Nidhi Chanani's new graphic novel explores the mother-daughter relationship
Using a pashmina as the nucleus, illustrator-writer Nidhi Chanani's new graphic novel explores coming of age, mother-daughter relationships and a magical tryst with India
When we first lay our hands on Pashmina, we didn't know what to expect. And that perhaps, is one of the first indications of a good read. A coming-of-age graphic novel which explores the relationship between an Indian-American mother and her teenage daughter, illustrator and writer Nidhi Chanani's Pashmina (HarperCollins) is filled with magic and tied together in such a heartfelt narrative, it would be a challenge not to find bits of your own life in it.
Chanani says her affair with illustration began long ago and that the first step was to fall in love with art, which began when she started drawing as a child. The birth of Pashmina, she says, can be traced back to that phase of her life as well. "My inspiration for Pashmina came from a variety of sources: my mom, growing up in the US, my first trip to India, and the choices women make — all of these things are woven into the story. When I was younger my parents would travel to India often. When they returned, their suitcases had a pungent, almost magical smell — from a place that seemed very far away. I was probably 10 years old. Opening their suitcase made me feel close to this other world. In a way, I believe this story has been with me since then."
The relationship between Priyanka, the protagonist, and her mother hits home the hardest, in that it is an apt depiction of the dichotomy that characterises a quintessential Indian mother — egging us to be freer than they were but also being restrictive at the same time. Explaining what this depicts for her, Chanani says, "As I wrote Pashmina, it also became about the relationship between an immigrant mother and a first-generation daughter. Touching upon the layers of understandings and misunderstandings, I explored my own relationship with my mom. Priyanka, is a teenager and being one is hard enough, especially if you are glaringly different. Many of Priyanka's struggles are ones I experienced myself. She is not only racially different, she's a nerdy teacher's pet, she comes from a single-parent household, and doesn't have as much money as her Orange County counterparts. Her mother struggles to understand her and raise her with her Indian beliefs and values."
The story comes full circle when Priyanka finally visits Kolkata, her hometown (as well as Nidhi's) in a quest to understand more about her roots. Travelling solo to the country of her heritage forces Priyanka to break free of her sheltered life and grow up, to face herself and begin the process of seeing her mother as a whole person. "I wanted to explore a different path to India than I had experienced. My teenage understanding of India was tainted by poverty-stricken, third world imagery. How wonderful would it be if a young person learned about their culture through only positive representations? That's the root of Pashmina; opening a suitcase and travelling to a fantasy version of India where a character can learn about their heritage in a favourable light," Chanani says. While some aspects of Priyanka's life are similar to hers, the story is not autobiographical. "I love samosas and comics! However, unlike Priyanka, I grew up close to my family in India. Fortunately for me, I wasn't so alone," she shares.
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