Author and Illustrator: Sriram Jagannathan
Publisher: Notion Press 2018
No. of pages: 100
Subthemes: Extraordinary strength and familial bond in the face of immense personal tragedy
Timeline: The narrative ranges the early 2000s, specifically between 2002 and 2004, which is the period of the accident and recovery; older Mai makes a cameo in the epilogue
A tale of grit, immense will power and familial bonding in the face of devastating crisis, Mai: A Graphic Novel takes the reader on a journey with the familiar, only to emerge as something new and profound. Set in the early 2000s in the small town of Bikaner in Rajasthan, it is a biographical narrative of a 13 year old Malvika Iyer and how her and her family’s lives get overturned in a few short moments on a summer afternoon, and their journey towards recuperation and restoration.
The novel begins with the focus directly on Mai, the protagonist. She is represented as a vivacious girl, full of joie de vivre. Almost immediately, the reader can identify her character as also the central plot device through which the essence of the story unfolds. The artwork is childlike and happy, evocative of youthful innocence. The art is deceptively simple, bordering on the simplistic; the crucial significance held by the art panels in the initial pages is revealed much later. The novel at its core is the story of a family, and the trials and tribulations that come their way. The plot is explored through the interactions of the parents and siblings, as well as their associations with the broader society. An essential aspect to the plot outline is the universally recognizable emotions that it explores, bringing a degree of relatability to the theme for everyone. As the story unfolds, one is acquainted with Mai and comes to know her vibrant personality and enterprising nature well, through the text as well as the artwork. She is an enthusiastic dancer, an energetic friend to the neighborhood kids and passionate about art and craft. She is well liked in school by her teachers and friends alike, and has a very strong bond with her parents and her elder sister Kadambari. The sheer pleasantness of her personality and the domestic bliss in her life seem to magnify the enormity of the tragedy that is to hit the Iyer family.
A freak accident on the 26th of May 2002 – the bursting of a hand grenade – nearly kills Mai, and leads to her losing both her hands. Ironically, this accident is a result of Mai’s industrious and enthusiastic nature. The unexpectedness of the accident amplifies its impact, and sends the pace of the novel into overdrive. The next few pages takes the reader on a breathless journey through hospitals and ICUs, blood donations and skin grafts. The depiction of communal solidarity through the artwork is particularly stirring, working as an effective metaphor for the theme. The pages exploring Mai’s hospitalization and eventual recuperation are disturbingly graphic; onomatopoeia is used skillfully to drive home the aspect of devastation and suffering. The narrative also touches upon the impact of physical crisis on mental health, both of the victim and the caregivers. Towards the end, the focus shifts back once again to familial bond and the role played by loved ones in Mai’s journey towards rebuilding her life. The novel ends on a triumphant note, narrating Mai’s academic success despite suffering a near fatal accident and losing out on school years. Her incredible courage, grit and will power along with the unflinching support from her family, particularly her mother, lead her towards success and recognition on a national level, in the form of being invited by the then President of India Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The overriding metaphor of the plot is that of courage and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. The focus is on the importance of family and loved ones during hard times. The novel concludes on an upbeat note, bringing in an aspect of redemption and restoration to the underlying darkness and misery of life. The inclusion of an original photograph of Malvika Iyer with Dr. Kalam on the concluding page displays a touch of brilliance, effectively reminding the reader that the narrative is in fact the true life events of a powerful and brave woman, one who deserves all the respect and encouragement of the reader.
The most powerful symbolism in the novel is the dupatta draped around the protagonist on the cover page. As the narrative unfolds, it is revealed to be the dupatta worn by her mother on the fateful day of the accident, and is a strong evocation of the mother-daughter bond displayed throughout the novel. It is symbolic of the courage and strength displayed by Malvika and her mother throughout their arduous journey.