Indian science fiction authors fret niche, hope for more readers

Indian science fiction authors fret niche, hope for more readers

Varanasi: Arvind Mishra, a senior government official with the Uttar Pradesh Fisheries Board, spends his day hours researching fish, and his evenings conjuring up aliens battling an intra-planetary caste system, and environmental degradation in planet Teran.

As secretary of the Indian Science Fiction Writers Association (ISFWA), a non-profit organization and author of a just released anthology of science-fiction stories, including one called Achhooth (Untouchable), Mishra belongs to a literary niche of Indian science fiction that’s surprisingly far more popular in regional languages than English, even as it struggles for recognition as a well-established literary genre.

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Last week, the writers, most of whom are members of either ISFWA or the Indian Association of Science Fiction Studies, which is based in Chennai, met in Varanasi over four days to discuss the future and perils of science fiction writing in India.

Similar to their Western contemporaries, these techno fabulists plough the usual science fiction avenues: aliens, virtual reality, teleporting, gene manipulation, cyborgs and androids. However, apart from the Indian-sounding names of their protagonists, there’s almost always a preoccupation with so-called Indian values.

“Technology and the laws of science are universal everywhere, but cultural factors and moral questions arising out of it are what differentiates Indian science fiction from the Western style," says Y.H. Deshpande, a Marathi science fiction writer and author of three collections of short stories.

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One of Deshpande’s stories written in the 1980s, for instance, was about a widow with a choice to use her dead father-in-law’s artificially frozen sperms for conception. “In my story, the woman doesn’t go for this, but I’m sure this wouldn’t be a major issue in a Western science fiction plot line."

Moral issues apart, writers say the other distinctive characteristic of Indian science fiction writing is, uniformly, happy endings.

“See, science fiction is a literary genre and unlike (Aldous) Huxley, writing about a bleak, dystopian future doesn’t really go down well with audiences. It’s much better to have a bleak situation and then some twist in the end that saves the day and keeps everybody happy," says Mishra.

Also, to increase the acceptability of their works, many Indian science fiction writers are wary of getting too technical.

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“The science is generally just a backdrop, and most stories will usually involve aliens and space travel," concedes K.S. Purushothaman, a science fiction critic and author of several academic dissertations on the subject. “In that sense, most writers here are still stuck to H.G. Wells. There’s rarely an in-depth explanation of an imaginary, futuristic science."

He attributes this to a still-evolving culture of popular science communication, and the paucity of Indian scientists writing good fiction.

“Though most science fiction writers have a basic science degree, it’s rare getting experts to write," says Purushothaman. “Therefore, you don’t see a lot of cutting-edge science fiction being discussed in these stories."

Then there are people such as Nellai Muthu, who writes science fiction in Tamil, and has a day job as a space scientist with the Indian Space Research Organisation. Muthu says he regularly found time to write science fiction stories “up until the last few weeks when Chandrayaan (India’s recent probe carrier to the Moon) occupied too much time". Not surprisingly, space and alien civilizations are his pet themes.

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His novel, Maakol Maindaragal (The Inhabitants of Planet Maakol), which won a state award, talks of the everyday affairs of a civilization whose inhabitants are made up of silicon, unlike earthlings who are essentially carbon.

Geetha B., an assistant professor at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pilani, who also teaches science fiction as part of an English communication course, says Indian science fiction still doesn’t have great appeal for domestic, adult audiences.

“Much of our discussion, especially during these meetings, is about how to use science fiction to communicate science, and it invariably ends up as being a tool to get children interested in science," she says.

Dishnuprasad Chaturvedi, a septuagenarian, retired school principal, who would easily count as one of the most prolific science fiction writers with 20 anthologies and translations of his works in Kannada and English, says science fiction writing does have a higher, often educational purpose.

He talks of his Yaadish ki chori, (The Theft of Memory) as an example. “I wove it around a crime scenario, and a detective catching a thief who swapped his brain. This way science is communicated in a readable way," he recalls.

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Other Indian writers in this genre, for instance, are either part of non-profit organizations or use their writing skills to push pet perils.

G.S. Unnikrishnan, an officer with the Kerala agricultural department is set to make his novelist debut with Chimera, a science fiction work in Malayalam that talks about the possible damaging consequences of genetically-modified organisms. “I’ve been writing science fiction for over two decades, but a bulk of my work has been published in the regional newspapers such as the Malayala Manorama, Matrubhoomi and the local edition of The Hindu. The impact of GM (genetically modified) crops is a touchy subject with me and I believe this popular science novel will greatly popularize this issue," he says.

Unnikrishnan’s sci-fi stories are usually about human beings subject to freak gene-modulating experiments.

Even though science fiction writing doesn’t earn these authors a livelihood, they remain fixated on readership, often personally translating their work into English to reach a larger potential audience.

“It’s a small niche genre. As of today, only 1-2 % of our total published output can be classified science fiction," says Binny Kurien, editor of the National Book Trust, one of India’s biggest book publishers. “Currently, regional writers have a much greater following for their works, than English writers. But writing in English is the best way, writers believe, to be seen and reach the international market."

“Noted Marathi science fiction writer Bal Phondke’s anthology of science fiction, It Happened Tomorrow, remains one of the best collections of Indian science fiction stories," adds Kurien. “Now, we are trying to translate that into as many regional languages. As long as that demand remains, Indian sci-fi has a future."