In Search of Indian Science Fiction: A Conversation with Anil Menon

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. I’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, I’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 can’t seem to find the original essay on the web any more).

Thus I’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 “Sultana’s Dream” 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 haven’t gotten my hands on it as yet. I know there’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 Anil’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’sAll 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.

Thanks, Anil!

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.

58 comments on “In Search of Indian Science Fiction: A Conversation with Anil Menon

  1. Cheryl says:

    On behalf of the inscrutable British I hereby apologize for infecting you with science fiction. I trust that teaching you to beat us at cricket will more than make up for it. (Well, the Australians seem happy with a similar deal.)

    Seriously though, I do have a question. Back in 2004 there was a conference on Commonwealth Science Fiction in Liverpool. A Mr. T.M.J. Indramohan presented a paper on Indian SF that talked about TV/movies and Hinduism. He explained about how the great Indian epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, if I remember correctly) had been made into films, and all the rushing about in the sky of the Hindu gods required an awful lot of SFnal special effects. His thesis, as best I recall it (and it was 4 years ago so I may be misrepresenting the poor fellow), was that being brought up a Hindu predisposed one to liking science fiction because one was used to tales of adventure on a grand scale. Any thoughts?

  2. You are quite right Vandana when you point out towards the perils of multilingualism in India’s sf context.Yes its a weakness in India’s global representation of its rich traditions of not only sf but other forms of literature as well. Since the works done in the genre and even in mainstream sf here have not largely been translated into English these are often overlooked even by Indian writers. Its painful that the contributions in Hindi -the official language of India are always omitted in such discussions and the reason may be just ignorance or a biased attitude.Your attention is drawn to this article though a concise one and you may perhaps appreciate the efforts made in Hindi sf so far.
    http://indiascifiarvind.blogspot.com/2007/12/science-fiction-in-hindi-more-musings.html
    Your attention is also drawn to the discussions on many facets of Indian sf here on this forum.
    You are suggested to go through these discussions in leiusure times to appreciate the recent developments-
    http://in.groups.yahoo.com/group/indiansciencefiction/
    Cheryl
    Please see this –
    http://indiascifiarvind.blogspot.com/2008/04/mahabharata-as-science-fiction-epic.html

    and this to have an idea about what Indian sf writers are talking about on mythology and sf. –

    http://in.groups.yahoo.com/group/indiansciencefiction/msearch?query=mythology+and+science+fiction&submit=Go&charset=ISO-8859-1

    Long ago Ursula le Guin commented that Sf is a contemporary mythology and i endorse her views.
    _______

  3. Ashok Banker says:

    I politely request that my name be deleted from the introductory section of this article. I object to the term ‘Indian SFF’ and to the suggestion that I engage in literary copulation with such a beast.

  4. GlenH says:

    Since when was likening writing SF and F to bestiality polite?

  5. Hello, Ashok,

    My “definition” of Indian SF is at this point only “SF written by Indians,” something I am curious about because I didn’t encounter it in my childhood. I am not trying to pigeonhole it in any manner or label SF writers from India in any way. Some Indian writers don’t like to call themselves Indian SF writers (I think Anil is among them — correct me, if I’m wrong, Anil), while others (like me) have no problem with the term and don’t consider it anthing like a party membership where one has to conform to a pre-existing set of beliefs. But the point is that I wasn’t labeling you or anyone else in this manner — in the paragraph where your name appeared I was merely talking about writers from India who are writing SF in English.

    However I respect your sentiments so have removed your name from the list.

    On a related note, if there is such a beast as Indian SFF that goes beyond my “definition” of “SF by Indians,” I don’t expect that it will have any one over-riding characteristic or theme or imperative — it will be more like a shape-shifting chimera. Given that India is a land of a billion people with five billion opinions! Long may that last.

    Vandana

  6. Hi Cheryl,

    I hope Anil will reply as well but in the meantime I thought I’d jump in with a comment or two.

    Speaking for myself, I think that the broad canvas and cosmic imaginings of the old stories definitely was a factor in turning me on to science fiction. I don’t think this is restricted to Hindus necessarily since almost anyone in India would have a hard time escaping the great epics or their Bollywoodian descendants.

    One of the things about being brought up in a household that was traditional in many ways was that stories were not sanitized (or, horror of horrors, Disneyfied) for the kids. So from a tender age I was exposed to themes that involved love, loss, betrayal, blood-sucking demons and flying chariots. It seems that currently in both India and the U.S. (and the U.K.?) there seems to be an attempt by well-meaning people to sanitize literature for the little ones. (I don’t know if this is a fair statement but it is consistent with my experience). Pity if so.

    Vandana

  7. Anil Menon says:

    Hi Cheryl,

    My two paisa…

    Hindu mythology does talk about stuff like flying vehicles, world-nets and mantra-guided missiles. But I don’t think we really had a science-fiction tradition till the British arrived. However, we seem to have had a speculative-fiction tradition that’s remarkably postmodern in temperament.

    Science makes a distinction between fact and fiction. Postmodernist thought does not. I think we see this in medieval Indian thought as well. There’s a deep belief in the power of language to transcend reality– a belief in the irrelevancy of material facts– and this idealistic worldview produced a literature quite different from the works you find in the Western Canon. Works that label themselves “Indian SF” sometimes miss the point. For example, in the popular Bollywood “SF movie” Koi Mil Gaya, the aliens are contacted using the “universal frequency” OM. This odd inability to separate religious thinking from science is one of the legacies of the idealistic worldview. I think it’s a worldview that encourages fantasy-fiction but not science-fiction.

    The British changed everything. The aliens had arrived after all. Could spaceships, anal-probes and mutant ants be far behind? By 1886, the great botanist J.C. Bose was already writing a story that anticipated the butterfly effect (Palotok Toofan).

    Anil

  8. Anil Menon says:

    Vandana,

    I have no objection to being called a writer, science-fiction writer, or even, Indian SF writer. Indian SF writers could be a granfalloon– Vonnegut’s term for a group of people who imagine a connection where none exists– but if so, hey, here’s to happy delusion.

    Anil

  9. Ashok Banker says:

    Vandana, thank you for that very gracious gesture. (Unlike the person who thought I was talking about ‘bestiality’ of all things!) I like what Anil says in his response above. In a sense, what I write is wholly Indian fiction, in the Indian epic tradition, which as even Cheryl quite charmingly points out (hi, Cheryl!) predates SFF as the west knows it. Today SFF has come to seem like a very exclusive ‘boys own’ club with very strict definitions of what is SF, F, H, Dark Fantasy, Military SF, and so many sub-sub-sub-genres that sometimes I wonder why they don’t just call it Fiction and embrace all into the fold. Isn’t good fiction simply good fiction?

    I object to the term ‘Indian SFF’ on the grounds that it implies an Indian embracing of the western SFF tradition, which I don’t attempt to do at all, contrary to opinion. I see myself very much as trying to go back to the roots of Indian epic storytelling and finding a new form, a kind of hybrid beast (hence the ‘beast’ reference earlier, not in a sexual sense!) that romps and frolics through Indian tropes–pushpaks and maya, instead of Ramjets and sorcery, to simplify briefly–and to follow a pathway that is neither SF, F, Dark Fantasy, Military SF, Heroic Fantasy, S&S, or any existing category, but a wholly new category altogether, or perhaps a very old one, the oldest of all, before there were chain stores and any need for categorization, apartheid, and all these separatist pigeon-holing.

    I also object on the same grounds that Amitav Ghosh objected to the Commonwealth Award, because ‘Indian SFF’ implies that we are a sub-sub-sub-genre of the western SFF genre. In the same way that “Bollywood” implies an imitation of “Hollywood”. Do you see what I mean? I’m by no means rabid about it or even touchy. But yes, I would rather stand alone without a genre, than be filed away in what I see as a non-genre, or an imitative one.

    I’m a huge fan of SFF of all nationalities, irrespective of nationality in fact. But as Anil points out quite intelligently, in India storytelling not only predates SFF, it predates literature in the western sense and structure of the term. The story-cycle, circular ‘wheel’ of epic cycles, is wholly unlike western genrefied storytelling. Neither is superior, both are valid in their own ways. They are simply different. And I would like to assert, and take affirmative action, in being recognized in my own right as an Indian writer first and foremost, regardless of the genre in which I choose to write. At one point, I was called the ‘first Indian writer of crime fiction’. Later, the ‘first Indian writer of television serials in English’, then the ‘the first Indian SFF writer’. I find all these terms odious.

    Calling me an ‘Indian SFF’ writer is no different from someone calling you a ‘woman SFF’ writer or even, a ‘woman SFF writer of colour’. Someday, we’ll be all standing in sub-genres of our own, divided by high walls over which we shout ‘Halloooo there!’ to each other.

    If you wish to call me just an ‘Indian’ writer, that’s one thing. An ‘SFF writer’, that’s fine too, since I have written SFF (but not only SFF). But let’s dispense with the ‘Indian SFF’ writer, ‘women SFF writer’, ‘Indian SFF writer of colour who also happens to be left-handed, wears jewellery, and dances the jig’ and similar sub-categories.

    And let’s not forget that I no longer permit my work to be published anywhere outside India, and have stopped submitting to American SFF publishers in protest at this very exclusionism and profiling! I would rather not be read than misread.

    All the best. Look forward to reading more by you–without seeing my name or work mentioned, in any context.

  10. Bill Ectric says:

    This is absolutely terrific.

    I thought about commenting on some great point in every paragraph, but I’ll limit myself to this:
    The microlending scheme fills me with hope, once again, about what “ordinary people” can accomplish. In the midst of all this worry about the economy and war, I can talk to people around the world on the internet. People can trade, buy, or sell books, through the mail, and 99 times out of 100, both parties will deliver what they promised. It’s individuals, under the radar, working together.

    Now, what’s the deal about Captain Nemo being Indian? I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a long time ago, but I don’t remember it discussing his nationality. Then I see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and he seems Indian. Somebody told me his character was expanded on in Mysterious Island, which I haven’t read.

  11. Anil Menon says:

    Bill,

    Ref: About Captain Nemo being Indian.

    You’re right in that there’s nothing about it in 20K Leagues. It’s spelled out in the Mysterious Island. Verne wanted to make him a Polish rebel (against the Russians), but Russia happened to be a BFF of France at the time, and Verne’s editor pressured him to find some other ticked-off group. Enter the Sepoy Mutiny. Nemo became an Indian prince, Dakkar, fighting to free his country from the British. Which left Verne’s English translators with a tricky problem… The net result was a series of mis-translations in which Nemo’s origins story is mumbled over in various ways. I blogged about the matter at nauseating length many moons ago.

    A

  12. Andrew says:

    I haven’t read much Hindu-inspired fantasy but I find the mythology fascinating. I read some of the Baghavad Gita (probably spelled that wrong). I wrote a story which I (vaguely) based on India, although I did it so loosely that no one so far has recognized it.

  13. GlenH says:

    @ Ashok Banker
    Sincerest apologies.
    I falsely assumed that you are one of a number of literary authors who assert that works of theirs cannot be called science fiction because they deal with “real people” as opposed to making a fetish of technology. A rush of blood to the head ensued and I misinterpreted your refusal to “copulate with such a beast” as equating the writing of science fiction with bestiality. I apologise for reading your comments out of context and sympathise with your desire to reject the fracturing of fictions into genres with various rules and values attached to them.

  14. Whew! Interesting discussion!

    It is late at night and I have an early class to teach tomorrow and am barely coherent, but I’d like to at least respond to Ashok’s post. Ashok, I appreciate the beautiful clarification and understand much better where you’re coming from. In fact I sympathize with much of what you have to say, although I have a different take on some things.

    I completely agree with what you say about ghettoization. I want none of it either. I also agree that labels can be obnoxious and limiting and can imply hierarchy. And, being someone who has, upon occasion, been on the receiving end of misunderstandings about my work in the West (read through the stereotypes of the reader rather than my words, that is, been “exoticized” despite my best attempts) I can understand why you’d choose to not be published outside India. There are times when I’ve had to deliberately stay away from the SF scene here for extended periods in order to recover my center and sanity.

    But I do want to explain to whoever might be interested, where I’m coming from. When I talk about Indian SFF or SF from Argentina or China, all I mean is “SF coming from those places.” I don’t even have a rigid definition of SFF when I say that. And I also don’t see any of these categories, such as they are, as sub-genres of Western SF.

    I actually regard Western SF as a sub-genre of the superset of world SF. I regard its many voices as part of an ocean of many voices from different realms. What I’d like to see is not an end to Western SF (never that!) but an end to its dominance, in other words a multiplicity of voices, none weighted significantly more than others.

    But I do get your point about Bollywod being named so in reference to Hollywood. I realized the centrality of Western labels and notions in various “decolonizing” moments some years ago. In fact the term I find most repulsive is “third world” (as though it were possible to chop up the one world in which we live). Although I must admit to the sin of using similar terms like Bollywood out of sheer laziness and convenience even while being aware of the connotation.

    However I believe that labels need not put one in a box, need not be limiting or necessarily imply hierarchies; that they can have their uses. I regard labels, or identities, as fluid. So, for instance, I am a woman, but the fact of my womanhood is relevant or irrelevant depending on the situation. There are times when I want to be called a woman writer because I want to own or be part of a long tradition. There are times when my being a woman is not relevant to my being a writer. When I’m teaching, I’m not (most of the time anyway) mothering. I find this fluidity of identity to be freeing.

    When the playing field is not level, as in the case of women, or gays and lesbians, or Dalits, then I think it makes sense to assert one’s identity as a woman, or a gay or lesbian, or Dalit. To own the label under that circumstance is to say “I exist.” The pitfall is to regard that label as a rigid box, to be limited by it, defined entirely by it.

    This is an important point because the post I’ve just put up is about women’s writing in India. I’m not looking at women’s writing as a sub-genre of men’s. I think men’s writing is a sub-genre of writing by humans. But by using the phrase “women’s writing” I’m asserting its existence in a context where it’s not necessarily part of the mainstream (see post to know what I mean).

    So what I’m saying here is that there is an alternative to the traditional use of labels, which is generally a divisive or hierarchical tactic. Instead of labels being rigid compartments, ways of chopping up the world into non-communicating bits, I am gently suggesting they can be fluid, slippery things that are functions of time and place. They can be ways of drawing attention to what is important in that moment, in that place.

    I’m probably losing it right now but let me illustrate by talking briefly about my grandmother. For her the Ramayana was real and in the here and now. (I can still recite parts of the Tulsi Ramayan from my memory of her voice). As Anil has commented, in this view of things, time and place and historical record have no relevance. But this is not to say that my grandmother was not intelligently aware of the “real” world, with its physical laws and whatnot. She functioned in it very well. It was just another reality, as was the world of the epics. And she could reason, and accept and reject things in the traditions too — for instance she rejected the caste system. What I’m trying to say is that she moved fluidly between realities — they didn’t live in watertight compartments that had no relationship with each other. Their relationship was a complex one, but it was there. What I mean about labels is roughly analogous.

    All right, I can’t even parse what I wrote. So time to stop. Thanks, Ashok, and everyone, for making this such an interesting discussion. I’ll be back tomorrow.

  15. Ashok Banker says:

    Vandana,

    Beautiful and long mini-essay of a comment. Can I just say, I share the same self-contradictory impulse too, pulled between the desire to belong (yes, I’m an Indian SFF author!) and the need to avoid being ghettoized (no, I’m an Indian author, not an Indian SFF author!) and the constant frustration at the misuse and abuse of such terms and labels, which are otherwise quite innocent unto themselves until they’re used as a yellow armband.

    I agree with you on almost every point, in my own way. We’re definitely sharing the same sentiments here, merely stating it individually. Except perhaps that I grew up with a more western viewpoint than most Indians, and much less Hindu culture, being of mixed racial and religious parentage. I only came to Hindu mythology gradually as I grew up. Which is why I’m often bemused when people automatically assume I’m (a) Hindu, (b) Religious (I don’t consider the Ramayana a religious epic–the Mahabharata, I do), (c) attempting to reuse western genre tropes in order to get published in the west (not a priority or even remotely of interest, even if was able to decide beforehand how to write what I wish to write, which is impossible, believe me), and most of all, (d) antagonistic to SFF. All of which are quite incorrect and absurd, if only people knew me better.

    I love SFF. But it does have it’s inherent issues. You have only to listen to an interview with Larry Niven holding forth on Mexican immigrants to know what I mean. That kind of ‘old school’ SFF is what I definitely DON’T wish to be associated with–and like you, I cringe at the free use of terms like ‘third world’ (which of course, conveniently rhymes with ‘turd world’).

    I grew up with no awareness of religion, caste, ethnicity, even my birth certificate says “Indian” in place of Religion/Caste. Don’t vote. Don’t hold a passport. And reject all labels and attempts at labelling.

    As GlenH says in his second comment (apology accepted, GlenH, thanks, you’re most gracious), why can’t there just be an SFF genre that we all love and celebrate. To hell with the rules and what should be and shouldn’t be. Either it’s a damn good story and we love it to bits, or we don’t. Let’s break down the walls and repaint all the colours and just enjoy the most inclusive and comprehensively all-embracing genre of all. The mother of all genres, so to speak.

    The day SFF expands its self-image to include everyone and everything in its self-definition, I’ll be proud to add my name to the bottom of the list of aspiring hopeful SFF authors.

    Till then, I’m perfectly content to be an Indian author and doing quite well as one, thank you.

  16. Bryan Russell says:

    Ashok,

    I sympathize with your concerns in regards to labels and the endless subdivision of literary forms. Really, what is genre division except an overly simplified system designed to allow bookstores to group books in a way that allows customers to find stories similar to those they already like? Any attempt to aestheticize these subdivisions seems sort of false to me, a defeat of the basic principle of the uniqueness of stories, of a story as an individual object/experience. Yes, we can intertextually tether our stories to others, somehow relaying the long chain of literary influence, and yet why would we limit such a chain of influence to ghettoized subdivisions that are little more than marketing ploys?

    So yes, I sympathize with your concerns, and respect your decision. However, I do think it’s a little sad. Yes, people here might misread your work, but what is misreading really? We are, each of us, a strange little puzzle of peculiarities, and each reading of a story is a unique experience of interpretation arising out of a unique set of experiences, a unique context. Can’t your stories me misread and misinterpreted in India? I just feel a loss, because I think there are readers who will understand, who will appreciate what you are trying to do. And I think there are readers who might understand… but won’t, if there’s nothing left to engage with except an empty space on a shelf.

    I own a little bookstore, and the SFF section has a big place in my heart, as the genre was my first love as both a reader and a writer. And yet sometimes I feel distraught by the paucity of interesting writing on those shelves. They seem homogenized and all too safe. Too often we have Literary writers writing SFF and yet being unwilling to admit to it, and thus strengthening the artificial subdivisions that seem to be endlessly multiplying over here. I know that was not your intent, and that in truth you’re making certain choices as a response against just such intents, and yet looking at my shelves I can’t help but bemoan the fact a little.

    You said: “The day SFF expands its self-image to include everyone and everything in its self-definition, I’ll be proud to add my name to the bottom of the list of aspiring hopeful SFF authors.” I, too, would be happy to have this come about, but the only way I see it happening is through exactly what you seem to be avoiding: writing something that challenges these definitions, and putting it out there. Let people read, let people discuss and investigate these issues. Yes, people will misread, if such a thing exists. But others will get it, and they can help those on the fence get it too. How else will anything be changed? I’m not sure how literary isolationism can help this situation. I would love to see more writers like yourself step up and put interesting and challenging stories out there. I think my shelves would be the more interesting for it.

    Now I’m off to read Prince of Ayodhya. If no more is coming, I’ll just have to enjoy the writing you already have out there.

    My best and sincerest wishes to you,
    Bryan Russell

  17. Bill Ectric says:

    Thanks, Anil, for the interesting information.

  18. Ashok Banker says:

    Hi Bryan,

    Short answer: I tried it, really I did. And met with nothing but hostility, racism, bigotry, bias and stubborn ignorance. I’m sure there are great publishers and editors in SFF, and readers without such biases, but sadly, I came across far too many of the other kind to really be interested in ‘joining’ the field’. I’ve since retrieved the rights to my work, and so I’m afraid that you won’t find Prince of Ayodhya or any of my other work on US shelves. Not legally, that is. I know that Amazon and B&N.com offer copies and I only hope they’re old stocks that haven’t been depleted. Legally, the rights are very much reverted to me and I have all the legal paperwork to prove it.

    Thank you for your support and enthusiasm. I’m sure there are many excellent Indian SFF authors out there (this blog post was about one, Anil, not me after all!) and you’ll find many of them quite happy to accept the current status quo. I’m not. And perhaps I’ve faced one too many instances of bias and misassumption (the one by GlenH above, though he apologized later, is one all-too common example of how I’ve been instantly attacked, often brutally and completely unfairly, without even giving me a chance to state my viewpoint) and I’m sad as hell, and won’t take it anymore.

    I’m sure there are any number of excellent authors you will find on US (or UK) shelves that write brilliant SFF. But so long as the inherent bias in American and British SFF continues, there will also be authors like myself who prefer to stay home and write for an appreciative readership that reads our work for the content, irrespective of the colour of our skin, our nationality, our religion, caste, sex, etc, etc. Not that Indian publishing is perfect, of course, but it certainly isn’t plagued by the particular biases of American and British SFF.

    Thank you, and I think I’ll gracefully end this discussion here–this is after all a piece on Anil Menon by Vandana Singh. I’m just a commentator here. End of comment.

  19. Bryan Russell says:

    Ashok,

    Thanks for the reply. I’m sorry things worked out so poorly for you over here. It’s a shame, really it is. I’m hoping there’s a better path for writers in the future. Best of luck with all your stories to come, and may they find the audiences they deserve.

    Sincerely,
    Bryan Russell

  20. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    This is a very interesting discussion. There’s always a tendency, in any field, when a creator does not achieve either the audience or the accolades or whatever, to blame the field. And sometimes, this is correct. Sometimes, though, there are other factors, such as bad luck or the creator’s own public persona, that contribute to not being able to achieve one’s goals. It’s very important, therefore, not to rush to judgment one way or the other if that person (or an observer) wants to understand the full gamut of reasons for any particular outcome.

    It’s similar to the flip side of things: outrageous success, in which the person who has that success falsely attributes that success to certain elements because of a similar, if opposite, lack of perspective.

    I would not rush to judgment that US/UK editors or audiences are biased against non-Anglo authors based on a single example. There is, after all, the evidence that the books were published in the first place, by high-level publishers who obviously thought they had commercial value.

    This is not to take anything away from the personal anguish or the perception that a wrong has been committed. Perceptions are, after all, akin to reality these days.

    JeffV

  21. Cheryl says:

    Resident alien checking in again here. Many thanks for the helpful responses.

    Labels, like anything else, are a tool that can be used well or badly. I have doubtless been guilty of talking about “Indian SF”, “Caribbean SF”, “Serbian SF” and “Finnish SF” (to mention but a few). I do it because I believe in Vandana’s “multiplicity of voices”. So I want you folks to be heard, and I want to do the same for Nalo Hopkinson, for Zoran Zivkovic, for Johanna Sinisalo and so on. Next year’s Worldcon will focus strongly on Canadian SF (and specifically French Canadian SF); the year after it will be Australian SF. We move Worldcon around the World because we want those voices to be heard.

    But, as Vandana says, labels can be a trap. And they can be used badly by minorities as well as by majorities. People tend not to think about ethnicity amongst white people, but I’m sure people from India will understand that not all white-skinned people, or even all white-skinned British people are from the same ethnic background, so here’s a cautionary tale.

    At the same conference that I mentioned above, there was a panel on Welsh science fiction. So I went along to see what my little ethnic corner was up to. Much to my astonishment, the people in charge had a very narrow view on what counted as “Welsh”. As far as they were concerned, you had to live in Wales, work in Wales, write in Welsh, and share what they deemed to be Welsh cultural values, such as Socialism and Methodism. They were quite prepared to jettison not only me, but Dave Langford as well, in order to preserve their ethnic purity.

    I see similar sorts of things happening in the LGBT community, but that’s much too long and depressing a story for here.

    So I use labels with care. I use them to draw attention to people, because us white folks occasionally need a bit of encouragement to try something different, and because I don’t want to appear “colorblind”. But I treat identity politics with a great deal of suspicion.

  22. Bill Ectric says:

    I like Vandana Singh’s explanation, “When I talk about Indian SFF or SF from Argentina or China, all I mean is ‘SF coming from those places.’” It’s fun and exciting to see cool literature from people in other countries. It brings us all closer together.

  23. jeff vandermeer says:

    very interesting, cheryl.

    this is all fascinating-and complex.

  24. Cheryl, thanks for sharing that anecdote about Welsh SF. Sad. Especially when people use labels to box themselves in. It’s bad enough when other people do it.

    Thanks for your comments, Bill! Im glad you are enjoying the discussion.

    Vandana

  25. Anil Menon says:

    The talk about labels reminded me of the therapist scene in the first Austin Powers movie. When Scott Evil shouts at his father for being so uncompromisingly evil:

    THERAPIST
    We don’t label people here, Scott.

    SCOTT EVIL
    No, he’s really evil.

    Sums it up perhaps. Some labels do point to real differences. This would be depressing if labels were set in stone, but they aren’t. Since people can be persuaded, I don’t see labels as being inherently limiting. It’s true there’s a politics of labels, but politics is the art of persuasion, isn’t it? I support a mildly perverse variant of Ashok’s position: I think an author should go out of his/her way to pick up as many labels as humanly possible. Every label is a handle for some reader. I’m an Indian author, an American author, a diaspora author, an SF author, a YA author, a male author, and hopefully, will also be mislabeled by confused thousands as a female, Irish and Hispanic author. By defining Indian SF or Finnish SF or Welsh SF or Evil SF, we’re really only encouraging different ways for a reader to find a work. I might have encountered Orhan Pamuk because I’ll read anything with minarets on the cover and because he was famous and because his name sounded odd to me, but I have continued to read him for other, more sensible reasons.

    Anil

  26. jeff vandermeer says:

    I am with you, Anil, because I think you make more converts if you speak about your work in the “language” of the people you are talking to. and by accepting all labels you kind of get back to the point of *not* being labeled. at least that’s how I feel tonight.

  27. jeff vandermeer says:

    btw–i would love to receive a selection of english language books by indian authors that might not be readily available in the us. genre and nongenre. have lots of possible places to mention or review them. pob 4248 tallahassee fl 32315

  28. Ashok Banker says:

    Jeff, if you’re speaking about me and my work, you’re misinformed. I’m not talking about ‘success’ or the lack of it–merely about bias and treatment of non-white non-American authors. As for success, well, I have a substantial Hollywood deal, the books have gone through 21 printings and have close to half a million copies in print worldwide and last year alone my contribution to the IRS was in six-figures. The discussion had nothing to do with sales, commercial success, or the ‘public persona’ of the author (whatever that may mean). It was about labels, profiling, and bias. I’m talking about the same treatment that Rohinton Mistry received when attempting to enter the USA to appear on Oprah a few years ago–you could Google it online and look it up. As in that case, while I’m sure the Department of Homeland Security and other authorities felt quite complacent and self-assured in racially profiling him, and put all his objections down to his own ‘perception’ the reality was quite different.

    I’m one of those people who believe that reality is reality and perception is perception. I have faced racial abuse, bigotry, religious prejudice and bias, and those are not forgivable. Nor are they the only treatment I’ve received from American SFF publishers, authors, writers, bloggers and reviewers–I’ve had my share of good treatment too. But the fact that I experienced such bias, prejudice, bigotry and abuse cannot simply be wished away by blaming it on perception and I think you do me and all sufferers of such abuse a great disservice by attempting to deny that any such abuse occurred at all.

    This being your blog, I’m sure you will have the last word but let me say this clearly: There are bigots and racists in the SFF field in the USA and they appear to be somewhat more vocal, numerous and tolerated than in other publishing genres or even in the SFF genre in other countries. Your comments only underline the root of the problem itself, which is, in three words, ‘Denial, denial, denial’.

  29. Anil Menon says:

    Jeff,

    Ref: “a selection of English language books”

    Here’s a list, in no particular order.

    Raja Rao — Kanthapura.
    This is told from the p.o.v. of an old village woman about the consequences of a cool new technology called nonviolent civil disobedience.

    Aravind Adiga — The White Tiger
    Adiga’s debut novel is often described as being amoral, but no book-burnings yet, so I’m assuming it appeals to people on some moral level.

    Mahatma Gandhi — My Experiments With Truth
    A great piece of fiction. Truly.

    G. V. Desani — All About H. Hatterr
    Written with the best butter. A major influence on Rushdie, and the blurb notes with satisfaction that T. S. Eliot couldn’t make head or tail of this book.

    Qurratulain Hyder –A River of Fire.
    A great book for colonialist readers in mood for some abuse. According to Wikipedia, “Quarratulain” means “eyeball” and as if this unfair advantage isn’t enough, Hyder is bloody brilliant too.

    Kiran Nagarkar — Cuckold
    What if God’s having an affair with the missus? Nagarkar’s novel is told from the perspective of Raja Bhoj, the husband of Meera-bhai, the real-life Rajputana princess who at an early age fell into Krishna and never fully emerged. This is not about Meera-bhai though. It’s about her husband. The Cuckold of India.

    Upamanyu Chatterjee– English August: An Indian Story
    This book really pissed me off when I first read it. It has the kind of John Cusak protagonist who wanders through a graveyard wondering about all the women he could have laid. But once I set aside the moral yoke, not only was I lighter, the book was also a lot more fun. There’s a scene with a Mahatma Gandhi statue that’s particularly memorable.

    Premendra Mitra — Mosquito and Other Stories : Ghana-Da’s Tall Tales
    This is a set of translated stories, but utterly wonderful.

    I’d include Dalyrymple, Allan Sealy, Samit Basu, Sarnath Bannerjee, the sampler anthologies of Rushdie and Chaudhuri and so on, but this list is already too long.

    Anil

  30. I want to make a couple of points. Ashok, I am not speaking for anyone but myself, but I want to say this: that I am not dismissing your negative experience with publishers here. Your experience is what you went through and it can’t be wished away. Racism and various kinds of prejudices have unfortunately not vanished. I’ve myself been at the receiving end of some negative stereotyping here, but I’m a low profile author and more likely to end up hanging out with people who “get it.” I can speculative, at least, that high-profile writers with a lot more money involved in the deal could be under more pressure to conform to stereotypes or other constraints, and thus be subjected to the sort of ugliness you describe. I’ve only had to deal with one major publisher, who was wonderful, and a bunch of small press folks driven by ideals and passion, who were interested in the kind of thing I write. My experience gives me hope that there are all kinds of people here, and that many of them of them are willing to open their minds to what I have to say. My Indian audience remains of central importance to me, however. So my way of working things out is to publish my books in India first, before publishing them here. I haven’t been able to do that with my short stories but my first short story collection should be out in India before anywhere else.

    I wish you the best.

    Vandana

  31. Ashok Banker says:

    All the best to you too, Vandana. Of course there are many fine people in the USA, in the SFF publishing field, and certainly their passion and support of the genres are infectious. I actually know quite a few, but I don’t know if I’m willing to take the risk of entering into a professional relationship with any genre publisher in the US just yet, no matter how great the rewards (and obviously, for an author, getting a publishing contract is all to the good, business-wise), because I’m very wary now. But that’s my personal experience, not necessarily a judgement of the genre as a whole. In any case, as you may be aware, I’m doing well enough in India and the fact that the genres are growing so well here is itself the most encouraging fact of all! India’s actually on the upwards slope of a very promising upswing in the publishing field and the future is especially bright for writers of genre. For instance, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games actually sold as well in India as in the US, and is only one of several such recent titles to do so. The day has already come when English-language books in India can earn an author (myself included) far more than US advances and royalties, and that’s money coming from readers who ALL ‘get’ what we’re doing–as against the few who could be expected to understand Indian culture, motifs, characters, backgrounds, language, etc in the American publishing genres.

    The list by Anil above is a mixed one, some odd choices with some very good ones–if you don’t mind my saying so, Anil. Also, several of them are already published in the UK and USA. If I had to make a list of genre writers who aren’t published in the USA or UK (and not even widely in India, or in English in India), it would be far, far longer and a very different list. In fact, that’s a list I am actually compiling–originally, I began doing it several years ago for John Clute who had asked me to contribute to the new edition of his Encyclopaedia, but I later decided it merited a book unto itself. Still in the research stage, but I am continuing to track that strange nameless beast that shambles through this ‘dark’ subcontinent, roaring in a melange of Sanskrit, Gujarati, Urdu, Thamizh, Malayalam, Oriya, and so many other tongues. We are many; our name is Bharat!

    All the best,

    Ashok

  32. Anil Menon says:

    Ref: “The list by Anil above is a mixed one, some odd choices with some very good ones–if you don’t mind my saying so, Anil.”

    No, you’re right. Some of the choices are indeed odd and have nothing to do with the genre. I’d intended a Whitman’s sampler of titles, and needless to say, that always translates to a nutty mix.

    Look forward to reading your book. There’s a real need for something definitive.

    Anil

  33. Suparno says:

    Wonderful discussion!
    I am writing my dissertation on SF by authors from India/of Indian origin (I hope this “lebel” while pointing at a specific direction does not put the author in a tight box). I would greatly appreciate some reading suggestions on recent publications.
    Thanks
    Suparno

  34. I happen to be one of the science ficiton writers from India > Incidentally I write in Tamil and English.Actually we have been looking for the right kind of publishers. My science fiction is at http://www.kerala.cm/science. Interested people can take a look.

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