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When protests met a pandemic

In Shromona Das’s The Summer of Maximum Learning, you see that spilt milk is worth crying about in this country. A page shows a woman declaring to her social media followers that she is cooking for the first time during the lockdown; a dish that requires a litre of milk. She stirs it in a vessel. Das then makes that milk spill out onto a road at Ram Bagh Chauraha in Agra, where a poor man and four dogs quench their thirst.

We all know that woman — it could be one of us, baking banana bread, making Dalgona coffee and whatnot. What happened in Ram Bagh Chauraha is not far from reality either. Das has drawn from an incident that happened in April, summing up how the pandemic has become anything but the ‘great equaliser’.

Shromona Das
Shromona Das

The graphic tale that was released earlier this month, edited by and published on the platform BlueJackal, is a dark parody of the times we’re living in where positivity is a farce, where abnormal is passed off as the ‘new’ normal. But Das also explores what we’ve stopped talking about; the fact that nationwide NRC/CAA protests have had to come to a halt; that winter was drastically different from the summer of self-care and good vibes. The question, ‘Who will watch the watchmen?’ is buried far, far at the back of our heads.

Over a phone call from Santiniketan, the 25-year-old tells us that the comic was meant to be an entirely different one. An artist and researcher pursuing her MPhil from the Centre for Visual Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU, Das witnessed the chaos that erupted on campus and sat in for the protests at Shaheen Bagh.

The comic was initially supposed to be about what being in Shaheen Baug felt like and Das began sketching while attending protests there. PICS COURTESY/SHROMONA DAS, BLUEJACKAL
The comic was initially supposed to be about what being in Shaheen Baug felt like and Das began sketching while attending protests there. PICS COURTESY/SHROMONA DAS, BLUEJACKAL 

“It was supposed to be a comic on what it was like to be in Shaheen Bagh. It was not possible to sit down and think of a 10-page comic then but some sketches were made there. Once the movement dissipated, I experienced a sense of loss,” she says.

The lockdown felt like an extension of the NRC/CAA situation with a majority scrambling for basic needs like food. “We’re constantly told to not think about these upsetting things. But how do you turn a blind eye?” asks Das.

Das juxtaposes pre- and post-lockdown realities
Das juxtaposes pre- and post-lockdown realities

Food, then, strangely emerges as the motif that binds the pre- and post-lockdown scenarios in the comic. The idea came from the feeling of community the artist witnessed at Shaheen Bagh. “I saw how food brought people together. Community kitchens and langars were set up. When you entered, people immediately asked you, ‘Kya aapne kuch khaaya hai?'” she shares. After the lockdown, as that experience of coming together as a community filtered down, she realised how food emerged as a luxury good.

Das maintains a dark colour palette, mirroring a sense of doom even in the smattering of yellow in banana pies or the green in olives. But there is still a difference between positivity and hope. And Das is hopeful. “We have not been able to find an alternative to physical demonstrations on social media yet but I’m not giving up,” she says.

Log on to bluejackal.net

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