‘Imagination is back with a bang in Indian literature, if the bookstore aisles clogged with all manner of speculative fiction are anything to go by,’ the SF author Anil Menon wrote in a piece recently. I agree. But then, when was imagination ever missing from Indian literature, especially SF, speculative fiction, to come back? For you see, people who wonder if such a thing called ‘Indian SF’ exists would be surprised.
Just to stick to the modern era, from the time scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose won a short story competition with Niruddesher Kahini (Story of the Untraceable) in 1896, Indian SF has not looked back. A story of weather control which features quite possibly the first literary use of the ‘Butterfly Effect’ (decades before Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder), Niruddesher Kahini is a fine example of early Indian science fiction. It is one among the earliest, because decades before that, yet another Bengali gentleman called Kylas Chunder Dutt – in 1835 – wrote a story set 110 years in his future called ‘A Journal of 48 hours in 1945’. In it, the people of Indostan rise up against their colonial British oppressors. And in 1857, the year of our First War of Independence, Jagadananda Roy (yes, Bengali again!) wrote a story about a travel to another planet with aliens descended from apes called Shukra Bhraman (Voyage to Venus). It was published only in 1879.
Stepping from the ‘science fiction’ part of SF into fantasy, the 19th century saw two great, wholly original fantasy epics emerge from the region: Tilism-e-Hoshruba, an Urdu epic written by two rival story-tellers from Lucknow, Syed Muhammad Husain Jah and Ahmed Husain Qamar, and one that is familiar to anyone who watched Doordarshan back in the day, the 1888 epic Chandrakanta by Devaki Nandan Khatri.
The year 1905 saw another milestone – and not just for Indian SF – in what is perhaps the first piece of feminist science fiction in the world: the utopian story, Sultana’s Dream by Begun Rokeya Hossein, a full decade before Charlotte Gilman’s Herland. History also tells us that 1911 saw the first science fiction story in Marathi by S.B. Ranade called Tarache Hasya (The Laughter of a Star) and that the first science fiction story in Assamese appeared in 1937, titled Brachatiyar Desh by Hariprasad Baruah.
Keep in mind that this was still a period when the country was still under British rule and not quite the peaceful, prosperous or even a stable time conducive to the creation of great art consistently or we may have had our very own Welles or Verne who wrote fantastic stories that would influence the genre as a well. But that didn’t stop Rahul Sankrityayan writing Baeesween Sadi (The 22nd Century), a 1923 utopian novel set a century from now in which there is a single world government and war is a thing of the past. And then of course quite a few SF stories were published in the Bengali magazine, Sandesh, first published by Upendrakishore Ray in 1913.
Sandesh was revived decades later , in 1961, by the grandson of its original publisher, a gentleman by the name of Satyajit Ray who was – amongst other things – also a capable science fiction author with his Professor Shonku stories about an eccentric scientist being very popular and who, if things had gone well, would have directed a science fiction film – The Alien – that would’ve been a classic (see: ‘Dear Ravana, You May Keep Seetha’: The story of Satyajit Ray’s unmade sci-fi classic, The Alien). During this period and the following decade new voices in Indian science fiction emerged, especially in Maharashtra, notably in the form of scientists Jayant Narlikar and Bal Phondke who wrote in their native languages, just as Dinesh Chandra Goswami did in Assamese, Professor Rajashekhar Bhoosnurmath did in Kannada or Sujata did in Tamil – with the point to note being that all these writers were people of science who wrote science fiction – and many others in Hindi and other regional languages. Some of these stories can be found in the 1993 anthology edited by Bal Phondke, It Happened Tomorrow.
‘I didn’t know Indian sci-fi existed’ is an all-too-familiar statement one hears a lot (at least this writer has) with the latest instance being on Twitter by a person whose bio includes the words, ‘reader’ and ‘geek’. But in truth, an understandable sentiment, because most (though not all) of Indian SF – be it science fiction or fantasy – up to the 1990s was written, and flourished, in regional languages so it’s quite a reasonable statement coming from people who only read books in English. Compounding this is the lack of any sustained marketing efforts by Indian publishers, which means that most Indian SF readers are introduced to science fiction by way of an Asimov or a Dune, familiar with Wells and Verne but not Indian authors.
The first signs of this changing came in 1995 with the publication of Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, an SF thriller set in the future (while dipping into the past) which would go on to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Notable too was Ruchir Joshi’s year 2000 novel, The Last Jet-Engine Laugh. But it wasn’t until the 21st century proper that Indian SF in English would really take off.
In 2004, the first ever fantasy novel in English by an Indian author would be published – Book 1 of the Gameworld trilogy – The Simoquin Prophecies by Samit Basu, to critical acclaim and commercial success. A trilogy oft described as ‘Tolkien meets Pratchett’, Basu would follow up Simoquin with the equally successful books of the trilogy, The Manticore’s Secret and The Unwaba Revelations. Samit Basu would crossover from fantasy to superhero fiction with his metahuman duology soon after with Turbulence (about a group of people finding themselves super-powered over the course of a British Airways London-Delhi flight), and its enjoyable sequel, Resistance.
The past few years have been for Indian SF a period of ‘greatest hits’, if one has the liberty to call it that. From authors like the aforementioned Anil Menon’s The Beast with Nine Billion Feet and Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories and the SF anthology they co-edited, Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction inspired by the Ramayana to books such as Aliens in Delhi by Sami Ahmad Khan, Manjula Padmanabhan’s Escape, and Island of Lost Girls, Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, Tashan Mehta’s The Liar’s Weave , Sukanya Venkatraghavan’s Dark Things, Indrapramit Das’ Lambda Literary Award-winning The Devourers, Shovon Chowdhury’s The Competent Authority, Shiv Ramdas’ Domechild and the many self-published efforts only some of which one is aware of, such as Kumar L’s first-contact thriller, Earth to Centauri: The First Journey. This is not an exhaustive list or a complete history, for that would require a few thousand more words than this edition of this column would stretch itself to in one single piece.
Indian SF fans and readers have often – and unfairly – been accused of ignoring Indian SF authors in favour of books western science fiction writers. There’s a saying in Hindi that captures this quite well, ‘घर की मुर्गी दाल बराबर’ (‘Ghar Ki Murgi Dal Barabar’) and it’s not something I will deny, but again, this too is changing if the current habits of my fellow Indian SF fans and readers (going by personal experience across multiple groups and a cursory analysis of social media on this topic) is anything to go by. And the business of books of course.
It may be about literature and books, but publishing is a business like any other where one puts their money where one’s bottom line is and thus, is a good indicator of the current scenario. That Indian SF fans aren’t just talking about the SF/F books published here, but buying it in droves. In just the past few weeks, we have seen the publication of Samhita Arni’s historical fantasy The Prince, about the Chera prince Illango Adigal, author of Silappadikaram, one of the five great Tamizh epics (from Juggernaut Books), Strange Worlds! Strange Times! Amazing Sci-Fi Stories, an anthology of science fiction stories edited by Vinayak Varma and Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s far-future novel (that expands on her earlier Generation 14) Clone. On the release anvil is a book by the author or The Aryavarta Chroicles, and Immortal, Krishna Udayasankar, Beast and a feminist, all-woman fantasy anthology, Magical Women, edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. Meanwhile the movie rights to Shweta Taneja’s Anantya Tantrist mysteries (Cult of Chaos, The Matsya Curse, The Rakta Queen) have been sold and is expected to hit screens in the near future. So is Leila, a Netflix India original series adapted from Prayaag Akbar’s SF book of the same name. And these are just some Indian SF books published in the recent past.
Of course, there’s a lot to be made of UK’s oldest specialist SF publisher, Gollancz, coming out last week with its first anthology for the region, with a sleeve that loudly proclaims ‘Gollancz comes to India’ in a clear indication that the ‘Indian market’ is one that is not to be taken lightly. The takeout? Indian SF is on the rise and mayhap in a few years we will look upon this time as the period that Indian science fiction and fantasy truly came into its own and conquered the hearts of readers everywhere, and not just in this country. To conclude, what else can one say to Indian SF writers and readers except ‘Live Long and Prosper!’.
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Lead Image: Detail from the Penguin India edition of bestselling novel, The Simoqin Prophesies by Samit Basu. Updated at 01:26 pm on March 9, 2019 to change a book title. An earlier version of the story said The Skull Rosary was by Shweta Taneja. It has been updated to say The Matsya Curse.