“It Happened Tomorrow” – Edited by Bal Phondke – A Review by Nandini Pandya
I came across this book while browsing the catalog of books published by National Book Trust. I have no idea if the book is available in local bookstores. However, it is carried by indiaclub.com, a US-based online seller of books published in India.
I have been a fan of science fiction since I was a teen in Mumbai and so was quite intrigued when I came across this collection. I am embarrassed to admit that I was not aware of the existence of Indian science fiction, let alone that written in an Indian language.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection. The introduction alone, by editor Bal Phondke, is worth the price of the book, since it contains a comprehensive summary of the evolution of world science fiction as well as its Indian counterpart. For instance, it was interesting to read that World War II had a profound effect on science fiction:
The mushroom clouds that darkened the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki rent apart brutally the cocoon in which humanity had engulfed itself. Man came to realize clearly for the first time that science can violently change the underpinning of societal structure and values.
I am not sure I agree entirely with Mr. Phondke’s analysis that “the newly introduced 10+2+3 pattern of education gave a position of prominence to science and mathematics”. Nevertheless, I am happy to concede that the change in the education system coupled with the advances in access to electronic media led to a most fortunate unintended consequence – “a triumphant revival of science fiction in India”.
Reading the many definitions of science fiction was quite illuminating as well. While SF was originally seen as “speculative fiction” and “prophetic fiction”, the definition that most resonates with me is the one put forth by Theodore Sturgeon:
A science fiction story is a story built around human beings with a human problem and a human solution which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.
The stories in this volume are quite diverse and have a refreshing mix of male, female, adult and child protagonists. But what made the stories appealing to me was the fact that : they focus on the human condition. They explore how people are affected by minor and major changes in prevalent technology; and consider the political, social and yes, even spiritual ramifications of an altered, howsoever slightly, present or future.
Then there is the fact that the settings are quintessentially Indian – a father worrying about his son’s upcoming exams, an assertive “sardarni” and a business-minded marwari as central characters, an unexpected snowfall in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. And finally, these are stories where Indian characters are the protagonists – and not because of their “otherness” or exotic traits, but because it is perfectly natural that emerging technology should take place in their milieu.
Put all these ingredients together and the volume is irresistible indeed.
The story that I enjoyed the most is “The Lift”, originally written in Kannada by Sanjay Havanur. It is a great mystery in the Agatha Chritie tradition, has several very well-developed characters and best of all, it presents a time travel scenario that neatly avoids the obvious paradoxes inherent in most tales that deal with time travel.
“Dilemma”, a short story written in Tamil by “Sujatha”, explores what can happen when robots become so powerful that humans become totally dependent on them. If we start getting all our information through/from robots, how do we tell if the robots start filtering the information that they present to us and controlling our ability to bypass them? The characters (including Em) are very well-drawn and the story has an “edge of the seat” quality to it which makes this my most favorite story in the book.
“Birthright”, a Marathi story by Shubhada Gogate, is a nightmarish rendering in the style of George Orwell’s “1984”. Under the guise of providing top-notch prenatal care, the government sends subliminal messages to fetuses. Patriotism gets equated with respect for the “leader”. And rebellious women mysteriously miscarry. The spirited heroine of the story, a pregnant woman herself, takes matters into her own hands. Although I found the characters and situations to be very well-developed, I was a bit disappointed by the somewhat facile resolution. However, that is more than likely a limitation of the short story form.
“Einstein the Second” is also a Marathi original and is written by Laxman Londhe. This story won me over when one of the characters, Dr. Srinivasan, who is a portrayed as a disarmingly unassuming person and who is dying of cancer says, “… this is hardly anything. Just let my work on unified theory be over, people will start referring to Einstein as Srinivasan the First!”. The ambitious Dr. Chitale, in cahoots with the military and the government, keeps Dr. Srinivasan’s brain alive against his wishes. The idea is to benefit from allowing Dr. S to complete his research about the unified theory. In the grand tradition of “soul” searching, even as Dr. S (or rather, his brain) thrills at having completed the research, he refuses to share his findings with the team. The closing speech is a remarkable “unified theory” – about the soul of the human race and its (in)ability to cope with itself.
Considering that “It happened tomorrow” was published in 1992, it predates the recent massive changes that have taken place (and are continuing to take place) in the Indian social and cultural landscape. Increased access to the latest technology and increased exposure to world culture hold both promise and pitfall. The promise is that Indians will no longer be held back and will be able to fully participate in the marketplace of ideas. But the pitfall is that with the proliferation of English, the essential ethos that can only be portrayed through Indian languages could be lost.
It is my hope that there will be many more tomorrows of the type of writing that is exemplified by this wonderful book.
Cover pic is the book cover