Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Contemporary Indian Speculative Fiction

Samit Basu has put together a wonderful series of essays and interviews on the subject of contemporary Indian speculative fiction ("speculative fiction" is an umbrella term, which includes sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and alternative history).

It's really a small encyclopedia rather than a blog post, so here are a couple of pointers to start you off. First and foremost, Samit deals with the question of Indian speculative fiction in the context of the recent flourishing of "literary" Indian Writing in English here. He deals with the question of "authentic" Indian superheroes (as opposed to the bad, but familiar, ripoffs of western superheroes) here. Both are highly recommended links. Basu also gets into some questions about the publishing industry and the current dominance of diasporic writers here; the publshing and marketing questions are less intrinsically interesting to me than formal ones, but in the case of this genre it's hard to get around them.

* * *

On the definitional and generic question, the highlight of Basu's essay may be the following:

This set of essays, however, is fundamentally flawed on many levels - it is about a nascent, hard-to-define sub-section of literature, the as-yet-mostly-nonexistent sub-genre of Indian speculative fiction in English, which is itself a bastard child of two parents who, not being dead, are difficult to analyze as they are not only infinitely complex at any point, but, to complicate things further, change all the time as well. . . . (link)

Note that the "two parents" are Indian Writing in English and Western speculative fiction, respectively. To continue:

What is Indian/South Asian literature in English? Even if we get past the tricky question of origin, which has obsessed scholars since the term came into being, and include the non-resident and the genetically partially South Asian, in recent years the growing diversity in South Asian English literature should lead to more questions –- having overcome the 'South Asian' part of the question by being all-inclusive, how do we now define 'literature'? Do we include comics and graphic novels, speculative fiction, thrillers, chick-lit, campus novels and crime fiction, all of which have reared their heads in India over the last decade? This should prove a lot more difficult for the sagacious and scholarly to do, given that literary snobbery is far more acceptable than racism -– and that Indian-origin writers abroad might have very thin connections with India, but large advances and literary awards add a great deal of density to the study of the field -– build its brand, in other words, however gut-shrinking that might sound, while diversity in the form of new, not necessarily mainstream writing increases the number of spices in the curry, but, in the eyes of many not-so-neutral observers, does not necessarily add to its taste. (link)

I think Basu is on the right track here. It doesn't make that much sense to rail against the "Opal Mehta's Arranged Monsoon Marriage Under the Curry-Smelling Mango Trees" school of masalafied Indian fiction, partly because such fiction does possibly "strengthen the brand," as Basu puts it. Writers like Basu himself may potentially benefit even by some irksome predecessors, partly because those predecessors carve out space on bookshelves for the next generation of writers, and raise the awareness of both publishers and readers. (Though that holds only if the reputation of the whole isn't permanently overwhelmed by the reek of rotting pulp.)

In his "Indian Superheroes" essay, Basu talks about the bad Indian copies of western superheroes ("Mr. India"; "Indian Superman") as well as the Indian connections of some western figures like The Phantom, before moving on to the real subject at interest, which is the emergence of real, homegrown "Indian superheroes," whose stories and cultural context is identifiably Subcontinental. To some extent the idea of authenticity means the symbolism of the superheroes may be derived from traditional Indian mythology -- though I think even simply grounding those figures realistically in the modern Indian cultural context probably goes a long way.

As a teaser, one of the gleanings from Samit's discussion of India-related superheroes is the baddie formerly called "Commcast," who is defined on Wikipedia as follows:

Garabed Bashur, a native of India, is a cyberpath who possesses the mutant ability to psychically retrieve, interpret and store data from any form of electronic media (essentially a highly potent electronic form of telepathy). He was trained in this ability by Professor Charles Xavier, but Xavier rejected Bashur upon learning of his criminal tendencies. (link)

In an era of outsourcing and the explosion of Indian high tech, it's not at all surprising to see Marvel Comics go this route. I think it's funny that they've given him a name ("Commcast") that essentially rhymes with the name of my current Cable/Internet company ("Comcast"). (And actually, it's a pretty good name for a villain.) And while he is a bit on the geeky side for a supervillain, at least they didn't give him the name "TeeVo"!

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]


h de m said...

Are there any anthologies of Indian speculative fiction?

2:40 AM  
Anonymous said...

As a youth growing up in Africa in the '60s I recall reading an American comic featuring Thor with his arch-enemy Loki with guest spots from Superman, etc.

Perhaps the Indian pantheon can provide similar characters suitable for graphic novels?

6:08 AM  

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