Interview: Kalki Koechlin, actor, author, The Elephant in the Womb - “Writing about your personal life is therapeutic”
Pregnancy and childbirth is supposed to be a magical time in a woman’s life. Few focus on the more complicated aspects of the experience. In her debut book, The Elephant In The Womb, a graphic novel illustrated by Ukrainian artist Valeriya Polyanychko, actor Kalki Koechlin tackles the issues that those nine months and beyond bring with them. Covering topics ranging from abortion and birthing plans to dreams during pregnancy and the woes of breastfeeding, Koechlin draws from her own experience. Here, she talks about the making of her literary ‘baby’ and why she hopes it will spark a conversation.
What was the impetus behind writing this book?
I’ve always written for myself; it’s something I’ve always enjoyed. But this one is definitely the longest project I’ve undertaken. Pregnancy is such a life-transforming time – there’s so much that happens to women that’s just not talked about enough. Only a few people had mentioned the dark, terrible things that happen during this time, and I thought, “Why is no one talking about this too?” It’s only when you know everything that you’re prepared and are able to enjoy the beautiful moments as well. That was the main reason behind penning my book.
Writing a personal memoir is usually harder as you have to dig deep to put your feelings to paper. Was that a challenge?
If I had thought about that, I probably wouldn’t have been able to write the book! It’s only now that it’s hitting me that everyone is going to be reading my personal diary! Pregnancy is such a new experience, so looking inwards was the only way to write. I don’t have enough understanding to talk about pregnancy and childbirth as a larger topic. I think when you write about your personal life, it becomes almost therapeutic. For me, that was a big anchor during a time that can be really tough, especially with Covid, not knowing when you’ll get back to work and are thrown into this full-time role – it’s an existential journey as well, and I think writing really helps with that.
You’ve been quite candid, talking about your abortions and water birth to postpartum problems and breastfeeding struggles. Did you face any tough moments while writing?
There’s a chapter Perineal Woes which is all about my vagina – I had trouble writing that chapter in terms of articulating my thoughts. I realise this now that it’s one of my most personal chapters, and it’s probably going to make a lot of people cringe! For the abortion part, I’d initially written just four lines in the first chapter. It was my editor Mansi who said you should elaborate on this, as it’s a topic that’s not spoken about. She was right – so many of us go through it. If you have a broken arm, there’s no qualms about calling your friends or parents to accompany you to hospital, but an abortion is usually tackled alone. It’s so lonely a process that sometimes things go wrong because of this reason – it needs to be openly spoken about more.
Was the humorous tone of the book intentional? Why did you choose the format of a graphic novel?
The sense of humour all came from me! In my third trimester, I’d made a little poster with drawings of me and all the things I went through during pregnancy, thinking ‘if nothing else, I want my baby to see this when she grows up; I want her to witness what I went through!’ I’d made a post on Instagram about how we don’t talk enough about the horrors that happen during pregnancy and what it does to your mental health – it’s not just physical changes we go through. The classic What To Expect When You’re Expecting is fantastic to know what you’re supposed to go through during each trimester, but it doesn’t really focus on the emotional repercussions. I was interested in that aspect. The drawing I made was a start, and that’s when I realised there’s so much more that I wanted to say. An element of humour was always present; it was like a coping mechanism for me. I definitely wanted doodles and drawings as it was all very visual in my head. So I felt like the book needed that element all through, and that’s how it became a graphic novel.
It was refreshing to find a chapter from the father’s point of view. Whose idea was it?
It was sort of my best friend’s idea. She was talking to me about motherhood-related things and mentioned that her partner had postpartum blues. We never talk about men getting it. There aren’t many books by men about parenting and fatherhood. No fathers were writing or talking about their experiences – that’s when I decided to include a chapter by my partner. He actually wrote around 10 pages, and was quite upset when I had to strip it down for the comic format! I wanted to keep that chapter in the same mood as the rest of the book, so we’ve tried to maintain that. Artistically, Val drew the images differently, so that chapter has its own personality.
The interactions with mothers from other countries and professions were quite interesting too. How did that chapter come about?
The main reason to include them is that these women came to my rescue at various times, especially since we were in a lockdown. Their candidness was really a blessing; they didn’t hide the hard stuff from me. There are so many people all going through the same thing, and we always think we’re alone when we go through this phase. We are to a certain extent, because there’s so much a mother has to do in the first few months that no one else can do, but the truth is you’re really not alone.
Does it matter to you what people will say about your confessions?
Hundred per cent! There’s no doubt that when you write from a personal place, you can’t be completely apolitical – you will side with one way or another. There will be people that may be offended by one or another subject that I’ve brought up, and that’s okay. Everyone has a different journey, a different experience of certain things. But the fact that I’ve rooted it in my personal experience makes me confident that I can stand up for myself, because I know what I went through. As a celebrity I’m used to the criticism, although it makes me nervous for sure. But if we all thought of that, no one would ever write anything!
There’s a lot about abortion, pregnancy, childbirth, mom-guilt that’s still not spoken about openly too much. What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I’d definitely like to open a sense of conversation about these things. Right now, we just don’t talk about any of it. We need the ability to talk about it all freely, and I think this generation is ready for it. Today, we see lots of hands-on fathers, and mothers who are entrepreneurs, or constantly multitasking. I think this generation is ready to hear and talk about these topics. I hope everyone finds it useful!
Huzan Tata is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. She writes on arts, culture, books, lifestyle and travel.