditi: I feel your cartoon are a clever way to educate people through wit and creativity. And considering India is a Democracy, I believe, you are doing quite an important job in educating the masses.

Rohan: Oh thank you. I hope so.

Aditi: So my first question to you is, what do you aim to change in people’s perspectives about environment through your cartoons?

Rohan: Well the answer to that question has changed over the years. When I started out the objective was to simply to fill the huge communication gap between science, especially ecological science and the layperson. I just wanted to link the layperson with scientific understanding of ecology and environment. I wanted to break science into very simple and visual terms, so that it is very easy to understand for people like myself, because I consider myself a layman and I am not a scientist. And cartoons are a way of remembering and retaining facts for myself, so I try to do the same for my readers.

Over the years, I also intend to make my readers environmentally conscious in a political context because the environmental scenario under the ruling government has changed Indian Environmental Landscape drastically. And it is not just India, but many countries where the right wing has emerged. So earlier Green Humour was just a comic strip but now it tends to get more political, because of the convergence of politics in Environmental issues are far greater now than it used to be when I started out.

Aditi: Oh yes, I remember you made a cartoon about Environmental resolutions that different countries can take up during the New Year. It was quite intriguing. You addressed quite many countries. I really liked that one.

Rohan: Yes. Thank you.

Aditi: So are you addressing the policy makers now more than the people?

Rohan: Not really. My approach is to address the issues that are current. I try to address the major Environmental issues happening in India and around the World through my comics.

Aditi: What do you think is the biggest challenge when it comes to changing people’s minds? Because not everyone is teachable and is open to new ideas and perspectives.

Rohan: I think it all boils down to how simple you make things for everyone. And humour plays a very important role in my opinion. Because most other kinds of media can be perceived as very offensive as they often tend to be direct and don’t encourage their readers to think. And that’s where humour comes into play. I think the human mind is not only meant for retaining pieces of information that are presented to it, it also responds to it and therefore it is essential that the readers are made to think. So cartoons play an important role in not only informing them but also encouraging them to develop an analytical thought process.

Aditi: That’s quite refreshing actually, because as a newspaper reader I also face the same challenges. Many articles are quite opinionated and doesn’t encourage me to think.

Rohan: Right.

Aditi: Not that what you are doing is any less, but what else do you do for the environment other than cartooning?

Rohan: I once did a comic strip about eco-friendly sanitary health options for women in India. And I received a lot of messages from my female readers saying that we weren’t aware of these options and thanks for enlisting them for us and now we are considering making a switch. That was huge. For something like menstruation which is such a big taboo in our country, so many people reached out to me, that was very encouraging.

Similarly, I did a comic strip about civet coffee. Civets are captured in South East Asia and are kept in captivity to produce a certain kind of coffee which is made out of undigested coffee beans which is passed through their guts. (They are caged and force fed coffee cherries all day, everyday.) So I have been campaigning against it at my own level. And the two cartoons I put out against civet coffee have received very encouraging response. And received messages from travellers travelling to Southern East Asia saying that they have been trying Civet Coffee as a fad and now that they are aware they are going to consider giving it up. So things like that are very encouraging.

So in future I would really like to achieve more such tangible impacts of my work.

Aditi: While talking to you something came up in my mind and I’d like to ask you a question.

Rohan: Sure, please go ahead.

Aditi: Considering the political climate today do you personally feel that your fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression is threatened?

Rohan: Absolutely. I can personally tell you that this is one of the worst periods the Indian Democracy is going through, especially with respect to an artists’s freedom and a writer’s freedom.

See, Green Humour started in 2010 and back then it was a different government in power. And that government was also complacent and made some major environmental blunders, but I did not have to think twice before taking a potshot at the incumbent government then. And that’s not the case anymore, because if I publish anything political in my newspaper columns, I get a feedback saying that I may have to update my work and this may invite the ire of political groups. So everybody has become very wary of the current situation and everybody has been forced to play safe. I don’t think this is how a democracy should operate. And I am sure you are also aware of so many things that are happening now-a-days which should not be happening, especially with the elections around the corner. We are clearly heading towards a totalitarian government. People like you (blogger) and I (cartoonist) have to take things upon our own hands to bring some kind of change at our own level.

Aditi: I agree with you. And I am really sorry to know that you have to think twice in expressing yourself, especially considering you are so good at what you do.

Rohan: No No, I still continue to do what I like and actually have a lot of fun. I think that’s what a cartoonist lives for; deriving sadistic pleasure by irritating people who are aligned with the ruling government and offending people a little bit. That’s the sole principle of cartooning.

Aditi: Hahahahaha….that’s so funny. I agree…I love annoying people too hehehe. So you are quite a rebel!

Rohan: Hahaha..I don’t know. I just do things that I know, that’s all

Aditi: Which animal do you relate to the most as a person?

Rohan: The Pangolin.

Aditi: Oh why?

Rohan: I am not a people’s person. I am an introvert. And I tend to curl up into a ball when people are around.

Aditi: Hahaha! okay… Also I have heard that you really like Wild Dogs. Is that true?

Rohan: Oh yes! They are one of my favourite animals.

Aditi: I was quite surprised to know that, as I am scared of them!

Rohan: Scared of wild dogs?! why?!

Aditi: Because they start eating their prey live, while hunting them, even before they are dead. That scares me very much.

Rohan: oh that’s simply lack of table manners! (hahaha) They don’t mean any harm to you!

Aditi: Hahaha, maybe, but why do you like them so much?

Rohan: Because they are very intelligent. Imagine, for a wild animal to be able to communicate with a pack so effectively so as to time the exact position of the pack members at strategic points during a hunt. And you may know that Wild Dogs have the highest success rate amongst carnivores to make a kill. And that needs very effective communication skills. And Wild Dogs do not even bark..

Aditi: Whoa!! They don’t bark? I didn’t have a clue! That’s super cool!

Rohan: It is! And I want to study them more! They are great at what they do and I want to understand how they do it.

Aditi: That’s quite intriguing, I had nooooo clue about all these things you just told me. Hehehe!

Rohan: Hehehe

Aditi: Okay..Moving you think people in India understand the gravity of the situation with respect to Environmental issues?

Rohan: India has been faring very well in term of matters related to conservation as compared to other countries especially the West and China. Because the West have always had the policy of eliminating anything that has a conflict around it. Take Wolves and Bears for example. The mega fauna in these countries have been traumatized. Historically they have had no concept of coexistence. That is an area where India has scored well over these countries.

But now India is adopting a more West oriented destructive policy, at least in the last few years. And that is what has made the situation so grave. So people need to understand that we need to go back to our old ways. And I don’t want to sound political but the Central wing has more sustainability woven around it as compared to the Right wing. And I don’t think a lot of people who align themselves with the right wing understand that India is facing a major environmental crisis.

Aditi: Hmmm…also people seem to be obsessed with wild animals especially tigers, do you think there is more to experience and learn from the nature? Any tips for lay persons like us?

Rohan: Yes of course. But that mindset is changing quite positively in India, especially in Tiger Reserves. The guides who were earlier employed there were not very well trained, initially when the Tiger Reserves were established. But now I think there is a he change in that approach. And now most guides which take tourists around are very well aware of the different aspects of fauna and flora there. And if a person is interested in finding more about the jungle then an able guide will definitely be able to help. And that’s a trend that has been definitely changing across India.

Aditi: I do feel the same, as last time when I went to Pench Tiger Reserve, which was very very recent, I was guided very well by the driver and not only were we able to see a tiger but also variety of animals and plants. And that was such a pleasant surprise.

But I still insist in asking you….what if during that particular safari our guide is for some reason not helping us. And Tiger Safaris are quite expensive too so not everyone can enjoy it. So can you give me some tips on how to appreciate nature? What should be our attitude towards nature?

Rohan: It depends on how much a person is interested in finding out more. Information is so much more easily available these days, there are field guides on just about every subject, every aspect of fauna. So information is very easy to access. Despite that I understand many people for various reasons may find it difficult to dig deeper and I guess that’s where creative media plays a helpful role.

So that’s what I have been trying to do with my work- encourage people to be aware and be more interactive with people and their immediate natural vicinity. For example, I encourage a lot of observing backyard wildlife through my work. So it’s not just about observing forest and tiger reserves, our urban spaces are also sooo rich in wildlife.

Aditi: Yeah! This is what I was trying to know about as well! Because a couple of years ago I did this 30 day challenge where you spend 30 minutes of your day with the nature which is around your house. For example spend 30 minutes with a tree and observe things there and not carry your phone or any electronic devices along and just be there. And gradually I started to observe homes of birds on a particular branch and ant’s and their routes and homes…I was surprised to see their homes right around my house and I don’t even know about it. And that was quite an eye-opening experience. Soon I started treating them as my neighbours and making sure the I don’t do any harm to them for some extra comfort.

So I completely agree with you about being aware of the nature in urban space. And this also reminds me of a map you made of Hong Kong wildlife that you made was quite amazing! Who could imagine such diversity in a place like that, had you not made that map.

Rohan: Right. Thank you. Thank you.

Yes, when I was telling my friends in India that I am going to Hong Kong to draw a wildlife map of the city, they could not believe me. Nobody thinks that Hong Kong has a wildlife that is so varied. Of course, Hong Kong does not have mega fauna like India does, but the kind of micro fauna you find there is just amazing.

Aditi: Yes….So one more question about the forest. When I was in Pench recently I was surprised (rather flabbergasted) to see plastic garbage and a shoe lying around in the middle of the core forest. I asked the guide immediately and was explained that the garbage is deposited by the rivers during monsoon and ends up staying the forest. I used to think that at least the jungles are safe from the garbage we produce in the cities. I was tempted to jump out of the jeep and pick that up, but I obviously could not, as that would mean breaking some rules. And now I don’t even know what to ask you…because we know what the problem is..we obviously need to stop littering, but would you like to say something about it?

Rohan: No, jungles are not safe any more. Where there are tourists there is litter. National Parks are no more litter free and that is a major conservation issues that many departments are tackling. And what I have noticed in the last few years is that many campaigns started a few years ago which focussed on individuals and encouraged them to stop littering. And such efforts do matter and goes a long way in dealing with the issues, but the main culprit are the big corporates. And unless we collectively as citizens and voters do not go after the big corporations it is not going to make a he difference, because when we individually stop using plastic and save water, that is a drop in the ocean. So we might have to address this issues by going after the corporations and forcing them to change. So I think campaign needs to be changed.

Aditi: Point noted. What are some of your biggest learnings from nature?

Rohan: The most important thing that I have learnt from nature is that the most amazing moments happen in life when you are quite unaware and unprepared. Secondly, sustainable living can be learnt from the nature.

Aditi: Can you give me an example?

Rohan: You might have seen one of my cartoons where a Bonnet macaque (monkey) who is a very close evolutionary relative of ours, is drinking coconut water without a straw and if the monkey can do it, so can we.

Aditi: Okay, I have been thinking of this for a while; anyone who has ever gone to a jungle understands that wildlife tourism is expensive. And from the kind of cartoons you make it is evident that you spend a lot of your time in the jungle and doing research work. How do you manage to spend so much of your time in the nature considering the cost?

Rohan: That’s right. I work with Forest Department so I don’t have to pay to travel to these places. But I do agree with you that Tiger Reserves and National Parks in India are quite expensive but there are a lot of buffer regions and areas that don’t even cost an entry fee.

Aditi: Really?!

Rohan: Yes, so there are other options like Bird watching trails which are inside the Tiger reserve and that are very inexpensive. And the Indian system of eco-tourism is very accessible to a layperson. Of course if you want to see a Tiger then it will be expensive but if you want to experience nature then its very very affordable.

Aditi: See, these are the things that we don’t know about. And I am so happy to be able share this with other. Thank you.

Rohan: Right. Of course.

Aditi: With the kind of work you are doing, I have a strong feeling that you love what you do….am I right?

Rohan: Yes, I do.

Aditi: Okay, but that does not necessarily mean that your work is easy, especially your time in the jungle.

Rohan: Oh definitely not.

Aditi: So I want to know what are your biggest challenges while doing your work and research? On and off the field..

Rohan: Mmmmm…I am not very intelligent. That’s my biggest challenge.

Aditi: Hahahahhaha… (literally rolling on the floor laughing)

Rohan: Haha! No seriously. I don’t have scientific frame of mind and I am a romantic at heart. For some someone like that understanding Science can be very difficult at times. And then I have to undertake communicating that scientific knowledge. So striking that balance between science and romanic nature is the biggest challenge I face and I don’t want to compromise on both.

Aditi: We all know the story of your encounter with the tigress in Nagzira Reserve which resulted in you giving up your Dental profession. It was obviously a very bold step. What was your family’s reaction?

Rohan: Well I was studying Dentistry then and I wasn’t doing very well..

Aditi: Clearly, you weren’t interested in becoming a Dentist…

Rohan: Yeah…so they were shocked initially. But later on it was a relief to everyone. Because had I been a Dentist today, I am sure I would have been sued for Medical Negligence. So everybody is relieved that I am not a Dentist.

Aditi: Hahahahaahahahaahah….I don’t think so. But I am glad that you are not a Dentist…heheheh…

Now a very personal question and you may not answer if you don’t want to. Do you think your work pays you satisfactorily?

Rohan: I am not a very materialistic person. Like most professions making money depends on working hard and tapping the right avenues..and if you can manage to do that it is possible to make a decent living out of cartooning or any creative profession in India.

Aditi: Okay…While working or researching in the forest have you ever encountered poachers or criminals?

Rohan: Not directly, but I have been on research expeditions for the maps I do, and when I am travelling I meet a lot of people from the special forces that are appointed to tackle poachers and a lot of times they are called to a location immediately and they have to rush to a site and then later once the case is solved I go and visit the site. So thankfully I have never encountered a poacher in my life. But I have seen how task forces work and that is what I have experienced first hand and it is just commendable how they tackle the situation and put their lives at risk. It is not something you and I can do.

Aditi: Yeah! Its quite a risky job because on one hand there are poachers and the other hand there are wild animals. So your life is at risk from all sides. It’s definitely not easy.

And I really don’t understand what creates the demand for such things…

Rohan: Yes, its a very complicated issue. Most of the contraband from India goes to China and South-East Asia because there is a belief propagated by Chinese medicines that animals parts are beneficial. It is crazy but that is the reality.

Aditi: Let’s leave this discussion for another time, as it requires special attention….moving on to my last question.

Honestly, with the way things are going in India, how do you see the future of Environment? Do you see a positive future or not?

Rohan: Well, it all depends on the Elections. This is probably India’s most important election and I am really hoping that at least from Environment’s perspective things take a positive turn. Let’s see what happens.

Aditi: Wow. I feel I have learnt so much from you in one conversation and can endlessly talk to you. Although can’t do that, I consider myself very fortunate to be able to enjoy your cartoons and learn from them. It is both a blessing and a privilege to be connected to you and talk to you. Thank you for being so approachable. You are quite famous amongst my friend circle and now I hope more people will know about you.

Rohan: Oh it was fun taking to you as well. It enjoyed this conversation. Thanks to you as well. Good day to you.

Aditi: Thank you. Good day to you as well. Bye.

After the conversation ended, I was jumping around euphorically for quite sometime as if there were springs on my feet, until I injured one of my toe fingers. And for those who haven’t google him yet, here are a few links..

Enjoy 😀

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