Keshni Kashyap’s graphic novel “Tina’s Mouth: an Existential Comic Diary” is a coming of age tale, complete with the atypical high school drama such contemporary plots entail, addressed to the father of existential thought, Jean Paul Sartre. Tina Malhotra, the 15-year-old narrator and protagonist, is the youngest daughter of a cosmopolitan Indian family living in Southern California. Assigned to keep an “existential diary” for her English honors class, Tina’s narrative begins with her getting dumped by her best friend Ava, details her first kiss with archetypal popular boy-heartthrob Neil Strumminger and subsequent heartbreak, all the while posing and mulling over weighty questions about the purpose of human existence and the nature of truth.
“Tina’s Mouth” grapples primarily with teenage angst rather than confining itself to the bi-cultural struggles of an Indian-American teenager. The illustrations themselves, in black and white, do not make the character’s ethnicities at all obvious. Tina acknowledges her heritage, but does not define herself by it. The quintessential experiences of the second-generation immigrant are woven into the text, but act as sub-plots and provide context to the larger more universal themes of the book.
As a 17 year-old high school student attending a private school, I found “Tina’s Mouth” highly relatable. Yet the prose and illustrations, which are simple and authentic, provide an encompassing picture of Tina’s unique life that will surely grab the attention of readers of all ages. The dynamic between image and text is fluid. The illustrations, instead of confined to panels, are literally woven into the plot, conveying what is not said and leaving certain scenes open to interpretation.
Although the guiding questions of the diary are “Who are you?” and “Who are you becoming?” it is not only Tina whom we see struggle with questions of identity.
The dialogue is incredibly witty; Tina often writes or speaks directly to Sartre complaining of unrequited love, bad breath, or to ask the dead existential philosopher what she should wear to an upcoming party. This absurd yet fitting relationship between the two is at once hilarious and illustrative of how applicable existential musings are to modern-day teenage angst.
Sartre is not Tina’s only mentor. Auntie Urvashi, her mother’s childhood friend from Bombay described as an “armchair intellectual,” offers Tina her own piece of existential advice that resonates throughout the text. Auntie Urvashi declares Sartre could not comprehend how “goddamn confusing” life is in the modern day. She tells Tina the story of young Krishna, within whose mouth his mother saw not just one, but many universes which Auntie Urvashi calls the “Mysterious and Heavenly Expanse.” Auntie Urvashi urges Tina to always remember the universe that lies within her and to examine it in the midst of life’s storms. This piece of advice, derived from Hindu literature, mixes well Sartre’s French existentialism, and this fusion of ideologies throughout the text is beautiful. As Tina struggles to define herself, she is able to rest with the notion that what lies within is in itself a mystery.
Although Tina herself lacks some edge and her egotism verges on irritating, the story in its entirety proves a quick and easy read. One can breeze through the pages in little over an hour, and the intellectual concepts give a familiar plot a new spin. In all, the graphic novel beautifully illustrates with more than a touch of self-mocking humor, a coming of age tale that somehow integrates Krishna, the works of Sartre and the plot of Rashomon seamlessly into a Southern California high school setting.