Indian SF: A Brief Introduction to Two Outstanding Authors
by Amardeep Singh
Date: November 2006 / Show Official Info /
First, a little history might be in order. Though most people may not think of "India" and "SF" together, the genre actually has deep roots in the Subcontinent. Sukumar Ray, for instance, wrote many intriguing stories in the 1910s and 20s that would clearly qualify as speculative fiction. Ray's book The Diary of Heshoram Hushiar is full of beasts with strange properties, and uses wordplay in order to marry Bengali language terms and jokes to western scientific ideas. For instance, playing on the Bengali word "chillan" (to shout), Ray invents a monster called a "Chillanosaurus," known for its terrifying howls -- clearly a variation on the famed Tyrannosaurus Rex. Sukumar Ray's nephew, the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, also wrote quite a number of stories in the 1960s that would fall under the speculative fiction category. Many of them were intended for children, though one finds that the brilliant Professor Shanku stories can be enjoyed by readers of all ages -- rather like Alice in Wonderland. Incidentally, you won't find works by either of the Rays on the shelves at your average Barnes & Noble (though you might have better luck through online booksellers at Amazon Marketplace and Indiaclub.com).
On to the new generation of Indian SF. The most accomplished contemporary Indian SF writer is probably Ashok K. Banker, who has written a six-part series that takes the classical Hindu epic, The Ramayana, and re-imagines it in a fantasy/SF context. The fact that Banker has done an adaptation of the Ramayana isn't new -- the story began as an oral tale, and has been told in thousands of different ways as it has been passed down from generation to generation. The story was even told differently in different parts of India, though more and more the "main" version (also known as the Valmiki version) is the dominant. Interestingly, in recent years, "literal," faithful adaptations of the Ramayana have been huge successes as comic books (Amar Chitra Katha; an English-language version of these can be viewed for free online) and as a blockbuster television series in the 1980s. Though Ashok K. Banker's Ramayana series stays closely to the story of the original Sanskrit text, his adaptation of the classic story isn't trying to be a literal or faithful adaptation of the story.
Rather, Banker adapts ideas from the Hindu tradition, such as the early Vedantic forays into mathematics, science, and astronomy, into fully developed forms of sacred (magical) knowledge in an alternative universe. Yogic breathing and movement is here not just a simple physical exercise, but a kind of magic ritual by which warriors master the movements of the body. The hero, Rama, is an adept at these occult branches of knowledge, which gives him almost superhuman capabilities as a warrior. These are all variations on the original Ramayana, though not necessarily ones that devout Hindus would find objectionable. There are other changes which may be unsettling for readers familiar with the "original" Valmiki version: Ravana becomes a fixed arch-villain, for instance, rather than simply one among many characters in a longer epic narrative. Banker aims to reinvent the details of the Ramayana to make them come alive in a new way for today's readers. To my mind, the apt comparison might be C.S. Lewis: what Ashok K. Banker is doing to the Hindu Ramayana in his brilliant series is roughly parallel to what C.S. Lewis does to the New Testament in The Chronicles of Narnia. Incidentally, readers who are utterly unfamiliar with Hindu mythology might find Banker's books an enjoyable introduction (though one should keep in mind that he's not being strictly "faithful" to the story as understood by most Hindus).
A very different kind of work, Rana Dasgupta's Tokyo Cancelled got great reviews in papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, and Time Out (London) when it was released last year. Some reviewers compared Dasgupta to the famous and notorious Indian novelist, Salman Rushdie, whose most famous books (Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses) are written in the "magic realist" style. Is magic realism a kind of speculative fiction? If so, then the Indian SF scene is actually bigger than anyone would have thought. Rushdie's Midnight's Children was a breakthrough novel for Indian literature, a book which aimed to tell the history of a new nation through the life of a single character born exactly on the stroke of midnight on the day of independence. This character, Saleem Sinai, had the ability to communicate with 1000 other "children of midnight" through a special kind of telepathic "radio" magically present in his unusually large nose. Usually, though, magic realist authors like Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Gunther Grass, are considered as postmodernists and classified with literary fiction. The main reason for this is probably the emphasis of their respective books: Rushdie, Marquez, and Grass use fantastic elements to tell stories that make political and historical points. They aren't interested in questions of technology
By contrast, Dasgupta's Tokyo Cancelled probably fits SF because it deals with today's globalized cultural stew from an SF slant; unlike Rushdie, Dasgupta does place a special emphasis on the impact of science and technology on our lives. Some of the topics of the stories in Tokyo Cancelled may be familiar to readers of SF--cloning, artificial intelligence, memory erasure and reconstruction--though Dasgupta brings these types of issues together with an astonishing ability to cross geographic and cultural borders. The stories in Tokyo Cancelled are set, literally, all over the world, including England, the U.S., Japan, India, Nigeria, and Germany, just to name a few. The basic conceit of the book is this: a group of travelers are stranded at an airport overnight, and forced to pass the time, they decide to tell each other stories. True to the style of classical books of oral tales (like The Arabian Nights), many of Dasgupta's stories have an intriguing fairy tale quality. "The Tailor," about a poor tailor with the ability to sew garments of sublime quality, is probably the closest to an actual fairy tale, though even the more modern or futuristic tales in Tokyo Cancelled sometimes remind one of the Brothers Grimm.
Perhaps the best and most memorable of the stories, "The Billionaire's Sleep," merits a brief summary. An Indian business tycoon has trouble sleeping. Though he has everything going for him -- he runs a huge "outsourcing" corporation with hundreds of employees, and is married to a Bollywood film starlet -- he can't seem to sleep at night, and his insomnia has rendered him infertile. But he and his wife really want to have a child, and they contact a scientist who finds a way to genetically engineer a "special" child for them. But it doesn't go quite as planned -- twins are actually born, a seemingly-normal daughter and a horribly misshapen son. The billionaire instructs one of his minions to give the son away, and he and his wife keep the daughter and raise her. But as she grows up it becomes clear she possesses rather unusual powers: wherever she goes, she brings a kind of ultra-fertility to the world. Trees sprout overnight from seeds merely passing the house where she lives. The government comes to know about it, and her father is pressed to rein her in. I'll stop there, but suffice it to say, where Dasgupta goes with this story is quite interesting -- a fairy tale, perhaps, for the age of outsourcing, fertility drugs, and cloning. Is it any surprise that "The Billionaire's Sleep" has been picked up by a major film production company, and is soon to be turned into a motion picture?