Not till she was 16 years old did Manjula Padmanabhan realise that being a woman came with a code of thou-shalt-nots. The daughter of a diplomat, she had grown up in various countries in the 1960s, accustomed to being as unusual as any other expat child. “I was brought up with very few restrictions. (Since) I had no awareness that there might be restrictions on my freedom, I didn’t even think of it as liberating. I had no idea that women occupied a sort of specialised domain, or that what lay ahead of you — for 99 per cent of the world’s women — are marriage and motherhood,” she says.
Then her father retired and the family moved to India. “With it, came a sense of being surrounded by a very traditional society. My mother and I were suddenly arguing about the length of my hair. There were dress codes to conform to. In hindsight, perhaps, when my mother saw me in the context of India, she worried for me. She knew I was going to have a hard time,” says the US-based Padmanabhan, when we meet in Delhi during her recent visit to the country.
As an undergraduate student at Elphinstone College, Bombay, she recalls being frustrated by the realities of living in an Indian city. “I was very conscious that it was stifling for a woman. In that sense, it is not at all surprising that my focus (in writing) returns to gender all the time,” she says. In those difficult years, she also suffered a form of estrangement that came not just from not knowing Hindi or Marathi, or being unable to recognise the world of symbols by which others led their lives, but from being “continuously and determinedly different from everyone”.
That sense of radical rupture from the conventional also characterises the 62-year-old’s work, which spans various genres — from fiction to plays to picture books for children to a landmark comic strip. As a writer, Padmanabhan is on the outside “looking in”, exploring with humour the oddities of being an unconventional woman in India — for example, in her memoir Getting There (2002) — or imagining a future of hi-tech organ trade in Harvest (1997), an award-winning play. Her writing is sometimes a machete strike at the epidermis of reality — the result is bloody and messy but memorable.
The question — what is it to be a woman in India? — has led several writers to explore stifled spaces of domesticity. Padmanabhan creates a febrile, vivid dystopia where violence has disfigured male and female identities — but it is a plausible world and you can recognise yourself in that smashed mirror she holds up. Escape (2008), is the story of a country which could be India, where women have been condemned as vermin and exterminated. Only Meiji, a young girl survives. She is brought up in secret by her uncles, who can only protect her so far. “In ways in which gender issues are being talked of these days, we are always told that things are getting better. So my effort was to talk about supposing it isn’t better, supposing we are moving towards a new dark age. If that is so — I am not making a prediction — how do we protect ourselves? Where do we place our minds? How do we plan to survive?” she says.
Her newest book, The Island of Lost Girls, is a sequel to that disturbing narrative. It follows Meiji and her uncle Youngest out of the Forbidden Country 20 years later. Except, the old order is out of joint. Eco-anarchists have detonated nuclear devices and now the Red Sea is Poisoned Sea. Ice caps have melted. It is a richly imagined world, profuse with drones, sentient animals and technological marvels, and built around the twin helix of violence and sexual identity. Here, too, women suffer unspeakable mutilation and violation. Only the Island, run by a group of powerful women, is a place of refuge — off-limits for everyone except women and transexuals. “The island represents the struggle to find solutions, via technology, in a world that has been brought to the edge of destruction by technology. The women of the island are revolutionaries in their own right: powerful, creative and idealistic. But it is a far from perfect place,” she says.
Growing up in a literary household, Padmanabhan never found the idea of being a writer unfamiliar. Eager to shake off her financial dependence on her parents, she took on a job in Parsiana, a magazine for the Parsi community, while still in university. “When I was 21, I stopped accepting any money from my parents. In return, I would be free to live as I liked. I think they weren’t happy about that but they let me go,” she says. The stint at the magazine sharpened her skills as an illustrator and a cartoonist. She was single in the city, living a precarious life as a paying guest, with a boyfriend but determinedly against marriage, while her contemporaries were preparing for a domestic life. It drove home her irrevocable alien-ness from those around her. “It was a very turbulent time for me. I was very immature and I had no idea how to survive…I also realised that there was no ‘home’ where I would be normal and that was more difficult to accept,” she says.
Till she turned 30, Padmanabhan says she lived with a “terrible sense of worthlessness”. In Getting There (2002), her account of travelling to America in search of love, weight loss and spiritual fulfillment, she writes of how she embarked on a philosophical project to live her life to the fullest before she turned 30 — and then cease. “What happened between 17 and 30 is that I had begun to appreciate myself. And it was very powerfully satisfying to reach the age and say, no, I like this, I like being me,” she says. In 1984, when she wrote her first play Lights Out, amid the gloom of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and saw it being performed, she became aware of the responsibility of a writer. “It was a bit different from knowing you can write. As an author, I was working alone, unlike a journalist and a member of a team working on a magazine. I had a sense of solitary destiny,” she says.
She was 28 when she sent off a pitch to editor Vinod Mehta, who was about to start a Sunday newspaper, in the form of a letter: a self-promotion by Suki asking him if there was space in his newspaper for her. That was the beginning of a comic strip featuring a frizzy-haired, 20-year-old, who is often found buried in a newspaper or talking to her frog when readers expected her to be coyly falling in love. “When I started out as an illustrator, there were very few women cartoonists. I remember being amazed with how little questioning other cartoonists drew women with big breasts and long eyelashes, as if all women were like that,” she says. Suki ran in the Sunday Observer between 1982 and 1986, despite howls of protests from readers who were unimpressed by this young woman who could grapple with existential questions with comic solemnity, and who leaves a man floundering with “I love you with my endocrine system”. “She was the only one of the time. Readers were just not used to the idea of an Indian comic strip that was not political or did not refer to the day’s news. They were fine with Charlie Brown as it is fine to laugh at another culture, but very different to laugh at our own. Was it ahead of its time? Maybe, I didn’t think so,” she says.
In a long career, Padmanabhan has examined with fascination the process by which females are turned into women. But she does not consider herself as a feminist. “I believe in the duality of human sexual identity and I truly believe in the complementarity of the gendered life, the idea that we are not complete as single entities and that a combination of opposites makes us whole,” she says.
Suki’s self-deprecating, cerebral humour emerged from Padmanabhan’s turmoil. In her work, both humour and darkness alternate. “Humour is essentially a form of violence. Laughter is a kind of scream. And laughing is what you’d do when you’d rather be screaming. I would imagine most humourists and cartoonists are always talking to the dark side. There is a continuous expression of that in what I write. I have come to terms with the darkness that surrounds all of us, I believe I can face it without fear,” she says.