Kalki Koechlin describes Elephant in the Womb, an illustrated and intensely personal memoir of her recent pregnancy, as a”dark, funny comic-book.” The description is bang-on, as anyone who even flips through the slim book, peppered with webcomic-style illustrations by Valeriya Polyanychko, a Goa-based artist and graphic designer, can tell.
The book may not be all Koechlin’s own work — unlike, say, French comic-book writer Emma’s The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic, which she is a huge fan of — but along with Polyanychko’s raw, funny drawings, Koechlin’s raw, funny commentary on an intense period in her own life makes for a deeply engaging and sometimes uncomfortable-making narrative.
The book began as a journal in which she was recording specific experiences from her pregnancy through text and doodles, says Koechlin over a Zoom call. “I always saw this whole experience — and afterwards, this book — as something that's dark, but also that has a lot of humour. Maybe because those are my coping mechanisms. When you are going through it, it’s hell, but afterwards, when it’s something you’re talking about with your friends who have also experienced similar things, you are able to laugh about it. I don't think it means that you don't take the subject seriously. It just means that, you know, you're able to see both sides; you're able to give yourself some perspective with time,” says Koechlin.
The book begins with something that is rarely talked about in India — let alone by actors and celebrities. Koechlin describes how, before she went through with this pregnancy, she had two abortions, and how these two experiences, a few years apart in her life, were starkly different because of the way people around her responded to the situation. The first time, she felt shamed by her doctor and was left alone to deal with the aftermath of the abortion by her then partner; the second time around, she had support from her partner, family and friends, and a non-jugdemental doctor. “I was sad about the situation but not traumatized by it,” says Koechlin.
It was difficult subject to write about, but she chose to begin this book with it because she wanted to talk honestly about something that many Indian women go through. “The point is that most women don't even know what their choices are, that they have choices. Most people don't even know what the law is. And I think it's really important that women know that they have this choice, that it's a legal choice, and that it's a valid choice,” says Koechlin. “And I also wanted to point out that if, say, you break your arm, you don't go alone to the hospital and get it sorted. You'll have family or friends supporting you. And yet when it comes to an abortion or a miscarriage, women have to keep it all hush-hush, and that’s a very lonely thing. So I just felt like speaking openly about it to let women know that it happens and it doesn't mean you can't ask for help.”
This is not a ‘pregnancy Bible’ in the vein of a certain other recent book written by a major Bollywood actor, but a no-topic-left-behind approach to one woman’s journey through a transformative time — a journey that’s both universal and yet absolutely unique to each woman. There is nothing Koechlin flinches from exploring about the pregnancy experience — from why women are often advised to keep their pregnancy a secret in the first trimester (which makes everything extra difficult at the workplace, especially on a movie set), to the random bouts of bloating, nausea and sickness, to losing one’s libido (and then regaining it at a most inconvenient time), to the challenges of working during pregnancy, to strangely erotic dreams in her last trimester and then the final act of a gruelling labour followed by its after-effects, such as the often harrowing, messy and isolating experience of breastfeeding.
Koechlin is a writer, with published poems and two plays to her credit, and this shows in the assured way she puts all this down on paper. She may write more, she says, because being pregnant and then a new mother during covid taught her to deal with FOMO, she says. “It’s like, as actors we are always thinking that if we are not ‘out there’ we are going to be forgotten, you know? But I am more confident about that now… it’s like what Michaela Coel, who won the Emmy recently, said — ‘do not be afraid to disappear’,” she says. “So I will continue acting, but I may also take time out now and then to create in different ways.”