A graphic biography of India’s Iron Lady: Indira Gandhi
A new graphic biography of Indira Gandhi seeks to humanize her towering political legacy
Apopulist leader will always have popular tales told about her. My mother, an ardent fan of Indira Gandhi, has many. Some include the adventures of my grandfather, a policeman who served as Gandhi’s bodyguard on occasion, and also led teams that went around arresting opposition leaders on the eve of the Emergency. Indira, a new graphic novel that serves as a biography of the inimitable Mrs Gandhi, similarly tells many tales about her, and, in doing so, seeks to bring her down to earth.
The book, a collaboration between writer Devapriya Roy and artist and illustrator Priya Kuriyan, works on multiple levels. At its most basic, it’s a straight biography, chronicling the life and times of Gandhi, from her birth into the then nascent pre-eminent political family of India, right up to her assassination and its repercussions. Simultaneously, it uses a fictional framing device of a young girl called Indira who is set a school assignment to find out more about her name. This gets her interested in her famous namesake. This recurring plot line, which is told in prose, gives the reader a chance to look at Gandhi as a person—a complex, ruthless, yet personable enigma.
In this storyline, the authors also use a meta-textual conceit—they include themselves and their quest to research and get the book written. And well they might, because Roy’s and Kuriyan’s partnership is a marriage of convenience. Commissioned to work on this book, and assigned to work with each other, the authors clearly had to find some common ground and narrative voice to make the book work. To a large extent, their collaboration succeeds. The image of Gandhi that emerges in the biography is fleshed out and considerate, if sympathetic to her paternalistic view of Indian democracy and politics. The art is in the vein of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis books, dominated by black and white pencil sketches and line drawings. These are sometimes leavened by the use of saturating colours, usually when the narrative seeks to highlight a pivotal moment in Gandhi’s life, like the Nehru family’s embrace of swadeshi, the death of Gandhi’s mother, or when Gandhi sees a tiger during a safari in the Pench National Park.
Certain narrative strategies don’t work, like the one-dimensional group of friends that the authors use to comment on the Emergency and Operation Bluestar. It’s a tired device, with the four representing dissenting viewpoints while being utter ciphers as characters. Also, the Emergency, the Congress’ loss in the 1977 election, and its subsequent victory in 1980, are all dealt with quite perfunctorily, almost as if the writers were running out of time and space to finish Gandhi’s story.
That said, the narrative admittedly seeks to highlight Gandhi’s personal journey. Seen through the eyes of a child, this would be more heroic than critical. The received wisdom about Gandhi, among both her admirers and detractors, is her indomitable will to win. Through much of her life, she was written off as being weak, indecisive and tractable, primarily on account of her gender, only to prove people spectacularly wrong. That’s the line taken by this book as well. The most affecting bit, though, comes right at the end, when Gandhi’s assassination is depicted through the eyes of a young Priyanka Gandhi. The authors had spoken to her for the book, and the depiction we get, of a beloved grandmother and a young girl’s inexplicable grief and loss, is moving.