So I waited until I could see the entire first season at once and binge-watched Ms. Marvel in a couple of nights (my favorite way of viewing the MCU’s mini-series offerings). I wasn’t expecting that much from it; something as actiony and intermittently lighthearted as Hawkeye, perhaps. I was pleasantly surprised. Ms. Marvel is “the story of Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old fangirl of the Avengers who struggles to fit in until she gains her own powers.” Of course she gains her powers by the end of Episode 1, so we don’t see her struggle that long.
I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed it. Mostly because, as with Hawkeye, Marvel Studios took what could have been a simple action-adventure yarn and turned it into a family story. Hawkeye deals with two big character arcs at once; Clint’s fight to tie things up and get back to his family for Christmas, and Kate Bishop’s fight to define herself. Kate was inspired by other heroes (in her case Hawkeye), where Kamala just fangirled superheroes generally. It was fun seeing a superhero convention in a world with actual superheroes. But where the family story in Hawkeye was a bit on the dark side of things, in Ms. Marvel it was the inter-generational story of Kamala, her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother (who happened to be a djin).
Overall, Kamala/Ms. Marvel struck me as a Pakistani-American Spiderman, with all the teen angst and local neighborhood action and none of the tragic elements. Beyond that, I really enjoyed the background and setting of the story.
The family drama was woven throughout the story without dominating it, and at the same time Ms. Marvel stunned me with two choices it made. First, it grounded the story solidly in the Pakistani-American community in New York and did a very good job of portraying Kamala’s family, friends, and neighbors as a spectrum of that community. Kamala’s older brother is piously Muslim, her closest female friend a girl of mixed-heritage embracing both her religious heritage and feminism (a combination really possible only in the west), and her closest male friend (who of course really wants to be her boyfriend) a whitebread American boy. Kamala herself is almost purely self-defined as a fangirl, to the concern of her socially conservative parents. It was really fun to see a story mostly grounded in one of America’s many minority communities.
The other choice that stunned me was Marvel Studio’s decision to pull some very real and very serious history into the story; The Partition.
India has a troubled past. The sub-continent was invaded at least once to create its caste-system, and then Hindi people were conquered by Muslims out of the Punjab, leading to the founding of the eventual establishment of the Mughal Empire and Muslim rule for several centuries. During which time, ethic boundaries mixed a good deal. Eventually the Mughal Empire declined and was bit by bit replaced by British rule and what became the British Raj. The British Raj lasted another century, at which time India finally gained national independence after four hundred years of being ruled by outsiders.
The British Raj didn’t set out to create the religious-ethnic strife that engulfed India. Under both Mughal and British rule, India was legally religiously pluralist and both the Mughals and the British had an interest in stomping on religious sectarian strife. In places like Bengal, where majority-Muslim populations were under the elite rule of Hindu-minorities, strife was built-in as Great Britain began to move towards self-rule of India. Even before that, Hindu elites made life difficult for Muslims now lacking protection of the Muslim Mughal state.
As more and more control devolved to local governing bodies, religious strife increased. A “Pakistani Movement” was born which identified Indians not by their particular local culture or language (India is almost as culturally diverse as Europe), but by their religion–Muslim or Hindu. Two “nations” of people in one sub-continent. The call for a Muslim homeland became the call for an independent Pakistan (“land of the pure”). In 1946 ethnic violence broke out, first in Calcutta and then spreading to Bengal and the United Provinces, Muslim-on-Hindu and Hindu-on-Muslim. Thousands were killed in acts of ethnic cleansing. When de-facto division existed with separatist Pakistan and Bengal, Great Britain had no choice but to either accede to it or try hand over India to an independent Indian government facing an undeclared civil war. In August 1947, England recognized the Dominion of India and Dominion of Pakistan, and began the process of their complete political separation from British rule while guaranteeing a peaceful Partition.
This was a tragic mistake; Great Britain no longer had nearly the number of forces needed to keep peace during the transition. There weren’t enough British soldiers left in India to even try. The violence began almost immediately, and before long ethnic cleansing on both sides of the Muslim-majority/Hindu-majority borders of the new nations was underway. Millions fled for their lives.
Estimates of the slaughter vary, with some high estimates at 2,000,000 dead. The night of panic around the last train to Karachi portrayed in Ms. Marvel glosses over the horror of what happened to those who didn’t make the train.
Many blame the British for the Partition and the horror that followed, but in all seriousness some kind of eventual partition of the sub-continent was geopolitically fated from the days of the Mughal Empire. An independent and religiously divided India would have eventually become an ethnically and politically divided India, and such ethnic splits are never bloodless. The only thing that could have averted it was a continued British dominance over nominally independent Dominions. By the end of two world wars, Great Britain didn’t have the strength for it, and Indian nationalists weren’t going to settle for it.
I appreciated Ms. Marvel for addressing it. It also squarely addressed issues of religious freedom and prejudice in the US for minorities as well, but the portrayal of the Partition made for a counter-balance. In the US relations between our Christian/European religious-ethnic majority and our religious-ethnic minorities (particularly Arab/Muslim) can get raw at times. But with religious pluralism baked into our Constitution and national history, we’ll never see a Partition or anything remotely like it. At least as long as the vast majority of Americans consider themselves Americans first and Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc, second.
God bless America.