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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 47, Dated Dec 08 , 2007
CULTURE & SOCIETY  
trends

Udankhatola Redux

Dhoti-clad robots and the birth of Karna as explained by Einstein. ARSHAD SAID KHAN explores the growing world of sci-fi in Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi and other anguages

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

DNA-ALTERING experiments, moody robots, strange mutations from failed cloning projects, wonder machines and nano-gadgetry, and, of course, aliens playing peek-a-boo with humans — science fiction writing in Indian languages has this all and more. And its popularity is growing steadily, especially in the eastern and southern regions of the country. Most science fiction (SF) writing in regional languages is in the form of serialised stories in magazines, but novels and short stories are also gaining popularity. Says Dinesh Goswamy, the well-known Assamese SF writer, “SF is very popular in our state. During Durga Pooja, magazines bring out special SF issues.”

It all began in 19th century Bengal. The first example of modern Indian SF was probably a Bengali story, Shukra Bhraman or ‘Travels to Venus’, by Jagananda Roy in 1879. Or, depending on your perspective, much before that. “Science Fiction has been a part of Indian literature since the Puranas and the Mahabharata,” says MH Srinarahari, General Secretary of the Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies (IASFS). “There was the palace of wax made by the Kauravas and Ram faced Mrigmarichika, which was nothing but an illusion.”

Many Bengali writers were inspired by and imitated pioneering western SF writers like Jules Verne and HG Wells. The scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose, who also wrote SF, seems to have been an original though. His story, Polatok Toofan or Runaway Cyclone, describes how a storm was averted with the aid of that quintessentially Indian ingredient — hair oil. The likes of Satyajit Ray carried the torch forward with stories like Haba, which allegedly inspired Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood SF blockbuster, E.T.But Bengal seems to have been overtaken by other states and there aren’t many prominent Bengali SF writers today. Shirshendu Mukhapadhyay is probably the most famous, best known for his Patal Ghar or ‘The Basement’ in which extra-terrestrial creatures are incarcerated for trying to steal a scientist’s formula for immortality. Samarjit Kar, editor of the Science and Culture magazine and noted Bengali SF writer, sees this as part of a general trend. “Even regular [non-fiction] science writing has not really started in West Bengal,” he says. “Television channels and newspapers show little interest unless something big happens.”

With writers like Amar Sidhu and DP Singh, whose stories have been well received, Punjab is the only state in the north where SF is emerging as a popular genre with a dedicated readership. In the west, Maharashtra boasts of many SF writers, though none have attained the celebrity status of Jayant Narlikar. It is in the southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu that regional language SF writing has the most following. Murli Krishna, former director of Police Forensic Laboratory, Kerala, and author of many SF detective novels has an explanation. “Kerala is more literate than say Gujarat, Rajasthan or Punjab,” he says. “I studied in the north, and in Rajasthan, for instance, even general reading among people is very limited. Scientific temperament comes later.” According to Geetha B, SF scholar and professor of language at BITS in Pilani, Rajasthan, there are other reasons why SF readership in regional languages is limited. “The ideas are good but characterisation is lacking. Indian SF writers do not lack quality though. They also need more exposure,” she says.

Another indicator of SF’s popularity in the south is the Mysore based IASFS which organises annual conferences to popularise the kannadasahitya. com have also helped. “South Indians have a very academic and developed sort of orientation,” concedes Kar. What is it about regional language SF that makes it distinct from its mainstream Western counterpart? The Assamese writer Shakeel Jamal has penned two novels Neela Neela Vedana, a romance in which genetic engineering plays a major role, and Silikonor Buddha, which is about artificial intelligence. He feels that the local flavour in his novels is very important, much more so than the SF jargon. “The Indian reader is biased against hardcore SF,” he says. “The Western reader wants to learn. We don’t.” Srinarahari feels that students here mostly read SF to relax between exams and semesters. Pranoti Daga from Delhi is studying analytical chemistry at Kerala University in Thiruvananthapuram. She enjoys reading Malayalam SF for its simple language. “The themes are closer to what Isaac Asimov and Clarke used to write about. So there is a sense of nostalgia. Something you miss in the hitech Hollywood SF.”

Ashish De from Dhanbad, Jharkhand, is in his early twenties and likes to read Bengali SF stories in the Anandmela magazine. He recalls a favourite from his childhood where a household robot wore dhoti and kurta. These days, De is reading Atrish Bardhan and Anil Baranbhunai. “I like Baranbhunai for his juvenile sensibility,” he says. Asked what keeps his interest in Bengali SF, he says he reads to “chill”. “I enjoy it mostly for its simplistic answers and naive utopian visions,” he says. “I haven’t come across any tragedies.”C. Radhakrishnan, the eminent Malyalam writer, sees no point in borrowing too much from Western SF. “We enjoy Western fantasy as Western fantasy. Too much extrapolation can become farfetched. Science fiction should satisfy our cultural ethos,” he says. Which is also why he is not fond of SF translations. “Translations don’t agree with our cultural background,” he adds.

“Western SF deals more with fantasy. It is difficult to compare the two,” says the Kannada SF writer Santosh Kumar Mahendale. Srinarahari points out that unlike Western alien invasion stories, Indian writers never let extra-terrestrials take over planet earth. He feels that contemporary American and British SF is actually modelled to editors’ specifications, whereas Indian authors have all the freedom they want. “Each [regional] language is an ion and not an atom,” he says, and goes on to explain that, “there is no unification in the Indian thought.” There are very few English translations of regional SF writing, barring a couple of anthologies.Mahendale declares that there is a clear line separating story-writing and pure whimsy. “Science fiction is about what may happen,” he says. YH Deshpande, noted SF playwright and writer, cites Arthur C. Clarke’s famous prediction of the geo-stationery satellite much before it became a reality. He feels that scientific principals should be the basis of SF. “In my story Tejas Bal or ‘The Smart Child’, I used Einstein’s equation e = mc2 to explain Karna’s birth. It is not possible for the Sun god to descend and bestow a child. Hence, it was energy that got converted into matter,” he says.

INDIAN SF also often comes with a moral message. “It should have a social purpose,” says Srinarahari. “If a writer is speaking of an imaginary world or change in his environ, how can he cope with it? Reading about it will educate a person.” Deshpande agrees. “There has to be a mission,” he says. In his story, the protagonist dreams that a bacteria is speaking to him, saying that increasingly powerful antibiotics are not the way to get rid of pathogenic bacteria. Peaceful coexistence between humans and the bacteria is the need of the hour. The subtext here, says Deshpande, is about nuclear weapons and terrorists.

So how many Indians are out there enjoying regional language SF? There are no established surveys but IASF is keen to take one in the coming year. An English speaking Indian — read “cosmopolitan” — reader might find some of the themes and descriptions quaint and even dated. But there is a growing, though still nascent, readership for the regional language SF, which — much like SF fans across the world — signals the arrival of a curious mind with an appetite for both science and storytelling

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 47, Dated Dec 08 , 2007

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