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People often ask me why I stopped my comic strip Suki. A better question is: “How did it get published at all?” In a culture where the birth of a daughter is regarded as a calamity and young brides are routinely murdered, what place is there for an awkward, fuzzy-haired girl whose best friend is a frog and whose favourite activity is sleeping late? If she had been a model-actress-airhostess, a hard-working mother or a sizzling chiquette in hot pants, she may have found a market today. But Suki was stubborn about resisting pressure, and meanwhile, the culture of forthrightness into which she was born died away around her.
Unauthorised Dennis Mitchells crop up all over India. But would you see the Amul girl selling hot dogs in the West?
The majority of comic strips appearing in Indian newspapers today represent a comfortable upper-middle-class Judaeo-Christian Western world. When Indian readers turn to the funny pages, they remain largely unconscious of the complex political and ethnological messages embedded within the frames. We are so used to seeing Dennis the Menace opening gifts at Christmas that we don’t say to ourselves, “Oh there’s that little Christian boy enjoying his winter solstice festival!” His cute pink face with the mop of yellow hair has become so familiar that unauthorised versions of him turn up all over India, endorsing jalebis in a small town or decorating hand-operated ferris wheels at a village mela.
Try imagining the reverse—say, the Amul Butter girl selling hot dogs on an American street or Laxman’s Common Man advertising tee-shirts in a small town in Germany. Not easy, right? But think of the numbers: these two characters, though they’re not in strip-cartoons, are nevertheless recognised by millions of people. That’s not enough to make them symbols of “wantability” outside India. By contrast, chubby and innocent-seeming Dennis Mitchell communicates Western affluence and dominance. If he endorses something, it becomes automatically desirable.
I imagine most readers believe that the Western strips in Indian papers are chosen because they are just “better” and/or there aren’t any Indian cartoonists of equal calibre. Actually, there are very few comics coming out of any developing country and the world’s ethnic diversity remains largely invisible in the strips. American strips dominate the funny pages internationally, even though Western Europe, Japan and Australia have hundreds of local cartoon characters.
To publish Western strips is not just cheaper, it also helps papers dodge the issue of socially relevant humour.
The choice of what appears on the comics page is usually made by one person, most often a senior editor. If he/she is essentially conservative, the strips will present a cheery, upbeat and broadly right-wing view of the world. Neighbourhoods in these toons are squeaky clean, there’s no visible social inequality and food is a subject of entertainment, never need. The characters will belong to one ethnicity. Even if there are minor variations in race, everything else will remain remarkably homogeneous: food habits, clothes and interior decor. The only arena in which conflicts are presented with anything approaching realism is marital discord—Andy Capp, for instance, often reaches surprising depths of bitterness—and boss-employee tussles.
Against this backdrop, what I’m about to say now is going to sound so slavishly sycophantic, I’ll get it out of the way quickly: Vinod Mehta is and was one of the only newspaper editors actively interested in supporting local comic strips (distinct from political cartoons). Other editors may have wanted to show an interest, but baulked when it came to justifying the extra expense. Whereas foreign strips are distributed by syndicates, resulting in prices as low as Rs 30 for a month of daily strips, a local cartoonist would obviously have to earn at least 500 times as much just in order to pay the rent on a barsati.
Blast From The Past: A Doubletalk strip that appeared in the Sunday Observer, circa 1983
Publishing Western strips is not merely cheaper, it also permits a newspaper to dodge the issue of socially relevant humour. When Blondie throws a jar of mustard at Dagwood’s head, Indian readers are unlikely to think “Oo! Husband abuse!” But if a sari-clad, middle-class, middle-brow Indian Blondie were to follow suit, Indian readers would very likely howl with righteous disapproval. In Bombay’s Sunday Observer edited by Vinod Mehta, where Suki made her debut in a strip called Doubletalk, readers whined about her constantly, calling the strip a “horrible eyesore”, “Double Gawk”, “dragging and brazenly repetitive”. The reason I was able to carry on was that I had my editor’s full support. That was almost three decades ago. Today? I don’t know which newspaper editor would champion a lowly strip cartoonist against sustained reader-rancour.
People talk about humour as if it were something cute, cuddly and inconsequential but really, it’s just the opposite. It’s a vital outlet for releasing pent-up angers and frustrations. It’s not surprising that a lot of humour is scatological. Laughter acts like a neuro-laxative, purging the mind and heart of toxins. If communal hatred, for instance, could be expressed through vicious plays instead of riots, biting satire instead of car bombs, and blasphemous cartoons instead of arson and rape, maybe Indian streets might see fewer and less catastrophically destructive riots.
Sadly, we will never know whether or not that assertion is true. The world is going the other way. Remember sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me? Today the opposite is the norm. Words can inspire hate crusades that eventually engulf lives and trigger pogroms. It’s like the exact opposite of what Neo does in The Matrix—he’s able to “resist” bullets by telling himself they’re only as real as his mind allows them to be. In our world today, something as insubstantial as a single cartoon, or a blogpost, can gradually escalate into a hail of bombs that pulverises individuals, communities and nations.
Cartoons, caricatures and satirical drawings are intended to be rude. The point of rudeness is that it has to be offensive, like a vaccination has to employ real germs, in order to train a person’s immune system to recognise an invading virus and guard against it effectively. When we go to a doctor, we expect honesty and forthrightness, even if the diagnosis is frightening and in that sense “rude”. We accept bitter or painful medical treatments because we want to feel well again. But when it comes to the daily news, we change the channel and burn down newspaper offices if the forecast isn’t sunny all day, all night.
Even today, as I write this, the controversy du jour is Rahul Gandhi’s remarks about the rss. They are reacting like outraged virgins because he compared them to simi, calling both organisations fanatical and fundamentalist. It’s ideal cartoon material, but who can laugh? At any moment hostilities could break out. And why? Because an organisation known for its extreme reactions has been accurately described. Even their reactions to his remarks were extreme, so his point was confirmed immediately.
Journalists and the media are diagnosticians, not doctors. Their task is to identify the countless bleeding sores and gangrenous limbs of a nation. They may suggest cures, they can direct attention to the patient’s medical history. They cannot be expected to perform surgeries but they must be enabled to criticise the surgeons as they cut. They must report on whether or not the instruments are clean. They must be trusted to tell us whether a patient is dead, merely bluffing or in coma.
Humour is like a scalpel. If it’s keen, it cuts cleanly towards the heart of a culture, exposing blocked veins and faulty valves. If it’s blunt, it misses repeatedly, slicing through vital organs and arteries. The foreign cartoons in our papers are a bit like medical reports of other, wealthier, cultures. We smile at their mental tics, their light fevers, their gout. Meanwhile our own culture malingers, invisible except through the distorting lenses of propagandists, parasites and stockmarket analysts.