View Full Version : Indian SFF

Home - Discussion Forums - News - Reviews - Interviews

New reviews, interviews and news

New in the Discussion Forum

Pages : [1] 2 3 4

January 17th, 2005, 06:17 AM
To start off this forum, thought Id paste an article I wrote about the state of Indian SFF in English....

A long, long time ago, in a country far, far away from the dwellings of the ancestors of Isaac Asimov and J.R.R. Tolkien, ancient Indian wise men wrote about flying saucers, death-rays, hideous alien monsters and incredible machines, setting down tales of wonder and imagination in massive epics that still enthrall the world.
Our old tales are full of creatures and devices that make other epics – all subsequent world literature, in fact - look like non-fiction. Add to that our vast, sprawling panorama of folktales old and new, and you’ll agree with me when I say that Indians are culturally geared towards a fondness for fantasy or science fiction – under whatever guise it masquerades in its twenty-first century avatars, be it alternative history, space opera, magic realism, cyberpunk, steampunk, speculative fiction or my personal favourite, Weird Fiction.
Yet unlike in the west, where SFF (Science Fiction/Fantasy) literature has a huge market of its own and has achieved comparative literary legitimacy, in India SFF is still the far-outer-country cousin of Literature with a capital L – a mindset that will take years to break. It doesn’t matter how thought-provoking or insightful SF is, or that the fundamental questions that speculative fiction asks about the human condition are the same as that of any great literary work, or that SFF lit offers a huge, colourful playground in which to study the numerous quirks of the human race humans have ever faced – at some level, say our self-styled lit-elite, SFF will always remain small-l, not-so-legit literature.
A great many SF writers have gone off into long tirades about the beauty of the genre – how SF both reflects and inspires science, how Somnium, the first major western SF work, written by Johannes Kepler and published in 1634, is a landmark in world literature (it tells the story of a young Icelander who travels to the moon and is a response to discoveries about the earth made three decades previously by Copernicus.) In my opinion, SFF doesn’t need a defence. Down the ages, Weird Fiction has catered to a variety of tastes all over the world; it has proven immensely popular, and will continue to be so long after its critics have been reincarnated as tapeworms.
What is undeniable, though, is that until very recently a combination of a largely conservative mindset amongst the people who decide which way Indian publishing is going and the tiny size of the market for Indian writing in English have meant that there is hardly any Indian speculative fiction in English of note – which is criminal, given our country’s oceans of fabulous resources, mythical, historical and social.
When my first novel, The Simoqin Prophecies, was published in January this year by Penguin India, it marked a milestone (OK, more like an inchstone, but a stone nevertheless) in the story of Indian publishing in English. It’s not very often that Indian publishers are willing to experiment, to stray from the conventional Great Indian Novel/Memoir/Exotic Guide path, and I was lucky that the market has matured enough for Penguin to give SFF publishing a shot, to decide that it was time for Weird Fiction to come out of the closet where it was lurking with miscellaneous monsters and rear its ugly head amidst the lofty heights where Indian Writers in English walk, converse, and eat steamed rice with lentil curry.
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that my book was the first SFF novel an Indian writer has written in English – it was just the first book that was marketed as an unabashed genre novel, that didn’t need to be hidden under a cloak, and smuggled into Literature’s halls. Indian SFF writing in English has actually been around for a while.
By restricting the field of discussion in English I am, of course, excluding a lot of fabulous Weird Fiction in (other) Indian languages – in Bengali alone, the Upendrakishore-Sukumar-Satyajit Ray dynasty has given us a sparkling array of world-class speculative fiction, topped off by Satyajit Ray’s charming SF stories for children – and any Bengali worth his fish will also tell you that Ray was the one who came up with the original idea we saw onscreen as Speilberg’s ET. But we’re discussing English writing alone, where India has also produced the World’s First SF Award-Winning SF Novel Which The Author Didn’t Consider SF – Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, a fabulous, extensively researched and compelling tale about Ronald Ross’ malaria research that won Britain’s top SF award, the Arthur C. Clarke award, in 1997. I spoke to him at the launch of his new book (spoke is perhaps an overstatement, babbled like an incoherent fan-boy is more accurate) where I learned, to my infinite sorrow, that he doesn’t plan to write more SF at the moment. Besides, he didn’t think his award-winning effort was SF either. In an interview with Paul Kincaid in 1997, Ghosh said, “I don't really think of The Calcutta Chromosome as being a genre novel. Science fiction tends to lie very squarely within the domain of the world's richer countries and it was a challenge, as an Indian writer, to write about science.”
In any case, anything Amitav Ghosh writes is Literature. The same holds true for India’s other great SFF writer, Salman Rushdie – and I’m not just talking about magic realism being a very close stepbrother to genre SFF. Nearly all of Rushdie’s novels contain SFF elements, but his first novel, Grimus (1975), was straightforward genre fantasy, based on the 12th-century Sufi poem The Conference of Birds. Grimus is an anagram of the name 'Simurg', the omniscient bird of ancient Persian myth. Rushdie’s best fantasy so far is undoubtedly the wickedly funny Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) with its swashbuckling colourful landscape and tongue-in-cheek tributes to fantastical literature from Baghdad to Bengal.
An interesting case in the history of Indian SFF is that of Ashok Banker, author of the new seven-part Ramayana, which is being sold all over the world as genre fantasy, but, strangely enough, is being called a retelling of the epic, not SFF literature, in India. Banker, in his new avatar as a white-clad Hanuman-devotee, is the only Indian writer you’ll find discussed on international SFF websites. In India, though, he’s launched his books saying he’s treading in Valmiki’s footsteps. In either case, his books, which take the most incredibly material-rich epic in the world and add to it popular SF elements and monsters from well-known contemporary western writers, signal India’s first entry into the big-league international SFF publishing market. He’s currently working on a new-age Mahabharata, after which he plans to take on the take of Krishna as well.
Another big-advance Indian author, Ruchir Joshi, incorporated SF elements very effectively in The Last Jet-engine Laugh. And yet another Indian writer (well, he’s British, but his father used to live in Kashmir once, so we are entitled to adopt him) who almost wrote SFF is Hari Kunzru. In a recent interview, he told me he’s always been fascinated by alternate worlds and has always been a huge fantasy addict. Unfortunately for genre enthusiasts, he discovered early in life how to sell Literature to publishers for millions of pounds – though he also told me, in the same interview, how his next novel would be a fantasy about an Amazonian tribe visited by men from outer space. I wouldn’t start booking advance copies of this masterpiece if I were you, though, since he’s never going to write it.
Following this impressive top order, there’s me, with my little flag and trumpet, and a few others – Manjula Padmanabhan writes SF, as do the Dynamic Duo who write under the pseudonym Kalpish Ratna. In fact, the other day I found this story by Kalpish Ratna about the issues faced by cloned incestuous lesbian twins in post-apocalyptic Bombay. Fabulous! And Vandana Singh, author of the charming children’s book Younguncle Comes to Town, has written for international magazines and aims to be an SF novelist. We haven’t all met in dark alleyways with fake lightsabers in our hands yet, but I suspect we will soon.
What is the future of Indian SFF? Search me, I don’t know, but it can only be good. Sure, the scene now isn’t too encouraging – the market is tiny, the foreign publishing market for SFF is completely distinct from the mainstream literary ones where a lot of Indian writers are big names, and this new crop of Indian writers still needs to have their SFF published abroad to stand a chance of making a living from it. But things will definitely change for the better – hopefully soon. We have writers of immense talent and stupendous imagination, an ever growing market, and a few editors and publishers who dare to innovate and give new genres a chance, no matter how boring the industry is in general. There are galaxies to be explored, and the first ships are already on their way.
Then again, are you going to take my word for it? After all, I’m just a fantasist.

January 17th, 2005, 09:31 AM
WOW! I just read the book details at Penguin India and I definately want to read the book.

Only problem is not sure If I can import it into Pakistan? The Indian price is very reasonable, I'll probably have to write to Penguin to inquire a way of shipping/costs here.

[They don't have a regional representative in Pakistan :( and they have 'em in Nepal and Sri-lanka] :(

January 17th, 2005, 01:51 PM
I wil certainly look up several of the books you mentioned. Thanks for the post! I always look forward to reading genre books from people of completely different backgrounds. it gives so much more richness to the SF/F experience that way.

January 17th, 2005, 06:22 PM
Hi Samit - thanks for that fascinating piece. Is your book available through Amazon? Your comments about magical realism also make me wonder about South American fantasy - I read part of an Argentinian (?) book once that was frankly wonderful, translated by Ursula Le Guin, and would like to know more about that as well. Do you see any links? And is SFF completely Anglocentric, from your point of view?

It's obvious, once you think about it, that Indian culture lends itself to speculative fiction. Suddenly I feel a little envious about all the riches you can draw upon. Sounds to me like you're at the beginning of something big!

January 18th, 2005, 12:19 AM
I had heard about the SF stuff written in ancient India, though not read any of it, it is some of the 'proof' used by those who think that aliens landed on earth a long time ago and were responsible for a lot of the unexplained ancient wonders (nazca lines, moving stones larger than we can move today ...).

I just checked. The book is listed on Amazon.com for release in the summer of 2005. I put it on my wish list so I won't forget when it comes out. It sounds interesting.

I have a book called The Ramayana by Aubrey Menen, who doesn't sound Indian, published in 1954. It is from my mother's collection, but I have not read it yet. I assume it must be a translation of the story/myth by some English person circa the 1950s.

I haven't read any Rushdie, but I have read The Calcutta Chromosome - was not all that impressed.

I have the first Banker book and will read it and the rest of the series when it goes into paper.

I actually have a good collection of books written about and set in India of various periods, but they are almost all from English or American authors. Some are from my mothers time and are older and therefore not PC: John Masters, but some are more modern: Leslie Forbes.

The history and culture of India is a rich setting in or out of the genre.

January 29th, 2005, 01:59 PM
I've read Samit's book and I assure it is quite wonderful. I personally feel he was a little too ... influenced, shall we say, by other writers, but otherwise, the book is immaculate, detailed, and very well-written. I've submitted a review to this site, and let's see if it's accepted (it's my first, after all).
As for me, I am eagerly waiting for Samit's next book. Hurry up, will you?

My 2 paise on Indian SFF:
As long as SFF is regarded as fringe literature, growth is unsure. While we see writers assuring us that their book might 'look' like SFF but is, in fact, serious literature, no one will take SFF seriously. In fact, I get many raised eyebrows when I count Michael Moorcock among my favourite writers (but then, I get raised eyebrows as a matter of course).
The fact (and a sad one at that), is that if we are to encourage Indian SFF writers, we'll first have to increase the sales of western SFF writers, and get something on the shelves apart from Tolkien and Rowling. Then readers *might* get interested in excelletnt writers like Samit here.
Lastly, congratulations (and thanks) to Samit for his inspired use of Indian mythology in his book.

Keep writing, keep reading.

January 31st, 2005, 05:13 AM
Hi Samit...(is that pronounced like "Sam-it"; I guess not!)...I checked on Amazon for your book SImoquin Prophecies. It says it will be out in April by Penguin Global. Is that a new publisher or an Indian publisher in the States? I've read the first Ramayana novel, Prince of Ayodha by Ashok Banker and it was pretty good. Am looking forward to the rest of the series. If your's is anything like it, I'm definitely going to grab it! I'm a new member, by the way, based on Colorado Springs, CO.

February 7th, 2005, 01:38 PM
What a great article, Samit.

Being round this Forum gives me such a fantastic idea of the global network we belong to.

Indian Sf (or even Asian Sf!) is an area I know very little about; I'd heard of Ghosh, but not read his book. I knew that Arthur C Clarke lived in Sri Lanka these days. And a little about Salman Rushdie, but that was it.

It's great to hear that things are on the up. I'd be interested to hear what you think of Ian McDonald's River of Gods, which is up for the BSFA Awards this year, set in an India of the future. Such books can only raise the profile and show people the diversity of Indian culture, I hope.

In the same way but more fantasy based - any thoughts on Ashrok Banker's modern retelling of the Ramayana?


February 7th, 2005, 01:55 PM
Very interesting info. India is known for their fantasy fiction in the States, but as you say, it is published here as non-genre fantasy, as contemporary "ethnic" literature by non-genre imprints of the publishing houses. Rushdie, and other Indian writers are respected not so much for their fantasy elements, which are seen as a cultural preference, as for their literary prose styles. But the big determiner in Western publishing is which publisher publishes it, a genre publisher or not a genre publisher. The sf/f genre publishers in the U.S. don't necessarily have an interest in foreign fantasy that has no clear appeal to the genres' core fan audience.

I did not know that Indian writers were doing sf stories, though given that India is often in the forefront of technological advancement, this is a foolish assumption. While India certainly has the population to create and sustain a sf/f genre fan audience for Indian or English writing, however, it might not be in the writers' best interest to do so. The sf genre in the U.S. came out of sf magazines that appealed mostly to a market of young males and were considered the equivalent of comic books. Seeing a ready made audience, folks in the community started publishing sf novels for that same mostly male genre audience. SF stories were published outside of the genre, but the genre publishers putting out sf stories specifically for sf fans created a separate field, one that put out work in paperback because that's what the fans could afford and was, due to all these factors, labelled pop entertainment.

In the seventies, the sf genre publishers recognized that the same young people who grooved on Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" and the like were into Tolkein's LOTR and other fantasy tales. So they were the publishers who put out Tolkein in a paperback edition, let several writers who were doing fantasy-type stories in sf really produce fantasy stories and found new fantasy writers for yet another new market genre that specifically published for a fan audience. Because the new fantasy genre was published by the sf publishers for a mostly young male audience, and because the titles came out in paperback, it too was labelled pop entertainment and indistinguishable from sf. All works that are produced by the sf/f genre publishers are considered genre. Works that are published by non-genre publishers may be sold in the sf/f section of the bookstore, like Crichton's "Jurassic Park," but will be considered non-genre.

If sf and fantasy works remain in the mainstream in India, rather than being singled out as a separate category and marketed chiefly to a fan audience, it is more likely that such works will be considered literature, as you've seen. If a sf/f genre is created in the Indian market, it will be effective, it will be full of vitality, and it will be of great interest to the young, but it is unlikely that it will be respected. The mainstream respect that sf/f genres have managed to gather at all in the West has been very hard won, and due as much to successful movies, the influence of the children's market, and the force of high sales, as it has to changing social views.

If Indian writers' work is exported to the U.S. and reprinted by sf/f genre publishers, then India will be seen as having a genre market and that may result in a small group of genre publishers in India too. If Indian writers' work continues to be reprinted by non-genre publishers in the U.S. and Europe, then it will be seen as Indian literature or contemporary fiction, and it will be unknown to most Western sf/f fans who read only genre works from genre publishers. In some instances that may actually result in a larger Western audience. If Indian publishers decide that there is a sf/f fan audience in India that they want to go after, they may create genre imprints of their own and that would establish India in sf/f genre publishing, but such genre publishers would probably be seen as putting out commercial fiction, not literary fiction. SF/F fiction also may not be adored by some because it is either straying from fictional traditions in India or because it is seen as being too traditional, using elements that Indian fiction should have outgrown. In other words, there will always be critics, whether sf/f stories are genre or non-genre published.

I'm not entirely clear how Penguin India is selling and marketing your work, Samit, whether as a new genre or as simply another fiction title on their list, and I know nothing about the politics of English versus Indian language publishing in India. But if you want a sf/f genre in the market, if you want to identify and develop a fan audience specifically for sf/f fiction in India, then it will probably be up to the interested writers to mobolize and court that fan audience, with the publishers then reacting to the presence of this specific market. Conventions specifically for the genre, magazines specifically for the genre, websites based in India specifically for the genre and about Indian genre writers -- all these things may eventually lead to change. Interest from foreign sf/f genre publishers in the English language market may also lead to such change. Just be sure you want it, that you want to be outside the main body of general fiction, though. Because once you go genre, it's not so easy to go back. :)

February 8th, 2005, 12:27 AM
Really interesting comments, KatG. You make a really valid point about genre v/s non-genre writing. If I've understood correctly, Ashok Banker says (on his author forum Epicindia) that he doesn't really mind being called a Fantasy author as he loves the SFFH genre. But his publishers and readers take strong objections to it, so his UK publisher from the outset never labelled his books fantasy, and in fact they've recently revamped all the covers of his Ramayana books to make them more 'literary/mainstream'. In India, he says, his publishers insist on removing the "A work fo fiction" disclaimer because they were threatened by a lawsuit by irate readers who insisted the Ramayana is "not fiction". So often an author doesn't have a choice in the matter, it seems. Also on the same note, Banker's first book published in the US as a fantasy work, backfired badly. Though it was loved by Indian readers, it didn't go down as well with fantasy readers and critics who made nasty comments about the book's cultural differences from most Eurocentric/medievalistic fantasy series. They then wanted Banker to remove all Indian cultural references and names to make it more a typical fantasy series, and when he refused, it seems they decided to cancel the series. They could have opted for doing what the UK publishers did, as the book had sold reasonably well already, but apparently they had cultural differences with the contents as well--the editor was apparently unhappy about references to the religious/moral vedic philosophy and wanted it to be sanitised. Ironically, the UK publishers, part of the same mega-group, is now releasing the UK editions in the USA through the same distribution network!

So as of now, though Banker himself veers more towards the fantasy side, his books are being published as mainstream and are doing apparently very well for it. Maybe it isn't always in the author's control what labels publishers put on books. Besides publishers often get things badly wrong: Robert Silverberg's fine novel The Lord of Light is repeatedly attributed to Hindu philosophy. But from my own knowledge of Buddhist lore, I can authoritatively say that its based on Buddhist myth and lore, not Hinduism!

What's your experience been like with US publishers so far? Have they seemed xenophobic at all?