Gigi Ganguly’s notes from a peculiar planet

Gigi Ganguly’s collection of short stories is a smart and empathetic take on technology’s intersection with the natural world

Aditya Mani Jha
First Published17 Jun 2024, 05:00 PM IST
Jeff Goldblum in 'The Fly'
Jeff Goldblum in ’The Fly’

The opening story in Gigi Ganguly’s Biopeculiar is titled ‘Head in the Clouds’, with the protagonist being a ‘cloud-herder’ near the end of his life. This is a world where cloud-seeding companies ‘kidnap’ sentient clouds for their own commercial interests. The cloud-herder, therefore, does what the cold hand of capitalism cannot—reach out to the clouds at an empathetic level, gain their trust and look out for their interests, not merely looking at them like perpetual rain-banks.

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There’s a rather pointed passage about the suffering of the clouds once technology “barges into their lives”. “…everywhere he looked a cloud-seeding company had sprung up in the open country, in between farmlands and mills. They fed clouds all sorts of things to induce rain, treating them most cruelly… A cloud was a gentle being. It did humans a great service (…) But it also needed to rest, to stay idle and wander the skies.”

This passage could describe just about any contemporary encounter between the natural world and technology. Large-scale corporate farms feed animals “all sorts of things” to induce greater milk or poultry production, for example, “treating them most cruelly”.

In every story in Biopeculiar, Ganguly creates hyper-specific modern-day fantasies that are also, somehow, broad enough to incorporate familiar, age-old intersections between humans and the natural world. ‘A Year (Not Quite) Alone in an Alien Wilderness’ is reminiscent of the Isaac Asimov novel Foundation’s Edge (1982), since both stories involve a ‘hive-brain planet’, where every living creature is part of a larger group consciousness, with Ganguly using the concept beautifully.

'Biopeculiar: Stories of an Uncertain World', by Gigi Ganguly, Westland, 399, 196 pages

In ‘Call for Kelp’, a scientist named Dr Fwish has been hired to save as many otters as she can in a nuclear-testing zone, a “last-ditch face-saving exercise” because the public cares more for otters than other creatures. “Thank God they’re cute,” thinks Dr Fwish at one point. Thousands of other animals will likely perish in the impending nuclear test, as Dr Fwish knows. But she is grateful that she has been allowed to save the 200-odd otters that have drawn the most sympathy from the public. Even when we are trying to be conservationists, Ganguly seems to suggest, human beings cannot stop doing things for the wrong reasons. And yet, within us lies a tremendous capacity for compassion and empathy; this duality is one of the cornerstones of not just this story but Biopeculiar as a whole.

There are other amusing experiments throughout the book. The genre-bending ‘Cocoon’ is essentially Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) meets David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). A group of Bengali young men goofing around in a Santhal-dominated forest in the Jangalmahal region, end up having a close encounter that isn’t strictly human. ‘Losing’ has an even more delicious premise: a singer renowned for her rain-summoning rendition of Raag Malhaar decides to retire, sending panic waves through the meteorology department.

My favorite story from the collection, however, is the novella-length ‘Corvid Inspector’, a funny-sad detective story of sorts. Bram, the titular ‘Corvid Inspector’ is, as the name suggests, an anthropomorphic raven who has been tasked with solving the murder of a crow. Like a good Coen Brothers plot, ‘Corvid Inspector’ dishes out both violence and humour in equal measure. This is also one of the more dialogue-heavy stories in the book and Ganguly acquits herself rather well in this aspect.

The name of the story, ‘Corvid Inspector’ is a play on the abbreviation ‘C.I.’ which typically stands for ‘Chief Inspector’ in British nomenclature for the police force. Etymology and the writerly notion of characters telegraphing the substance of their selves via distinctive names—this idea has always been important to genres like fantasy, science fiction and children’s literature. ‘Corvid’, of course, refers to creatures from the crow family.

Etymological puzzle-boxes like these enhance the fun and foreboding one associates with cerebral literature. Which brings us to the name ‘bio-peculiar’—a particularly apt one, given the etymology. The word ‘peculiar’ is derived from the Latin word peculiaris, itself derived from peculium meaning ‘private property’ or ‘cattle’. The ‘pecu’ prefix refers to cattle, which took the role of the most common currency in ancient times. Hence the word ‘pecuniary’, for example, which means ‘pertaining to money’. The idea of animals being property is the antithesis of Ganguly’s stories. To the people in her stories, what’s peculiar is the notion that we can ‘own’ animals and birds, or clouds, for that matter. Given its provenance, ‘biopeculiar’ does seem like a fitting name for this impressive collection of stories.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based journalist.

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First Published:17 Jun 2024, 05:00 PM IST
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