Soundarya hates her name. She thinks it is most suitable to describe a cabaret dancer of the ’60s, with the heavy eyeliner and ridiculous hairstyle. Arya is what she wants everyone to call her — in sync with her sharp-witted personality. But dark layers buried underneath the warmth of her bubbly self are eventually unveiled once she develops an alter ego, a secret online persona, towards the latter-half of The Secret Life of Debbie G (HarperCollins), a graphic novel that released yesterday.
The book written by Vibha Batra and illustrated by Kalyani Ganapathy has a strange way of weaving in the “uncomfortable” details into very comfortable settings; you have three 16-year-olds including Arya talking about Hedwig (Harry Potter’s pet snowy owl) one moment, and the casting couch apropos of the #MeToo movement the very next. And Batra’s reasoning for including these issues forms the very core of the 290-odd page story — that these are real issues and children’s books like this one shouldn’t be brushing them under the carpet. “The target audience of this title is those aged 14 and above. And I hope that teens will pick the books up themselves rather than their parents giving it to them from a moral science standpoint,” the Chennai-based writer asserts.
Illustrated by Kalyani Ganapathy, the book also tackles generation gaps and non-traditional family structures
Batra was approached to work on a graphic novel for the publisher over two years ago, but didn’t know a thing about writing one since she hadn’t attempted it at all. “I was feeling bad for whoever would have to illustrate it,” she chuckles. But after writing a couple of concept notes and coordinating with the editor, she managed to get under the skin of her protagonist, Arya. The book is thus peppered with young adult lingo — shitstorm, TTYL, GTG, etc. How difficult was it to craft this aspect as an adult? “In my head, I’m 16,” she says.
Some bits of the story, though, are dug out from a very personal space. One of Arya’s many insecurities is her weight, and she is bullied for it. During her teenage years, Batra had to deal with the same. “I was fat-shamed but didn’t know I was being fat-shamed. It’s still fresh in my head and people would call me Amul baby. We didn’t have a reference then because all we saw in pop culture were slim people. Now, that has changed,” she shares.
Social media then becomes Arya’s venting space, an avenue to take on the brats, or as Arya calls them, the ‘Invincibles’. But due to its very addictive nature, it sinks her into a blackhole of sorts; that’s when readers are introduced to another subject — trolling. “Earlier we’d say, ‘everyone’s a critic’, now we say, ‘everyone’s a troll’. It’s a powerful cloak of anonymity. There’s no accountability and Arya makes the most of it,” Batra shares.
Reading the novel is still very much like taking a bite of really good dark chocolate; through all the bitterness are hints of sweetness — the acceptance of unconventional family structures, sexuality and most importantly, oneself. That’s what Batra wants readers to absorb. “If there’s one thing they have to take away, it has to be the realisation that ‘I love me’. It would be so nice if people treat themselves the way they treat their crush or, well, their bae.”
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