Can India Be Her Homeland, Even if She’s Never Been There?

Can India Be Her Homeland, Even if She’s Never Been There?


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From “Pashmina.”

PASHMINA
By Nidhi Chanani
168 pp. First Second. $16.99.
(Graphic novel; ages 12 and up)

Authors often weave immigrant narratives into tapestries of symbolic prose, metaphors for long lost homes and the strangeness of new cultures. For a young protagonist, like the teenage Priyanka of Nidhi Chanani’s debut graphic novel, “Pashmina,” the many layers of the newcomer’s experience bring particular difficulties, fears and uncertainties. Following Pri as she explores her Hindu religion and her single mother’s native country of India in search of identity and meaning, Chanani masterfully turns the complex immigrant narrative into a magical and captivating work of art.

Priyanka finds solace in her talent for illustrating comics, and in an endearing father figure, Uncle Jatin. He is, for one thing, a much calmer, more trusting driving instructor than Pri’s mother, who reminds her in the opening panels, “In India they don’t allow girls to drive.” Here is where Pri pulls from her inherited culture and reminds her mother that Shakti, “the goddess of energy and power,” chooses to meditate on the word “om” instead of giving in to sadness. “It’s a choice, mom! Choose to be calm,” she explains. While these first pages are in black and white, Chanani switches to enchanting, colorful panels to depict Shakti as the goddess “becomes the ocean.” As the book progresses, the panels featuring Pri’s daily life as a high schooler — one who must pry into her own past by asking her mom questions about India and her estranged father — are rendered in black and white, while color fills the pages once again when Pri discovers a magical pashmina folded inside an old suitcase.

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Once she places it over her shoulders, she is transported to a land inhabited by a talking elephant, Kanta, and Mayur, a small blue bird, who proclaim, “We’ve been waiting for you.” Pri discovers that this magical place is none other than India. A mysterious shadow lurks along the edges of these tender moments with Kanta and Mayur as Pri tours India’s palaces. Before she can ask about it, the pashmina slips off and she is back in her black-and-white reality: not quite American, a social outcast among the cool girls at school, a self-doubting yet talented artist.

The pashmina also comes with questions Pri needs answered: Did Uncle Jatin know her dad? Why doesn’t her mother want to visit India? The magical pashmina serves also as a shroud for family secrets that have traveled across borders, seas and time. A new set of emotions begins to stir when Uncle Jatin becomes a father to a sickly infant and is less available. What has anchored Pri to her Indian identity is slipping away. She is left alone with her ever-intrusive mother, even as unanswered questions widen the chasm between them. Her mother begins to open up, albeit starting off with the truism, “It’s harder to be a girl in India than you think.”

The pashmina continues to serve as a portal to the India of Pri’s imagination, filled with palaces, tigers, coconut chutney and sitafal. But it is Pri’s prayers to Shakti that create a more tangible path as this finely embroidered tale beautifully unfolds, much like the sacred pashmina. Every character, speech bubble, wordless panel and choice of color serves the story in meaningful ways. Chanani has created an immigrant narrative that is suitably complex, capable of grappling with identity, mythology and magic right alongside the practical choices girls and women face in cultures in which their oppression can be concealed by beautiful exteriors.

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