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Women in Indian Graphic Novels: A Critique of Select Indian Graphic Novels

 


Dr. Satrughna Singh

Associate Professor

Department of English

Raiganj University

West Bengal, India

 

Abstract:

Whether it is a child or a mature reader, everyone loves to read story with some pictures in it. Graphic novels are providing this unique experience to readers all over the world. Although the growth and popularity of graphic novels in India have only been a recent phenomenon, nonetheless it has become the readers’ favourite genre in present time. The theme of Indian graphic novels is not limited to any single sphere; from socio-political to diurnal life, from history to myths, Indian graphic novels have expressed themselves in every aspect. One such popular aspect with which Indian graphic novels are concerned with is women, their struggle in Indian society, and also their fight back. Saraswati Nagpal in her 2011 graphic novel Sita: Daughter of the Earth has presented the story of Sita from the Hindu epic the Ramayana. She here points out how even in the earliest time women were conscious about their dignity and self-respect. Ram Devineni and Vikas K. Menon in their graphic novel Priya’s Shakti narrate the struggle and resistance of a rape survivor in traditional Indian society. The success story of a bomb-blast survivor, Dr. MalvikaIyer, is presented in Sriram Jagannathan’s Mai: A Graphic Novel. My writing will be a critique of these novels and it will analyse how these works have depicted both the struggle and success of women in Indian society.

Keywords: Women; literature; Indian graphic novels; struggle; success; Indian society

Although graphic novels in India started its journey only in 1994, Indian readers tasted similar kind of genre i.e., Indian comics, long before that. In this regard, we should make a distinction between comics and graphic novels. Comics are generally published in serial form, containing light stories, and are generally written for children.  Graphic novels, on the other hand, are normally published in book form with some serious themes in it and it expects mature readers. Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith in their book The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture distinguished the two genres in these words: “graphic novels are longer than typical comic book and most often contain self-contained, rather than continuing, stories” (4).  India’s long history of comics began in the 1960s with the launch of Indrajal Comics by The Times of India. During the latter part of the same era, Anant Pai commenced the most famous comics-series in India with his publication of Amar Chitra Katha (“Immortal Picture Stories”) in 1967.The stories of this series are based on Indian myths, epics, legends and folktales and at once became a guide book for the children as far as mythical stories are concerned. After that numerous popular comic characters and series started to emerge in the country like Pran Kumar Sharma’s Chacha Chaudhary, Ajit Ninan’s Detective Moochwala, Raj Comics’ Super Commando Dhruva, Narayan Debnath’s Batul the Great and the Handa Bhonda series etc. In the 1990s, comics in India started to lose its popularity and something new was required to keep the readers engaged. Thus, in 1994 Indian readers first witnessed the graphic novel of his own country with the publication of Orijit Sen’s River of Stories in 1994.

After Orijit Sen’s River of Stories, Sarnath Banerjee’s 2004 graphic novel Corridor brought a revolutionary change as far as popularity of this genre is concerned. Banerjee, one of the first prominent graphic novelists in India, is basically concerned with the urban life of major Indian metropolitan cities like Kolkata and Delhi. His three major graphic novels like Corridor, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers and The Harappa Files bear example of his themes. As Indian graphic novels deal with multidimensional themes, they attract readers from wide field. For example, novels like Bhimayana by Navayana publisher has illustrated theme like caste discrimination and untouchability in the country through the story of B.R. Ambedkar. The constant political strife of Kashmir is narrated in such graphic novels like Malik Sajad’s Munnu and Naser Ahmed and Saurabh Singh’s Kashmir Pending. Famous historical events like the Partition of India and the Emergency of 1975 are outlined in Varud Gupta’s Chhotu: A Tale of Partition and Love and Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm respectively. Even mythological stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are reimagined in novels like Saraswati Nagpal’s Sita: Daughter of the Earth and in Shweta Taneja’s Krishna: Defender of Dharma. All such novels provide a unique multidimensional experience of reading to the Indian readers.

Although very few Indian graphic novels deal with the problem and issue of women, nonetheless, they are worth reading. Most of such novels focus on women, their struggle and success and also intensify their empowerment in traditional Indian society. One such novel is Priya’s Shakti by Ram Devineni and Vikas K. Menon, with a dazzling artwork by Dan Goldman. The novel narrates the story of a rape survivor, Priya, and how with the aid of divine intervention, she changes the perspective and attitude of people towards women. Set in a traditional Indian village, the story is detailed in flashback as goddess Parvati imagines how Priya struggled in her past. Priya was very much curious about the universe from her childhood, and she was determined to become a teacher. However, her rigid, narrow minded father forced her to focus on household duties rather than on study. This is one of the biggest problems Indian girls face in our society as they are denied of their basic right of education. As time passed and Priya grew up, life became more onerous for her. A growing up girl in our society often becomes the victim of sexual assault, rape and violence. In case of Priya, there was also no exception as one day she became the victim of a brutal rape by a man from her own village.

In a traditional male dominated society, as in India, it is the girls who are absurdly blamed for an incident like rape rather than the rapists, the criminals. Priya’s life became harder after this incident as everybody started to blame her. However, it was more surprising that her own family abandoned her. Now the Goddess Parvati cannot tolerate such pain of her devotee and feels the urge to help her; she incarnates into Priya’s body and mind. Unaware about the Goddess Parvati’s existence in Priya’s body, the same rapist tries to rape her again. This instantly angers both Parvati as well as Lord Shiva, who wakes up from his meditation by such brutal attempt. Shiva calls for an immediate assembly of Gods and curses the mankind that they will no longer be able to procreate. Thus destruction and havoc follow in the earth as women are no longer able to bear child. Shiva’s decision is the result of his anger and wrath rather than wise judgment. So many Gods start to oppose him, and many, including Parvati, urge him to change his mind; but he is determined about his curse.

As havoc and war start to commence in various worlds, Parvati decides to take the form of Goddess Kali and persuades Shiva to change his decision. Finally, Shiva decides that he would change his mind only when humans would change their attitude towards women. The change can only be brought by Priya who is living in a forest now. Thus, with the aid of encourage from Parvati, Priya starts her mission of changing the society on the back of a divine tiger. Priya, with her supporters from her village starts social awareness. As time progress, they start preaching from village to village and Priya’s own family too joins her. They start speaking in favour of the equal status of women, education for children and most importantly, encourage people to protest against the mistreatment of girls in Indian society. Finally, Priya is successful in her mission and a change is taking place; Lord Shiva now can clearly visualize a change in the society. Thus, the novel demonstrates the power of women in society, and how they can stand up against all the odds of life.

Many graphic novelists in India have explored the women issue through the re-imagination of some mythical characters in their novels. The stories and characters of Hindu epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are often reinterpreted from a different perspective now a day. One such popular character from the Ramayana is Sita, the virtuous wife of Rama. Sita has been always taken as an ideal woman in our country whose virtues deserve our reverence. Even Swami Vivekananda commented about Sita’s mighty presence in our country that, “I know that the race that produced Sita – even if it only dreamt of her – has a reverence for woman that is unmatched on earth” (qtd. in Mukherji 45). Sita’s stories have been interpreted from feminist angle by many graphic novelists; two such popular novels are Samhita Arni’s Sita’s Ramayana and Saraswati Nagpal’s Sita: Daughter of the Earth. Both the novels have been narrated from Sita’s point of view that shows us that if she can be an obedient wife of Rama, she can also shun her husband when her self-respect and dignity are at stake. In Saraswati Nagpal’s Sita: Daughter of the Earth, divine elements are there from the beginning as Sita’s birth itself was the result of the blessing of Bhudevi, the Earth Goddess. As a result of it, from her early childhood, Sita was very much powerful and courageous. History, law, tradition and logic are at the centre of her interest and lifting a heavy objet like the mighty bow is not a matter of big issue for her. She used to visualize the Goddess Bhudevi often and prayed before her so that the goddess could “protect and guide” her (Nagpal 13).

It can be assumed that Rama was destined to be Sita’s wife as Sita immediately felt in love with Rama when she first heard her name. But as a robust and courageous girl, she wanted to examine Rama’s bravery and power. So a swayamvara was arranged to choose Sita’s husband in which Rama proved his mightiness by lifting the great bow, and eventually Sita married Rama. Rama and Sita’s relationship and married life is based on love and respect for each other. Rama was quite aware of Sita’s wisdom; so he used to consult with Sita even in matter of court matters. Surely, Sita is an epitome of a perfect wife who is always ready to stand beside her husband. When King Dasharatha announced that Rama would be the king of Ayodhya after his death, Sita was very much exhilarated. However, when Rama could not become the king due to the conspiracy of Kaikeyi and Manthara, Sita did not break down. As Rama is ready to go to live in the Dandaka Forest for fourteen years, Sita is also ready to accompany him, leaving all the luxury of the royal palace. So she says, “I am your wife. I have to be by your side – in times of happiness and grief” (33).

In the forest, Sita at once experienced how strenuous life can be in such places, but she was happy with Rama. Question can be raised about Sita’s wisdom when she crossed the Lakshmana rekha, due to which she was eventually captured by Ravana. However, it must be kept in mind that she crossed the rekha (line) only out of fear of curse, as she thought, “A holy man’s anger might ruin me” (Nagpal53); Sita had very little idea that the Brahmin was none other than Ravana in disguise. Her wisdom was perceptible immediately after that when Ravana was carrying her to his palace. Sita bundled her jewellery and spread it on her way so that Rama could find her. Gold, silver, jewels are nothing to her in comparison to her love for Rama. So she stood strong in her will when Ravana tried to persuade her in exchange of such precious ornaments. She was so much courageous that she did not fret about the death-threat of Ravana. At the root of such courage is her trust for Rama’s bravery and courage, as she believed that Rama would soon destroy Ravana. 

Having already been a victim of Ravana’s deception, Sita is now sagacious enough not to trust anyone quickly. When Hanumana went to rescue her in Lanka, she expressed her doubt whether Hanumana is a spy of Ravana or not. She trusted Hanumana only when the latter showed her Rama’s ring. Being herself a courageous and solemn person, Sita had always her trust on the bravery of Rama. Hanumana wanted to rescue Sita on his shoulders and wanted to fly away. But Sita did not want that her husband would be recognized as a coward and, wished that Rama himself would rescue her, defeating Ravana. One of the vivacious aspects of Sita’s character is that for her, love for Rama is as much important as her self-respect. Upon her return to Ayodhya, Rama, following the rule of Ayodhya, doubted Sita’s chastity as she spent almost a year in Ravana’s palace. After spending so many months in captivity and misery, Sita never expected such kind of statement from her love, and decided at once to end her life by jumping into fire. But the Fire God, Agni at once came to her rescue as Sita was “pure, innocent, and loyal lady” (Nagpal74). So Sita passed the agnipariksha (fire test) and her happy married life with Rama resumed again.

Life of a woman has always been hard, whether it is in myths or in contemporary society. Not long after the reunion of Rama and Sita, people of Ayodhya started to question Rama’s law. Many women of Ayodhya started to spend night with strangers and then forcing their husband to accept them on their return, citing the example of Rama as he had accepted Sita. As Sita’s purity is again doubted and Rama’s law is questioned by the people, Sita decided to leave the palace and started to live in the forest, where she gave birth to the twin sons Luv and Kusha. Time and time again, Sita’s purity, chastity has been doubted, sometimes even by Rama. Sita did return to the palace once again, but again she was asked to take an oath regarding her purity. Sita had already experienced pain to the fullest, life to the fullest and could guess what future might hold for her. As she pointed out justly:

“…but mortal memories are fickle. People forgot the agnipariksha (fire test) in Lanka. And in a few years, people will forget my oath today, and again accuse us of violating the law” (88).

So, in a moment Sita decided to end her mortal life as she prayed to Bhudevi, and disappeared into the earth along with the Goddess.

Another recent Indian graphic novel, which celebrates the courage and determination of a woman to the fullest, is Sriram Jagannathan’s Mai: A Graphic Novel. The novel is based on the life of Malvika Iyer, a bomb-blast survivor, and a motivational speaker throughout the world. Before we scrutinize the novel, we should first have a peep into Malvika’s life. She was born in Tamil Nadu in a middle class family, and grew up in Bikaner, Rajasthan. Only at the age of thirteen, she met with a fatal grenade explosion in which she lost her both hands and almost her legs too. When her struggle and painful sufferings had been over after almost eighteen months, she never looked back, completed many educational degrees including PhD. Soon after, she started her career as a motivational speaker upon disability and gave speeches in many eminent places and countries like New York, Norway, Indonesia, South Africa and Singapore. In 2018, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, she received the Nari Shakti Puraskar, the Highest Civilian Honour for Women from the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind. Not only that, she was also given the honour of handling the social media accounts of the Honourable Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, on March 8, 2020.

Malvika always wants people to view disability as a normal happening. So in an interview with Parvathi Benu she told: “It is our duty to make children understand that disability doesn’t make you different. Schools must share positive stories of people with disability. Teachers can change the perspectives” (Iyer). One of the keys of Malvika’s success is her courage, determination and never give up attitude. Although Jagannathan’s novel captures Malvika’s life only up to her class X board exam, nonetheless it has depicted the most important phrase of her life. From the very beginning of the novel, when Malvika is only thirteen year old, we can perceive how much creative and animated girl she is. When the back pocket of her favourite jeans ripped off, instead of relying on others to repair it, she takes the courage to do it herself. For several days, her mind is obsessed with how to fix the pocket. Even in a marriage ceremony, she can think nothing but about how to fix and design her pocket. When her attempt to embed it with a gum failed, she thought of sticking it with a hammer and went for it in their garage. Earlier there had been a fire accident in the city of Bikaner, due to which there were scattered grenades in many places, including in her father’s garage. She was too innocent to know about such explosive objects, and picked up one such grenade, thinking that it would do the job of a hammer as she could not find any hammer there. There was nothing fatal happened in her first two strikes with the grenade while she was trying to fix the pocket with it. But with the third strike, she met with the fatal accident which would change her life forever.

The novel celebrates as much the courage and grit of Malvika as much her mother’s also. Thus, in a way the novel paints a lovely bond and cooperation between a mother and her daughter which makes any society better. From the time of her accident, her struggle and ordeal in hospital to her study and success, Malvika’s mother was beside her at each and every step. Her scream of “My daughter’s hands! They’re gone!” (Jagannathan34) at the moment of the accident clearly shows a mother’s love for her daughter. She was worried, broken, but immediately controlled herself as she knew that her daughter would need her support and courage. In fact, it was her mother’s “radiant face” (58) which acted like a soothing medicine for Malvika while she was going through many surgeries in the hospital. Malvika’s mother was really fighting a lonely fight as her husband often had to stay away from them even during those tough times. When Malvika decided after her recovery that she would appear in the board exam of class X, her mother supported the decision. She used to drop her in a coaching center daily so that Malvika could prepare well for the examination. This duo’s hard work ultimately bore fruit as Malvika scored almost ninety seven per cent with only four month’s preparation. She at once became famous in the state of Tamilnadu as her success was celebrated in the newspaper, and eventually got an invitation from the then President of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam who wanted to meet Malvika. Thus the novelist rightly commented in the novel, “The marks were a reflection of Malvika’s courage and determination. And also her mother’s perseverance” (95).  

Works Cited

Devineni, Ram & Vikas K. Menon. Priya’s Shakti. Rattapallax, 2014.

Duncan, Randy and Matthew J. Smith. The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. Continuum, 2009.

Iyer, Malvika. Interview by Parvathi Benu. 11 Sept. 2017, www.edexlive.com/live-story/2017/sep/11/your-daily-dose-of-inspiration-heres-what-malvika-iyer-had-to-say-to-her-13-year-old-self-1108.html. Accessed 7 July 2021.

Mukherji, Mani Sankar. The Monk as Man: The Unknown Life of Swami Vivekananda. Penguin India, 2017.

Nagpal, Saraswati. Sita: Daughter of the Earth. Campfire, 2011.

Jagannathan, Sriram. Mai: A Graphic Novel. Notion Press, 2018.