The eponymous protagonist of Manjula Padmanabhan’s Shrinking Vanita loves to eat sugar tikkis. In case you’re wondering what exactly this delicacy is, the author-illustrator explains – “Sugar tikkis are white disks of hard icing sugar, with a very thin wafer embedded inside. Deadly sweet, with a slight crunch when you bite down. Dainty pink decorations. Wholly imaginary.” While the plot of Padmanabhan’s latest middle grade adventure book is wholly imaginary as well, it is rooted in a reality – an exaggerated, consumeristic, over-connected world – that is becoming hard to ignore.

A fiction writer, artist, and playwright, Padmanabhan is known as India’s first woman cartoonist. Her cartoon character, Suki, who was instrumental in making Padmanabhan a beloved figure, began appearing in the Sunday Observer in Bombay in 1982, and later in the Pioneer in New Delhi. Suki retired in 1997 but was revived some 19 years later. The strong-minded character, now with a more pronounced nose and bushier hair, appears in Suki Yaki, her comic strip in The Hindu Business Line. Since her first appearance in the eighties, the character has become more and more vocal about our fractured times. Whether it’s climate change, women’s rights, or intolerance, Suki has lots to say.

Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan
Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan

The evolution of Suki

Apart from her comic, Padmanabhan also writes a weekly column set in a fictional town in the US called Elsewhere. She makes it all sound deceptively easy. “Every week, I draw the strip just hours before deadline,” she said in an email interview with Scroll.in. “I don’t give myself time to think carefully about what I’m going to say in the strip or why or how. In the final moments before I hit send, the words and images have to fall into place.” Padmanabhan takes about three hours from start to finish for each week’s strip and never shows her work-in-progress to anyone before sending.

The result is an enduring and incredibly original comic that speaks of our times. In a haunting and beautiful strip Padmanabhan drew recently, she paid tribute to the eight-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in Kathua in January. Suki has changed a lot over the years, said Padmanabhan, from the way she dresses to the fact that she has calmed down a lot. “The issues she addresses are broader and less personal,” she explained.

Heroes come in all sizes

Her most recent book, Shrinking Vanita, is the story of a short girl, but it is a variable sort of shortness. “Her height adjusted itself to half the height of any person whose eyes she looked into.” So, if she looks at a foot-long baby, she becomes some six inches high, and if she is faced with a six-foot-tall person, Vanita becomes three feet tall. “The idea was part of a series I was developing in which children overcame physical difficulties while doing something heroic – but I wanted it to be a little funny too,” Padmanabhan said.

Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan
Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan

Vanita doesn’t allow her little problem to dissuade her from becoming a planet saver when a gigantic asteroid is about to end life on Earth. In telling Vanita’s story, the author also sharply critiques sensationalism in news and social media. “We all know what that’s like and why it’s wrong and silly,” said Padmanabhan. She writes at one point in the book: “‘KILLER ROCK ON COLLISION COURSE WITH EARTH!’ screamed a NOW newsreader who had only heard the news seconds before sitting down in front of the studio cameras. ‘WE’RE ALL GONNA DIEEEEEE!’” With tongue-firmly-in-cheek, Padmanabhan draws the ensuing pandemonium – traffic snarls as people panic, menacing riot police, and frazzled parents. Like any sensible super-girl, Vanita hatches a plan (drawn to the minutest detail) and uses her shrinking ability to head off to space for some planet-saving activity.

What Padmanabhan manages to do wonderfully is not explicitly talk about disability while keeping it at the centre of the book. The author-illustrator, who has always managed to push her readers – young and old – to think and ask questions, said her books are a reflection of her world. “I draw and write about the things I notice around me,” she said.

Diverse and inclusive

It’s a trait that is very evident in some of her other recent works. In Pooni at the Taj Mahal, a picture book, Pooni the cat gets lost during a trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra and her family goes looking for her while the readers explore the historical monument as other vacationers take selfies. Of course, since this is Padmanabhan, known for bashing stereotypes in her work, even her children’s books are examples of inclusion and observation. Padmanabhan’s I Am Different! Can You Find Me? is an award-winning, multilingual puzzle book that gets young readers to celebrate diversity and equality. The celebration of diversity is evident in her Pooni book series as well. Her characters come from different parts of India and even the world, with distinct cultures and clothes.

“I write about ideas and characters rather than ideologies and symbols of this-or-that,” said Padmanabhan. “The rising intolerance has meant that it’s become harder to say anything meaningful. I find that the space for open, honest and liberal discussions has shrunk considerably. For instance, I was shocked when a friend, looking at Pooni at the Taj Mahal said, ‘You seem to like drawing mostly Muslim people!’ The way she said it suggested that she was disappointed by that choice. I was very saddened. My entire aim had been to showcase the astonishing beauty of the Taj Mahal, but the remark brought down my intentions to the level of communal politics.”

Many hats

Whether it’s her comic strip, plays or books, Padmanabhan’s writing is searing. It often leaves the reader squirming, even while drawing them into a world of fantastic fiction. Her dystopian novel The Island of Lost Girls, a sequel to her 2008 book Escape, is set on an island where wounded girls are, sometimes literally, stitched back together and given a new life. A sucker punch of a read, the book raises uncomfortable and piercing questions about patriarchy, gender violence, and identity. “Island is a sequel to Escape. So it grew out of the ideas and themes set in motion by the first book,” she said. “The saga of Meiji, a girl who is born into a cruel, despotic country in which all women have been destroyed, continues as she escapes into the world where she encounters more complex, more disturbing challenges.” The writer said the character of Youngest, Meji’s “guardian”, was of particular interest to her. “I am very attracted to his dual nature, expressed in this book by his physical body: he’s a man who has been surgically altered to look like a woman. I plan to write a third book in the series in which I will develop those ideas further.”

Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan
Credit: Manjula Padmanabhan

With Shrinking Vanita, the ease with which Padmanabhan juggles her various hats is evident. The book is also science fiction, but a light-hearted, quirky one. With characters to match. Like Jiggs Biggwigg, “the zillionare industrialist owner of Rosy Pellican Spacelines”, who is quick to offer his StratoHopper craft to six passengers who can pay ten trillon rupees for the ticket. No matter that the rupee will crash alongside the asteroid. It’s a mashup of make-believe and the realities around us that has become the writer’s signature.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, those sugar tikkis go best with a big glass of cold milk.