Genre: Fiction, magical realism
Author and illustrator: Nidhi Chanani
Publisher: HarperCollins 2018
No. of pages: 165
Subthemes: Family, identity, feminism, spirituality
Timeline: Present-day India and America with brief throwbacks to the 20th century
Set in the world of a sensitive American-Indian high schooler – Priyanka Das – and her single mother in California, the novel is a true coming-of-age tale with a generous splattering of magical realism. It unfolds in present day United States and India in parts, with brief throwbacks to the early part of the 20th century.
The storyline explores the life of Priyanka ‘Pri’ Das and her mother in the US and the emotional rollercoaster that is omnipresent in every teenager’s life through the lens of other aspects of expatriate life in the States. Pri is the textbook millennial kid, and this is brought out right from the initial panels of the graphic novel through Pri’s disagreements with her mother in the matter of driving. The protagonist is the focal plot device, and the various themes of the novel are explored through her experiences and emotions. Many of these themes, such as the innate Indianness of the family despite living in a foreign land, the centrality of religion and spirituality in their lives and the important role of family in one’s life is brought out in the initial pages themselves.The artwork alternates between monochrome and vivid use of colour, the latter depicting the exotic richness of the magical realism sequences.
The narrative is an organic development of everyday life in suburban America for members of the Indian community. The reader is acquainted with Priyanka’s school, the subtle bullying she faces from peers, and the encouragement and support she has from her teachers. The bullying stokes an incipient self doubt in her, which stems from her confusion and lack of clarity about her own past, a subject that her mother resolutely refuses to talk about.There is an omnipresent stream of attachment to the Indian roots in their lives, and it comes through in different contexts. A vital aspect of this is Priyanka’s relationship with her ‘Uncle’ Jatin and ‘Auntie’ Deepa; they are not related by blood, but are as good as family in Priyanka’s life – a very Indian scenario. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Jatin and Deepa are about to have a baby, a development that Priyanka finds disconcerting, as she is scared to lose her bond with her uncle, who has been like a father to her all her life. It is during this tumultuous time in her life that she chances upon a magical shawl belonging to her mother tucked away in an old suitcase, a shawl that transports her into a fascinating vision of India. Startled and scared, she quickly takes it off, though she does not return it to the suitcase.
Eventually, when the baby is born, Priyanka refuses to hold her, and avoids spending time with her uncle’s family. There are other developments in school; her teacher submits a comic strip she has created to a competition, which goes on to win first prize, so that Priyanka has a windfall award of five hundred dollars. It is during this time that her attraction to her native land grows, fuelled largely by her continual use of the shawl and its visions of India. Serendipitously, her mother’s sister calls from back home at this very time, eventually convincing her mother to let her travel to India with her prize money. It is at this point that the crucial themes of the plot coalesce. Priyanka is confronted with the realities of life in India, which is beautiful but very far removed from the visions the shawl had shown her. Her uncle comes to symbolize the oppressive hold of patriarchy on Indian women, another metaphor explaining her mother’s reluctance to ever return to the country. Eventually the shawl’s magic works as a tool for emancipation as it convinces her aunt to travel to Warangal with her to uncover the mystery of the shawl’s origins. This journey has a transformative effect on both women, and Priyanka has her own identity and destiny revealed to her, both through her past and her future. The impact of religion and feminine power is very strong throughout the narrative, and comes to the forefront at this point. There is a sense of closure and a promise of fresh beginnings as all the women emerge stronger and more self contained identities by the end of the narrative.
The story closes with the ideas of homecoming, the rekindling of old ties and the forging of new ones. The emphasis on family remains constant, even as the definition of ‘family’ undergoes a distinct change in Priyanka’s mind, symbolising her coming of age. There is a hint of continuing empowerment through the shawl towards the end, leaving the promise of broadening emancipation for women in society.