Several years ago, I read a book by Dan Simmons titled Song of Kali, which won the prestigious World Fantasy Award in 1986. Simmons’ book, a horror novel set in Calcutta involving a horrific cult of the Goddess Kali, introduces the city with the following epigraph:
“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place. Before Calcutta I would have laughed at such an idea. Before Calcutta I did not believe in evil…”
Rest assured, the story that begins shortly after details a city whose sole defining features seem to be dread, despair and defecation. As a resident of Calcutta, I didn’t know whether to be offended, to find it all extremely funny, or, to quote a bumbling but dangerous President, just plain “sad”. A promoted Amazon blurb informs me that Simmons did all of two and half days’ worth of research in Calcutta for the book before moving on. Sounds about right! But even setting aside Simmons’ gratuitous and false use of his imaginative license, the book just wasn’t very good. It left out so much of what makes Calcutta the city that it is, reducing it instead to a convenient locus of suffering and horror.
How far we have come since then! Speculative fiction – science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, what have you – has now become fair game for everyone, everywhere in the world. Even British or American authors who write about Asia, or even India in particular, have written much better books than Simmons’ claustrophobic and terribly skewed portrayal of Calcutta. Ian McDonald’s River of Gods comes to mind, a sprawling post-cyberpunk epic set in a futuristic India of 2047. But now we have Indian authors bridging that particular gap and busting open some of those myths as well.
Since you’re online, look no further: the April issue of Strange Horizons – a prominent online magazine publishing speculative fiction – is a really great introduction to anyone remotely interested in what sensitively written, intimately portrayed speculative fiction by Indians can accomplish.
Before I delve into the kind of fiction on display in this issue, a few words about the possible difficulties that science fiction presents to the Indian author need mentioning. SF as we traditionally understand now it is very much a North American and, to a lesser extent, British phenomenon. It has roots in a wide-eyed obsession with what technology was once thought to be capable of, but with time it branched off to focus on anything and everything under the sun that had you asking “What if this goes on…?”
However, the emphasis is still very much on technocentric futures, and herein lies the difficulty for someone who wishes to write SF from an Indian perspective. We simply have always had a very different relationship to technology than America: it is less of a lens through which to see and more of an accompanying reality that you cannot shirk off. Put bluntly, for the longest time, technology was not something we took for granted, so the “romance” in the “scientific romance” was already at two removes!
Indian fantasy also falls into the trap of being identified almost exclusively with one mode, which in this case would be mythology. It’s something the introduction to the issue I’m reviewing also references, and honestly you can’t blame Indian authors for not being able to look away. A rich lineage of folktale and myth can prove to be horribly anxiety inducing to an author, I’m sure, by making her either use it to her advantage or transcend it somehow. How much should I know before setting pen to paper? Would I sound horribly naïve or just derivative?
It’s refreshing to see, therefore, that the two really well chosen tales in this issue don’t fall into either trap. The first story, Kuzhali Manickavel’s enticingly titled “Things that Happened While We Waited for Our Magical Grandmother to Die – No. 39”, is eerily reminiscent of a host of authors and works: I spotted in it Julio Cortazar’s “House Taken Over”, Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, and a bit of Arundhuti Roy’s trademark sensuous style as well, but it is still fiercely its own thing. Details are deliberately left vague, so my apologies if the following reading is completely off, but the story seems to concern three children who live in a sprawling house that seems to have a mind of its own. It just won’t let them leave, however much they’d want to. What’s even more troubling is that it seems to transport them to rooms entirely different from those they have known, places they never find again or have never been before.
The story hinges around the wish of one of these youngsters to escape the place for good. The genius of the author’s idea, however, lies in the multifaceted way in which its portrayed: it makes perfect sense even if you read it as realistic fiction, since as children we’re all aware of how labyrinthine old houses seemed at some point. Every day felt like a new excuse to discover something hitherto unnoticed, and the author’s story taps into this childlike impulse through a magic realist frame.
The second story, Shankar Gopalakrishnan’s “The Right Way to be Sad” takes a different approach to the fantastic, and involves a stray dog who’s roped in to serve as a specimen for a scientific experiment. The hapless dog is treated with neural implants that transcribe its thoughts onto a computer screen in English. Slowly, its revealed that the animal is being used to train an artificial neural network to think and represent data effectively. Olaf Stapledon’s tragic story of Sirius comes to mind, as does Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2, but again, the story is very much its own, transcending these influences to portray India as seen through the lens of the underprivileged, both man and non-human. Faced with abject poverty and the struggle to survive, can even a machine look away?
But again, as with Manickavel’s story, it holds its own perfectly even without its technological trappings: the line where canine intelligence ends and machine begins is left deliberately vague, and because it refuses to sentimentalise poverty, the characters retain a dynamic sense of dignity and agency throughout the proceedings.
If there is something we can take away from both stories, it is the knowledge that truly effective speculative fiction is at the end of the day truly effective fiction, first and foremost. The authors here set out to write a story – SFF is an opportunity for them to tell it in a certain way. If there is something that Indian SF can contribute to the world, it’s this interpretive freedom. Once you remove an exhausted genre from its set of technocentric assumptions or predictable mythological trappings and see it as a mode instead, it transforms into an attitude, a way of feeling your way about things rather than rushing in to satisfy a certain strain of genre craving. And with a palette like India’s, with its dazzling cornucopia of color and life, extremes of poverty and affluence, and thousands and thousands of years of history, the sky’s the limit.