Immortal Lies

When I was in school, I had this rather fearsome teacher who always looked like she had a hatchet hidden away in her obscenely large bag. It wasn’t so much the bag or its size that bothered me, but the loving way in which she cradled it. It was about the only thing she did lovingly (at least around me and my fellow classmates). I am convinced that she enjoyed reading out incredibly dull passages from our social science textbook. By the time our country’s history and culture came to us via her raspy and cold voice, all the different colours of diversity had been duly dried out.

Helter Skelter: Amar Chitra Katha
The comic books, translated into almost every Indian language, paint misleading pictures of communal harmony and peace, while perpetrating stereotypes of gender, caste, and creed.

So, like many others before me, I turned towards Amar Chitra Katha. And it was through the carefully organised pages of these comic books that I learnt about the Mahabharata, about the struggle for India’s independence, so on, and so forth.

What if I told you that Amar Chitra Katha comics are racist and biased; that they portray a false image of India?

As the story goes, Anant Pai, the creator of the comic book series, was disgusted to find that the Indian youth knew more about Greek and Roman mythology than they did about their own culture and history. This idea slowly germinated into Amar Chitra Katha, a series of illustrated books and comics that has been translated into 20 Indian languages and has sold more than 90 million copies.

Anant Pai became ‘Uncle Pai’ and Amar Chitra Katha codified and replaced the oral tradition of grandmothers telling stories while bedazzled grandchildren struggled against leady eyelids. Amar Chitra Katha came about around the same time that the great Indian nuclear family raised its individualistic head. There is no doubt about the fact that the comic books play an important role in preserving our cultural heritage. But the question remains: At what cost?

Helter Skelter: Amar Chitra Katha
The comic book title Maharishi Dayananda carefully ignores the ways in which the Arya Samaj laid the foundation for Hindu nationalism in India, and the consequent communal violence.
Helter Skelter: Amar Chitra Katha
The brave women of India that the comics portray all got married and cooked hot, tasty meals for their husbands. Being brave is fine and good, but being a woman (and not a man) is a full-time job, says Uncle Pai.

Take for instance the comic books dealing with Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj. The introduction to the books reads thus—“He did not, however, propagate or establish a new creed or a new sect like many of his contemporaries… his main purpose behind establishing the Arya Samaj was to make people good, to rid the society of its evils, and thereby build a free, strong and united nation”.

The Arya Samaj encapsulates the beginnings of Hindu nationalism and how dear old Uncle Pai came to this equation between Hindu superiority and a strong nation is something I am not very clear about. Another instance would be the colour spectrum into which characters are dipped into before being placed into the carefully edited stories of Amar Chitra Katha. Hindu gods are (obviously) blue, ‘normal’ people are a homogeneous shade of brownish pink and lower castes/untouchables are a darker shade of brown. These immortal pictorial stories seem to suggest that higher castes are somehow a shade fairer than the lower untouchables. Now, such vivid differences might come in handy when a lower caste character is hugged by the benign, albeit fairer, higher caste character in the bubble gum world of the comic book, but when one takes into account that being “Fair and Lovely” in our country is about as important as being educated, things get slightly more complicated.

India has the largest market for fairness products, and I am not simply trying to suggest a correlation between Amar Chitra Katha and Fair and Lovely (or Fair and Handsome, for that matter). Instead, I am trying to point out that there exists an entire mine field of historical misinterpretations, inadequate research, and harmful stereotypes.

Amar Chitra Katha forms the very foundation of the canon of Indian fables, myths, history, and culture. Children in our country devour them in the way that I imagine hungry pigs would devour a piece of toast. The comic books are inaccurate and a very effective piece of propaganda—I would even go so far as to say that they are one of the spinal blocks of our national identity.

Don’t you find that to be even a tiny bit scary?

Aniruddh was the kind of kid who always asked annoying questions like "Why not?" or "Why does this happen?". He is no longer a kid; a fact that hasn't stemmed the torrent of annoying questions. He is currently getting drenched in London and is extremely interested in Indian popular culture, films, and literature. He adores people who write him cheques.

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The City Speaks #7

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