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.

From Hope Is A Girl Selling Fruit
From Hope Is A Girl Selling Fruit

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.

From Ms Marvel, drawn by Adrian Alphona
From Ms Marvel, drawn by Adrian Alphona

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.

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