Phenomenal woman, that’s her

The inspiring, resilient tale of bilateral amputee Malvika Iyer’s life, comes alive through the monochromatic sketches in Sriram Jagannathan’s graphic novelMai

When graphic designer Sriram Jagannathan pitched the idea of writing a graphic novel about bomb blast survivor Malvika Iyer to her, her response was simple: “This sounds interesting, but what is a graphic novel?”

To which Jagannathan sent her the links of two books he adored. “They were Persepolics , a coming-of-age tale told by Iranian author Marjane Satrapi and Palestine by Joe Sacco. When Malvika went through them, she was sold on the idea.” And thus, started a journey that’d take quite a lot of talking via Skype calls. “We’ve never met till now,” he chuckles, holding his debut book Mai proudly.

The mother-daughter relationship

Like most people in the creative arts, Jagannathan always dreamt of working on a book. He didn’t want to write on someone from the past, but rather an inspirational young person from the current generation who people could relate to. “I was discussing this with a friend who suggested Malvika’s name. I hadn’t even heard of her then.” Then Jagannathan started researching. He caught up with every video available on YouTube in which Iyer waxed eloquent about resilience and how the only disability in life is a bad attitude. “The more videos I watched, the more I felt how she was a woman of steel. There wasn’t even a single instance where she had the feeling of trauma. She was always positive.” He wanted to ensure that that came across in the book. “There’s even a lot of humour in it... though the situation was actually one of despair,” recalls Jagannathan. His most poignant moment came along when he went to Tambaram to chat up with Iyer’s mother, who is prominently mentioned in most of her motivational videos. “I wanted to focus on the mother-daughter relationship and the initial trauma. After my chat with her, she broke down. I really didn’t know if I was doing the right thing by digging up the past.” Even his book cover – which features Iyer with a red dupatta – is a representation of Iyer’s past. “On the day of the accident, when Iyer was carried to the hospital, her mother wiped her stains with this piece of cloth. She still has it with her.”

Looking ahead

Jagannathan’s plan was simple: to enhance the magnitude of Iyer’s achievements. “But for that, I needed to show the pain behind her,” he says, “She wanted to be a dancer and she loved designing. Imagine someone lying on the bed for two years and mulling about not being able to take up the career she desired. But she focussed on what she could do and not what she can’t.”

Since Jagannathan chose to take the graphic novel route, his challenges were two-fold. “I could write about how she was now, but penning about her childhood was difficult. So was citingcertain medical procedures without showing too many disturbing images ,” he says. Jagannathan is looking forward to more such projects – on inspirational people from the current generation. “I’m planning to pen a sequel to ‘Mai’. Apart from that, I’m always on the look out of inspiring people to write, and pen sketches, about.”

Malvika often speaks of her mother in her videos. I wanted to focus on the mother-daughter relationship and the initial trauma

Sriram Jagannathan

Who’s Malvika Iyer?

  • Born in Kumbakonam, Malvika grew up in Bikaner, Rajasthan. When she was 13, she lost both her hands in a grenade explosion.

  • She was bedridden for more than 18 months and had to undergo multiple surgeries on her road to recovery.

  • Today, she’s an international motivational speaker and disability rights activist.

  • The first real graphic novel was Will Eisner's A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories published in 1978. Decidedly adult in its images, themes, and language, Eisner's book spoke to the generation that had first grown up with superhero comics in the 1940s and 1950s.

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