“When you get your head out of all the numbers and policies and films and reports and graphic books about girls, you realise that they’ve become less and less real, and more and more science fiction. Stories of what may, what could be. Not really about girls we know, or that not long ago, we were.”

— Beauty, Bebo and Friends Pick a Fight and Other Stories

In 2015, Dipta Bhog and Disha Mullick began to collate data gathered during a field study mapping the experiences of seven organisations working with young girls in rural and urban India. The study had thrown up realities that departed significantly from the one that appeared in reports put out by various organisations. The girl emerging from their own research was more “real” – she lived in the present.

“Most of the reports I read concerned themselves with statistics – the number of girls in or out of school, or getting married early,” said Bhog, who describes herself as a feminist and educator. “They have pictures of girls accompanied with quotes about their future, lofty aims to change the world. ‘I want to finish my education so that I can take care of my parents.’ That’s not how they talk. That is the adult talking.”

Mullick and Bhog did not want the lives of these girls to get lost in a sea of numbers and jargon that will find a restricted audience.

“We wanted to put out the information in a way that would be engaging and actually say something about what these girls really want,” said Bhog.

So Bhog, along with writer and activist Mullick, decided on a more visual medium to convey their findings and try to answer the one important question: what do young girls really want?

The result is Beauty, Bebo and Friends Pick a Fight and Other Stories, a set of three illustrated stories that follow the adventures of girls living in different parts of India and dealing with the realities of girlhood, in a world that puts a million restrictions on them. They tackle the generation gap and the belief among older women that younger ones can be too “boy-obsessed”.

The stories are about the girls who want to marry a little later in life, want to go to the beach, want to be noticed by a certain boy.

“While data is a powerful tool that can identify the problems or gaps on the ground regarding gender related inequalities, it is important to pause and reflect on whether it manages to capture the lives of girls, or record how change actually happens and can be sustained,” said Bhog.

Helped by scriptwriter Shabani Hassanwalia, Mullick and Bhog picked three ideas that best represented the issues being faced by women in rural areas and small towns. The aim, they say, is to take the neatly packaged idea that the world has of girlhood and “turn it inside out”. In Beauty and Bebo... there is no one central character or heroine, but groups of women supporting and helping each other take centre stage.

While the book is currently available only in English, the creators have plans to translate it into other regional languages, to make it accessible to a larger audience. The book itself, illustrated by Ikroop Sandhu and Samita Chatterjee, has been created from a girl’s point of view.

The stories deal in real talk.

In When I Grow Up I Want To Be Urmila Matondkar (But Not Just That), the reader enters a small town in North India, a place described by the writer as a “messy world of early marriages and smartphone romances”.

The story comments on the pressing needs that the girls have – wanting to continue playing football even after marriage, or confronting an alcoholic father.

“These are fictionalised accounts based on certain real life experiences,” said Bhog. “Growing up is a transition and we have tried to capture the joy as well as the many hurdles faced by them during this period of their lives.”

The following is an excerpt from When I Grow Up I Want To Be Urmila Matondkar (But Not Just That):

In another story, we meet a young Dalit cotton picker, who is confused about her first period. Her fellow employees are fighting with their employers about fair work hours and wages helped by a collective of older women.

The potential of collectivisation of women into groups is not lost on Bhog and Mullick.

In the introduction to the book, they write:

“We saw that the explicit presence of women’s collectives, as well as the more implicit learnings from the women’s movement have contributed in large part to girls having taken collective action (for instance in the case of the 40-day protest in Andhra Pradesh against exploitative labour practices, or the Right to Pee campaign in Mumbai for public toilets for women, and girls’ engagement with this). This is not to say that the relationship between older women’s collectives and fledgling girls’ collectives is not a perfect one. Women at times find girls giddy headed or romance obsessed, and girls often find women overbearing; but both know that there’s a larger battle to be fought, and they’re both on the same side.”

In The True History Of Gulab Cheli Sangha, a group of older women, a sangha, in rural Telangana has been working to improve conditions for their gender. The introduction by the researchers acknowledges that a generation gap divides these women from the younger girls: “Women at times find girls giddy headed or romance obsessed, and girls often find women overbearing; but both know that there’s a larger battle to be fought, and they’re both on the same side.”

The three stories are interspersed with illustrations critiquing the policy makers and organisations for whom data and numbers take precedence over individual experiences. An art work titled “Schooling The Body” lists the ways in which a woman is trained to perceive her body, mostly with fear and shame – with instructions to dress respectably, never go out alone or be distracted by boys, to abstain from sexual intercourse or wait until marriage.

In the midst of these floating words stands a woman, her body crawling with instructions and warnings.

In Beauty, Bebo and Friends Pick a Fight, girls are asked to identify the emotion (pride, fear, joy, shame) they associate with the body parts.

Another illustration, “Manufacture of Girls”, is a comment on the idea of the “perfect girl”. She is asked to have perfectly tied hair, trimmed nails, be obedient and submissive – if she dares protest, she is rejected by society.

Accompanying the book is an installation, Birdbox, by artist Baaraan Ijlal. The audio-visual installation invites people to look into a hand-painted bioscope at images of popular representations of women and girlhood, while a recording of conversations plays in the background. The conversation that the viewer is privy to takes place between young women from Lucknow, Delhi, Karvi and Bhopal.

The 'Birdbox' bioscope.
The 'Birdbox' bioscope.

“The girls behind the voices were shown the various images and songs [that play inside the bioscope] around women’s bodies and sexuality and how they have been portrayed in popular art and media,” said Bhog. “They listened to Bollywood songs like ‘main solah baras ki’ (I am 16), and were shown pictures of erotic Khajuraho sculptures, and asked to talk about what their thoughts were.”

According to Bhog, the conversations are as poignant as they are revelatory as these women, under the cloak of anonymity, let go of inhibitions and spoke their truth.

Bhog hopes that the book and installation will help them reach out to a wider audience and be noticed by policy makers or those who are implementing programmes seeking to engage women. “We are living in a very visual world,” she said. “The graphic form is a more creative way to communicate thoughts and feelings without getting tiresome.”

To get a free copy of Beauty, Bebo and Friends Pick a Fight and Other Stories, mail sadbhavana.lucknow@gmail.com.