Commodification and Consumption of Blood in Arjun Raj Gaind’s Empire of Blood – Emre Misvaklı

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Vampiric elements are generally used to create shock value and horror on the audience, and in 2015 comicbook titled Empire of Blood, Arjun Raj Gaind uses these vampiric elements to strengthen the already horrible image of the material exploitation of the Indians under the British rule. Furthermore, the obsession over blood and its purity is the focal point of the racism presented in the book caused directly by the economic structure and consumption of blood. A Marxist reading of Empire of Blood enables us to see these problematic systems and concepts as well as the inherently hostile relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed more clearly.

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Empire of Blood comicbook tells the story of Tom Lawrence, the child of an English aristocrat family. His relationship with Leela, daughter of the Indian housemaid, and Azad, Leela’s brother, causes him to question the integrity of Empire and the social structure he is a member of. His quest to help the Indian revolt and uncover the truth about the might of the Empire becomes the tale of an oppressed India and a critique of colonial policies and capitalist structure.

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The material exploitation of Indians is shown through the vampiric motif of blood consumption. ‘Aqua Vitae’, a potion created with the blood of the Indians, gives the Englishman supernatural vampiric powers. These powers are shown as quick regeneration and indefatigable might. The victory over the Germans in the great war of the Empire of Blood universe, and later the domination of Europe and Russian lands in the story are directly the cause of these vampiric powers. Since ‘Aqua Vitae’ becomes such an important product, the British rule commodifies the blood of the Indian people. This commodification happens by treating the Indian blood as mere commodity, as something used to pay for food, shelter and even the right to live since a tithe of blood is required to be paid every month. This vampiric commodification enhances the image of this grotesque exploitation of Indians, especially in the light of Marxist criticism.

Very briefly, the materialist philosophy of Marxism aims to create a classless society which as a whole controls the means of production, distribution and exchange. This progress towards creation is believed to come from the struggle for power between diverse social classes. And this materialist philosophy divides the model of society into two; substructure and superstructure. Substructure includes everything to do with economy; raw materials, labour, currency and more. Built upon this economic structure lies the Superstructure which consists of all the cultural aspects of a society such as education, media and family. Marxist philosophy suggests that Superstructure gets directly influenced by the Substructure and its elements. Thus, the economic structure defines the social structure of the country.

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Upon defining ‘Aqua Vitae’ as the final product, we can see how this vampiric motif of blood consumption shapes the Substructure. Raw material of this system is the blood of Indians and, means of production is procreation. Firstly, this shape of the substructure magnifies both the problems of Capitalism and the monstrous oppression the Indian people of Empire of Blood are subjected to. Secondly, Substructure shapes the Superstructure and sires the racism present in the society through creating an obsession over blood.

Marxist philosophy suggests that one of the biggest faults of Capitalism is reification. This school of thought defines reification as Capitalism’s consideration of working people only as a resource, bereft of their humanity. Since ‘life’ itself is commodified, the oppressed Indian people are reified on two levels as labour force and mere cattle to be sucked dry. In other words, through the use of vampiric elements by Gaind, Indian people become ‘things’ rather than humans twofold. This cold and inhuman approach of both Capitalism and vampirism towards humans are shown throughout the book via Ripperjacks and Central Blood Reserve. Ripperjacks are policing units that patrol the Indian slums after curfew. Indians who break curfew or seem like unable to work anymore are either have their blood sucked dry or taken to be sent to Central Blood Reserve by Ripperjacks. Likewise, their very metallic and plague doctor looking costumes symbolizes that lack of emotion towards Indians as well as representing the racist English view of Indians as pestilence. Yet this lack of respect and emotion for human life is more present in the Central Blood Reserve. The rebellious Indian character Azad calls the Central Blood Reserve an abattoir, and fittingly. Unconscious Indians get their bodies defiled and have their blood sucked dry by big mechanical slug like robots. They are constantly shown as hanging dried meat or products ready to process on a conveyor belt. As we can see, the vampiric element of blood drinking amplifies the grotesque nature of this oppression and the relationship between oppressor and the oppressed even more.

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But the most frightening fact of Capitalism is that capital begets more capital. The capitalist can use their gain ‘productively’ i.e. investing capital to gain more. Since the Indian blood is commodified and consumed for power by the Englishman, this exploitation will beget more oppression on the Indian people. On the other hand, the oppressed Indian people can only use their blood to survive. This doomed cycle repeats itself and represented where Leela, sister of Azad, has to bribe the English constables with 20 units of blood for breaking curfew. The English use that blood to distill more ‘Aqua Vitae’, gain enormous power, and hence oppress more Indians. Even from this small scale incident, we can predict the outcome of the tithe system where every Indian is required pay their taxes by blood; domination of the masses first, then the world. This grotesque and vampiric exploitation limits the chances of freedom even when technically means of production, which is procreation in this case, are controlled by the oppressed. A Boston Tea Party like rebellion and disruption of raw material distribution means victory and freedom through extinction, but living means endless slavery.

And it is extra hard for the oppressed Indian workers to fight for their freedom because they cannot use ‘Aqua Vitae’ themselves. Marxist philosophy criticizes the ‘alienation’ of workers under Capitalism. Alienation happens when the workers are forced to do fragmented parts of a process of production. Thus, the workers subjected to alienation have no grasp on the overall product itself. In Gaind’s Empire of Blood, Indians who consume ‘Aqua Vitae’ become dysfunctional addicts called ‘Lotus Eaters’. Although the Indians are the first part of the ‘Aqua Vitae’ production through their blood, they cannot consume it. The oppression they are subjected to is so monstrous that they are alienated towards themselves. This can be seen as a direct critique of both colonial policies India had been subjected to and contemporary economy present in the book. The vampiric element used in the book that is consumption of blood intensifies the concept of alienation; by creating a unique position for the oppressed as both the product and the worker, this vampiric oppression alienates Indians to what they create and their own selves.

This whole template of the present substructure directly affects the social and cultural aspects of both the Indians and the Englishmen to further deepen the alienation of the Indians and to establish the social domination of the Englishmen. Since the economy and the might of the motherland is built around consumption of blood, this vampiric design begets a heavy obsession over blood and its purity. Ergo, the racism present in the book is directly caused by the substructure. This alienation and domination reveal themselves through social institutes and cultural aspects with the posters on the streets, the education of the English aristocracy, the language used in everyday life and the laws.

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Right from the start, the posters on the streets reflect the obsession over blood and the racism caused by this obsession. “Keep your blood pure! Help preserve the sanctity of the empire!” and “You cannot trust the Oriental […] Support the war effort.” Posters are on every corner, and the Indian rickshaw drivers and other working people are constantly under the psychological pressure of these. This obsession over purity of blood is directly bound to the commodified state of the Indian blood. If interbreeding were to be legal, the quantity of raw materials would diminish which would affect both the economy and the main sustenance of their vampiric nature, and the line between the oppressor and the oppressed would get blurred. This always present fear of the capitalist oppressor is heightened through the vampiric motifs because it is backed up with the basic instinct of survival. And this instinct inherently causes the hostile relationship between the vampire English and the oppressed Indian. In order to protect this status of the relationship, the English aristocracy educates their young accordingly. Through the creed of ‘Blood is truth, race is identity and, obedience is service.’ The youth is encouraged to keep this economic and social structure intact. On the same note, the Indians get oppressed through generations and obedience becomes a second nature. It will be as hard for this mentality to heal for the oppressed as it will be easy for the oppressed to keep their social dominion. This mentality is even present when the Indians try to protest peacefully. When the Indians protest the oppression by burning their citizen passes, they get repressed by the Imperial police. One of the protestors pleads for non-violence as “This is a peaceful protest, sahib. There is no need for violence.” Even when they are fighting against independence, for their freedom from the oppressors, they address the English as sahib. Although the words does not translate directly to mean owner, it carries the same connotations with boss and esquire. Thus, the mentality of inferiority shows itself as an inherent aspect after being subjugated for years. Also, the depiction of the laws and the English court directly represents the obsession over blood. When Tom Lawrence, the protagonist, is found in violation of ‘trafficking indecently with a native’, he becomes wanted for ‘Blood crime’ instead of treason. Thus, the state and the blood are seen as equal concepts by the Empire. Later when Tom is caught, his blood does the testifying through the machines bound to the judge. He is not given any opportunity to defend or explain himself because for the English, blood is truth. These elements show how the vampiric Substructure effects the Superstructure i.e. the social aspects of the country. When consumption of blood is the basis of economy, the media, the education system, the language and the laws are directly built around it. This focalization of blood even blinds the English to the awful truth that they are drinking tainted blood which they detest so much. Since nations are not build around just what the people believe in but also what they collectively ‘forget’; this ugly elephant in the room is never mentioned. The hypocrisy of their racist remarks towards the Indians are constantly repressed and hidden by their greed and capitalist system.

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            As seen in the Marxist reading of Empire of Blood, consumption and commodification of blood directly affects both the economic structure and the social structure of the country. Arjun Raj Gaind’s use of vampiric elements to depict the Indian subjugation enhances the already monstrous nature of colonialism and the exploitative quality of capitalism over the Indian people; they get reified, alienated and bound. Furthermore, these vampiric elements magnify the social problems and the hypocrisy of racism present in the relationship of the oppressor and the oppressed.

Gaind, Arjun, and Enrique Alcatena. Empire of Blood. Graphic India, 2015.

Presented at Pamukkale University PACES 2018.

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