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Aliens In Allahabad, Zombies In Zamrudpur: Discovering Indian Science Fiction

Indian science fiction has had its own history and tradition.

10/06/2017 10:55 AM IST | Updated 10/06/2017 10:58 AM IST
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Ever since the days of Jules Verne (1828–1905) and H.G. Wells (1866–1946), to name just two writers, science fiction (SF) has been one of the most popular genres of world literature. It was popularised even further by the likes of Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), and the genre's adaptation into popular audiovisual media such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, etc.

As a literary mode, SF is not new to India, but to regard classical texts as SF is to take things too literally. Indian SF, interestingly, has had its own history and tradition, which—while drawing from and interacting with "Western" SF quite occasionally—charts out its own course and has its own unique internal logic. Indian SF is not "Indian" merely because it is produced in India. It is Indian SF because of its "soul": a material, gestalten whole of India's sociocultural and political milieu.

Indian SF is not "Indian" merely because it is produced in India. It is Indian SF because of its "soul": a material, gestalten whole of India's sociocultural and political milieu.

The question of whether SF is a recent import or has a long history of adoption and adaptation in India that pre-dates its presumed "westernised" avatar knots more strands than it unravels. Just to place a few facts before the readers: there exists more than a century of continuous and extremely successful history of "modern" Indian SF. To cite from just three Indian languages: in Hindi through Pandit Ambika Dutt Vyas's "Ascharya Vrittant" (1884) and Babu Keshav Prasad's "Chandra Lok Ki Yatra" (1900); in Bengali through Jagadananda Ray's Shukra Bhraman (1879), Jagadish Chandra Bose's "Niruddesher Kahini' or "Palatak Toofan" (1896); and even in Indian English through Kylas Chunder Dutt's anti-imperial "A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945" (1835), and Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain's feminist manifesto, "Sultana's Dream" (1905).

Today, with Sujatha's writings in Tamil, Dinesh Chandra Goswami's in Assamese, Jayant Narlikar's in Marathi and Satytajit Ray's in Bengali, to cite from just four languages, SF is a significant part of contemporary Indian popular imagination. However, Indian SF in English has not had the same share of critical and creative successes that SF enjoys in other languages—at least quantitatively. While this situation is fast changing, thanks to champions of speculative fiction (SpecFic) like Anil Menon, Shovon Chowdhury, Mainak Dhar, Manjula Padmanabhan, Suraj Prasad, et al, Indian SF in English still has a lot of uncharted space to explore—whether in terms of ideas, themes or narratives.

I mentioned the phrase "speculative fiction". One must note that this is not synonymous with SF. SpecFic can be seen as an umbrella term for the literatures of "what if" and includes genres such as SF, fantasy and mythology. All these genres construct alternate realities that deviate from realist or naturalist narratives (hence the term "speculative"), worlds that are non-mimetic in nature. Only their operating mechanisms make them different from each other, despite having similar narrative themes and phenomena. For example, a person might travel from point A to point B in an instant in a SpecFic text. In fantasy, this might be due to "floo power" (Harry Potter), in SF, this might be explained by teleportation (Star Trek), and in mythology this might be the result of the will of a divine being. While the actual happenings remain the same, the way events are described determine whether the text is classified as SF or fantasy or mythology.

[T]he relative scarcity—and invisibility—of Indian SF in English, made me think about creating a pulp SF narrative that experimented with characters, genres, current events, and modes of storytelling.

While fantasy and mythology in Indian writing in English currently enjoy a comfortable, even venerable standing, the relative scarcity—and invisibility—of Indian SF in English, made me think about creating a pulp SF narrative that experimented with characters, genres, current events, and modes of storytelling.

It is due to this missionary zeal towards promoting the genre/mode of "pulp SF" that I love so much, and yearn to read more of (especially from desi writers), that my novel Aliens in Delhi took shape and form. It begins as a political thriller and then mutates into SF. This "genetic mutation" of the narrative is intended to tell a crazy story, something that makes the reader see the old in a new light (cell phone radiation as a possible mutagen) and the new in an old light ("humanised' extraterrestrials). How will India react when hostile extra-terrestrials invade New Delhi? Are we really prepared?

After all, one day Jadoo might come back—and perhaps then he may not be in a mood to make friends. Who you gonna call?

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