Science Fiction in India: Parallel Worlds and Postcolonial Paradigms
Call for Papers
Edited Anthology to be published by Bloomsbury
Science Fiction in India: Parallel Worlds and Postcolonial Paradigms
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech titled “The Solitude of Latin America”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez declared that “the interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us even more unknown, ever less free, even more solitary”. Widely regarded as one of the champions of the magic realist genre, Marquez gestures towards the dynamic between the peculiar nature of a people’s lived experiences and the narrative constructs used to represent their reality. As opposed to magic realism, which is indigenous to Latin America, science fiction is primarily a Western literary genre. Right from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1819) (often regarded as the first SF novel), to the iconic pulp magazines of SF like Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, SF developed and matured in Europe and America. Besides germinating in the West, SF has also often been understood as a genre that aligned itself with imperialist ideology. John Rieder, in his now iconic book titled Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008), argues, for example, that SF rose to prominence during the precise period which witnessed the most “fervid imperialist expansion” in the late nineteenth century. Rieder contends that as a product of imperialist culture, SF represents the West’s technological will to power. In such a scenario, how does one see SF within a location which is, at least conceptually, not only alien to it but also located in somewhat obverse positions to the West. This is a question that the proposed anthology wishes to pick up, particularly in view of the Indian nation. Clearly, a preliminary reading of SF does not present it as an appropriate genre for capturing a distinctly postcolonial Indian sensibility. Are there, then, certain forms of expression which are better suited to mediate particular cultural, social and political sensibilities? If so, how do these forms develop and evolve within the materiality of temporal and spatial paradigms? Finally, how does one evaluate the production and circulation of this genre within the Indian locus and sensibility?
Despite apparent challenges, a hybrid version of SF has, in fact, managed to find a place in the nation’s cultural imaginary, especially after the liberalization of 1990’s. At this point, it must be clarified that there was already a rich body of science fiction being written during the colonial times in language like Hindi, Bengali and Marathi among others. However, the last decade of the twentieth century ushered in an age of rapid industrialization and technological advancement, turning the nation’s gaze towards the future. At the same time, the SF narratives coming out of India embraced the traditional forms of storytelling including folklore and myth. Suparno Banerjee argues that SF in India is influence “simultaneously by the cognitive mode of Euro-American science fiction as well as by the ancient precritical traditions of myths and legends of the country”.
The formal dynamics of the genre facilitate this dualism to prosper, resulting in a rich and diverse body of Indian SF writing which at once reconstructs past(s) and imagines future possibilities. One needs to study Darko Suvin’s famous understanding of science fiction as a literature of “cognitive estrangement” to fully appreciate this dualism. According to Suvin, SF is characterized by the co-presence of estrangement and cognition; therefore, even as SF is replete with alternative worlds, these worlds are rationally constructed according to certain cognitive principles. In the case of Indian SF, this translates to a near ideal union of a rational modernity that places it faith in techno-utopianism and a traditional, indigenous philosophy that has employed myth and folklore to negotiate external reality since time immemorial. As a result, it “liberate[s] the texts from the constraints of realism and yet provide[s] a logical orientation” (Banerjee 211). Owing to this unique feature of science fictional narratives, they have witnessed new trajectories of evolution within the Indian landscape. The synthesis of myth, religion, superstition and folklore with the more characteristic motifs of SF like space travel, time travel and utopia/dystopia has produced a hybrid form of SF infusing it with a range of postcolonial possibilities.
This ubiquitous difference of India’s realisms, presentational and representational alike, finds its moorings in a dialectical duality: on one hand, inside the spatial/geopolitical interactions that the citizens of the country have with the world and, on the other, a temporality within which the nation’s evolutionary processes emerge. Both these facets function as arbiters of the ‘Indianness’ of citizenry identity and their constituent reality by granting it, in the case of the former, a territoriality and, through the latter, a diachronicity. This, however, means that the reality of the nation is constituted not only through the modalities of its positioning but also the functions that create history. While such a paradigm–of the creation of national reality through its spatio-temporal location—is not necessarily unique to India, what sets the nation apart from the rest of the world is the distinctiveness of the framework within which either India’s spatiality or its temporality is produced (each, thereby, affecting the Indian reality).
In the case of the first, the spatiality of the country, surrounded, in the north especially, by mostly enemy nations, gives rise to an immediate presence of a discord. It is (or, has become) of the utmost importance that the Indian nation state is always an opposition to each of these countries: an opposition that is fundamentally an existential one. It’s not enough, in other words, to simply reject the material of the other country but, alongside, ensure that that the Indian nation exists as the obverse of that nation. Such an existence, constructed by all means, not only forces in a Saidian othering of the neighbouring nation in question, but also ensures the formation and the subsequent maintenance of a reality that upholds this existence. The threat, as it were, is real and the nation has to do whatever is necessary to repel it; no questions asked. One of the immediate effects of this has been an imminent militarisation of generations of citizens regardless of their affiliation to a national army. Indian science fiction (or at least elements of science fiction in different media) has appropriated this reality in a like manner. Comics made by Raj Comics and Yali Dream Creations immediately come to mind where science is forever busy forging unique weapons to thwart the machinations of the enemy nation(s).
A similar complicacy can be seen upon the interrogation of the historical evolution of the country. For most other nations of the world (first and third alike), history requires facticity. An insistence on the accuracy of happenings allow the presents of nations to find a comprehensibly finite material rootedness in their pasts. Such histories are, therefore, essentially kept separate from mythologies to allow not only the nation’s aforementioned diachronic material being but also a necessarily separate mythologised existence where, opposed to the former, the latter integrates the nation into the infinity of timelessness. For the Indian state, however, the facticity of history is often overshadowed (if not over taken) by the presentation of mythology. This consumption of the one by the other forces in a partiality. For the infinity of timelessness always allows the possibility of the erasure of any and all historical discomfitures. What remains, then, is a lineage and a tradition that does not recognise historical flux but maintains the dominance of a singularity. That science in India has, in many cases, appropriated such a history is perhaps the best example of the emergence of dominance. It is, after all, not uncommon to hear scientists proclaim, especially in today’s age, that India has been (factically) the first one to create a flying machine or a homing missile. The evidence for this lie, quite perceptibly, in the mythological works of the nation (the pushpak viman and the brahmastra respectively). There is, just as a caution, no moral judgement here but a simple presentation of the complicated nature of India’s history. If it is good or bad is a different argument altogether. Nevertheless, given science’s co-option of mythological authenticity, Indian science fiction shows similar tendencies towards presentations of the mythological as real. Quite a number of Vandana Singh’s science fiction stories show, for example, the prevalence of the pushpak viman or Ram Rajya as necessary evolutions of the Indian historiographic imagination. For the future that science fiction envisions is, necessarily, rooted not only in the present, but also the past.
This intersection between science, myth, factual colonial past and storytelling is articulated in the concept of ‘mythologerm’ introduced by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay. Discarding terminologies such as ‘desi sf’ and ‘Bharati sf’, he employs the term “kalpavigyan” to usher a more productive and enabling definition of Indian SF. Commenting on the complex and peculiar relationship between the mythic and the scientific in Indian SF, he argues that the mythic is used to rework the history of science at multiple points. The mythic is an important part of the postcolonial reality of India and more often than not becomes a mode of SF storytelling. Although science has a colonial legacy in India, “Kalpavigyan” uses the mythic as the “source of alternative or unknown or advanced science”. He contends that Indian SF or kalpavigyan articulates “truths” or “gyan” in sources that have been discarded by modern knowledge and reframes them in terms of science or “vigyan”. Often, this is how alternative hidden knowledge is brought about into focus.
Alternative knowledge and realities are at the heart of the representation of post-colonial and non-western futures as articulated in Afrofuturism, sinofuturim, gulffuturism etc. These paint alternative realities where the past is reworked and cultural cliches reinterpreted, to imagine the future afresh. For instance, Marathi SF writer, Jayanta Narlikar’s short story “The Adventure” represents an alternate reality wherein the Marathas win the crucial Battle of Panipat, in 1761, altering India’s socio-political landscape monumentally. In the story, Narlikar renders an alternate timeline where India wasn’t subjected to inhumane colonial rule; where the Mughals are only rubber stamp authority and the British influence has been limited to commercial activities in and around parts of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. There is a reimagining and affirmation of India’s strengthened place, attributed to the nonexistence of the colonial influence. Like many SF writers, Narlikar’s stories are steeped in the socio-historical and cultural milieu of India and paint an authentic Indian locale made of religious rituals like ‘yagna’, local sweet shops, the historical battle of Panipat etc. to underscore and imagine the eminence of India or Indians.
Domestication of technology is another trope that is peculiar to the imagination of Indian SF futures. For instance, Manjula Padmanabhan in “Gandhi-Toxin” (1997) heralds a dystopic future where a toxin derived from the vial of ashes of Gandhi has the potential to be misused as the toxin has the rare ability of disarming the “aggression vectors” in people’s brains. The ideals of Gandhi which were imperative in bringing about Indian independence are thematized to imagine a future where a malicious multinational bio-corporation uses Gandhi’s genes to create this passivity toxin. Her short story “2099” (1999), narrates the story of a man who travels forward in time to 2099, to wake up to a future where India has colonized Mars. Both stories explore how India might “domesticate” technologies and employ them for its own use. Herein, India is not the ‘other’ but at the helm of invention and discovery. Thus, Indian SF becomes an interesting and relatively unmapped site to explore post-colonial relations in an era shaped by globalization and capitalism.
Indian SF has evolved over the years and can be seen making a mark for itself on the global scene. Dalit speculative fiction writer and editor Mimi Mondal is the first SF writer from India to have been nominated for the prestigious Hugo award. In fact, Indian SF addresses themes such as global climate change. Debates around G.C.C are not just limited to science fiction but also permeate in critical discussions on SF. For instance, Amitav Ghosh’s (whose short affair with SF produced the stimulating work The Calcutta Chromosome) in his book The Great Derangement: Climate change and the Unthinkable discusses the inability of science fiction to address climate change in a productive and impactful way. Vandana Singh disagrees and in her “The Unthinkability Of Climate Change: Thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement” writes that SF doesn’t postpone but instead address SF, in a slant fashion. It is Uppinder Mehan, coeditor of the first ever anthology of postcolonial science fiction and fantasy, So Long Been Dreaming who makes a case for an urgent need to ponder “that strange land of the future” that SF articulates. He cautions that, “If we do not imagine our futures, postcolonial people risk being condemned to be spoken about and for again”.
Within the schematic of the aforementioned frameworks, this anthology seeks to examine the different ways by which Indian SF narratives construct possible national futures. For this looking forward necessarily germinates from the current positional concerns of the nation. While some work has been done on Indian SF, there is still a perceptible lack of an academic rigor invested into the genre; primarily, perhaps, because of not only its relative unpopularity in India, but also its employment of futuristic sights. Towards the same, among other things, it proposes to study the growth and evolution of science fiction in India as a literary genre which accommodates the duality of the national consciousness as it simultaneously gazes ahead towards the future and glances back at the past. In other words, the book will explore how the tensions generated by the seemingly conflicting forces of tradition and modernity within the Indian historical landscape are realized through characteristic tropes of SF storytelling. It also intends to look at the interplay between the spatio-temporal coordinates of the nation and the SF narratives produced within to see, firstly, how one bears upon the other and, secondly, how processes of governance find relational structures with such narratives. Through these, the anthology wishes to interrogate how postcolonial futures promise to articulate a more representative and nuanced picture of a contemporary reality that is rooted in a distinct cultural and colonial past.
The book will be published by Bloomsbury India by the end of 2021. Interested scholars are requested to send in an abstract of 300-500 words along with a 100 word bio note by the 13th of November 2020 to email@example.com. Acceptances will be notified within a fortnight. The anthology is open to all researchers interested in the field.
Please feel free to write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org any queries.
About the Editors
Shweta Khilnani is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Khalsa College, University of Delhi. She is a PhD scholar at the Department of English, University of Delhi and her dissertation explores the nexus between the literary, the affective and the political with respect to digital narratives. She is interested in the study of popular cultures and theories of contemporary literature. She is the co-editor of Imagining Worlds, Mapping Possibilities: Select Science Fiction Stories.
Ritwick Bhattacherjee is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Khalsa College, University of Delhi. His research has been located around Fantasy, philosophy, phenomenology, horror fiction, science fiction, Indian English Novels, and Disability Studies. He is the author of Humanity’s Strings: Being, Pessimism, and Fantasy, a co-editor for Horror Fictions of the Global South: Cultures, Narratives and Representations, What Makes it Pop?: An Introduction to Studies in Popular Fiction, and Reclaiming the Disabled Subject: Representing Disability in Short Stories. He has also been awarded the Prof. Meenakshi Mukherjee Memorial award for his essay titled “Politics of Translation: Disability, Language, and the Inbetween” published in the book Disability in Translation: The Indian Experience.
About the Publisher
Launched in September 2012, Bloomsbury India upholds Bloomsbury Publishing’s tradition of publishing books of the highest quality in Fiction, Non-Fiction, Children’s, Academic, Business, and Education by both Indian and international authors. Bloomsbury India’s catalogue of authors also includes J.K. Rowling, Khaled Hosseini, Elizabeth Gilbert and Kamila Shamsie; Nobel Prize winners Nadine Gordimer and Patrick Modiano; Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood; Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert; Orange Prize winners Madeline Miller and Anne Michaels and cookery books by Michelin-starred chefs Anthony Bourdain, Vikas Khanna, Heston Blumenthal, Atul Kochhar and Raymond Blanc. Bloomsbury India distributes both UK and US Bloomsbury imprints together with the popular and critically acclaimed Arden Shakespeare series.