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An extraordinary book by 16 artists from India and Germany, The Elephant In The Room will revive your own story of what it is to be a woman; but also, it will simply enchant you.
I finished reading The Elephant In The Room. Then I read it again. For a week, every morning, I would go back to its pages and skim through a few pages again. I had promised to review it, you see.
I wondered what kind of a review I should write.
Should I write of how unlike most graphic novels, it is impossible to slot this book into any easily identifitable category, either thematically or visually? 16 artists, all women, from both India and Germany, came together for this book, and while their stories are about what it is to be a girl and a woman in the world today, each is unique, both in its exploration of gender and in the visual treatment.
While the stories by artists like Nina Pagalies (Temples), Kaveri Gopalakrishnan (My Secret Crop) and Prabha Mallya (Bitch) reminded me of the shapeshifting images from my more colourful dreams, those by Archana Sreenivasan (Otherly Urges) and Ulli Lust (The Hungry Guest, A Hairy Question) felt like faithful reproductions of our everyday lives, made more easily digestible with humour. Yet others, like Anpu Varkey’s Trapped invite the viewer to make whatever they will, of full page, B&W visuals, in which a woman is either comforted by a giant cat, or trapped by it, or perhaps one is the same as the other.
I wondered if I should talk of why some stories made me cry. Flipping repeatedly through Priya Kuriyan’s Ebony & Ivory, the story of a grandmother’s hidden life, was I moved because it reminded me that I only have my own grandmothers with me for a little while more, and that what I know of them is a humble fraction of their lives? Or because I remembered the hidden stories of all the women I have come across in my life, who put on their masks of hair oil, face powder and good cheer, even as their own families suppressed their dreams, ignored their pain and urged them to try harder?
The stories that most attracted me, the ones I kept going back to in a masochistic kind of way, were indeed the saddest ones about mothers and grandmothers – Priya Kuriyan’s story mentioned above, but also, Reshu Singh’s Looking Up and Kruttika Susarla’s For The Sake Of. Both these deal with themes of freedom and how women navigate the visible and invisible lines drawn in their lives, the Lakshman Rekhas that they find, and internalise. In Looking Up, Reshu Singh literally uses a jail like background, although not in the way you would imagine; the freedom she talks about is not that of a caged woman finding a way out, but something more unusual. In these stories, I also found women who became angry women without knowing quite when that happened.
Well, no one likes angry women, so I thought perhaps it would be better to talk about the stories that made me laugh; like Larissa Bertonasco’s Bum Power, a reflection on growing up in the wrong era for your body type to be fashionable, and also, an ode to the power of the bum. We need more stories of women talking about their bums, I felt, after reading that one; for too long have the odes to women’s bums been those composed by men.
There was also Ludmilla Bartscht’s Juicy Lucy which made want to put on my dancing shoes (reminder: buy some) and be silly. I started thinking about silly women, and realised that even as a child, while our comics gave us Suppandi, Shikhari Shambhu and Moocho Dada with varying levels of stupidity fuelled antics, I could not remember a single silly woman having any sort of fun.
In the end, I decided that it was too hard to do a proper or comprehensive review of this book, and all I wanted to tell everyone was this: read it and be enchanted.
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