Indian sci-fi: weird and wonderful - Hindustan Times

Indian sci-fi: weird and wonderful

ByUttaran Das Gupta
Apr 09, 2024 04:57 PM IST

On the Sahitya Akademi devoting a special edition of its flagship publication, Indian Literature, to Indian science fiction

Imagine a country in which everything is run by women and men are either missing or confined to the domestic sphere. “Left to themselves, the women create a better society, without inequality or war. All goods are shared,” writes Sandra Newman, an American feminist science fiction writer in a piece for The Guardian in 2022. “All children are safe. The economy is sustainable and Earth is cherished. Without male biology standing in the way, utopia builds itself.” Newman claims this is a particular sub-genre of science fiction, written mostly from the 1970s to 1990s.

Indian Science fiction: Opening doors to worlds that are both new and familiar. (Shutterstock)
Indian Science fiction: Opening doors to worlds that are both new and familiar. (Shutterstock)

“It was once so popular it was almost synonymous with feminist SF,” she writes, naming books by Suzy McKee, Joana Russ, Lauren Beukes, Christina Sweeney-Baird, and her own novel, The Men. Quite typically, however, she misses out on what is possibly the first such feminist utopian novel written in English in the 20th century — Sultana’s Dream by Begum Rokeya, often considered the first work of science fiction from India. Published in 1905, the novel has been described by Sudanese journalist Nasreen Malik as “a sort of gender-based Planet of the Apes where the roles are reversed and the men are locked away in a technologically advanced future.”

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Indian Literature’s special edition on science fiction from India. (Courtesy Uttaran Das Gupta)
Indian Literature’s special edition on science fiction from India. (Courtesy Uttaran Das Gupta)

“Indian SF [science fiction], which probably has one of the oldest SF traditions outside Europe and North America” is yet to receive sufficient critical attention, writes literary scholar Suparno Banerjee in his book, Indian Science Fiction: Patterns, History and Hybridity (2020). While there is an increasing amount of academic and popular interest in Indian sci-fi, it still falls woefully short of the wealth of work in the genre. Perhaps, in an attempt to correct this, Sahitya Akademi devoted the January-February edition of its flagship publication, Indian Literature, to science fiction.

Sukrita Paul Kumar, guest editor, Indian Literature (Courtesy the subject)
Sukrita Paul Kumar, guest editor, Indian Literature (Courtesy the subject)

The poet, translator, and academic Sukrita Paul Kumar, who guest edits Indian Literature, raised a pertinent question in her editorial: “When we see our sci-fi writers from so many Indian languages, do we deduce then that their writing is produced predominantly under the influence of what comes from the West? Is it then a totally borrowed genre?” While providing a genealogy of Western science fiction from Mary Shelley and Jules Verne to Isaac Asimov, Sukrita’s close examination of the pieces included in this edition brings her to the conclusion that Indian science fiction bears some national characteristics such as linguistic plurality, national heroes and epic characters. “(T)he emergence of sci-fi does have its indigenous roots,” she writes.

The edition brings together two graphic narratives, 14 fictional stories (written originally in English and also translations of a few written in Bengali, Dogri, Malayalam, Punjabi, Telugu, and Hindi), an interview with a publisher, eight essays on different aspects of science fiction written in India, and the work of eight poets. While several of the poems are in English, two are translated from Hindi and one from Dogri. Like all other editions of Indian Literature, this one too has several reviews — but these are not of science fiction books.

One of the most remarkable pieces in this edition is Anil Menon’s essay, Brave New Words: Jagadish Chandra Bose and the Science Fiction Story. Erudite and engaging, it is a masterclass on how to do literary criticism without falling into the trap of jargon-filled, technical language often used in academic writing. The essay focuses on a Bengali short story, Nirrudesher Kahini (The Story of the Missing) by Jagadish Chandra Bose, who invented the crescograph, a device to measure the growth of plants. (Though, if you ask a Bengali, they are most likely to tell you that Guglielmo Marconi cheated him out of a Nobel Prize for inventing the radio.) Menon’s essay not only analyses Bose’s story but also presents a delightful anecdote of how the scientist wrote it to promote his young nephew’s fledging business in hair oil manufacturing. The hair oil, known by its brand name Kuntalin, plays an important part in the story’s plot.

Science fiction; fantastic visions of the future. (Shutterstock)
Science fiction; fantastic visions of the future. (Shutterstock)

Another striking piece is the short story, Ancient Zombies: Six Indian Narratives of the Undead by Sami Ahmad Khan. Stylistically, the piece imitates an academic paper, with endnotes and a literature review, that claims zombies originated in Indian mythology. The pseudo-serious tone that recalls the writing of flat-earthers and global warming deniers is at once funny and scary.

Sumit Bardhan’s short story The Tiktik Karkhana, which combines historical fiction with detective and science fiction also deserves a mention. As do several essays, such as Goutam Mandal’s on Bengali science fiction, Saloni Sharma’s on climate fiction, Nagasuri Venugopal’s on Telugu SF, and Srinarahari’s on SF in Kannada. In a world where Artificial Intelligence and the proliferation of disinformation make us question the watertight distinctions between fact and fiction, and where climate change poses existential questions, this is an essential volume. It challenges us to expand our imagination, to seek utopias.

Uttaran Das Gupta is the author of Visceral Metropolis and Ritual. He lives in New Delhi.

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