In the Hindu myths told to me by my grandmothers, aunts, and meticulously illustrated comic books, apsaras were beautiful nymphs who lived in heaven and danced with sensual abandon to seduce gods and sages. As much as they were epitomes of femme grace and sensuality, they were also objects of the male gaze and chauvinist fantasies. Bishakh Som’s new graphic novel Apsara Engine imagines an alternate geographical space — though not necessarily utopia — where these nymphs exist without being restricted by such fetishistic attention. Som’s is a narrative that imagines what happens when these sensual femmes, as Donna Haraway writes in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, “make kin, not babies.”
Som’s graphic novel comprises eight seemingly disparate narrative portraits. Each expressive short story is set against soft, dreamy, watercolor backgrounds, and accompanied by exquisite calligraphy. The protagonist is always a South Asian-ish queer person who inhabits the in-between spaces nestled between dreams and realities, the domestic and the public, the real and the surreal. Among the novel’s most striking elements are Som’s drawings of femme-beast hybrids and her celebrations of femme friendships and communities. These relationships — between femmes — are always the basis of Som’s distinct narratives, even when characters aren’t explicitly queer.
“Meena & Aparna” celebrates female friendships and their tensions, while “Pleasure Palace” imagines a post-modern zenana, a hybrid of the utopias imagined by the likes of Haraway and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, a Bengali feminist writer and activist. Men in these spaces are always outsiders, alien to the space, its language, and norms, but never prisoners.
Som’s alternate environments are never exclusionary; they’re just so unique that they lie beyond most people’s (read: cis men’s) comprehension. When I read “Swandive,” perhaps the most radical celebration of South Asian queer culture in recent times, Som’s background in architecture becomes most apparent. A former architect, here she lays out a blueprint for another feminist utopia, one that is literally fed by the blood and sweat of the story’s queer protagonists, Onima and Amrit, and inhabited by fearsome Hindu goddesses. “I imagine trans geographies to be a means of using cartography as a generative tool rather than a descriptive device,” Onima opines.
Maps are a known recurring motif in postcolonial and gender theory and appear in the works of major writers and theorists like Amitav Ghosh, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Rebecca Solnit, as well as Haraway. One is also reminded of Lauren Oya Olamina from Octavia Butler’s novel, Parable of the Sower, who collected maps. In an interview with Them., Som speaks of reading maps as a child growing up across diasporas. In Apsara Engine, she furthers the postcolonial and feminist project of reclaiming cartographies laid by straight, male-centric empires.
As much as Som’s geographies resist traditional binaries, each of her stories is underlined by an innate human longing to connect. “Love Song” sings a dirge to lost friendships, and “I Can See It In You” visualizes the awkwardness and precarity a heterosexual man brings into a budding female bond.
Som came out as trans roughly midway through writing Apsara Engine. While far from being autobiographical, the collection acts as a sieve that collects the author’s old and new selves, the worlds in between, the communities she met along her journeys, and maps of the worlds she imagined. While I formed an instant kinship with the recurring and unabashedly Bengali elements in her work, my curiosities were simultaneously tickled by aspects I didn’t fully comprehend. Much like a map, Som’s novel opens up a portal and lets us imagine all the places it could take us to.