In the opening panel of Amruta Patil's engrossing and touching graphic novel Kari, the author depicts two women - Ruth and Kari - just before they commit suicide. The panel is an homage to Frida Kahlo's searing Las Dos Fridas, painted after Frida was abandoned by her long time partner Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. It depicts two Frida's - two versions - one rejected by Diego and the other embraced by him. Frida's heart is bleeding her to death.
It's an opening that absolutely pulled me in. Ruth and Kari's attempt to end their life is a metaphor for a gut churning breakup. But if you're familiar with the painting on which the opening panel is based, you can read in a lot more about what Amruta might be telling you about her protagonists. Kari and Ruth may be the same person - or portions of each reside in the other. (Kari is listed as a work of fiction, but it reads like a reconstituted memoir)
Ruth and Kari both jump from their respective buildings - you assume their decision to end their relationship happens over the phone. Ruth lands in a safety net below her building, hops on a flight to a foreign land and starts a family (she is depicted as holding a child in a panel). Kari lands in a sewer where she must pick up the pieces of her life again and carry on.
The novel then settles into the story of a young woman finding her equilibrium in Mumbai (the sewer). Often in order to become memorable, a slice-of-life story has to depict a significant event as backdrop to the central story (the Holocaust in Maus, the Iranian revolution in Persepolis). Kari doesn't have anything of this nature, except for a well defined sense of the grimy breakdown of Mumbai. But it manages to be tender and engaging - and there are several reasons for that.
First is the way Amruta structures her sequential art. A variety of drawing techniques embellish her words. She uses pencils, charcoal, pens, markers, crayons and water colors. A couple of times she uses photographic images and incorporates them in her drawing in scrapbook style. She uses action transitions between her panels sparingly, almost rarely. Often Kari feels like a diary embellished with pictures. Her characters are designed loosely, but Kari herself is a rich, fully realized person. She's strong, she's straight forward, she's devil may care,she's not above getting hurt, but she doesn't wallow in misery. Interestingly, Kari's eyebrows are constantly knit to give her a no-nonsense personality. This leaves Amruta with Kari's mouth to convey primary emotion - something she does quite successfully in the novel.
Sometimes Amruta will render a panel like a design. It's a fine thing to watch but if there is one critique I have about Kari it is in the way the drawings change their character. I couldn't detect any sense of rhythm when the author switched between color to black and white, or pen drawings to marker and graphite. A change in visual style is just as strong a story telling tool as words are in a graphic novel. In Kari you get the feeling that Amruta Patil is still discovering her visual technique.
Back to the good stuff. Second is the way Amruta writes. She has a fine sense of lyricism in her prose. "What is it about snow globes" she asks at one point, "that makes them fascinating and terrifying at once?" In written work, this can tend to come across a bit heavy handed. But thanks to the magic of a visual medium such as graphic novels, this feels deft and touching.
There are also bits and pieces that connected me to the story. In several panels - two of which seem to be rendered with pencils and the finger smudges, Kari describes the smells of the city while traveling in a train. Earlier, Kari describes her cramped living quarters by sketching out a floor plan. There are amusing details about Kari's work with an advertising agency. Somewhere, Kari is shown exploring the boundaries of her sexuality. What Kari lacks in terms of immersive drawing, it makes up for in terms of vivid story telling.
Kari ends with a declaration of independence and an acknowledgment of the emotional ties that bind. (This is done in a flurry of panels that feel a bit unfinished.) There is a reference to a sequel that, given how much I enjoyed Kari, is one I'll be happy to wait for.
Kari is published by Harper Collins India
Amruta Patil blogs at Umbilical.