January 17th, 2005, 05:17 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.