The cover of Anoushka Khan’s Still Life is black and white on Indian yellow – a modest house on the hills, a textured roof, a monochrome drawing that gives away as little about the story as one could learn through the slightly open curtains of the house on the cover. With its eerie stillness, it draws you in. And it is only when you read the book that you realise that like the textures of the house and the grayscale of the drawing, Still Life is a story that looks simpler than it is.

The graphic narrative follows Pinky, a woman whose life turns on its head when her husband Pasha goes missing. We follow, spectators, as the reclusive Pinky decides to set out in search of her husband, leaving her house to visit places she never has before. We encounter her history, and the history of her relationship with Pasha, through fragments and vignettes, as she recalls the past to make sense of the present. It feels intimate. The narration shifts from third to second person, as though the narrator is recounting the story to Pasha and the readers, but also to herself.

Memory, loss, separation

We are present with the narrator but there is a haunting quality to the narrative – it never acknowledges or addresses us, despite the ubiquitous ‘you’ that the narrator addresses. “I have a picture of you in my mind. It’s from an old photo I’ve lost”. There is barely any dialogue. Only what seems like monologues, internal churning, and long silences.

Coupled with passages of prose, there are lines that read like poetry; with the structure of the run-on sentence, the protagonist begins to describe the way it felt to search for her missing husband: “ In the rich gloom / the world was not yet born / In the dim glow / The eyes of the animals / were black and wet and waiting.” indicating not only a search that is difficult, but also impossibly lonely, preceding any existence, and at the same time, extremely vulnerable – like a south Asian woman’s life may be in a patriarchal society, without her husband.

Despite being unlike the standard format graphic novel (no gutters, no speech bubbles, nothing that could index a comic book), Still Life is difficult to classify as anything but one. The word graphic comes from the ancient greek “graphos”, meaning both to draw and to write. Khan does both with finesse.

Like “graphos”, Still Life is not singular. A novel in pictures and words; a story about memory and loss, about remembering and forgetting, leaving, and being left behind. Like the mountains where it is set, which form natural borders between regions, Still Life recognises separation, or viraha. But like the nocturnal apparitions which cover both mountains and valleys in the darkness, Still Life is a coming together of different genres in the protagonist’s journey. It is both poetry and prose, graphic novel and picture book, it exists on the borderland of genres all employed to take forward this compelling story.

A story in silence

Still Life employs words well, but it is the silences that it excels at capturing, through panels devoid of dialogue. A table is set in silence. The verandahs are empty except for the reader’s eyes staring at them. The sense of loss is magnified by wordlessness. These illustrations heighten the affective impact of the story. We don’t just see Pinky’s journey unfold, we feel it.

In Ordinary Affects, Kathleen Stewart describes the affective impact of a still life: A still life is a static state filled with vibratory motion, or resonance. A quivering in the stability of a category or a trajectory, it gives the ordinary the charge of an unfolding. It is the intensity born of a momentary suspension of narrative, or a glitch in the projects we call things like the self, agency, home, a life.

The silent images create restlessness within the reader. And yet, despite the stillness of the
subject matter, even the studies of the chairs and the fruit baskets and the bedrooms are full of eye movement. The scene is static but not a page of the artwork is stagnant, each illustration filled with textures that make it come alive.

It is so alive, in fact, that it does not need the ordinary modes of framing to induce a sense of movement in the story. Still Life simplifies the graphic narrative into its basic elements – images and words. This uncanny resemblance to a children’s illustrated storybook heightens the uneasy feeling that the text produces. But just when it feels like fear and mystery are all that it can offer, the monotony is broken by a moment of levity. A mountain is compared to a bunion.

There is a missing person, and still, a grandmother tells stories. Khan pulls off something remarkable with Still Life, and its genre-bending storytelling. She creates with her monochromatic palette a rich, vibrant universe that stretches the readers’ imagination as it draws us in. There is the ‘stillness’ of being still, unmoving, and the ‘still’-ness of being – in addition to, or despite something.

We say, “but still...” to keep going in a conversation, as a conjunction. It is the second “still” that makes one turn the pages of Still Life to find out what happens next. The hope that Pinky has for Pasha is that there is still life in him, and in turn, hope for her despite what anyone else says. This hope is infectious, and it is what induces so much vigour into the narrative, keeping the reader invested until the very last page.

Still Life, Anoushka Khan, Penguin.