Science Fiction in India: Why Isn’t There Any? by Sudarshan Purohit
Literary traditions in India are probably more evolved and widespread than any of the western countries. By Literary traditions, I don’t mean only the recent trend towards English writing, but also the huge bodies of Hindi, national and regional language literature. Unfortunately my knowledge of regional language literature is limited to Gujarati and Marathi, so I’ll stick to that. Marathi and Gujarati newspapers and magazines carry serialized novels, intellectual articles and short stories. Large numbers of people eagerly await the next work, the next chapter by popular writers. Almost every genre of literature in well represented in these media – except for one: Science Fiction. In this essay I propose some reasons for this strange absence.
I might add that for your average Marathi/Hindi/Gujarati fiction aficionado, the absence of science fiction not only seems normal, the introduction of SF themes into literature will sound alien.
The Place of Science Fiction in Western Society
The literary establishment in the US and Europe has, till recently, viewed science fiction as a cheap form of entertainment. It was considered to be a lower art form than ‘real’ literature. Sci-Fi’s acceptance into the mainstream is a recent trend. I would say, this is mostly because of the rising standards of sci-fi writing – writers are taking the basic themes of sci-fi and weaving literary stories into them. If you pick up an old science fiction magazine (say, about 30 or 40 years old) and read the stories in it critically, you will find that the normal writing standards are very low – the sneers of the ‘literary’ folks at the time were probably justified. Science fiction, Fantasy, and Horror magazines and books – what is called escapist fiction – were all basically mass-produced, badly/simply written fare. The target readers were usually teenagers. It was a form of ‘cheap thrills’, for people who didn’t want to take the effort to delve into serious literature. In such fiction, the ratio of effort to rewards – rewards being a sense of ‘thrill’, of accomplishing something – was minimal. This concept of reducing the readers’ effort applies to the theme of the story as well. Fiction, as in mainstream cinema, humour and music, must reflect the social concerns of the day. Note the popular genre of Cold War fiction, entirely a product of its times. Or note the increasing number of lawyer and gay jokes in the present day. Populist fiction needs conform to these trends.
Science became the means, the newly discovered messiah that would lead society to Utopia, would solve everyone’s problems. Every new invention – from concrete roads to remote controls to durable clothes – was perceived as being a gift of science. Scientists and engineers became widely respected, and magazines like Popular Science sold more than news magazines. Richard Feynman mentions this in his book that during the post A-Bomb days, it was customary to hire a physicist everywhere. The thinking was, they could be given problems to solve and you never knew what wonderful discovery and invention came along.
Dependence on any one philosophy is bound to create some apprehension. With the Atomic bomb explosion, the common man had also been exposed to the horrendous possibilities of science. Albert Einstein summarized the lingering fear of Nuclear Warfare with this quote: “I do not know what the third world war will be fought with, but the fourth world war will be fought with sticks and stones”.
Now every worry, every unknown feared thing was somehow linked to science as well. Every society has it’s ‘others’ – mystical, feared outsiders who are not bound by the rules of society, and perhaps by extension, by physical laws. Old Europe had its banshees, leprechauns, goblins, demons, ghosts. In 40’s and 50’s America, these others were a product of science, as was everything in those days – Atom Bombs, Aliens, Time travelers, Superheroes, Scientists themselves to some extent.
Science fiction brought these elements together – ‘Cheap’ thrills connected to the science-related unknown forces of the day. In time, Science fiction achieved enough critical mass to attract serious literary talent – but even today, the American culture that produces and consumes it regards science as a foundation stone of society.
The Indian Alternative to Science Fiction
The first thing to be noted here is that Indian culture is much older than the American culture. Indeed, I’d say there’s no such thing as a purely Indian culture – what we call Indian is merely the intersection of the many regional cultures, that subset which we can all relate to.
Being older implies that the elements of our culture were mostly in place much before the 2nd world war. Our interaction – as equal partners – with the world was cut off after British rule began, and we only began to recover our feet around, say, 1985. Thus we were not as exposed to the initial euphoria and terrors about science as, say, Europe. Aliens, Time travel, Superpowers as defined by science never penetrated the mind of the common Indian man.
That is not to say that the place they would have occupied was empty. On the contrary, the Indian psyche has had its traditions of ‘Others’ enriched by years, centuries, of creative story telling. We need only look at our counterparts to ‘cheap thrills’ magazines to figure them out. While the US has ‘Amazing Science Fiction’, ‘Asimov’s Science’, ‘Fantastic’, we have ‘Manohar Kahaaniyan’, ‘Tantra-Mantra’, ‘Rochak Kahaniyan’, and innumerable other publications in Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali. They have L Ron Hubbard, we have Col. Ranjit. The pulp writing scene really flourishes in the regional languages and not in Hindi. This is mostly because, the ‘Others’ are different from state to state. I can only give you common terms for them: Tantrik, Aghori, Chudail, Pret, Bala (all in Hindi), Mama dev, Daksh, Dakan (all Gujarati terms), Zapatlela, Waaraa Laagli, Todga (all Marathi terms) Bhopaa, Hawa Lagna, Mooth Maarna, (Rajasthani) Khawees (Urdu) Yakshini (Malayalam).
Yes, our ‘Others’ all stem from what English speakers refer to as the Paranormal. Our Conspiracy theories usually involve Vashikaran and Fook-Marna. Our Utopian visions involve Spirituality in some form or other. Everyone has heard that story about how Indira Gandhi had those 1-rupee coins minted using some Black magic rituals, then got most of them collected again, in order to get more ‘power’ from the Indian population – thus giving the few remaining coins secret mystical powers. (Does anyone else see the parallel with the Area 51 legend?) Many sort-of-believed the power of Chandraswami.
Sounds a little difficult to believe? Perhaps it does, for us, the science-centric generation of Indians. Our workplaces and college believe in science, but our homes, clan gatherings, neighbors still instill in us that small element of doubt in the ‘supernatural’. But there’s a simple test to determine the ‘Other’ in one’s life.
Say you were walking down a dark road in a jungle, alone. Imagine being lost and frightened. Suddenly you see some strange lights beyond the bushes, lights that you cannot identify at all. What would be the first thing that comes to your mind as explanation? The first, instinctive, non-rational reaction? If this is a middle-class American teenager, he’d probably think “UFOs!” An Indian – an average one – would probably think, “Bhoot!” Perhaps an Irishman of older times would have thought “Leprechauns!”, or something of the sort. If you see a close friend behaving oddly, totally out of character, the American would think “Alien Abduction!” or “Mind control!” Whereas our Indian might go, “Vashikaran!” or “Us par kisi ne kuch kiya hai!” I talk of the first, non-rational reactions. These reactions come from the social mindset – the underlying concerns about the ‘Other’ that seep into everyone’s subconscious. They will be the topic – the heroes, the villains, the themes, of the ‘cheap thrills’ fiction of the day.
The science fiction we are used to is a by-product of the age of belief in science in the US and Europe. This was the large-scale, Whiz-bang, explanation-for-the-universe type of science that was prevalent in the 40s and 50s. The dreams that the average teenager saw in those times were of exploring space, of meals-in-pills, of light-speed travel. Such a mass hysteria never took root in India, hence we will never see that kind of science fiction garner mass support here.
This does not mean that there will never be a grassroots level support for science fiction. There will be. We are seeing the effects of scientific innovation in India. But the themes this new SF will talk about will be somewhat different. Following is a list of popular scientific topics in the Indian Mass Media. I derive all of the below from existing social trends and issues. All these things could lead to SF type fiction being created. The list is by no means exhaustive, of course.
1. Gender imbalance, Water Scarcity, Paid Organ Donors, etc. Movies related to all these topics are already in the works. See the ads for the upcoming Matrubhoomi to get an idea. I believe Adhbut.in has had a story about gender imbalance, as well.
2. Mobile phone technology. This is the big technology story of recent times. It has already made its way into popular media. To take a small subset: Anupam Kher is caught using a mobile phone address book entry in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. Urmila is detected as being in Delhi by the cops, in Ek Hasina Thi. Bobby Deol talks to his Grandmother through a Video Phone, in Humraaz. Also note the repeated references to Mobile phones and SMS lingo in the ads for the upcoming movie, CU at 9.
3. Genetically Modified crops. It is too early to tell how much of an impact these will have, but the topic definitely has the potential. Note the recent book, Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh.
4. Yoga/Ayurveda/Spiritualism. Already there are efforts to declare these as sciences again. As they gain more mass acceptance, there will be more movies/books based on them. Flexing the definition a little, I would classify Aks and Hindustaani(that Kalari Payyata move he uses to paralyze his opponents) as having SF elements.
5. Chandrayaan. This is the moon mission that ISRO is working on. I can only imagine the euphoria a successful mission would build. Expect ten dozen Koi Mil Gaya style movies around the time this mission happens. Also expect the first serious Alien Invasion novel/movie to come out around then.
6. If the Indian IT industry matures enough to produce India-specific products, then Indian geeks would acquire a reputation very similar to the scientists of the 50’s. Expect the media to make the most of it. I personally am looking forward to the first desi cyberpunk-type book.
Whichever of these topics becomes big, I have no doubt that Bollywood movies will be the first to adopt it. Movies are to us movies, books, comics all rolled into one.
In conclusion, I would like to reassure Indian SF Aficionados. As our media grows in maturity and cohesion, it will pick up science related topics as well. It is up to us to see the results for what they are – Indian Science Fiction.
Cover pic by fly.