On Literature

A Girl From Mithila and Ms. Marvel

The act of seeing is a strange business. If you have eyes that work, then you see things constantly. It seems almost beyond control, but the fact is that seeing is not an instinct but an action. Faced with the world around you or a photograph, you see parts of it and then you notice details. If seeing was a reflex, then you’d never miss obvious things like, for instance, what the time is according to the clock on your phone. Seeing is an action, a process of doing something with an end goal. Which begs the question — what is the end goal of seeing things? To make sure you don’t crash into things? Ask any clumsy person and they’ll tell you, seeing is no antidote to tripping and stumbling and generally sustaining self-inflicted injuries.

So what are we doing when we’re seeing? We’re understanding the world and ourselves — that’s the aim of seeing. Informed as it is by perspective, the act of seeing is a process of evaluating and interpreting what is before you, according to standards and understanding shaped by your own experiences. And so, seeing turns out to be a curiously circular process. What you see in others has a lot to do with what you see in your self. This self-awareness is at the heart of two very different and very enjoyable books: Hope Is A Girl Selling Fruit by Amrita Das and the Ms Marvel series, written by G. Willow Wilsom and drawn by Adrian Alphona. Mithila and Marvel — what a box set this would be if it existed!

Hope Is A Girl… is a beautiful little book by Tara Books and like most of Tara Books’s titles, it looks gorgeous. The story, objectively speaking, is as flimsy as a story can be. Das is a young artist from a village in Bihar who is travelling by train to faraway Chennai for a book-making workshop. That’s pretty much it. But Das is able to put together a lovely little journey into her thoughts, wandering through what she sees in the train and how she arrives both at Chennai and a better understanding of herself.

Das is an artist who belongs to Bihar’s Mithila tradition of folk painting and the illustrations in Hope Is A Girl… are such a fabulous weave of conventional and modern. It’s not just that Das adds little elements like the emergency chain (complete with its written directive “Pull the chain to stop the train”) or that State Bank of India ATMs have a place in her landscape. In Das’s drawings, you can see and feel the worlds she straddles and consequently, guardian angels from Mithila’s folk art hover over the modern train station. In the glorious intricacy of her detailing and neat as-a–line-of-ants linework, the Mithila tradition is strongly present in Das’s drawings. Each illustration works within a frame with sub-plots and details contained within that construct. The technique is old, the stories are new and the details are delightful.

Right at the beginning of Hope Is A Girl…, Das shows us how girlhood is traditionally depicted in Mithila paintings — two smiling girls dancing around a tree in bloom. But this isn’t what she knows of being a girl. “I was responsible for a great deal when I was very small,” she writes, next to a drawing of a girl in a school uniform in a kitchen. She’s standing on a stool in order to reach the stove on which she’s cooking a meal. “My girlhood passed even before I knew it.” This isn’t a lament as much as an observation. It also shows an anxiety in Das. She doesn’t want to be seen as either the fake stereotype of rural idyll or a sob story. So, how does she tell her story? How does she depict herself in a way that’s true to her realities but doesn’t conform to hackneyed stereotypes of the village girl in the big city?

By the act of seeing.

In Hope Is A Girl…, Das writes about two women that she sees — she doesn’t meet them. It’s just sight and imagination at play — while making her way to Chennai. One is a quiet woman who keeps to herself during the train journey. Das thinks she works as a maid and her curiosity about her fellow traveller reveals both Das’s kindness and sensitivity. “The poor do have pride. They don’t ask, and they have nothing to offer in return,” she writes at one point. There’s a subtle sense of superiority in Das as writes about the other woman, while the drawings dip into a much more fantastical swirl than the clarity that’s in Das’s drawings of herself. This isn’t so much because the woman works as a maid, but because of her obvious diffidence and insecurity. They make Das pity her.

With the fruit seller Das sees at the station, however, the power dynamic is sharply different. You’d think Das would be the more powerful one in this relationship too, given she’s higher up in the social order. However, for Das, it isn’t important that the fruit seller scrapes together a very humble living or that she’s disabled. The fruit seller is independent, she’s confident — that’s what Das wishes for herself and when she sees it in the fruit seller, she’s awed by the other woman. “I want to be brave, and different,” writes Das at the end of Hope Is A Girl…, having found hope in a girl selling fruit.

Ostensibly, Kamala Khan, the winsome Ms Marvel created by writer G. Willow Wilson, has little in common with Das. There’s not much that a young girl in a village in Bihar and a desi kid in New Jersy share beyond perhaps skin colour and hair texture, but that’s pragmatism and non-fiction talking. Seen through the perspective of storytelling, Kamala does share something with Amrita Das: a dream of being brave and different.

Ms Marvel is a five-part series of which two have already been published. (Go on, live a little. Download the digital version. It costs less than Rs 200.) So far, the story and the new heroine are doing everything right. Kamala got a lot of press for being the first Muslim heroine in the Marvel universe and that’s the sort of buzz that can turn into tinnitus for the writer. Not in this case, thankfully. Kamala is absolutely delightful. She’s funny, sensible and her South Asian background has been used for humour that’s fabulous while being respectful. That Kamala is Muslim isn’t a massive dark cloud looming over her character. It’s about as important as Kamala’s fandom for Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers — critical but not overwhelming.

Kamala’s family are great fun and like all superheroes’ families, they don’t understand what’s happening to their daughter. But if you were expecting a grim, lock-yourself-in-the-room-and-wear-your-headscarf kind of parents, think again. Kamala’s parents are protective and sexist in a way many South Asian parents are, but they’re not obsessed with Islam. (That would be Kamala’s rosary-clicking, unemployed brother, who isn’t precisely a caricature but he’s definitely being made fun of in a few instances.) Her faith is rock solid even if she is curious about bacon, and all of this is treated normally. And the point at which Iron Man, Captain America and Captain Marvel appear singing Amir Khusro, I said a prayer of thanks that Kamala is a good Muslim girl who hasn’t lost sight of her cultural heritage because this has to be one of the most epic moments in Marvel history.

With most superheroes, at the root of their problems is their being misfits and this is true of Kamala too. Her fascination for Carol Danvers comes from wanting to belong in a society that adores blonde, white people; in an America that singles out Kamala and other Muslims for their faith. Of course her being a South Asian Muslim, with a protective father and an ridiculously early curfew adds to Kamala’s teenage woes, but it’s the condescension from characters like the all-American Zoe that Kamala resents. Add to it her entirely secular but rather potent teenage angst, and you have a potent combination.

In the first volume of Ms Marvel, Kamala ends up in a foggy, Macbeth-like situation, except instead of three witches, Kamala has Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, Iron Man and Captain America asking her what she wants. Kamala tells Captain Marvel, “I want to be you. Except I would wear the classic, politically-incorrect costume and kick butt in giant wedge heels.” Lo and behold, the next thing Kamala knows, she’s Ms Marvel. In the second volume, Kamala discovers superhero outfits have their issues, she saves a life, borrows a sweater from a homeless guy and gets into deep trouble at home. She has rather awesome powers but what brings out her inner superhero is a quote from the Quran that her father has told her repeatedly: “Whoever kills one person, it is as if he’s killed all of mankind and whoever saves one person, it is as if he’s saved all of mankind.”

In both the volumes, Kamala is seen grappling with how she sees herself and how she thinks others see her. Initially, she wants to be Captain Marvel because that character is nothing like her. Captain Marvel, being a wise woman, warns Kamala things aren’t going to turn out the way Kamala thinks, but she grants Kamala her wish of becoming like Captain Marvel anyway. By the end of the second volume, Kamala is starting to see how futile it is to try and be something she’s not. She doesn’t want to be a superhero because it would make her more popular or cool, but because it’s a chance to live by her beliefs and that is what gives her a sense of belonging.

I for one can’t wait to see what happens next with Kamala ‘Ms Marvel’ Khan and although Das has only one book to her name so far, there’s a part of me that’s imagining a box set of women like Kamala and Amrita coming together, like The Avengers, with their differences, their dreams and their distinctive artwork. Just imagine how much they, and we, would see.

EDITED TO ADD:

Some months ago, when Kamala Khan’s Marvel debut was announced, I’d wondered about a Muslim girl being named Kamala. Today, when I put up the link to this post on Twitter, a friend of mine made the same point: Kamala is not an Arabic name. Kamal is, but there is no Kamala, as far as we can tell. Kamala is, however, a common Hindu name — it means ‘lotus’ — and arguably, someone of Bangladeshi origin could well have a name like Kamala (it isn’t unusual to find a Muslim Bangladeshi with a Bengali, Hindu-sounding name). As my friend pointed out, obviously Marvel was looking to name Ms Marvel something that sounded South Asian but not specifically Muslim (like ‘Ayesha’). The more I think about it though, I don’t mind this bit of blurring of the dividing lines between Hindus and Muslims, even if it is Marvel playing safe. Why not confuse people a little by being a Hindu with a Muslim name or a Muslim with a Hindu name? Why not connect with a little more than what’s in the immediate circle of belonging? It’s no North West, but it’ll do.


Farewell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The fact that Gabriel Garcia Marquez has died shouldn’t feel like a blow. He was 87 years old and reportedly suffering from dementia. To quote Marquez himself, “there had never been a death so foretold.” And yet, the knowledge that Marquez is no longer with us is heartbreak.

The news of his passing came in about eight hours ago and my first thought was that my father will wake up to this news and it will make him as terribly sad as I feel right now. He does have some consolation though: he’s at home, with his books. Ever since I heard about Marquez’s death, I have longed to go through my copies of his books. My fingertips are itching to feel the pages, I want to see the sentences, flutter from story to story, let his characters flit past me. Except I’m far away from home and my books are out of reach. So I’m looking Marquez quotes online and letting the tourniquet of sad longing tighten.

He was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes ad his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness, “Damn it,” he sighed. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”
*
“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” he asked.  Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.  “Forever,” he said.
*
He was carrying a suitcase with clothing in order to stay and another just like it with almost two thousand letters that she had written him. They were arranged by date in bundles ties with coloured ribbons, and they were all unopened.
*
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finis deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

There’s a beautiful obituary of Marquez in The New York Times and it tells you all about his life and if you have read anything of his, I think you will fall in love with him a little by the time you reach the end of the piece. They’ve also got a blog post that has collected links to reviews of Marquez’s works.

I can’t gather my thoughts well enough to write an obituary or reminisce about Marquez’s writing. What I keep remembering is my father telling me about reading Marquez. He didn’t tell me the stories or the outlines of the plots in any of Marquez’s novels or short stories. Instead, he told me about this man with this distinctive imagination and sublime language. He told me about the wonder he felt when he followed the trail of Marquez’s words into lands and families. As I listened to my father, just the experience of reading Marquez felt like magic and I wanted that for myself. He finished with, “Marquez is brilliant. You have to read him.” It’s one of the best suggestions he’s made to me. Over the years, my father and I have lain in wait for the newest Marquez. We’ve gifted Marquez books to one another, despaired to one another when they were disappointing and exulted together when we read Marquez at his best.

For so many and definitely for my father and me, Marquez was our Melquiades. He reminded us that we could choose to not let our imaginations be moulded by an aesthetic inherited from West-facing schools and syllabi. He showed us that unrealistic could be poignantly real. Even though there is nothing singular about my love for Marquez’s work — I belong to a community of heartbroken readers who must seem like attention-seekers or weirdos to those who don’t really see the big deal about an aged and ailing author dying — I can’t let today pass without a post here in The Growlery because it was my father who introduced me to Marquez’s words and worlds. In the books blog that we’ve set up in the hope of prodding each other to read and write, how can we not raise a virtual toast to the writer that we’ve both loved both wisely and well?

So to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the patron saint of magic realism and the author whose writing has so often made me feel like my father’s daughter (more often than not, we would both feel that little kick of breathless admiration at the same moment when reading one of Marquez’s short stories or novels), thank you and farewell.


To The Madmen Over the Wall

In 1967, Nigeria was a young country whose growing pains had been terrifyingly sharp. Decolonisation (by the British) had been messy and within its first few years of independence, Nigeria had seen ethnic violence and a military coup. Then, when eastern Nigeria seceded and declared itself the Republic of Biafra for the Igbo tribe, civil war dragged its claws through the heart of the country.

At this point in time, a young man named Wole Soyinka, who was already a bit of a legend (a published poet with plays produced by reputed British theatre companies, he’d studied in England and then come back to Nigeria making quite a patriotic statement), spoke up. He wrote articles criticising the Federal Military Government (FMG) killing Igbo people. He also visited the Igbo camp to try and convince the leader of the movement to move towards dialogue with the FMG. For this, Soyinka was arrested and sent to jail. No trial, no questions, just solitary confinement. Or “detention” as the FMG termed it. Decades later, when Soyinka would meet General Yakuba Gowon, the former head of state who had ordered Soyinka be detained in 1967, Gowon would joke and tell Soyinka, “You were my house guest.”

Here’s what being Gowon’s “house guest” meant: Soyinka would spend than two years in prison, most of it in solitary confinement. He’d be denied medical attention. No reading or writing materials were available to him. Just one tiny cell and the occasional fragments of other prisoners’ raised voices. (To be fair to Gowon, he said he didn’t know Soyinka had been kept in solitary confinement.) Later, in interviews, Soyinka would say that it almost drove him mad and it was to hold on to his sanity that he started scribbling notes. He made his own ink and scavenged toilet paper, paper from cigarettes and cigarette packs on which he could write. Occasionally, he’d smuggle out a letter or a poem if he could.

These poems from prison came out as a volume titled A Shuttle in the Crypt in the early 1970s. They’re all rage and anguish, undulled by the fact that we’re almost fifty years from the time that Soyinka is describing — because the gut-wrenching truth is that in fifty years, that sense of being unfairly trapped has only spread, not waned.

The last few days, as news has come in from Kashmir of terrible clashes between civilians and security forces, two lines from a poem, from A Shuttle in the Crypt, have haunted me.

“The human heart may hold
Only so much despair.”

They’re from “To the Madmen Over the Wall”, they’re the lines that end the poem. I’m not one of those who can remember entire poems. It’s actually quite unusual for me to even remember fragments like this. What I can do is recall the feel of a poem and the name of the person who wrote it. The rest are details for which I turn either to my bookshelf or Google. What I could remember of “To the Madmen Over the Wall” — beyond those two lines — was the feeling that rippled through the words. There was an acute sense of empathy but also a certain distance, as though Soyinka would consciously step back when he got too close to the madness that he was describing.

A Shuttle in the Crypt, tragically, is not easily available. It’s one of those volumes that you find in libraries, whether personal or institutional, so it took a while to get hold of the entire poem. Soyinka was writing about his experience in a single cell in a Nigerian prison, cut off from “freedom”, civil war and its atrocities, but re-reading “To the Madmen Over the Wall”, it articulated perfectly where we are now, in an India being wrenched out of shape by violence. Perfect for me, sitting in Delhi and feeling my heart break as I read news of the violence in Kashmir.

Howl, howl
Your fill and overripeness of the heart.
I may not come with you
Companions of the broken buoy,
I may not seek
The harbour of your drifting shore.
Your wise withdrawal
Who can blame? Crouched
Upon your ledge of space, do you witness
Ashes of reality drifting strangely past?
I fear
Your minds have dared the infinite
And journeyed back
To speak in foreign tongues.
Though walls
May rupture tired seams
Of the magic cloak we share, yet
Closer I may not come
But though I set my ears against
The tune of setting forth, yet, howl
Upon the hour of sleep, tell these walls,
The human heart may hold
Only so much despair.

(To the Madmen Over the Wall, Wole Soyinka)

For me, though this poem is about Soyinka trying to stay sane in a Nigerian prison while outside his beloved country was being ravaged by madmen, “To the Madmen…” spoke more sensitively about Kashmir than any of the op-eds I’d read. I think a lot of this came from the fact that in the poem, Soyinka is acutely aware that he can relate to some of the madness on the other side of the wall. There are foreign tongues, yes, but he must consciously set his ears against the tune and even after doing that, he relates to the mad despair.

I’ve spent the last three months working on ‘hard news’ for the first time in my career. In the past, I’ve dipped my toe in it from time to time, but for most part, I’ve written about the ‘soft’ world of culture. “You’re capable of more than this.” “The culture beat is fun, but it isn’t actually relevant like current affairs is.” “Have you thought about doing real journalism?” These are just a few of the comments I’ve heard over the years. Remembering and reading Soyinka this week was an affirmation of sorts. And today just happens to be his birthday, which is as good a time as any to thank a poet for his words and for the reminder that there’s nothing soft about culture when it’s forged in the flames of politics, sensitivity and talent.

There’s a lot more respect given to those who go out and report on the reality and frequently, the rest are dismissed as those who get by while keeping their heads in clouds of fiction. There’s good reason for this — as a friend had once put it, there’s only so much heroism to having the gumption to watch a bad Bollywood film. But it’s worth remembering that while literature and the arts can seem terribly fragile and even frivolous when faced with certain realities, they’re also uncannily resilient in their ability to be touchstones. That’s why the monologues of Shakespearean heroines and villains continue to strike chords among audiences hundreds of years later — because they touch upon emotions and biases that continue to hold true. That’s why Soyinka in solitary confinement could voice the emotions coursing through today’s ‘hard news’.

Remembering Soyinka and connecting his work from 40 years ago to what’s happening now in a completely different part of the world? That’s what you get for studying literature and covering soft topics like culture.