When I was a kid growing up in India, my first exposure to things science-fictional (sort of) was through a series of fat little books in Hindi that could fit comfortably in my hand. The stories were an indiscriminate mix of earth-bound fairy tales and cosmic voyages, and their flashy covers and melodramatic dialog immediately caught my imagination. Iâ€™d already heard the great epics from my mother and grandmother and these little books seemed to be in the same vein. By the time I was eleven, however, Iâ€™d discovered Asimov, Clarke and Bradbury, and there seemed to be no real SF written by Indians. In my teens I came across the occasional story published by cosmologist and SF writer Jayant Narlikar, but that was it.
Now, many years later, I know that science fiction in India has had quite a history. But in a country where there are eighteen distinct languages apart from English, and thousands of dialects, it is quite easy to be unaware of traditions in other tongues.
I only read in Hindi and English, so it is not surprising I missed, for instance, the rich tradition of SF in Bengali. Good translations from non-English Indian languages to English are a recent phenomenon, as is academic work — see for instance an essay on Bengali SF, the grandmother of Indian SF, referenced here. (I canâ€™t seem to find the original essay on the web any more).
Thus Iâ€™ve discovered that the first Indian SF story (as far as we know currently) was published in 1879, in Bengali. This was followed closely by a work published in 1876 by the brilliant scientist and polymath Jagdish Chandra Bose. Later there were Rokeya Sukhawat Hussain publishing the feminist utopian story â€œSultanaâ€™s Dreamâ€ in 1905, and Premendra Mitra penning his inimitable Ghanada tales in the 1940s. There are traditions in Marathi (cosmologist Jayant Narlikar writes in both Marathi and English) and in Tamil, but I know very little about them. The eminent filmmaker Satyajit Ray wrote science fiction for children. There is also some early science fiction in Hindi but I havenâ€™t gotten my hands on it as yet. I know thereâ€™s modern Hindi SF being written as we speak and I expect to be reading it in the not too distant future. SF related activities are becoming more common in India, including regular conferences from the Indian Association of Science Fiction Studies and an upcoming conference in Varanasi announced here.
There are also many Indian writers writing SF in English. Apart from myself and Anil Menon, who write from distant shores, there are plenty of writers within India turning to the genre. Manjula Padmanabhan, Kalpana Swaminathan, Samit Basu, Payal Dhar, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, are among the names that immediately come to mind.
But what are the things that drive Indian SF? What are its themes and concerns? Where does it resemble or differ from the SF tradition in the West? How did it come to be, in the first place?
None of these questions can be answered fully at the moment, especially with the limited data sets available to us. But my friend and fellow SF writer Anil Menon went on some exploratory journeys not too long ago, and below he shares some of what he found, including some fascinating speculations. (I apologize for the fact that I haven’t had time to articulate real responses to his answers so what follows below is not really a conversation — it sounds like he’s being interviewed by a particularly dim robot — sorry).
But first, a bit about Anil.
Anil Menon was born in Alwaye, India, the second child of a father who loved Malayalam poetry and a mother who did not. This unfortunate circumstance may explain why the child developed a taste for science-fiction. Other than an early six-year interlude in Mwanza, Tanzania, not too far from where his great-grandmother Eve took those first brave human steps over the savanna, he’s spent most of his life in India and the United States. Anil originally started writing stories to try out ideas that had no real place either in his research (evolutionary computation) or professional work (software). But it got out of hand. In 2004, he attended the Clarion West workshop where he learned to say “I’m a writer” without feeling like a total fraud. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Internova, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL:Stories, Shockwave, and From The Trenches. His story “Standard Deviation” was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (2005). He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society’s Parallax Prize. His novel “The Beast With Nine Billion Feet” is scheduled for release in Fall 2008. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I would like to add that what I love about Anilâ€™s stories is the density of their ideas, the often breathtaking use of language, and an emotional depth that is rare in SF, especially in SF by men.
Anil, some time ago you went to India and traveled extensively. What did you learn about Indian SF, the writers, the level of interest among the people you met?
The trip was in 2005. My travel was quite limited, actually. I went to Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Madras, Cochin and Bangalore. Sounds impressive, but the trip missed most of North India and almost all of East India. I didn’t visit any colleges. I let influential people point me to other influential people, a procedure probably guaranteed to miss a Kafka or a Joyce.
In any case, the first surprise was that the Indian writers I met didn’t think of themselves in genre terms. They didn’t see themselves as “mystery writer,” “SF writer,” “literary writer” and so on. For the most part, neither did the publishers (though that’s changing very rapidly). I would describe myself as an “SF” writer, and the smiles were just as polite as if I’d said I was also a woodcutter. On the other hand, both writers and publishers were ferociously divided into “regional” and “English language” camps.
Second, I found much of the published Indian SF– regional and English– to be quite dated. Of course, one of the defining characteristics of genre-lit is that it loves to reheat and recycle its tropes. But still, there was a 50s and 60s feel to a lot of the stories I read. The local bookstores– and I visited quite a few– quickly showed why. There was practically no SF from the 80s, 90s and 00’s. Innovative Indian SF– like Pradip Ghosh’s A Long Day’s Night and Premendra Mitra’s short-story collections– were hard to locate. The SF section in Crosswords– India’s Barnes & Noble– stocked Asimov and James Hadley Chase. No Stanislaw Lem. No Octavia Butler. No Geoff Ryman. No Charlie Strauss. No Gardener Dozois anthologies.
In short, Indian SF writers don’t have easy access to the work of their peers. One would expect that this would have resulted in a Galapagos island, that is, a literature or art-form with a highly idiosyncratic style and attitude. Something like Bollywood, say. Or, Japanese manga. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
No need for violins though. There were also clear indications that a new breed’s emerging. I met writers like Samit Basu and Priya Chhabria, who’ve produced works of astonishing scope. At last year’s Alfaaz held at IIT-K, I met scientists who wanted to be writers and writers who wanted to be scientists. There were writers like Prabha Mallya who are as influenced by Dita von Teese as by Indian folk tales. In fact, Suchitra Mathur, who teaches at IIT-K, is doing some remarkable, near single-handed work in developing Indian SF. The next ten years should be interesting.
What are the languages in which SF in India is flourishing?
English, Bengali and Marathi. There’s some Assamese SF, but I haven’t read any, so I’ll reserve judgment. There’s also some Tamil SF, but it’s limited to a handful of writers. Some regional languages seem to have no indigenous SF at all. Malayalam, my native tongue, is a striking example: its home state, Kerala, has a literacy rate in the 90s, a large and comfortable middle class, space institutions at Thumba, and an extensive tradition of regional literature. But Malayalam has practically no science fiction. It turns out that unlike Maharashtra, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Assam, Kerala was relatively unaffected by the British colonial presence.
Indeed, “Indian” SF seems to have come out of the native experience with the inscrutable British. (The Portuguese and French dominated areas don’t show a similar evolution.) Perhaps it’s satisfying to think that Indian SF originated in a true alien-contact story.
What do you think might be the themes and concerns of the Indian SF you’ve encountered? What do you think it can contribute to the world SF literature?
It’s hard to speak to the themes and concerns of Indian SF, because it’s still early in the day, and the shadows are not long enough. However, since I don’t have facts, I’m free to speculate. I see two distinct contributions that Indian– south-Asian– SF can make.
The first has to do with the importance of place. SF– Western SF– has had a reasonably good track-record at predicting “the” future. I’m rather bitter about the lack of personal jet packs, but let that pass. Robert Bly and James Gunn list about 80 odd non-trivial predictions that SF got right.
My question is this: would it have predicted anything like Mohammed Yunus’ microlending scheme?
Here is an idea that’s repeatedly been proven effective in moving millions of people–entire generations– out of poverty. It’s as simple as a throw of dice and just as subtle too. Could 50s, 60s 70s, 80s and 90s SF have really imagined a Mohammed Yunus?
I don’t think so.
To imagine something like microlending, one needs a close-to-the-ground understanding, a “worm’s eye view,” as Yunus put it. It’s so much easier to imagine miracle crops, energy producing devices, food pills or diseases that remove the source of the problem, than to imagine a lending scheme that hands out sums of money to poor illiterate women, with minimal paperwork, without asking for collateral, and relying solely on social pressure to encourage repayment. And to imagine that such a scheme would produce a 98% repayment rate and move a nation out of poverty requires something more. It requires what James March called “the technology of foolishness.”
Could SF have imagined a Gandhi?
I hope it’s clear where I’m going with this. I’m trying to claim a counterfactual. I think there could have been an SF that could have imagined it. If there had been an SF intensely tied to Bangaldesh and its people, it could have imagined what a young Bangladeshi Economics professor was able to imagine when he learnt that his cleaning staff (“servants”) were unable to secure loans at the local bank. And because I believe this strange counterfactual, I’m hopeful about the possibilities for a south-Asian SF that won’t make the mistake of letting go of a specific place in order to get a grip on a future time. SF will be immensely richer for it.
The other contribution is likely to be more of an epistemological shift. We Indians were (and probably still are) the world’s first postmodern civilization. The late A. K. Ramanujan was perhaps the first to see this clearly. We’ve brought William James’ “buzzin’, bloomin’ confusion” into our religions, institutions, languages, conflicts and beliefs. Everything is layered, open to interpretations, barnacled with amendments, and spoiled rotten with stories. But it’s an error– correlated with wearing pith-helmets apparently– to conclude that “anything goes.” It doesn’t.
But it *is* a worldview that subverts traditional notions of objectivity, rationality, universality, essentiality and other gleaming stainless steel “ity’s” so dear to Victorian physics. The psychology is not linear. For example, in this worldview we often find an intense passion coupled with an equally intense lack of commitment. Sometimes, there’s the opposite situation: a detached stance is coupled to a near-inhuman commitment. Such subversions are often disturbing. As the vehemence of the reactions from traditional quarters towards postmodernist lit crits suggests, something far more precious than “mere” literature is at stake.
My guess is that should south-Asian SF and African SF and south-American SF and other SFs still only gleaming in authors’ eyes ever come to fruition, then “SF” will experience the same “buzzin’, bloomin’ confusion” one finds in bazaars as well as in our heads. Since science fiction fancies it likes estrangement, it’s got a few pleasant surprises in store.
Do you think much of Indian SF is imitative of Western SF or have some writers thrown off that yoke?
It’s hard to tell with the written fiction. We’re all over the place. Premendra Mitra’s speculative fiction doesn’t read anything like Verne or Wells, his contemporaries. On the other hand, he also wrote murder mysteries that Earl Stanley Gardner could’ve xeroxed and sent off to the printers, plus minus a few name changes. Param Jit Kumar’s pulpy “Scourge From the Sky” could be required reading at Area 51, whereas Rushdie‘s equally odd “Grimus” is literary enough to widen the nostrils of Booker judges. Amitav Ghosh‘s “The Calcutta Chromosome” is quite unlike anything I’ve read before (in style, that is), but the book has hardly registered on Indian SF. Now Ghosh writes what Verne always *thought* he was writing, namely, “geographical romances.” So…
But the differences are much clearer if we compare Indian SF cinema to the western equivalent. Indian SF cinema, like the rest of Bollywood, delights in the nine rasas, perhaps to the point of embarrassment. Mike Myers said in an interview that the British were good at comedy, because they were not afraid to look ridiculous. The strength of Bollywood movies is that they’re not afraid to be sentimental. Modern Western arts dreads sentimentality; it dreads emotional involvement of any kind other than that of irony, which of course is a kind of anti-emotion. So the strategy is to place the emotional content, not into characters, but into situations: the world is bombed to hell, the Earth has frozen over, the sky is filled with alien ships, the dragons have returned and so on. But meanwhile, the characters fly around, amused, wisecracking, as cool as the Buddha, even as their numbers dwindle. Indian SF movies are not interested in apocalypses. When E.T. lands in Mumbai in the movie Koi Mil Gaya, the director quickly puts it to work in a Bollywood dance number. Mad Indian Scientists limit their ambitions to taking over Chennai or Mumbai. So on and so forth.
One can already see these two very different dynamics at play in Children of Men vis-a-vis the Hindi movie, Mathrubhoomi. In CoM, the characters are mostly stoic, resigned and grudgingly permitted to holler only in really extreme situations, such a miraculous pregnancy. But Mathrubhoomi, which deals with the near-future consequences of female infanticide, is unabashedly affective and a total stranger to restraint. I found CoM stylized and emotionally hollow. Mathrubhoomi is a frequent embarrassment, but it’s harrowing. I suspect that if Indian SF does “go popular,” then it’ll be along the lines of Mathrubhoomi, rather than CoM. A very good thing.
In what ways has Indian SF, or, indeed, your Indian heritage affected your own stories?
I could’ve been Lord Macauley’s poster child. Salman Rushdie says in the “The Moor’s Last Sigh”:
“Bleddy Macaulay’s minutemen!…English-medium misfits…square-peg freaks.”
That was me he was talking about. In my case, I studied in a Malayalam medium school till the 1st grade, spent the next 7 or 8 years in Tanzania in an English-medium school run by New Zealand missionaries, then returned to Bombay when I was in the 8th grade to a diet of English, Hindi, Sanskrit and Marathi. Talk about being confused…. It took me a while to get over the vapors. Now I am equally uneasy in any situation. :)
But jokes aside, the confusions weren’t about who I was. I have to thank my parents for that. Returning to India had its difficulties, but they were of the tourist-y kind: toilets, hygiene, figuring out the dirty words, handling beggars and so on. There was no doubt I was nothing like my fellow freaks and no doubt that I was exactly like one of them. It was the start of a love affair really, though I was too stupid to realize it. Everything was horrible, wonderful, disgusting, delightful: the curved women on the stone walls, the fully functional ruins, the cheerful people, the incredible higgledy-piggledy customs baggage rules, the Eros-drunk languages, the inexplicable vitality of a 4,000 year old civilization, all of it. That included the evils: the dowry deaths, the caste hatreds, the infanticides, the children raised to be divine prostitutes, the degradation and the filth. It’s a real world, you see, not the impoverished ones we so often encounter ad tedium in fantasy. What more can a writer ask for?
I’ve also realized that the English language is perfect for capturing this world. It’s a total mystery how a language originally devised by Saxons and Germans could have ever evolved to this situation, but there you have it. G. V. Desani’s “All About H. Hatterr” was the first to pull it off, then Raja Rao with his lovely “Kanthapura,” but Rushdie’s work removes all doubts. And if there’s one such way, there’s probably a million.
The fact of India produces in me a thoroughgoing dissatisfaction with my work. I know there’s a large gap between what I want to say and what I say. I’m grateful though, for if the divine is to be found anywhere in play, where else but in dissatisfaction? It keeps me restless, falling towards centers, interested in the next book, interested in the next idea, interested in the next person, inspired and irritated, never reaching anywhere, but nevertheless, always reaching.
Vandana back again. Any thoughts on Anil’s ideas or on Indian SF in general? I have about five thousand responses but will restrain myself to the occasional comment in the discussion section.