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Thursday, January 04, 2018 

An Atlantic writer complains about a dark side to India comics while whitewashing other issues

A writer for the Atlantic spoke about comics produced in India, and none too surprisingly, is bothered because of certain aspects that would be considered not politically correct in a series of Hindu comics titled Amar Chitra Katha:
ACK defines Indian identity via stories—which naturally appealed to a bookish child like me who constantly escaped into the worlds of Philip Pullman, Garth Nix, and C.S. Lewis. Most histories in the comics feature virtuous Hindus who fight against evil rulers, an encroaching Muslim horde, or arrogant British imperialists. The religious stories are drawn from (usually Hindu) epics, sacred texts, and folktales, and they frequently weave the same gods and heroes among minor vignettes and massive story arcs. Though many ACK issues could stand alone, roughly 30 pages at a time the series constructed a limited and tonally consistent India sanitized through a distinctively Hindu lens.

[...] For his part, Pai said “his comics had helped foster the ‘integration’ of India, which is made up of hundreds of ethnic groups, by teaching children about its history and legends,” according to a 2011 New York Times story about the creator’s death. Still, these dialogues, plot arcs, and illustrations often erase or negatively portray many groups. ACK largely omits religious minorities, including Christians and Sikhs, from its extensive “Makers of Modern India” collection. Muslims fare the worst among these groups. In the series’ medieval histories, adherents of Islam often play the boogeymen, a menacing, green-clad horde threatening brave Hindus.
It may be one thing to omit, but it would be worse if Christians and Hindu sects were portrayed negatively in every sense. If they're left out, that's not necessarily the worst thing. Okay, never mind that. What I find galling is that the writer's an Islamophile who may not have much faith in Indians with common sense. The peoples of India may not be saints, but compared to the Islamic world, they're far from being as bad in terms of ideology. And even in western entertainment, there've been times when Indians were considered worthy of heroes' roles, and a great source for nobility. On the other hand, what about Mahatma Ghandi, who, contrary to what some propagandists want us to think, was an anti-semitic racist and very misogynist to boot? If anybody needs to be depicted notoriously, it's him. He'd make the perfect villain, though considering his history, that's why it'd have to be done with the proper seriousness.

The Atlantic article does, however have an argument that looks valid, but simultaneously mixes in something that needn't be considered bad:
ACK also upholds popular, but regressive beauty standards by representing nearly all the stories’ “good” characters as fair-skinned, lithe women or fair-skinned, muscular men. (Canonically dark-skinned gods are shaded blue.) By contrast, demons, “ruffians,” and “ruthless killers” are given dark brown or black skin. In Issue #67 The Lord of Lanka (1974), Pai even distinguishes a demonic family’s virtuous members from its evil members by shading them white. In Indian culture, where dark skin is frequently associated with lower castes, colorism fuels casteism.
If the comics depict blacks and Latinos (or men and women of mixed-race background) evilly, that's certainly offensive, so there's something I can concur is regrettable about the comics. But I don't think the writer should be complaining about "regressive" standards of beauty, because physical beauty is something many women of all backgrounds would like to have.

The part about dark skin in Indian culture being thrown in with lower castes is puzzling, because a lot of Hindus look darker complected, and are distinctive from whites, including the Romani descendants in Europe and America, some of whom are more caucasian, and more likely to have red, blond and brown hair. (Including two of the most notable Roma characters in Marvel: Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.) I wouldn't be surprised if that were a distortion on the writer's part, though admittedly, such topics aren't something I as a westerner have an easy time fully grasping, so maybe that line's actually related to the part about how brown/black skin is depicted in ACK, and I just didn't realize it.
ACK similarly establishes women as collaborators in their own oppression. As Issue #71 Indra and Shachi (1974) proclaims from the inside cover, even goddesses cheerfully demonstrate “unselfish subordination of their own selves and service to their husbands.” Men receive virginal wives as gifts from other men—or heroically kidnap them. At their most shocking, some ACK comics venerate women’s suicide as a means to inspire or defy men. Many heroines choose sati, a long-banned practice in which widows like Padmini and Ranak Devi burn alive on funeral pyres.
Okay, here too I find a valid argument located, as the practice they're talking about, in itself, is repellent. But there are women in the Islamic world who've been collaborators in their own oppression, and if such a concept exists in Buddhist religions, then that's bad too. Kidnapping's not a good example either, unlike rescuing, nor is suicide. And then, the writer bungles the argument when he says:
Some readers and critics might blame Hinduism as a whole for these inequalities. But Hinduism lacks a central authoritative text like the Bible or Qur’an, and the sprawling canon of Hindu stories means there are many divergent messages on the subject of inequality. [...]
Tsk tsk tsk. Obscuring the differences between the Judeo-Christian bibles and the Koran? Sigh. Another propagandist who sees nothing wrong with ignoring the terrible beliefs espoused in the latter. Not good, and only suggests the guy lacks altruism. Still, the comic ACK could still have more to feel discouraged about besides the questionable elements involving women:
To ACK’s credit, many of its comic issues occasionally complicated the norms it establishes. For example, Ghatotkacha is a virtuous character with dark skin. In the Issue #89 Ganesha (1975), the goddess Parvati proves to be more powerful than the collective might of all male gods. Though the (Muslim) Mughal emperor Akbar the Great typically plays second fiddle to his Hindu minister Birbal, he is still portrayed favorably. Furthermore, he and several other Mughal rulers are the protagonist of their own comics. Originally christened “the great Mughal” in Issue #200, ACK’s newer Issue #603 praises Akbar as “a visionary monarch.” The series positively profiles the Dalit (or untouchable) leader Bhimrao Ambedkar, as well, although that issue sanitizes his anti-Hindu politics to better align with the comics’ platform.
Okay, I have to figure there's something wrong here too. While there does appear to be some darker skinned characters who're portrayed tastefully, any excusing of Islam itself, on the other hand, if that's what's going on in the comics, is dismaying, ditto if the Muslim characters are given their own comics on the basis that their religion itself is depicted as a positive emphasis.

The writer did get some backlash in the comments though:
Another Muslim educating Hindus on the evil of their religion and how Hindus never deserve to hear or read anything good about themselves. On top of it the Atlantic gives a platform to people like him who quite deliberately seek to falsify and mix up very different concepts like Sati (a lightning rod to get ignorant westerners riled up) with Jauhar.
Dear Shah Amin, Rani Padmini committed Jauhar -which by definition is a joint mass suicide pact both Hindu men and women entered into when they were facing sure defeat at the hands of a "gasp" muslim invader. Unfortunately for your effort of trying to whitewash the crimes of Islam, the Hindus did not commit Jauhar when they lost battles to other Hindu/Sikh kings. And the treatment of modern day Yazidis by ISIS shows quite clearly, why Rani Padmini's method of choosing death with her broader community, was a well honed strategy to deprive the victorious muslims of a captive pool of slave labor. For reference you may want to read reports of how captured Yazidi kids were brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers against their own community, while Yazidi women were turned into sexual labor, used to incent islamic fighters.
It is indeed so terrible that at a time when secular hindu-hating leftist historians, dominated every aspect of learning. Hindus were still able to develop a non-official channel of keeping their history alive. The green menace shown in ACK was very often sourced form the accounts of the victorious Muslim armies-who boasted of the tall pyramids they had contructed of kafir heads, the thousands of temples pillaged and destroyed and their harems of thousands of kidnapped women.
I see, so this is what the author's obscuring. And another says, interestingly enough:
Most of these stories were set in Vedic times, so I don't know how he expects other religions to be represented when they didn't exist yet. It's so tiresome that left-wing authors can only appreciate art through the lens of left-wing identity politics. Especially on subjects like India, about which most American readers don't know all that much.
Even I can't claim to know everything about India, yet it's apparent the writer isn't telling everything either. Another wrote:
They had the same complaint against the wildly popular movie "Bahubali 2" released in 2017. Apparently it did not show any muslims-never mind it was set in pre-Islamic India. In todays world, Islamophobia has expanded to cover any random story that does not glorify Islam
Indeed, that's the serious downside of today's leftists - they cannot put their identity politics aside and just write about art as it is, or was. No wonder articles like these in the Atlantic are just not the most reliable, and who knows how much of the piece is accurate in the end? The author just scuttled his item by whitewashing quite a few serious issues for the sake of making India look like only they're the baddies. What a disgrace.

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