by Samannaz Rohaminesh
The intersperse of art and literature can do wonders when done the right way, and this brand new novel from Yali Books did just that. We were lucky enough to be given a chance to review the graphic novel Amla Mater, and chat with the phenomenal artist behind this masterpiece.
Have you ever watched that breathtaking scene in Disney’s Ratatouille, where the acerbic food critic, Anton Ego, tastes Remy (the rat cook)’s Ratatouille and with just one bite, he is drawn into a whirlpool of memories back in his early school years and hungry for mom’s home-cooked meal? Devi Menon has artfully concocted the same recipe from her intimate yet familiar graphic childhood memoirs; and one tiny amla (gooseberry) fruit is the main ingredient. The bittersweet scent of amla in a busy London subway, flies you back to Menon’s colorful past and leaves you hungry for more as you read on; even hungrier for characters and subplots (intentionally or unintentionally) cut off from the main storyline.
Born and raised in a small town of Kerala, India, Menon finds love, family and friendship under their well-to-do neighbor’s colossal amla tree, which becomes the emblem of an infantile sisterhood, yet to be forgotten in the years to come. However, in a stunning twist of fate, the same tiny amla fruit, brings back lost love when needed most. Menon, in her black and white primitively illustrated anecdote, introduces us to a world which doesn’t belong to Alice’s Wonderland; it is right here, in your own backyard if you look closer. In this world, babies simulate fruit growth, snakes glide away from the assumed pose of Lord Siva and lost friends are found by pickle brands! Imagination scarce and reality abound. Just believe your eyes and follow Menon’s guide to a sensory saunter in your own backyard. Maybe an old dusted jar of jam your grandmother gave you, is the missing link in your job interview.
The book is a hive of iridescent characters, where later in the course of the book, some follow and some disappear: Ammama (neighbor’s grandmother), the baker, Nandini, Padma, mother, and many others. But among all of them, there’s one who’s a page-turner, and that’s Maya: Maya, the neighbor’s daughter; Maya, the older protector; Maya, the longed-for sister; Maya, the scent of amla. However, as much as we witness the childhood scenes of Maya and Devi’s adventures, we lose Maya and her whereabouts as she grows up. It is towards the end of the book where she briefly gets a bedazzling comeback.
In her own natural words, she portrays an Indian-born simple girl who walked her way up the ladder by becoming an engineer and moving to London, later getting married to a baker (that’s all we know of him) and expecting a child. There are no tragedies and dramas; no mawkish love stories and no corny heartbreaks. Just a simple story of a simple girl who loves and lives and looks forward to another day.
Menon’s sentiments are skillfully intertwined into each line, each sentence and each phrase. Her storytelling techniques – simplicity, honesty and informal soliloquies – lend a comprehensive coherence to the structure of the story; at the same time, making it as sweet as a grandmother’s tale. As her sensory receptors are awakened by scents, sounds, images, and tastes, her story unravels with to-and-fro flashbacks of corresponding adolescence recollections. These, are simply experiences we all encounter once in a while (sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a furtive tear), then shrug it off and walk away.
This is where Menon’s artistry comes into light: she just can’t ignore her sentiments; neither the excitement of a sunny day, nor the depression of Nimbus clouds hovering over her window. She holds a pencil and draws them all on a piece of paper and shares it with her kindred spirits wherever they are; hoping that, one day, one moment, one sniff of peppermint, one handful of dried orange blossoms, would bring estranged hearts together once and for all.
1) What inspired you to become a writer? Why do you like telling stories, and what do you think is its impact on our fast-paced lifestyle?
The decision to become a writer was never a conscious one. When my niece and nephew were around 4-5 years old, I had to make up stories from 5 random words that they would choose. Those stories seldom had a semblance of plot or reason, but it was something that I always looked forward to. I would sometimes write these stories down after their bedtime. I guess what I like best about story telling is how you get to take others with you on a trip that even you don't really know of - where it will go, the characters that will pop up and where it's all going to end. Living out a small part of your day in a world outside reality is highly recommended.
2) Why create a graphic novel? In what way do you think the drawings add to the stories, and how do they make your work different from other solely textual pieces of literature?
Graphic novels are poetic in the way they can capture silence so eloquently. So much that we say is based on our gestures - a smile, a frown, a tilt of the head. Yes, while you can state these with words, it feels so much more intimate in the graphic novel format. Am not a trained artist, this book is my first attempt. My drawings are not sophisticated and are very simplistic. And yet, a simple panel that shows the grandmother and the little girl lying on her lap, for instance, will definitely invoke memories in anyone who has sought comfort in the presence of their grandmother.I guess that is the power of a graphical story telling medium.
3. What motivated you to tell this story? To whom do you dedicate it?
I would have to dedicate this book to my daughter, Uma. I was pregnant with her when this germ of an idea - about two friends reuniting over a bottle of pickle - took shape. I did have cravings for pickles and so many other South Indian delicacies! Most of the characters in the book have been inspired by people that I've met, incidents that I have heard of. The little village that the girls Mili and Maya grow up in, is based on Kunissery, a small village that I grew up in in the district of Palakkad, Kerala.
4. What does ‘home’ mean for an immigrant? How does it shape the identity of an immigrant?
I think we all try and find and redefine 'home' every step of the way. I do believe we are all fundamentally the same. It's the same set of fears, similar prejudices, the same joy of acceptance. We are conditioned to think in a certain way and every time we move out and find home someplace else, those thought barriers disintegrate and new ones form. In my opinion, "Home" isn't tied to a place or time.
5. Has your writing style changed throughout the years?
It's still all very new. The thrill of having my book published has not yet abated. Will be interesting to look back, years from now and see if anything has changed (if at all I manage to write something else!)
6. What books have influenced your writing? Which writers do you find an affinity with?
I love Guy Delisle's books. The way he captures his impressions of a new place through just a series of panels is amazing. Amruta Patel's Adi Parva is just beautiful. Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries, Michel Rabagliati's Paul series, The Gigantic Beard that was Evil by Stephen Collins, Sarnath Banerjee's Corridor and so many many more. It's a big list :)
While not a book, The Danish Poet - a 10 minute animation movie by Torill Kove has been a huge inspiration for story telling. I love mix of whimsy in the multiple threads of her story telling which converge beautifully to bring out a very lovely tale.
7. If you want to describe your book in three words, what would they be?
From The Heart.
8. What were the challenges you faced and had to overcome in the process of writing Amla Mater?
I could only see Amla Mater as a graphic novel and I just didn't know how to draw! If not for Ambika at Yali Books, this book would have never seen the light of day. I love Yali's voice - picking up south asian stories and making them heard. Am so glad the story resonated with her. I don't know of anyone else who would have trusted an entire graphic novel with someone like me!
I went through three rough drafts on the book before finalising on the flow and the panel illustrations. It was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. All the rough drafts were done on copier sheets and IKEA stub pencils. When it came to the final manuscript, getting inside an Art Supplies Store proved to be very daunting. If not for some really lovely mentors like Jane Porter (author of Pink Lion), I would still be lost deciding on the type of paper, pen and ink.
There were a few well wishers who felt the story might not strike a chord with those who haven't grown up in South India. While it did make me a bit apprehensive in the beginning, I just decided to write what I knew best.
9. What advice would you give to the emerging novelists and artists, especially women from underrepresented countries?
If you really badly want to do something, nothing can stop you. I truly believe in that now. In 2014 had someone told me that I would be a graphic novelist in 2018, I would have laughed hysterically. When a germ of an idea sets in and consumes your thoughts, you owe it to yourself to see it to the finish. While juggling various household chores/main day job/ parenting isn't easy, that time set aside for writing becomes, like I said earlier - living out a small part of your day in a world outside reality.
10. What are some future projects of yours that we can look forward to and support?
I hope to bring back Maya and Mili and weave a few more stories. It's just a very very small idea right now. Hope it works out.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Devi Menon's Amla Mater can be purchased here.