Natty Volume 1 and 2
Eric Corbeyran (Writer), Melvil (Artist), Kness (Colours), Celix Ltd (Letters)
Europe Comics, izneo.com
21 June and 13 September, 2017
IZNEO HAS PROVIDED WWAC WITH A VIP ACCESS PASS.
Princess Natty of Orchidhali is bored with her life. She lives on the top floor of an enormous palace, the people she rules over, but has never seen, in the levels below. Her life in the sun, surrounded by glorious gardens that she tends to, is not enough. She wants companionship. Her teacher tries to stress the importance of learning the laws of the land instead of moping about not having friends, but Natty would rather sulk.
To make matters worse, suitors arrive from the two ends of the country to win Natty’s hand. Her meeting with them does not go well. She finds both suitors boorish and arrogant. Natty makes the decision to refuse their offers of marriage, without realising the consequences. A broken promise of this magnitude will lead to war, say the chief advisors to Orchidhali’s King and Queen, and can only be resolved by Natty’s death. However, Natty isn’t one to take this judgment lying down. She needs to escape but that’s easier said than done for someone who has never even passed the palace gates.
Natty finds herself at the lowest levels of the palace, among the “untouchables,” a rarely-seen but much-feared group of individuals who look different and live in squalor. But the more Natty lives among these people, the more she realises that there is more to the “untouchables” than meets the eye.
Despite the fictionalised and exaggerated settings, the Indian overtones in the art are clear. Hindi writing is scattered around and the minarets of the palace and the décor of the throne room are evocative of some of the great palaces of the country. Writer Eric Corbeyran’s dedication at the end of the book mentions a visit to Udaipur which birthed the concept of this tale. Unfortunately, the lens through which we view the story is obviously European, which makes the overt political statement about the caste system Natty aims for appear lopsided and narrow.
A few pages into the first volume, we learn that Natty belongs to the “floral” caste, a noble elite who never deign to mingle with the subjects they rule. The “floral” caste appears to be a more peaceful version of the Kshatriya or warrior caste who made up the bulk of rulers in ancient India. At the very bottom of the fictional caste system are the “untouchables,” who are as ostracised in the comic books as the Dalits or “untouchables” of the Indian caste system are even today. There appear to be no other castes in the fictional setting. The holy advisors look like the Brahmin caste intellectuals, but are never described as such. Also absent are the Vaishya or trade caste and the Shudra or labour caste.
The “untouchables” in the world of Natty are different from the Dalits. Unlike the Dalits, who have traditionally held menial jobs, such as street cleaning, but live all over the country, the “untouchables” in the story appear to belong to different professions, but are categorised by their geographic location in the lower levels of the palace.
The story takes a while to introduce the “untouchables.” Princess Natty’s teacher describes the them as “vile, despicable creatures” who aren’t even human, but actual animals. Natty’s natural beauty would “wither and fade” in the darkness of the “untouchables” home and in their “vile” presence, says the teacher. Her prediction does indeed come true, but not because of the “untouchables” themselves.
While on the run for her life following the disastrous refusal to the princes’ proposals, Natty finds herself accosted by hideous creatures in the palace’s underbelly. These beings are horrifically disfigured, their spines distorted by huge humps on their backs, their hair and skin sallow and covered with a kind of thorny leprosy. Natty manages to escape them with the help of Sami, an untouchable who is not as acutely disfigured. But, it isn’t long before Natty suffers the effects of life away from the sun and begins to understand just what it is like for this particular group of her subjects.
When reading the volumes, one will immediately notice how the body horror element of the “untouchable” caste makes the disparity between the haves and the have-nots obvious. It isn’t just that this group of people are kept impoverished; they aren’t even allowed access to a natural resource like the sun, which, as the story proceeds, we learn is the cause of the deformities plaguing the “untouchables.” Sami, who gets access to the sun through his illegal trade of narcotics, looks much more human than his neighbours.
But, who exactly makes up the “untouchables”? In the second volume, we learn that they are born into the caste, much like it has been in India for centuries, although that is not how the caste system began. The social system was created in ancient India more as a way of categorising the population according to their professions, not their heritage. Unlike the modern version of the caste system, in its earliest form, the caste system was incredibly fluid and not hierarchical, allowing people to switch castes according to their changing occupations.
The current hereditary caste system was established under British colonial rule and has been prevalent for over 200 years. If one casts a superficial eye over India, it is easy to pick up the caste system as it is now as a starting point for an upstairs-downstairs story. But, Natty fails to deliver on its promise of examining political and cultural oppression within a fictional setting. If one is going to make sweeping political observations about another culture, it is imperative (especially in today’s world) to investigate the cause and evolution of said political situation.
The approach writer Corbeyran and artist Melvil have taken in Natty often veers towards satire, but sometimes, comes dangerously close to being offensive. Had the word “caste” not been used, and the setting been tweaked to not obviously reference India, Natty could very easily have been about any country with a class system in place. There are ways to address social structures in fiction, using fictionalised settings and terms, but Natty over-simplifies the caste system to a point where it has little relevance to its origins.
For example, by making the “untouchables” deformed creatures, the story plays into the myth of ugliness as “other.” The Dalits of India are regular people, bowed down by a system that was co-opted by those with money and power to further their own gains. Their oppression is unjust, and India has made great strides since her independence from Britain to stamp out discrimination based on caste. There is still aways to go, but it is important to remember that most Indians have been fighting against this oppression. In fact, one of India’s most influential presidents happened to be a Dalit.
What precisely Natty hopes to say by making the “untouchables” of its world physically abhorrent is unclear. Is it trying to say that our physical differences are a product of our environment? Then why not focus on racial issues in Europe, which has become particularly polemic since the refugee crisis and Brexit? Why choose a setting so foreign and unfamiliar to its target readers?
For instance, Natty’s suitors, Prince Khuru, of a boar-like species, and Prince Langur, a monkey-like species, come from polar opposite ends of the country—the frozen north and the southern desert. Except, that’s not how the geography of India is laid out. Natty’s teacher makes reference to a sacred text called Mahabhahooey, presumably a play on one of the great Indian epics, Mahabharata. There are other references to Raakshas, a demon, as the primary deity, and also that Orchidhali is on the Kebab Peninsula. There is Hindi text, most of it gibberish or out of place, littered everywhere in the panels. These are all instances that scream “India” to readers, but the country is never mentioned once by name. With its mish-mash of Indian terms, one wonders how close Natty is to cultural appropriation territory. It is close. The writers may have found a perfect setting for their story, but they lack enough understanding of the country to bring Indian culture to the fore.
And, that is root of the problem with Natty: it really does the bare minimum to stay true to its Indian roots. The caste system is there only in name; it could just as easily have been about class, race, or gender without the story changing in the slightest.
For a European audience, Natty will feel exotic. It is colourful and different, but the fictionalised Indian culture presented in the book is condensed and transformed enough to have a wide appeal. However, what impression is it giving of a country that the writers and artists don’t belong to? Are they really the best people to tell this story after a single vacation? The lack of historical perspective in the two volumes suggests they aren’t. In the hands of Indian writers, readers would have received a more nuanced portrayal of the caste system and its long-standing effect on the Indian community within and without the country, as well as the slow, yet progressive strides the people of the country are making in abolishing it from society.
As it stands, Natty is fun and interesting, but its irreverence to the country from which it originated does the story and India a great disservice.