Dystopic societies have always been happy hunting ground for authors. From Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, to the many disturbing worlds that Philip K. Dick created (most famously, the ones filmed in Blade Runner and Total Recall), and the graphic novel world of V for Vendetta, some of the most interesting minds of the last 100 years have reveled in creating societies that are off-kilter, extreme or plain weird. Some common themes, though, run through many of them. Massive all-powerful technocracies (Brave New World), the right of the individual to think freely (1984), and the very reality which he perceives around himself being inauthentic, carefully engineered (the most popular example: the Matrix movies).
Having just consumed an anthology of stories by Dick, I began wondering how a mind predisposed towards the surreal would see India Circa 2012.
He could well imagine a country technically led by an android trundled out periodically to drone some homilies, fooling the populace into believing they are watching a life form. However, there are constant problems with the batteries, bought through an obsolete tendering process, and the babus overlooked the fineprint on warranties and replacements.
The android is handled by The Lady Who Does Not Answer, who uses silence as both weapon and armour. Everyone else, programmed by thousands of years of civilizational history to talk and argue all the time, has to naturally reach the conclusion that she does not speak because she has worked it all out in her head and doesn’t want others to know. Everyone thinks she knows, but no one has a clue what she knows.
She heads the “We Are The Family” Family, whose most visible member is the Youthful Seeker, who remains bright and bushy-tailed though he’s slightly past the Frodo Baggins stage. He travels, he sees, he eats with the common man, and constantly says that he needs to know more. For years he has been applying lessons about organizational restructuring from his favourite book The Toyota Way to the Great Confluence he has inherited, a loose conglomeration of every variety of self-interest. But no one has told him that though the Great Confluence undoubtedly has many business interests, these do not include manufacturing automobiles. But he quests on, a heroic figure, for Knowledge, Progress, Vaguely Defined Change, and generally to get a grip on what the hell this India thing is about, dude. He also does not answer many questions.
The Great Confluence’s principal opposition is the Who Are We, Really? Party, which spends so much energy trying to figure out that question that they have little time for anything else. In this, they are not helped by the fact that they are advised by the Purity 2000 BC Organization, a bunch of men who think that ancient Indians invented the spaceship and have never heard of things like Twitter or the item number. The net result, as far as the principal opposition goes, is a complete confusion about past, present, future, religion, secularism, nationalism, capitalism, socialism, cronyism, corruption, whether Jinnah was a good guy and whether the Aryans came from Uttarkashi. Except for the Gujarat Superhero, who, according to who you are, is either Darth Vader, or his son Luke Skywalker. He is the most unconfused person in India.
Other characters include The Lady Who Must Oppose, the Wrestler Who Always Finds The Pot Of Gold, the Man with the 24/7 Dark Glasses and The Maratha Protector Of The Swiss Banking System.
Into this melee comes the Angry Brigade, a highly motivated group that wants to tear through all the Matrix-like facades and show people the reality of what’s going on. The Great Confluence’s reaction to this is that you can make these allegations because we brought in the Right To Know Law, and it’s really your problem if all that you got to know by using that law was wrong. And the Who Are We, Really? Party is still trying to figure out this thing about “shell companies” and “social entrepreneurship”. The Gujarat Superhero, though, is not bothered. He stands for social development (strictly no gifts from grooms to brides), entrepreneurship and companies investing in his state, which includes Shell. He is an unconfused person.
Now the Angry Brigade has also turned its attention to massive all-powerful technocracies (MAT), the beloved theme of dystopia creators. Trouble is, these MATs own both media and cricket teams. And that is a lethal problem for a storyteller to solve. An Average Guy (or Mango Man) has to be the hero of any novel set in a dystopia, the man who sets off a domino effect that finally brings the whole system crashing down (if the story is to have a happy ending). The Mango Man has just had his ancestral land grabbed and been physically kicked out of the Land Records office by a lower division clerk, who owes allegiance only to the First Sons-In-Law Club. So the Mango Man goes home, revolutionary thoughts all a-stir in his head, and sees the Youthful Seeker and the Gujarat Superhero and the Angry Brigade being discussed on a news channel where everyone obeys the rules of prime-time entertainment. After some time, confused, he switches channels, and catches a T20 game. His neurons stop firing so hard, and his brainwaves settle down to safe regular sinusoids.
And the ghosts of Huxley and Dick wonder how to take the story forward.
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.