She took me down the streets of Bangalore, through the roaring traffic that flows continuously. The city never stops, it never sleeps. When we entered Sreejita’s friend’s flat, hand-painted flowers and psychedelic shapes decorated the walls. “This is yet another house for the mental people!” Solo, who uncannily reminded me of Alison Bechdel, laughed. Her own house, that she refers to as “A commune for the mentally disturbed”, is in no way different, filled with books by Kafka and Kerouac and covered with comic strips. Four cats, Merry, Pippin, Hyde and Kelso are lounging in different corners of her bedroom. Solo is a modern-day cat lady, who creates comic strips about her furry creatures and refers to them as her children. A writer, illustrator, cartoonist, LGBTQ activist, and frankly, just a passionate and outspoken feminist, Solo shared her thoughts on art, Indian politics and some of her frustrations with the system. “You know what? In this country, the dirty F word is not Fuck but feminism! That’s the big problem of India in a nutshell.” These words of hers that stuck with me throughout my journey in India, weren’t only expressing her subjective opinion, they were unfortunately the bitter truth.
“An amazing thing about India is precisely its diversity. The contradictions that you encounter in India are so entertaining. I lived in all these different parts of India and every place comes with a different package. It’s fascinating. The division between people, however, tends to get scary. Racism within the country alone occurs on a daily basis and violence amongst Indians is inevitable. Why the fuck are people being so racist to one another? We are all Indians in the end of the day! We need to provide access to education for everyone, this is the only way change can happen. Without education you are unable to think critically and question things.”
Before she became a full-time freelance writer and illustrator, Solo worked in advertisement where she had quite a few traumatic experiences. The workplace sexism that she was facing on a daily basis was so intense that at one point, the Creatress had to quit.
“I was fighting for my rights and tried to make a change within an industry that completely ignored me and tried to silence me. In Delhi a co-worker mocked me and said that I will never survive it working in big companies as a feminist. I did make it all the way up and was a leading copywriter in the creative department of a company and it was terrible, I was sexualised in every possible way. This one colleague of mine just came up to me one day and asked me to touch my feet because, as he explained, he had a foot fetish. I mean… what?”
After this incident, Solo complained to the HR in charge (who turned out to be a woman) but the latter pushed the issue aside, saying that”men will be men” and that making a big deal out of it would cost the co-worker his reputation within the company. The incident was basically swept under the carpet.
“I fought for this. I escalated the whole thing and complained to those who are at the very top of the company, but no one wanted to give such a situation any sort of importance. I eventually quit the job. It’s been two years now and they still haven’t paid me my two last months’ salary. By now, I don’t really care, but what if I was a less privileged person? Not being paid for two months in a row is a big thing!”
Sexual assault and chauvinism within the workplace is shockingly common. Literally every single woman I have met during my travels in India experienced some form of humiliation that they had to keep silent about in order not to lose their high paying job. Women’s safety is not being properly addressed in a variety of areas; not only in villages but also in prestigious workplaces.
“I hate being rude to people but I feel like you need to be alert and defensive once you leave the house as an Indian woman. I don’t like it and it’s tiring, it’s embarrassing. I am actually embarrassed for Indian men who provoke this.”
Originally from Calcutta, Solo obtained a BA in English Literature and an MA in Film Studies from Jadavpur University in Calcutta. She worked in the creative industry in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Bangalore, where she is currently living. Widely read and extremely passionate about current issues, Solo has a lot to say about gender relations in India. Being someone who studied at an all-girls school which encouraged competition rather than collaboration amongst women, only later did Solo learn that there is such a thing as healthy competition and that women ought to be supportive towards one another. “As women we are trained to compete, while men are taught to work as a team, see one another as brothers and eventually succeed all together, which is ridiculous.”
Over a pint, Solo and I travelled down memory lane. At a very young age already, the Creatress felt genderqueer and the ambiguity of her sexual preference made her go through some sort of continual identity crisis, and up until her late teens, Solo was only attracted to women.
“My gender identity crisis was so severe during my early teens that the only way I could fully express myself was in high school plays where I would take up the male role. I did not realise at that time that it was actually drag that I was doing. It’s interesting.”
Solo rocked her high school years impersonating princes, which boosted her ego especially because of all the attention she would get from her peers.
“It was fascinating to observe. The instant someone enters drag, assuming a different gender, straight people become intrigued. So many of my classmates expressed their interest in me while I was playing a dude. They’d be like you’re so hot as a male. My question is, how fluid is sexuality in the end?”
The complexities of human sexuality are something I have been thinking of since the age of five (literally), and the Creatress’ anecdotes confirmed my long-held belief that all humans are bisexual. If drag can change people’s attitude towards the performer, isn’t sexual orientation nothing but an illusion?
“Had someone told me, when I was a teenager, that it’s totally okay to be a lesbian, I don’t think I would have gone bisexual but instead fully lived out my homosexuality. However, because there is zero sexual education in India and so much peer pressure, most of my teenage years were spent in the closet. In my mid-twenties I started experimenting and exploring the opposite sex. So I am now married to a man. He was like my best buddy because we would have simultaneous meltdowns and just decided to spontaneously get married! I keep telling people: find someone who is as mental as you and then the marriage will definitely work! I’m not joking.”
Solo’s passion for writing dates back to childhood when the Creatress was particularly talented in the art of lying and making up stories. Her alter-ego, Solo, emerged at the age of 5, when the Creatress’ short story about a peacock trying to escape a hunter; won a writing competition. Storytelling is one of the oldest art forms, it looks easy, you don’t really need any fancy material to do it but it can be so painful to write. The amount of mental energy that goes into writing is torturous at times. “I don’t like writing in one genre. I like combining and mixing genres and addressing important issues of today’s world such as mental illness.”
Solo’s work is filled with dark humour and anti-climatic realism. “11th Main, 9th Cross” is a film noir-inspired graphic story about a cat-flaneur who lives in a post-apocalyptic metropolitan city. When she is not writing about cats, Solo dives deep into social issues and challenges the status quo. In 2015, she was the art director for the first queer graphic anthology in India, called Gayasi. Quite a step for the Indian LGBTQ community! This year, she published a story in yet another queer mythology anthology, For the Love of God. Mental health is another topic that Sreejita makes sure to address in her art.
“I feel like these past few years my writing has slowed down. Everything started with David Bowie’s death in 2016. My life just escalated when he died. I lost quite a few people that year and became severely depressed. I was also diagnosed with PTSD after being sexually assaulted that year. Everything was a mess. Why the hell did Bowie die?”
Solo shares a history of sexual abuse with many other Indian women. Unfortunately, abused women are taught to be silent and ashamed of themselves when they go to the police and even to mental health practitioners. Most of the time, the woman is blamed for the assault because of what she is wearing or simply because she is a woman and should expect such a thing coming from a man who has needs.
“I had to see someone after that incident with a guy. I wen to see a therapist who was supposed to help me but it was the most terrifying experience. The therapist just said ‘well, you ARE an attractive woman, how come you are not used to getting assaulted?’ I was shocked that this came from an educated woman! I truly did not expect that. I have had the good fortune of having people around me who believe me, who encourage me to talk about it and that in a lot of ways is very therapeutic. I wish I could say that about other women who have to deal with it. I am so angry that we live in a world where women are often bullied into living with such trauma silently. “
The Creatress was diagnosed with a couple of mental illnesses throughout her lifetime, which inspired her even more to engage with the topic of mental health in her work. At first she was rejecting every part of her mental illness and thought that something was completely wrong with her. Today, Solo addresses mental illness with openness and shamelessness. Just recently, she published a short, illustrated guide on how to deal with BPD for the Health Collective.
“I’ve been working a lot on myself and I have finally learned how to accept myself and the package that I come with. The point is, normality is fluid. What does it actually mean to be normal? It depends on the context, right?”
Solo is also running the comic e-zine Striptease Magazine with her husband and a friend of theirs. Striptease Magazine accepts submissions and is a crazy world where comics, graphic novels, cartoons, zines and any other relevant projects from all around the world meet and are put under the same roof. Solo’s initiatives, her empowering projects and her boldness filled me with hope and inspiration. I cannot express the gratitude I feel towards women like Solo.
“After my studies in film and literature, I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as purely original thought. We subconsciously get inspired and copy others’ work. The evolution of today’s world is adaptation. It’s all about what you make of the text that’s in front of you. You don’t really plagiarise, you adapt ideas.”
Obsessed with Murakami and Gaiman, Solo is a major nerd who spends a lot of time at home, thinking, writing, illustrating and taking care of her noble-born cats.