Archive for May 5th, 2013

May 5, 2013

The monster and the children’s book

The Monster in Anushka Ravishankar’s Moin and the Monster requires Moin to draw it in order that it may have a corporeal form. Its giant nose, hideous face and fearsomely purple skin turn out to be a bit too much for Moin’s weak artistic skills. Much to its disgust, the Monster must go about looking like this:

I did a very silly interview with Anushka at the Duckbill blog when the second Moin book came out. I asked her a couple of over-inflated, “serious” questions about the book: about the monster’s self-identification as a monster, about its lack of a name and a gender, and so forth. I’m not sure what it says about me that I now think my parody questions focused on an aspect of the book that I think is rather important.

Another recent children’s book (though for younger readers than Moin’s audience) is The Pleasant Rakshasa by Sowmya Rajendran and artist Niveditha Subramaniam. It’s about Karimuga, a rakshasa whose beauty causes the other rakshasas to feel jealous and insecure. Being a saintly sort of person, Karimuga arranges it so that his numerous assets areĀ  distributed among his peers.

There’s already enough in this outline of the plot to suggest that this book is very deliberately doing a couple of interesting things. The rakshasa as “pleasant” and unselfish, for one. I don’t think any twenty-first century children’s book (insert hollow laugh, because you just know there are some authors and publishers who will still enthusiastically prove me wrong) can still disseminate seriously the idea that entire races of sentient beings are fundamentally “bad”. The redistribution of assets, if not property (though beauty is itself a kind of currency); if this blog had very different politics I’d be writing an outraged Are Tulika Books Indoctrinating Our Children With Communist Propaganda? story. And then there’s the association of the rakshasa with beauty. If you grew up on a diet of Amar Chitra Katha and the like you know that rakshasas are mostly hideous, mysteriously olive-green, and can only be beautiful when they want to trick you into wanting sex with them–see for example many depictions of Surpanakha.

Karimuga looks like this:

The other rakshasas were jealous of him.

“Look at his beautiful purple skin!”

“Look at his splendid red eyes!”

“Look at his wonderful hairy legs!”

“Oh, look at his huge belly!”

“And those teeth!”


Karimuga is beautiful because he is fat and hairy with red eyes and yellow teeth. Ravishankar’s nameless “Monster” is unconcerned with beauty–its concern is that it be as physically terrifying as the limitations of a small boy’s artistic skills can make it. Both of them, then, are offering alternative ways of “judging” appearance; one by ignoring traditional literary beauty standards altogether in favour of a much more useful paradigm, and the other by overturning those standards and creating a set of beauty standards that are almost its opposite. Incidentally, Moin’s monster was also supposed to have purple skin (and who can blame it for wanting such a thing).

I think it’s also interesting that part of the monster’s problem is that it cannot be drawn–at least, not well. Particularly when you consider some of Niveditha Subramaniam’s rakshasas:

I think it’s possibly relevant that both of these creatures exist in part outside the clear black outlines that, for example, their eyes (and the face of the green one) have. The green rakshasa also has hairy legs without really having enough leg for the hair to rest on. There’s something decidedly non-Euclidean about all of this; monstrousness, then, is undrawable.

But creating alternative standards of beauty can be as exclusionary as the original ones, as The Pleasant Rakshasa finds. All this new set of attractive traits does is to set up Karimuga as the ideal to aspire to. It’s only when Karimuga is able to share the wealth, to let go of the power that his beauty gives him (while still retaining his glorious yellow teeth because you have to be able to love your body) that any sort of revolution can happen. And Karimuga is happy.


[Or this is all complete nonsense. But you should read both these monster books anyway, they're excellent.]