Author: Devapriya Roy
Illustrator: Priya Kuriyan
Published: 2018 by Context
No. of Pages: 144
Subthemes: 1975- Emergency in India; Indian Independence
Timeline: 1917-1984; A parallel story runs in 2016-2017
A crisply written tale woven around a young sixth-standard student-Indira Thapa-interspersed with breathtakingly beautiful art by artist Priya Kuriyan, Indira is a smartly written biography of India’s controversial populist leader, Indira Gandhi.
An amalgamation of two layers of storytelling-textual and graphic, the graphic novel is high on ambition and content and for the most part and delivers an informative account of Indira Gandhi’s life.
In the first chapter itself, we are introduced to the effervescent and sensible protagonist of the novel, Indira Thapa. A sixth-standard student, Indira is given an assignment about her name’s oral history by her teacher, Reema Das. The assignment essentially serves as the main plot device of the graphic novel, exploring the history of Indira Gandhi.
In a quest to know more about her name and tired of the dull, pedantic information retrieved through Wikipedia, Indira befriends Reema’s friend Piya (short for Priyadarshini), an artist named after Indira Gandhi’s real name- Indira Priyadarshini. The plot is majorly explored through Indira’s curiosity about her namesake and Piya’s art. Although we never get to see what the characters in the backstory look like, they are intelligently crafted and provide narrative vivacity to the graphic novel, which would otherwise be a chronological account of Indira Gandhi’s life.
The graphic narrative, however, follows a non-linear chronology. The first few panels are set in 1966 and meander from rock and roll, Martin Luther King Jr., to the political climate in India, stopping at 19 January 1966 – the day congress elected the new prime minister by a secret ballot. The Indira shown here contrasts sharply with what Indira became as a leader. She is ruminating, walking glacially through important events of her life. The effect is dramatic, yet it doesn’t overpower the tone the author and the artist are trying to set here.
The metafictional style of the Indira¸ doesn’t complicate it. In fact, it makes it more coherent and lucid by giving the readers a protagonist which mimics young Indira Gandhi’s personality. Additionally, the fact that the backstory is about the graphic novel’s own research, fills the narrative gap between graphic art and textual narration.
The second and the third chapters introduce us to Indira Gandhi’s childhood. There’s a lot to absorb here—the aristocratic, luxurious ambiance of the Nehru household; the frail, young Indira Gandhi, who has all the essential qualities of being the populist leader she later became; the inexplicable connection between Indira’s vanar sena and the establishment of RAW; Indira’s first encounter with Feroze Gandhi; her many enrolments in various colleges which never culminated into a formal degree.
The chapter about Feroze and Indira’s marriage is kept crisp, without divulging any details of the “tormented” love the chapter talks about. Rather, the details are intelligently omitted much like the subsequent chapters which either give Indira Gandhi’s every action a humane perspective or simply evade the details.
While biographies do indulge in myth construction, there are times Indira tries to veer from it. Majorly through discussions between a friend group in panels, encounters and discussions in the backstory of Indira Thapa, and sometimes straightaway stating the facts. One such anecdotal event stands out from the backstory in the fifth chapter. And interestingly, this is complemented by a graphic-narrative created through a series of post-its.
The art is intelligent, crisp, and mesmerizing. It works at so many levels, from catalyzing character development to heightening the tone of the backstory. More so, Priya Kuriyan has used a mix of styles here. The post-its panels; a list-blog and graphic-narrative hybrid; dramatic panels which intensify the mood using different angles; Priya totally mesmerizes the readers with how she plays around with the art.
The serious tone of the last three chapters in the backstory complements what is being told in the graphic panels. Inducing turbulence in the life of Indira Thapa is a clever choice here since it sets the tone for the graphic-narrative part. Drama quotient is high towards the end, and there are a lot of choices that the author and illustrator have made here, mainly to mellow down the controversial tone Indira Gandhi’s last few years.
Although art is largely mesmerizing, two sets of panels stand out in particular—the one with Indira Gandhi enjoying the sight of a majestic tiger in Kanha National Park, and another sequence which narrates the story of Indira Gandhi’s assassination through her grandchildren Priyanka and Rahul. The latter is also the end of the graphic novel and works brilliantly by ossifying the character of Indira Gandhi the entire novel is trying to build— an enigmatic, resilient, populist leader committed to her nation and her personal life.
No specific symbolism has been used.