Panels from the book, Indira, in which the Prime Minister’s life is depicted entirely in graphic
How is Indira Gandhi, India’s first and only woman Prime Minister so far, still relevant to an 11-year-old, or, for that matter, even to a 22-year-old in the country today? Ahead of her birth centenary last year, when Delhi-based Devapriya Roy and Bengaluru-based graphic artist Priya Kuriyan were asked to work on a graphic biography on her, this was one of the questions that concerned them. “Because Mrs Gandhi is such a controversial figure, when we decided to do the book, we wanted to address this question.
In fact, I remember telling Karthika (publisher, Amazon-Westland, who commissioned the project) that I want to read a few biographies before I say ‘yes’ to the project. The thing is, when you are writing a biography, you cannot say you are completely neutral. You are researching someone’s life and trying to reconstruct her mind, so obviously you get invested in that story, but it was also like a little detective work, trying to piece together what made her the person she was. We have tried to show the many different versions of her that is recorded in history, but also made a genuine effort to look at her beyond stereotypes,” says Roy, 33.
Indira (Context, Rs 599), which will be released in Delhi on Tuesday, captures the making of Mrs Gandhi and her tumultuous tenure as India’s third Prime Minister. “Mrs Gandhi’s life is very well-documented, so we had access to interviews online, photographs and reading materials.
And because it is so well-documented, there is no other way of telling her story than the way things were. What we wanted to do was to take a more nuanced approach, to look at her not just as a politician, but also as a person, as a daughter or a grandmother,” says Kuriyan, 37, who referenced Coomi Kapoor’s The Emergency: A Personal History, besides photographs and archival material from the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust Library in Delhi.
In her detailed panels, Kuriyan shows a young Indira blossom into a strident politician, but she also offers glimpses of a woman spending time on choosing her wardrobe, or helping her granddaughter, who had been left behind by her parents from attending the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in 1982, to watch the fireworks that lit up the night sky.
Told through a framing novella, a contemporary story of a young girl, Indira Thapa, who lives in a working-class colony in Delhi and studies at a government school, the book segues into the biography when Thapa is assigned a holiday homework by her beloved teacher — an oral history project to examine the origin of her name.
“So we have alternating chapters, a prose chapter followed by a graphic chapter, with Mrs Gandhi’s life being told entirely in graphic. The prose chapters gave us more margins to discuss the controversial episodes of her life — the Emergency, or the anti-Sikh riots that happened after her death — in greater detail,” says Roy, whose last book was The Heat and Dust Project (2015), with her husband, Saurav Jha.
The book, Roy and Kuriyan’s first collaborative project, took over a year to research, during which they travelled to Allahabad, to Anand Bhawan and Swaraj Bhawan, where the Nehrus lived, and to Mrs Gandhi’s homes and workplaces in the Capital. It also involved a copious amount of reading. Roy says she began by reading Katherine Frank’s Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi (2001) and Pupul Jayakar’s Indira Gandhi: An Intimate Biography (1993). “I read up every biography that I could. We also met Mrs Sonia Gandhi and her daughter.
Mrs Gandhi told us about the books we could find at the archives. Her daughter, who was close to Indira Gandhi, shared with us some memories that have not been published before. There were no questions asked, no instructions given on how to go about our jobs,” says Roy.
While the selection of material involved arduous pruning, the narrative is non-linear and include listicles and letters and some original anecdotes gleaned from various sources. In a clever meta turn, Roy and Kuriyan also work in the making of the book through the story of Thapa’s teacher Reema and her flatmate, the graphic artist, Piya.
“When we took on the book, for the longest time that was pretty much the only thing that consumed us. We were also working long-distance, I had moved to Cochin by the time work began, so there would be a lot of phone calls and emails. We thought it would be interesting for millennials to know a bit of the way the project was worked upon,” says Kuriyan.