(An edited version of this piece was published in The Hindu Business Line.)
Diya is a 14 year old Indian girl who is fascinated by motorbikes. She is waiting to turn 16 so that she can ride one of her own. The first time she saw a woman riding a bike was at the age of eight. She has always heard Appa — her father — being dismissive of “lady drivers” but this has not stopped her from winning cycle races. One day, she would like to be a pilot.
Diya is the chief protagonist in a new children’s book titled I Want to Ride A Motorbike, written by Bengaluru-based filmmaker and comic writer Aarthi Parthasarathy (34), who is best known for creating the webcomic Royal Existentials, and for her work with Kadak Collective, a group of South Asian women graphic artists and writers. This is her first book for children.
“I Want to Ride A Motorbike is about a girl who encounters gender stereotypes at different stages of her childhood, and learns to navigate them. When I was younger, people used to believe that women should not ride motorbikes. To my surprise, little girls hear the same thing today. I wanted to create a book that would strike a note of hope,” she says.
Appa believes that Diya should focus on doing school homework instead of researching biker groups for women in India. However, Amma — her mother — argues that riding a motorbike would make Diya independent. She prods Appa to reflect on his double standards because the same man had enthusiastically congratulated his son Rahul when he got a learner’s license.
This book shows how women’s mobility is curtailed under the garb of safety concerns. It also celebrates the achievements of women who were pioneering riders. The list includes Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bicycle around the world in 1894–1895; Roshni Sharma who was the first Indian woman to ride a motorbike from Kanyakumari to Kashmir in 2014; and American civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony, who said, “I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
I Want To Ride A Motorbike was first created in English, and then translated into Hindi, Kannada and Tamil. It has been published by Pratham Books on their digital platform storyweaver.org.in, using a Creative Commons license. The content can be downloaded, translated, and used to create new stories if credit is given, and changes made are indicated. The book will be printed later this year.
Aarthi felt inspired to create this book after she heard the story of Bubbli Mallik, a transgender person from the khwaja-sira community in Pakistan, who loves to ride a motorbike and claim space for herself in the misogynist society she is part of. Bubbli runs an NGO called Wajood, apart from managing the food court at the National College of Arts in Rawalpindi. She appears in Fearless Pakistan, a film that Aarthi edited for The Fearless Collective run by Bengaluru-based artist Shilo Shiv Suleman.
I Want to Ride A Motorbike aims to affirm trans, queer and gender non-conforming identities. Aarthi says, “If you read the visual cues, this book is also about sexuality. I had specific notes about what Diya should look like. I do not like the word ‘tomboy’, so let us say that I wanted her to be more on the ‘butch’ or ‘active’ side. I wonder why this is called a masculine trait.”
Amma has an intuitive understanding of how to support Diya. She introduces Diya to her own college friend Anita. Amma says, “When not in class, Anita would be out all the time, all over the city. I didn’t know she was also learning to ride a motorbike from her friend.” Diya wants to know whether Amma’s friend would be willing to teach her. She calls up Anita, who makes a brief appearance in the book. “The visuals clearly show that Anita and Farah are in a queer relationship. They are partners, and they live together,” says Aarthi.
People who are trans, queer, and gender non-conforming are used to communicating with each other using visual codes because free expression of their gender identity or sexual orientation could expose them to violence. Prejudices run deep in Indian society despite activism and legal reform, so representation of LGBTQIA+ people in children’s books could help foster empathy.
Rai (25), an artist based in Goa, who illustrated this book, says, “As a queer person, this book is my imagination of what ambiguity could look like. I hope it will give kids the confidence to pursue whatever they want to without thinking about whether it is meant for boys or girls. In fact, this book could be read by parents and teachers so that they practise acceptance and not pressurize children to conform.”
The Love and Rockets series by the Hernandez brothers, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Amruta Patil’s Kari, Fiona Staples and Brian K Vaughan’s Saga, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s Tank Girl, and comic books created by Alan Moore, helped Rai build her understanding of diverse characters. She also learnt to ride a motorbike while working on this book.
UK-based Aindri C. (38) is the art director who worked with Aarthi and Rai on this book. She says, “I used Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira as a point of reference in terms of the colour palette and characters. It is an anime about teenagers and motorbikes that I knew of. I imagined the protagonist to be constantly angry, and everything in bold colours, but I really like the direction that Rai took with visualising the story and characters.”
Illustrating Diya’s childhood reminded Rai of her own. According to her, I Want to Ride A Motorbike could play an important role in countering homophobia and transphobia in India. She says, “Children are quite perceptive when they read images. When they see individuals being depicted in non-normative ways, I hope they know that it is great to be just the way they are.”