Australia's Kids' Books of the Year 2006
Yay for Daniel Pinkwater

Guest Column No. 2 by Pooja Makhijani

Editor's note: I am so pleased to run this column by Pooja Makhijani. In May, Pooja shared the terrific "South Asian Stories to Tell" with readers here. Welcome back to Chicken Spaghetti! Susan

India Ink
A Guest Column by Pooja Makhijani

A few months ago, Susan and I exchanged comments on her post "Comics Classic." I urged her to find the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) version of the Hindu epic The Mahabharata wherever she could. Luckily, thanks to the wonder that is the interlibrary loan, Susan was able to score a copy through her local library.

Like many Indian-American children, ACK was my first introduction to the myths, history, and folktales of my parents' native India. Though far from perfect, the comics made the convoluted plotlines of the Mahabharata and Ramayana easier to follow. They introduced me to historical figures such as the Rani of Jhansi, Akbar, and Rabindranath Tagore. They brought the Panchatantra—a collection of Sanskrit fables exported to western Europe through travelers via Persia, Arabia, and Greece—to life in my suburban American home.

I outgrew my ACK books when I was 10 or 12. By then, I had graduated to Wonder Woman and X-Men. I was also ready and interested in exploring the moral complexity of the Mahabaratha and Ramayana and began reading more "adult" versions of those tales.

o o o o o

Earlier this year, new-age kook guru Deepak Chopra, filmmaker Shekhar Kapoor (best-known for Cate Blanchett-starrer Elizabeth), and Sir Richard Branson joined creative forces to form Virgin Comics, whose mission is "to create original stories and characters that tap into the vast library of mythology and reinvent the rich... narratives of India."

The new comic line launched three imprints this summer—Shakti, Director's Cut, and Voices. Shakti, loosely translated as "female power" or "female force," focuses on re-imagining myths from the Indian Subcontinent. Director's Cut is a collaboration between comics writers, artists, and famous filmmakers. Voices is a collaboration between Virgin Comics and "iconic mavericks" or "masters in their own fields... that have something to offer the world of graphic fiction." Virgin alerts us to keep our eyes peeled for "the man everyone considers the best-kept secret in the creative arts" and a "certain pop icon" to show us their comic book skills. (Madonna, is that you?)

Wow! 

And was I excited when I received Issue #0 in the mail, which featured excerpts from two of the comic series in the Shakti line—Devi and Ramayan Reborn

Devi literally means "goddess" and is the story of a goddess reborn as a young woman who fights crime in modern Sitapur, a town in northern India. The comic hit shelves in early July and has sold more than 10,000 copies, according to Virgin Comics and Animation. Devi is one cool chick. The black-leather-clad superhero is busty, goth, and extremely fair-skinned for the average Indian woman. Here, why don't you take a look at Devi. A cross between Angelina Jolie and The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Aishwarya Rai, maybe? 

Ramayan Reborn (FYI, the epic is referred to as "Ramayan" and "Ramayana") is the relaunch of one of Hinduism's central narratives. The series will land in bookstores and libraries in September. The original Ramayan chronicles the fourteen-year exile of Prince Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and his defeat of the evil demon, Ravana. The Virgin version takes place in a post-apocalyptic world and describes Rama's quest to recover Earth's most precious element from Ravana. The excerpt I read is beautiful, heart-wrenching, and intriguing; I will definitely pick up Issue #1 next month.

Shakti and Director's Cut also launched several other series that use India as their inspiration: Sadhu, Snakewomen, and Vetaal: The First Vampire. Shakti plans to release ten additional stories in 2007. 

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The most obvious difference between the ACK comics of my childhood and these slicker versions is the art. The ACK art is, to me, quite traditionally Indian. It often reminds me of a ubiquitous form of color, line, and type found in contemporary India on everything from shop counters to calendars to roadside signs. The Virgin comics use what I associate with modern superhero comic book conventions: dark and psychologically complex characters, varied panel angles, and complex montages. However, like ACK, Virgin's art is seeped in Indian and Hindu motifs and iconography. Check out these panels.

These comics aren't for the youngest readers, of course. And those expecting faithful adaptations should look elsewhere. Ramayan Reborn is not for the mythology-phile trying to get a grasp of the original text; it's for the comic book fan open to an reinterpretation. Check them out. I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. (An aside: The Ramayana has become a controversial text; it is both a flashpoint and touchstone for Hindu fundamentalists. To that end, Virgin has included a disclaimer on the material they sent me: "Ramayan Reborn is a reinvention of the Ramayan in every way. There is no intention to faithfully recreate the original text. Our goal is to tell a whole new story by springboarding off the original that we love so much, with respect and admiration." Such a disclaimer is not included with the art and text of Devi.)

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*Sigh.* All this chat of comic books is making me nostalgic. I haven't looked at my hard-bound, plastic-covered ACK version of the Ramayana in years. Now I want to call home and have my mother dig it out.

Pooja Makhijani is the editor of Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America, an anthology of essays that explores the complex ways in which race shapes American lives and families. Her first picture book, Mama's Saris, is forthcoming. She maintains a frequently updated online bibliography of South Asian youth literature.

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Susan, thank *you* for this wonderful opportunity.

You're welcome. Great column!

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