Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Forgotten Danish Cartoon Strip and the Way We Eat Chicken

(Moco, a forgotten Danish Cartoon strip)

People in north Kerala read Mathrubhoomi weekly, in central Kerala it was the rule of Malayala Manorama weekly. In south, we proudly read Kalakaumudi, which was a recent launch in 1970s. While both Mathrubhoomi and Manorama could cut across the invisible north south boundaries made distinct by curious differences in language, culture and eating habits, Kalakaumudi most remained as a South side weekly and took its own time to become a pan Kerala magazine. People read each magazine for different reason; Mathrubhoomi exuded both literary verve and a sense of conservatism, Malayala Manorama treaded along a middle path entertaining mostly the semi-literate and low brow-ist readers. Kalakaumudi, in a way set the editorial pattern for many other magazines which would start in 1990s; the first half of it had daring investigative political reports and the second half was a treasure trove of modern literature. M.S.Mani and S.Jayachandran Nair, an editor-duo worked hard to make Kalakaumudi a pride of the reader.

( a recent cover page of Kalakaumudi)

It was mid 1970s. India was reeling under the Emergency and its aftermath. I was hardly seven or eight at that time. My father being a political activist and a reformist subscribed most of the journals then published in Kerala and my mother was an avid reader of literature, eking out time for reading from her domestic as well as professional responsibilities and saving up money to build a home library slowly but steadily, which satisfied my quest for reading as a young boy. I eagerly waited for the latest issue of Kalakaumudi, brought by the newspaper boy every week on the stipulated day. What attracted me most in this journal at that time was a small strip cartoon which did not have any name. Each issue carried two or three cartoon strips, spread out in different pages almost giving a pleasant surprise to the reader. The cartoon had no title and no dialogues. Each cartoon had three columns and invariably in one of them there would be a vertical inscription along the dividing line, which read MOCO. As we did not have any search engines in those days, we called it Moco and almost had decided that the name of the protagonist was Moco. Hence, my mother called his wife (a spoiler of Moco’s adventures) Mocochi. Looking at this cartoon strip just before sleeping, lying down on one side of my mother brought smile to our lips.

 (Indira Gandhi and Leonid Breshnev, the then Soviet Union president)

Those were the days of India’s or rather Indira Gandhi’s tilt towards the Soviet Union for cultural and militaristic support. So more than the American popular culture we had Russian popular culture to grow up with. Stories of Leo Tolstoy, translated and illustrated folk tales distributed in Kerala by the Prabhat Book House, Russian calendars that extolled their achievements in the fields of astronomy and agriculture and the grand literature of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and so on were the cultural backdrop against which we grew up. An occasional documentary or cartoon films that we could see in Trivandrum museum were from Russia. Before we knew any name of the western publication houses, we were fully aware of the publication brand, Raduga, which was a major Russian publishing house. Hence, naturally we thought MOCO was a Russian cartoon. And without any speech bubbles and specific cultural suggestions we thought it could be from anywhere in the world but it was satisfying to believe that it came from Russia. For us then all good things came from Russia.

 (one of the Moco strips currently available online)

To tell the truth, I have always been very curious to know about MOCO. The reason is slightly un-academic though. If I say cooked or fried chicken was the reason that inspired me to know more about MOCO, one would feel that I am exaggerating. But that is the truth. In our childhood, with India holding up its protected nationalist economic policies, the markets were starved of modern products. Our food staples were always the usual fares; preferred meat was that of buffaloes or cows (we called it then beef generally. Though India is inching towards a total ban on beef for the coercive political reasons, Kerala is still one of the high beef consuming states in India and you would surprised to know that Maharastra where a strict beef ban is in place tops the chart). Vegetables were stereotypical and thankfully more organically produced. Eating chicken was a luxury as there were no organized poultry farms or chicken import from the neighbouring states as we see today. Hens and cocks were reared at most of the homes mainly for eggs rather than for their meet. Therefore people in Kerala ate chicken only on very special occasions like Christmas or special dinners. Killing a chicken from the backyard was an emotional as well as ethical affair in those days therefore the life expectancy of these fowls was more than what is today.

The cartoon strip MOCO had at times a dinner scene in which we found a ‘dressed’ fowl on a plate with its two legs raised up towards heaven; two wavy lines that went up showed that the cooked bird was just taken out of the oven. It looked so tasty then. Our mouths used to water when we saw that particular frame. As there was nothing to tell us that it was a chicken (it could have been a duck, a turkey or any bird), we assumed that it was one. We craved for eating chicken but in vain. I remember when the poet Kumaran Asan’s birthday was celebrated in our neighbouring village on the month of April every year, one benevolent uncle used to feed us chicken curry and appam. Kumaran Asan who in his poems propagated the ideas of non-violence was somehow remembered wistfully by me in the beginning because of this chicken association. People refrained from eating chicken because of economic reasons as well as emotional reasons. Killing a home grown chicken was a crime, felt by many. To neutralize the guilt of killing a poor bird in Kerala we had developed a maxim that went like, ‘the sin of killing would be erased with the eating of it’. However, I remember most of the women resisted killing a chicken and the abattoir in back yard was often handled by men who had been dreaming of eating chicken on a Sunday afternoon and obscenely eying the proud hens and cocks loitering around the courtyard minding their own business.

MOCO disappeared from the pages of Kalakaumudi after a few years. The magazine also took many avatars by changing its looks, content and even changing the editor. S.Jayachandran Nair went on to start Malayalam Vaarika but he did not carry over MOCO to the new publication though he could wean away the start writers and artists to his fresh editorial venture with the New Indian Express. My curiosity about MOCO simmered down as time went by. At times I used to think wistfully about this character. Perhaps, he was indirectly responsible for many glad eyed cartoon characters in the world. MOCO was married man and a declared skirt chaser. But each time his attempts to get a young woman in his bed were spoiled by his obese wife ‘Mocochi’.  In this way this cartoon based itself on a cheating husband and an unrelenting spoiler of a wife. They too have their nice moments and mind it, those moments are propped up by Moco only to hide the nubile one behind the curtain or under the bed. Moco and Mocochi had a son, a small version of Moco and the expression on the Moco Jr’s face was that of a child crook; really the father’s son. As none spoke anything in this cartoon strip, we did not know what they were talking to each other. The actions were enough to conjure up mischievous conversations all by ourselves.

Finally, my interest in the topic of chicken consumption in India and particularly in Kerala took me to MOCO again. And with the help of Google, I found out that MOCO was a Danish cartoon. Created by Jorgen Mogensen and Casper Cornelius, this cartoon strip was started as a Pantomime cartoon in 1940s. The name of the protagonist, which I thought was Moco all this while is Mr.Alfred and his wife is Mrs.Alfred and the son is Alfred Jr. A Pantomime cartoon is something that does not have a dialogue and initially it was created for scuttling the problems of translations when it was syndicated to various publications in different countries. Though it was a Danish cartoon, it appeared first time in Le Figaro, the French magazine, where the character was identified as Presto. Later on the syndicating agency P.I.B took it and rebranded it as MOCO by taking two letters each from the names of the creators. Moco became a household name in Australia and the USA, from where it got syndicated to many other countries. Moco was a bold experiment in cartooning because Alfred the protagonist could transcend time and become a character anywhere in the world any time of history. He could be a Roman, an Arab or even an Indian in certain strips. However, considering the thematic orientation of the cartoon strip (skirt chasing which was detrimental to the family concept of the conservative America), in the US, this cartoon was seen as a low browistic one catering to the semi-literate class. Whatever it was, the appeal of the cartoon was global to certain extent.

Today, perhaps very few people remember MOCO in Kerala. My experiment proved it beyond doubt. I sent the picture to my mother and sister via Whatsapp and asked them to identify the character; unfortunately those two people who had laughed a lot looking at this cartoon years back, have absolutely forgotten him. I just wondered whether this oblivion came from the consumption of chicken, a blow of fate. MOCO had allured with his cooked chicken. Today we eat a lot of chicken. The change in global economy has changed our eating habits and chicken tops the non-vegetarian menu in India today. Market studies show that there is a 12% growth in chicken consumption in every year in India. Kerala is a very special case. The data of chicken consumption make sweep you off the feet. Kerala has a total population of 33 million of which 80% eat chicken on a regular basis. Kerala’s monthly consumption of chicken is 5000 tonnes of which only 264.3 tonnes are produced in Kerala itself. Rest is imported. In a year Kerala spends an average of Rs.2844 crore for eating chicken and each year Rs.1752 crore goes out of Kerala in chicken business. And rightfully, out of the five obese states in India Kerala stands second, a real gain indeed! When I think of those days when we had to look at a cartoon strip and imagine the taste of chicken, the change that has taken place within forty years is enormous. Moco has been forgotten by most of the Keralites but they have carried forward one thing from the cartoon strip: the chicken.  

No comments: