October 3, 2017
We’re all familiar with the intricately-patterned Indian shawls known as pashminas. In Nidhi Chanani’s debut graphic novel, published through First Second Books, a pashmina serves as a conduit to a homeland that exists in the feisty protagonist’s imagination before delivering her a sense of clarity – and eventually peace – about her mysterious birth.
Priyanka “Pri” Das is a San Francisco teen living the average life of a first-generation immigrant, complete with the classic overbearing Indian mother and caring extended family. Like most first-generation kids, she must endure her mother’s strictness on religion while navigating the trials and tribulations of high school with a supportive friend and her teacher at her side. However, in the midst of all of this, she has haunting questions about her absent father – questions that are met with reticence from her mother whenever she raises them. Enter the pashmina.
Priyanka accidentally stumbles on it in her mother’s closet a few days after offering prayers to the goddess Shakti – a figure that features both prominently and decisively throughout the graphic novel. As soon as Priyanka swaddles herself in it, she is transported to a magical India where she encounters two animal friends—Mayur and Kanta—who guide her on a path to self-discovery. During a real-life visit to India where she allies with a sympathetic aunt to investigate the origins of the pashmina’s magic, Priyanka learns the truth about her birth and makes peace with her past.
Pashmina is a poignantly-told coming-of-age story about that awkward time between childhood and adulthood where growing into ourselves can be simultaneously painful and liberating. Chanani’s use of colours was prodigious for its literary quality: Priyanka’s everyday life was told in monochromatic hues which deliberately contrasted with her India scenes featuring Mayur and Kanta. Those were illustrated in vibrant colours, characterizing the essence of the protagonist’s soul, while alluding to Indian culture’s fondness of such pigments. Chanani is also a first-generation-born Indian immigrant to America, and is a welcome voice in the comic medium at large, being one of the few visible writers with an insider’s knowledge on what it is like to live in two cultures.
The graphic novel is deeply feminine, depicting the social mores of Indian culture and the choices available to women. Shakti propels key plot points further, and is a crucial character in Priyanka’s quest for truth. And like most first-generation kids, Priyanka romanticizes her mother’s home before encountering it herself. Early in the book, her mother cryptically tells her that while there is beauty in India, “all that beauty isn’t what it seems” – a remark that Pri dismisses before understanding it herself. Yet despite such an admonishment, India isn’t depicted as a hellhole – a trap some first-generation writers have fallen into by implying as much in their works about their native homeland. Instead, Priyanaka’s understanding of India becomes more nuanced after her visit, and she returns to America with a mature perspective about her identity as an Indian American, stating that “everything looks different.” Pashmina is a touching story that taps into universal qualities about truth and self-acceptance, and provides an intimate look at what life is like from the perspective of those who live in two cultures.