Lota, not toilet paper: The eclectic dreams of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction

Gautham Shenoy March 16, 2019 8 min

‘…a fresh safari into a literary dimension that has largely been overlooked in the region that you and I call home…your guides have names such as Matadeen and Mahua, your picnic basket may contain mango pickle and your kitbag surely includes a collapsible lota than toilet paper’, writes Manjula Padmanabhan in her introduction to The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, the anthology of speculative fiction. The book, as per per Krishna Gowda, the owner of Bengaluru based Bookworm, a bookstore I haunt most, is selling quite well. If you’re wondering why, the answer perhaps lies in the extract above.

Given that our region has a long history of imaginative literature, this is not the first SF (science fiction/speculative fiction; take your pick) anthology from the country or the region. But that said, The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction is by far the first in this century that is this broad in scope, and definitely the most ambitious, in its intentions. Not least starting with the introduction – by the editor Tarun K. Saint, in which he seeks out the foundation for SF literature in general and commendably attempts to almost comprehensively encapsulate the history of South Asian SF in particular (with almost 13 pages of footnotes and links for further reading).

In what one could take as an auspicious beginning to this collection of 28 SF stories and poems, the anthology begins with Planet of Terror (Atonker Groho; translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha) by Adrish Bardhan, the writer credited with coining the term ‘kalpabigyan’ and the person behind the first Bangla SF magazine in the 1960s. This acknowledgement of SF stories that can only be termed as foundational in the development of the genre in the subcontinent continues with stories such as the 1923 utopian tale told from the perspective of a man who wakes up two centuries later to find the world changes and India prosperous and enlightened – The Twenty-Second Century by Rahul Sankrityayan (Baisvin Sadi; translated by Maya Joshi), the 1968 story, Inspector Matadeen on the Moon by the Hindi satirist Harishankar Parsai (Inspector Matadeeen Chand Par; translated by C.M. Nain), a tale that will be uncomfortably, embarrassingly and frustratingly familiar to any Indian with how the police and legal system works and/or can be made to work in this country. And then there’s a story by the author of the Ghanda tall-tales, Why the War Ended by Premendra Mitra (Juddho Keno Thamlo; translated by Arunava Sinha), a counterfactual story about World War 2 and the reasons behind the cessation of hostilities featuring notably, a character based on Amelia Earhart.

Moving on from the past to the year 2087, a year that keeps cropping up throughout the anthology (not least in the endpaper illustration by Manjula Padnamabhan), one wishes this book had been published two years ago, in 2017 for then there would be a chronological symmetry about the date: 70 years into the future from the 70th year of Independence/ Partition. Stories set around this general time period, to name a few, include The Godess Project by Giti Chandra about a next generation of goddesses groomed to save women from the men who worshipped them, The Last Tiger by Mohammed Salman, about the discovery and the subsequent media circus surrounding the eponymous feline, The Other Side by Payal Dhar in which the tale about a girl escaping towards freedom gives away to the origin of her imprisonment and the roots of an authoritarian regime, and The Narrative of Naushirwan Shavaksha Sheikh Chilli by Keki N. Daruwalla about the circumstances surrounding the last Parsi on Earth, his attempt to escape to the lunar stellement in order to escape his creditors (and its aftermath, involving herbs with interesting acronyms). This set of stories in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction: their futuristic setting being an extrapolation of the country’s current political climate, with their caustic, sometimes comedic and satirical take on the ruling party, the right wing and a person referred to only as ‘Great Leader’ and ‘Saheb’. Here, we must be thankful that the kind of people who would outrage and take offence to such stories don’t actually read, or this anthology would’ve been a part of primetime news debates about anti-national literature – featuring a dozen disembodied screaming heads – given that books and films have been in trouble for far less, and for speaking about much milder inconvenient truths than these stories contain.

Or the poems for that matter. For this anthology also contains – in what is a first for an SF anthology from the subcontinent – SF poetry in the form of Chenobyl by Somendra Singh Kharnola in which the titular nuclear power plant and the eponymous disaster becomes a metaphor for the decline of civilisation, Moksha by Sumita Sharma that looks at this Indian philosophical concept of enlightenment and liberation in the context of a digital age, Kaiser Haq’s Seventy Years After Seventy Years After Partition, and Were It Not For by Arjun Rajendran that casts a cutting eye on the construction of a mega-statue off the coast of Mumbai. Yes, the one of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (from Hachette India)

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the anthology, Sami Ahmad Khan returns to his fictional universe featuring the antagonistic reptilian aliens, the Qa’haQ, with his standalone story, 15004, with a tale with a very high body count brought about by an invading species which seeks to eliminate heterogeneity in India, for starters. The people of Karachi grapple with the sea stolen from them and its consequences in Asif Aslam Farrukhi’s Stealing the Sea (Samandar Ki Chori; Translated from by Syed Saeed Naqvi), while a family comes to grip with their past, their expectations and their heritage in unexpected fashion and with unintended consequences as enter an immersive VR theme park called Partition World 2047 in the story by this collection’s editor and partition scholar, Tarun K. Saint.  Clarke Prasad (aka Suraj Prasad) in his story, Mirror-Rorrim portrays a bhumandala couple in a quantum-entangled multiverse. And speaking of time, Manjula Padmanabhan in her first contact story, Flexi-Time gives readers a glimpse at the implications of IST (not Indian Standard Time, but Indian ‘Stretchable’ Time) as an impatient global council tries to come to grips with the “chronological otherness” of the aliens, while Anil Menon’s story, Shit Flower, touches upon what immortality and multiple identities could be like against a future Bombay facing a brownout by way of a sewage flood, brought as a result of AIs telling themselves jokes. Capping the anthology is a climate fiction story about the language of Gaia herself – which in itself is worth the price of admission – by the author of Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh, Reunion which is at once a meditation on where the future of cities and urban living lies in the context of a sustainable future and set in a climate-world world where Mumbai has become an archipelago. All of which makes this anthology a book worthy of being on the shelves of any reader who enjoys good stories – SF or otherwise.

Gollancz is a name that is intimately familiar to any science fiction fan and serious SF reader across the world – not least for its long-running SF masterworks series – and in the opinion of this reader, this anthology is a worthy addition to its catalogue, not to mention one that is a good first step in filling a gap that exists when it comes to SF literature in English from our the subcontinent. As good as it sounds, could this anthology have been better? Yes. Because what are Indian SF readers if not greedy when it comes to an anthology meant for them?

To paraphrase the title of my favourite Billy Paul song, “Am I South Asian enough for you?” The answer would be ‘No’. For one, the anthology features only writers from the ‘partitioned three’: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The editor, Tarun K. Saint, says in his introduction that they weren’t able to reach out to writers from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives or the Tibetan Community in exile. One hopes that The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction is not a one-and-done publication, but just the first volume of many. So, subsequent anthologies could include stories from the aforementioned countries (and mayhap including even Afghanistan, each of which surely have a history of speculative literature of their own with many of them having a thriving contemporary SF scene, not least Sri Lanka) as also stories, not just from authors who write in English such as Samit Basu, Indrapramit Das, Sukanya Datta to name just a few, but also by writers such as Jayant Narlikar, Sujatha, Naiyer Masud and many others whose stories are written primarily in regional languages such as Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Assamese, etc., so that The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction grows into something true to its name and becomes for speculative fiction from the subcontinent what Gollancz’s SF/F Masterworks is for the genre as a whole.


Lead Image: Detail from the cover of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction. Image by MasPix/Mark Stevenson; cover design by Bhavi Mehta.