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Pride, prejudice and a girl’s motorcycle

Chintan Girish Modi | Updated on June 12, 2020 Published on June 12, 2020

Path-breaker: Aarthi Parthasarathy kept in mind the prejudices that young girls face when she etched the character of her 14-year-old protagonist Diya   -  IMAGE COURTESY: PRATHAM BOOKS / RAI

For Pride month, a new illustrated children’s book gently tackles homophobia and gender-based discrimination through the story of a young girl who wants to ride a motorbike

* I Want to Ride A Motorbike, written by Bengaluru-based film-maker and writer Aarthi Parthasarathy is the perfect read for Pride month which is observed every June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in 1969 in the US, a significant historical moment for the LGBTQIA+ community

The first time Diya sees a woman riding a motorbike, she is eight years old. As a 14-year-old girl who is fascinated by motorbikes, Diya can’t wait to turn 16 so she can ride one of her own. She has always heard 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 protagonist in a new children’s book titled I Want to Ride A Motorbike, written by Bengaluru-based film-maker and writer Aarthi Parthasarathy. Best known for creating the webcomic Royal Existentials, Parthasarathy (34) is also known for her work with the Kadak Collective, a group of South Asian women graphic artists and writers. This is her first book for children. It is perfect reading for Pride month, observed every June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots in 1969 in the US, a significant historical moment for the LGBTQIA+ community.

I Want to Ride a Motorbike Aarthi Parthasarathy; Rai (illustrator) Pratham Books Fiction

 

“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.

In the book, Diya’s father believes that she should focus on doing school homework instead of researching biker groups for women in India. However, her mother argues that riding a motorbike would make Diya independent. She prods her husband to reflect on his double standards because the same man had enthusiastically congratulated his son Rahul when he got a learner’s licence.

The 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 1894-95; Roshni Sharma, 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 written in English, and then translated into Hindi, Kannada and Tamil. It has been published by Pratham Books on their digital platform storyweaver.org.in. Parthasarathy 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. Mallik 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 Parthasarathy edited for The Fearless Collective, run by the Bengaluru-based artist Shilo Shiv Suleman.

I Want to Ride A Motorbike seeks to affirm trans, queer and gender non-conforming identities. Parthasarathy 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.”

Diya’s mother has an intuitive understanding of how to support Diya. She tells her daughter about her college friend Anita. Her mother 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 Anita would be willing to teach her. Anita then 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,” Parthasarathy says. 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, “[For me] 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 pressurise children to conform.” She also learnt to ride a motorbike while working on this book.

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.”

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer, educator and researcher.

Published on June 12, 2020
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