FANTASTIC WORLDS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
THE WEEK|December 27, 2020
SPECULATIVE FICTION, WHICH HAS A STORIED HERITAGE IN INDIA, IS MAKING A COMEBACK ON THE BACK OF THE PANDEMIC
VAISAKH E. HARI

On September 28, 1896, the Shimla Meteorological Office published a report: A massive cyclone—the worst and the most dangerous in years—would devastate Bengal in two days. Fear gripped the city, and nobody slept at night as the mercury plummeted. But, on the dreaded day of October 1, after a few drops of rain, the sky cleared up. Scientists were astounded. Where on earth had the cyclone disappeared to? This was the premise of Niruddesher Kahini (Tale of the Disappeared), a short story by celebrated Bengali physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose in 1896.

As interesting as the plot is the circumstance under which the story came to be. Entrepreneur Hemendra Bose, creator of the Kuntalin brand of hair oil which was quite the rage across eastern India, stumbled across an innovative way of marketing his product. He instituted the Kuntalin Purashkar, a literary prize conferred to the best short story that featured the hair oil and promoted it. J.C. Bose’s story went on to win the maiden award.

The second part of Niruddesher Kahini delves into the mystery behind the missing cyclone; the protagonist of the story is a balding man, recovering from a long illness. He is convalescing onboard a ship in the Bay of Bengal around the time the cyclone forms. Upon understanding that violent death awaited him in the form of crashing waves and apocalyptic winds, he panics and recollects his daughter’s parting words. She had told him that she had packed a bottle of Kuntalin for him. A scientific article, which postulated that oil, being lighter than water, rises to the top and calms the tension on the surface, flashes across his mind. He quickly empties Kuntalin into the sea. The cyclone dissipates.

Niruddesher Kahini is an important, if slightly overlooked, chapter in the subcontinent’s literary history. If you discount Jagadananda Roy’s 1879 short story Shukra Bhraman (Travel to Venus), Bose’s story is the first piece of science fiction—coming under the broad umbrella of the Speculative Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) genre—to appear in any Indian language.

What is SFF? Simply put, one could define it as a blanket term for literary genres that explore worlds and phenomena beyond our current human understanding—tales that envision possibilities in any tense other than the present. Writer Margaret Atwood of The Handmaid’s Tale fame defines it as “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”. It could be futuristic or dystopian science fiction, horror, mythology, or any number of different fantasy genres.

Why are we talking about SFF now? At a time of great churn, amid a global pandemic and political turbulence on an unprecedented scale, the genre is finding immense resonance and mainstream acceptance. Gone are the days when SFF—which has a long and storied history in India— was generally (and erroneously) pigeonholed as third-rate low art featuring sentient green monsters and bedsheets-with-eyeholes ghosts; Atwood, in the early 2000s, brusquely dismissed science fiction as “talking squids in outer space”. Now, in 2020, the boundaries between reality and fiction have been blurred like never in history. Even the literary scenario is shifting: In India, and across the world, young and iconoclastic authors are expanding the frontiers of the genre, stepping into spaces and worlds and timelines that no one has explored before. All major publishers are opening fresh listings for speculative fiction, eyeing keenly each new work that comes their way.

Changing terrains of SFF in India

India’s SFF market is largely dominated by mythological fiction. If it was Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series in the 2000s, Amish (Shiva trilogy, Ram Chandra series) and Anand Neelakantan (Asura, Vanara and Penramayanam) have all hit gold with books on different and unique interpretations of the Indian epics.

But there is also another side to SFF in India—a rapidly evolving tradition of dystopian horror and razor-sharp political and social critiques, highlighting oppression, inequality and authoritarianism through the prism of SFF.

The Wall by Gautam Bhatia, a lawyer and editor of the prestigious Hugo-nominated SFF journal Strange Horizons, was released in August. The novel is set in an imaginary city of Sumer, isolated behind gigantic, impassable walls that have been a fixture for whole generations. The novel delves into the conflict between Shoortans, powerful priests set on maintaining the status quo and preserving the wall, and Tarafians, a group of rebellious youngsters dead set on crossing over to the other side. “I had no particular political motif in mind, but an exploration of the meaning of freedom,” says Bhatia.

Tashan Mehta’s 2017 The Liar’s Weave tells the story of a Parsi family in 1920s colonial Bombay, a boy who was born without a birth chart; in his life, unmapped by the stars, every lie becomes a reality.

Prayaag Akbar’s Leila, since adapted into a Netflix series, speaks of a mother’s search for a missing daughter in a highly segregated, repressed society where purity is held up as a high ideal and mixed-faith/ background kids are kidnapped and taken to rehabilitation centres.

Indrapramit Das’s The Devourers switches between modern Kolkata and Mughal India for an unsettling tale of werewolves in Shah Jahan’s kingdom, with sprinklings of Norse mythology, and is replete with graphic examinations of violence and bittersweet explorations of love’s different realms.

Anil Menon’s 2016 Half of What I Say yanks at the threads of the suspicious death of a politician and the existence of a powerful, dubious governmental anti-corruption department in Lokshakti, and pulls you into a maze of characters and political intrigue that hits close to home.

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