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India Alert #4

Chris Claremont.

It is no secret that I do not think very highly of his work. He may have reinvigorated the X-Men franchise but honestly, most of his stories are just plain silly (he created Mojo, for heaven's sake). He also refuses to go away, insisting on completely trampling on ideas thought up by better writers on the X-Men titles.

But this rant post is not about Chris Claremont's work. Its to reveal an interesting piece of trivia about the man.

Chris Claremont has never met an Indian.

No, I'm serious. Surprising as it may sound in this cosmopolitan age - the way the man writes Indian characters makes it amply clear that he does not personally know a single person of South Asian origin.

Lets start with the two biggest Indian characters written by Claremont - NEAL SHARRA/SHAARA and KARIMA SHAPANDAR. No typos, I assure you. That's them on the left. NEAL SHAARA (sometimes spelt as SHARRA - Claremont clearly can't make up his mind), is a boy from our very own Calcutta (which is either in Assam or Bangladesh or both, according to our man). His daddy is the chief of the Indian National Police (huh??) and owner of posh tea estates. KARIMA is a policewoman who Neal falls in love with.

Both these characters have their origin told in X-Men Unlimited #27. Neal's entry is accompanied by a little write-up on Calcutta by Claremont that is clearly filched from Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Apparently, he thought that by throwing facts like Calcutta's population density in their face, readers would ignore the fact that he had clearly never heard of the place before he wrote the story.

But all this is besides the point. Can someone please tell me how Claremont got it into his head that SHARRA and SHAPANDAR are normal Indian surnames. Call them Patel or Sharma or Murthy or something. In fact he could have even picked up the nearest issue of the TIME magazine and used the first Indian name he came across - considering he had a throwaway Pakistani character named Benazir in one issue, that's not unexpected even. In fact, naming him Rajiv Gandhi would be better than NEAL SHARRA. Interestingly, Google informs me that Sharra and Shaara are common surnames - in Egypt and Ireland respectively.

Since these two are reasonably major characters, I will devote individual posts to them later. But lets now talk about background characters. Two minor characters in titles written by Claremont within the past 6 months have Indian characters. It seems Marvel have been nudging him to add a little diversity to his titles. Looking at the result, one wishes they hadn't. Here's a panel from Uncanny X-Men #473.

Ladies and gentlemen - meet AMINA SYNGE! One presumes that Claremont intended her name to be Singh, which lessens his crimes somewhat. But again, he has never read any book or newspaper which has a character named Singh, or he would have known how to spell it.

I'm also a bit confused about the religion of this woman. The bindi suggests Hindu - you know how ALL Hindu girls wear bindis all the time, even in Britain. However, she's named Amina, which suggests she's Muslim. A minor quibble, to be sure, but a little research to improve character believability never hurt anyone.

But if you thought Claremont's India Quotient was getting better, observe this panel from New Excalibur #4.

Deep Breath. MUAHARAM!! What the fuck kind of a name is MUAHARAM RAM? Its like a portmanteau between Muahaha! and Ram Ram! But please be sure to notice how Claremont flashes his knowledge of the modern world - Bangalore and IT. How up-to-date we are, no? I have a feeling he got the idea of introducing the chaaracter after seeing a headline in TIME magazine. If only he had actually READ it.

I think there must have been a conversation between Joe Quesada (Marvel editor) and Claremont that went something like this:

JQ: Chris - we've been getting come feedback from new readers, and we think you should have more Indian characters in your book.

CC: But Warpath[1] is making a comeback in Uncanny, and I think they're using Forge[1] in New.

JQ: Um, I mean Indians from India.

CC: Oh yeah, that place - but I already put that guy Shaara in.

JQ: Yeah, I'd been meaning to ask - how did you come up with the name?

CC: Oh yeah, so this was a good one. There's this brown guy at my local 7-11 called Shah something. So I took that name and added Raa so it would be musical and Indian like. Sha-Ra, get it?

JQ: (sighs). Anyway, we need some more. Why don't you have someone named Singh? Thats a pretty common Indian name.

CC: Oh right, Synge. Like John M. Synge[2]? Didn't know he was Indian. Anyway, thats good. But wait - you're gonna love this. So, my nephew lost his job to some IT people in Bangalore. So I'm putting in this IT guy from Bangalore in New Excalibur. And I'm calling him Muharram. You know like those brown people.

JQ: You're thinking of Middle Easterners. And most Indians are Hindus, not Muslim. And I don't think...

CC: Hindu, huh? Then I'll call him Muaharam Ram like that Hindu god fellow. How's that?

JQ: Umm, see Chris - some Indians have objected to having their names spelt incorrectly in our comics, so I thought...

CC: Come on! Its not as if anyone there reads comics. And aren't they all illiterate or something?

JQ: Well, it is the second largest English reading population in the world, but... whatever you say, Chris. (leaves resignedly).

Now before I end my already overly long post, I will point out that Marvel titles not written by Claremont are introducing Indian characters all the time. Rajani Dhama, Reema Singh and Paras Gavaskar (on the right) are all supporting characters in Marvel stories - and they're believably written.

As a final example of someone who can point India out on the map, here's two panels from Ultimate X-Men #100 written by Mark Millar.

Mr. Pandya dies in the next panel. He's completely a throwaway character. But for a man whose life span was exactly two panels, he's remarkably believable. Hell, I know people just like him. Unfortunately, these examples are lost on Claremont.

My final message to Chris is - "Shaala Gandu". Go look it up.

[1]: Native American X-Men
[2]: Thanks to Teleute for pointing out the existence of J.M. Synge

I always thought about the Shapandar, Bengal/Bangladesh thing myself. Just thought I must have read it wrong.

Hey, why have you internalized my J.M. Sunge theory? I want credit on that. :(

*Synge, Synge - not Sunge.

You gotta write about those new indian comics coming up, i remember seeing a rob liefield-ed hanuman or ram or something somewhere on the net last year.
At least these guys can claim ignorance. Those are supposedly from indian artists and writers.
The worst of the worst is spiderman india. I read two issues. God-dammity-damn. Might as well have picked up a hardy boys novel.
Btw, I'm at www.desivision.tv nowadays.

Raju - Nope. Its exactly as you read it. To make matters worse, the Marvel Directory lists Neal as being Bangaldeshi, while in the titles he's always written as being an Indian from Assam and Calcutta simultaneously.

Teleute - Credit is given. Happy now?

Anangbhai - You must mean Ramayana Reborn by Virgin Comics. They've only released the artwork, and apart from the cover by Alex Ross, its seems very weird. But I also saw Virgin's previews of Devi and Sadhu and the latter seemed interesting, though the former looked more like Witchblade than a Hindu goddess.

Firstly, there's a new post on your blog. Which makes me glad.

Secondly, I thought I was the only one irked at Chris Claremont's collossal ignorance. Y'know 'Karima ' is supposed to be a hindu name, no less, 'cos I'm quite sure its mentioned somewhere in 'House of M' series that she's in a perneial conflict because violence is against the Hindu belief-system of this omega sentinel.

There's more, even Alan Moore has introduced an Indian character called 'Hira Manish' in his 'Watchmen'. And even though I was secretly pleased by this coincidnce ('cos her surname is my first name), what kind of an Indian name is that for a female.

Coming to Mark Millar's New X-Men (or was it ultimate), don't forget Kavita Rao.

And, did you notice the views of Robert A. Heinlein on hinduism in 'Stranger In A Strange Land'. Now I'm nowhere close to a fundamentalist, in fact I'm largely an atheist. But he calls Hinduism 'Pornographic trash'. That's right. Not that I expect the westerners to comprehend a religion so complex. Even when the world is coming around to the merits of multiple deities, which makes right and wrong kinda vague, and fundamentalism, at least a difficult ideology to adopt.

In the same breath, I read 'American Gods' recently and must admit that I was impressed by Neil Gaiman's more-than-decent knowledge of the few Indian deities and demons he has mentioned therein.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

@G9: I actually thought the promotional artworks for Ramayana Reborn were kinda cool,what with The Alex Ross hismself doing the cover. 'Devi' idea has already been used by Raj Comics (remember Nagraj, Dhruv, Doga?) since they have a very similar character called 'Shakti'. But the 'Sadhu' idea, again, is quite novel. Let's wait for the execution, cos Spiderman India was a huge letdown. Can anyone tell me where I can lay my hands on Bombaby (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombaby_the_Screen_Goddess).

M - Excellent point about Karima's religion. In fact, I remember the bit you're talking about - it was in Claremont's Excalibur just before House of M. I think Karima was having a conversation with Callisto. And Karima insisted on saying things like "By the Devi!", which I am yet to hear any Indian say. Honestly, people who don't know enough about Hindu culture should just not write characters as Hindu.

Kavita Rao wasn't a bad character though - the only quibble I had was that Cassaday drew her sari a little short, ending above the ankle. And that was Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, not Morrison's New X-Men. Again, there were some Indi-goofs during Morrison's run, but nothing very severe.

I must also admit that I haven't read Stranger in a Strange Land, but I will now see if I can get it. Gaiman is always brilliant, of course.

As for Ramayana Reborn, I'm not sure I share your enthusiasm - lets see which way it goes, ultimately.

Finally - I haven't found Bombaby anywhere. None of my usual comic sharing groups have it. I am completely stumped.

I have to admit to being a bit underwhelmed by Gaiman's Indian characters, though of course he shines compared to Chris Claremont, for whom some interesting and inventive punishment should be devised. That kind of zero (or negative quantity) research would NEVER get past the critics in prose. But of course till recently prose travelled across internatinal borders into other markets much more easily. Now that exposure is coming to comics, we can expect people like Chris to be hoist on their own petards pretty quickly. Kudos G9 for tarring and feathering same! BTW, has anyone watched any of a rather dire Japanese anime called Arjuna?. That's another one for the books.

Muchly obliged. :)

actually, gaiman's indian characters are pretty weak compared to his dealings in other mythologies. Didnt good omens have something called the shiv of kali?

thanks for posting.

Indeed, and the woman at teh world's end inn is supposed to be kali too, or is it lakshmi? he only gets the number of arms right. he also uses the Bhartrihari legend for the back story of that guy who's one of the immortals (can't recall his name) Hob Gadling's friend. But it's all very League of EX G if you know what I mean. Did you see the movie? OMG! And WTF! too.

And I like Alan Moore, but in one episode of Top Ten (Godz Bar, I think), there's something really offensive about 'Kali' scratched as graffiti on the toilet's wall.

And erythrocyte, I think "Rogan Gosh" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogan_Gosh) deserves a mention too, although I haven't read it, and dn't know how good it is.

Rimi B - It seems time has finally caught up with Claremont. His health is apparently not what it used to be, and they've already signed new writers on for 12 issues each on all the books he was hitherto writing. So we won't see him for another year at least, and probably never again.

Haven't seen Arjuna, but did spot a manga version of Buddha at Crossword, which involved rather graphic orgies, though I don't recall those in the Buddha legend.

And please do NOT mention LXG the movie on this blog. We have rules, you know.

Toots - Glad to hear it.

Samit - I wouldn't call Gaiman's Indian characters weak. True, they're not particularly well fleshed out, but then they're never major characters, so that could explain that.

m - Rogan Gosh, huh? Thanks for that bit of info. I will hunt for it pronto.

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