What is a precocious 16-year-old to do when she discovers that her mother is planning to get married for the second time—and that too to the father of her sworn enemy at school? How is she to react to this news, since her own father has already moved to the US after the divorce and is starting a new family, with little regard for her feelings?
The obvious response would be to throw a holy tantrum at the errant parent and sabotage her plans. But Soundarya (or Arya, as she insists being called) loves her mother too much to contemplate destroying her happiness. So, she does what most other hyper-intelligent self-respecting young adult would do in her predicament: take it all out on the world. Thus, Arya comes to fabricating a social media persona called "Debbie G" to wreak vengeance upon anyone who has ever body-shamed her, made fun of her “Madrasi” origins, or rebuffed her romantic interest. In a matter of hours, Debbie G's Instagram account becomes viral, a sensation among the students of EC High School.
Vibha Batra’s new delightful book The Secret Life of Debbie G, the first graphic novel by the author of 16 books, takes us into the mind of Arya, who suffers the misfortune of suddenly being foisted with a stepbrother she once fancied, and a stepsister who behaves abhorrently towards her. The story gallops along on the wings of the illustrations by Kalyani Ganapathy. Like Marjane Satrape’s iconic graphic novel Persepolis, the artwork is rendered in black and white, albeit in a style that is more jagged, in sync with the melancholia that lies at the core of this seemingly peppy story.
“A teen’s life is crappy in direct proportion to the number of parents he/she has,” Arya prophesizes—and too true it turns out to be. Her trials are verbalised in a language that sounds really authentic, considering it's written by an adult, while the visuals remain minimalistic and unobtrusive, rising up to the demands and drama of the moment when they need to.
“I might be a Jurassic author but, in my heart, I am still 16,” says Batra on the phone. That explains the ring of truth in her depiction of Arya’s experience—as also of the crisis that is collectively felt by Arya's generation, living in a world of dopamine hits and social media influencers.
From Arya’s nomophobia (the fear of not being near her phone) to her razor-sharp ripostes and acerbic sense of humour, Batra captures the many shades of conflicting emotions that assail her heroine. There are strong messages lightly rolled into the narrative, without ever sounding preachy. “You'd think because of social media young people are more exposed to diversity these days, more accepting of difference,” Batra says. But abominable behaviour, such as body-shaming of peers, remains a living reality, even as representations of body positivity have increased in the public discourse now.
The instant gratification of likes, shares and comments have also pushed the young (and not-so-young) to the brink of desperation. In a telling moment, Arya, in the guise of Debbie G, puts up a social media post, which shows one of her classmates at EC High School mentioning the death of a young boy due to an accident to another. The other girl laments that this means she would have one less follower on Instagram now. Such casual cruelty is very much a part of the discourse of our influencer-driven culture. In a similar vein, one character, with unthinking panache, rejoices because she has a GBF (gay best friend) after her best friend comes out to her. “A GBF isn’t a fashion accessory!” Batra says, explaining her decision to put this bit into the story.
The real leap that Batra makes in Debbie G is the openness of Generation Z in accepting their parents as individuals with their own desires and needs. “I have always wondered why we—in Indian families—never talk about stuff that really matters,” Batra says. And the latter, in the case of Debbie G, includes plot points such as single parenting, the dating life of divorced parents, young-adult sexuality, not just vanilla romance, and eating disorders.
It’s a sign of the times that one of Batra’s young readers complained to her on Instagram that she ought to have included a trigger warning before a boy in the story gets outed to his schoolmates—and has to endure the ridicule of his peers. Some others were not entirely satisfied with the ending, which, while heart-warming, isn’t neatly tied with a bow, with “happily ever after” inscribed on it. Intense as these reactions are, they are surely signs that the story is resonating with Batra's intended readership.
I, for one, a dinosaur who mostly reads literary fiction, can't wait for a sequel.