COMIC CAPERS

Do only Indians urinate in public spaces? A webcomic creator discovers the answer

Sailesh Gopalan, the artist behind ‘Brown Paperbag’, is learning about all the things India has in common with the world.

Sailesh Gopalan’s webcomic Brown Paperbag takes subtle, satirical jabs at the many hypocrisies and contradictions of India. Through the experiences of a teenage boy named Kabir, it builds scenarios that are relatable for middle-class urban Indians, and, as it turns out, audiences in several parts of the world.

In a comic titled Cowerage, for instance, Kabir’s sister Ananya is watching television in the dark, shrinking away from the screen as if she were watching a horror film. In the final panel, Kabir turns on the light and says something that could be true in several parts of the world right now: “News channel again, huh?”

In the past year, the 21-year-old Mumbai resident’s Brown Paperbag has acquired more than 1.4 lakh followers on Facebook and over 81,000 followers on Instagram. “I wanted to try something that was meant for India specifically, but was also universally relatable,” said Gopalan, an alumnus of the Bengaluru’s Srishti Institute of Art and Design.

To speech his own. Image credit: Brown Paperbag
To speech his own. Image credit: Brown Paperbag

The name for the comic was inspired by Indian skin, but also the unvarnished realities of everyday life. “I was trying to portray society as it really is, without the mask that people put on,” Gopalan said. “When you look at old cartoons, you see brown paper bags with two eyeholes punched in them that people put on their heads to hide.”

Inspired by Shen’s webcomic Bluechair, which appears on the digital comics platform Webtoons, Gopalan’s work often dissects the power relations inherent in contemporary Indian social relationships. One of Gopalan’s more popular comics shows a group of men harassing a bikini-clad woman. A policeman appears on the scene and the woman expects him to come to her aid – instead, he says, “You can’t be dressed like that in public! I am going to have to fine you for that!”

Escaped by a hair's breadth. Image credit: Brown Paperbag
Escaped by a hair's breadth. Image credit: Brown Paperbag

However, its creator insists that the comic is not meant to be a political comment. “There are enough political comics in India,” he said. “I wanted to do something about the people instead of the people in power. Most of my ideas come from observations. The way I portray the characters, they are stereotypes – they are not based on any particular group of people.”

Brown Paperbag also typically exaggerates the conventional social roles assigned to parents, teenagers and siblings. In one comic, Kabir and his sister are firmly united when they tell their mother that they are able to handle their own problems and don’t require her assistance. The mother relents, but the next panel shows her smiling smugly as Kabir asks her to help him find his misplaced socks, and his sister asks her to buy shampoo.

Another comic features Kabir’s mother cleaning the house with great gusto and handing her husband a fresh T-shirt to wear. “So I guess we have guests coming over,” Kabir says in the final panel, while his baffled father concurs.

Gopalan’s love for puns is evident from several of his captions, like the one highlighting the futility of segregating dry and wet waste in India: “Wasted Effort”. Image credit: Brown Paperbag
Gopalan’s love for puns is evident from several of his captions, like the one highlighting the futility of segregating dry and wet waste in India: “Wasted Effort”. Image credit: Brown Paperbag

Brown Paperbag has an uncomplicated, stripped-down aesthetic, in which the narrative is more important than the details. There is seldom any detailing in the background either, and the characters are sketched in simple, neat lines. Gopalan’s approach to storytelling is influenced by Japanese manga artist Eiichiro Oda, creator of the pirate adventure One Piece, but he altered his drawing style for Brown Paperbag. Eventually, he hopes to introduce 2-D animation to Brown Paperbag.

Gin, the wandering bartender. Poster made for my Visual Storytelling course.

A post shared by Sailesh Gopalan (@saigo21) on

“Most of my other drawings are really anatomically accurate, and this style was something I dabbled in as an experiment,” he said. “I am still experimenting with styles and technique.” He said he finds this effacement of detail harder to accomplish than his usual, intricate style.

Bargain or Loss. Image credit: Brown Paperbag
Bargain or Loss. Image credit: Brown Paperbag

Facebook Insights, a tool that tracks user interaction, has informed Gopalan that 90% of his readers are from India, aged 14 and above. This is the demographic he caters to. But the popularity of Brown Paperbag in other countries testifies to the universal nature of human experiences. Gopalan’s comic enjoys a global readership due to its presence on Webtoons, where users from various countries leave comments on his work. For instance, a comic that captures the caprices of Indian weather elicited a comment from a user named James that reads: “That is a lot like Tennessee weather. There is saying here that goes ‘if you don’t like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes and it’ll change!’”

A comic that features men criticising couples getting amorous on a park bench, but eventually urinating in public, has a comment from a user who enquires, “Is this Russia?”

“I am not trying to spark any sort of mental revolution, [I just want] people to realise that they are not alone in facing certain situations,” Gopalan said. “People don’t have to feel like what is happening to them is an exception.”

Days of Feature past. Image credit: Brown Paperbag
Days of Feature past. Image credit: Brown Paperbag
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.