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Sunday, June 7, 2009

An Overview of Indian Speculative Fiction by Mihir Wanchoo

Note: Our contributor Mihir Wanchoo is expanding FBC's horizons with an essay on "Indian Speculative Fiction", both written by Indian authors or with Indian related themes as written by Western authors. Enjoy!

According to Rod Serling, creator and television producer of "The Twilight Zone", fantasy is "the impossible made probable" and science fiction is "the improbable made possible." Since Serling's time, the combined science fiction and fantasy genre has carved a niche for itself in popular culture and remains a vital force both in the literature and entertainment industries.

But it would be mistaken to think that this genre originated with popular culture. Mythology is essentially the mother of the SFF genre as elements of fantasy and science fiction are basic to many culturally fundamental epics and myths from the ancient world. When Homer created "The Odyssey", he became, in a sense, the world's first science fiction fantasy superstar: the Tolkien of his day, although it's doubtful that he reaped the same royalty fees. If we accept the fact that these stories were, apart from their entertainment value, designed to capture and interpret sociological and cultural issues of the day, then much of world history as portrayed in these epic stories can be viewed from the science fiction fantasy point of view.

India is no different in this regard. The history of storytelling in India is rich and varied. In ancient times, epics were told orally and passed down from generation to generation largely by memory. At later times, these stories were written down.

Of the many early Indian stories that deal with elements of science fiction and fantasy, the first and foremost would be "Puranas or Compendium"; each Purana dedicated to tales about one deity from the pantheon of 33 million Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Sans the religious ambiance, the Puranas would definitely classify as India's first fantasy books (at least to the non-religious skeptic). Other particularly noteworthy and extremely popular are the "Panchatantra, Jataka, Betaal Pachisi, Chandrakanta & Hitopdesha" as they can be considered as India's premier, prehistoric fantasy forays.

With the British colonization and the consequent spread of English, Indian tales acquired the possibility of a global presence. "The Mahabharata", one of the two greatest epics of the Indian subcontinent, was one of the first texts to be converted into English. It took almost thirteen years (1883-1896) for it to be translated and this translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli remains the most accurate to date. For anyone with an interest in Indian history, this book, or more specifically this translation, is a necessary read. For those interested the text can be found HERE.

Many people know as Satyajit Ray is a world famous director and the first Indian to receive an Oscar, but few realize that he is also a prolific part-time science fiction writer and he can be considered a true pioneer of Indian SFF. Satyajit Ray wrote a series of SF stories woven around the character of a scientist called "Professor Shankhu". There's also an urban legend that Steven Spielberg's ET was based on a story by Satyajit Ray called "Bankubabaur Bandhu" (or Bankubabu's friend).

Satyajit Ray's family has also several sff-nal ties. His father Sukumar Ray wrote "HaJaBaRaLa" (similar to Alice in Wonderland) & his Great Grandfather Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhoury also wrote a fantasy tale called "Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne" (about a singer and drummer duo who are granted 3 boons by the King of Ghosts, so just by clapping their hands they can get food and clothing according to their wish, travel anywhere while wearing magic slippers and stupefy everyone with their songs) which was made into a film by Ray.

More contemporary books from the Indian SFF scene include Shivaji Sawant's "Mrityunjay: The Death Conqueror", that describes the "Mahabharata" as seen from a single, tragic character viewpoint. It is of no surprise to any follower of Indian culture that "Mahabharata" has managed to capture the fascination for centuries. Other writers have also incorporated ancient myth into modern storytelling.

Most prominent among these are Harilal Upadhyay, K. M. Munshi, and C. Rajagopalchari. But it would be a mistake to think that the synthesis of Indian epic and modern literature is limited to India. Indeed, it has been enthusiastically embraced by a few Western writers and their audiences. "Lord of Light", written by Roger Zelazny, is a prime example of this synthesis. By incorporating Buddhist and Hindu spiritual mythology into a future science fiction world, Zelazny effectively joins the ancient and the modern, the East with the West.

Dan Simmons is another Western writer who uses Indian mythology to advance his science fiction fantasy storytelling. His novel "Song of Kali" won the World Fantasy Award in 1986. Kara Dalkey, wrote a historical fantasy series called "Blood of the Goddess" that also deals with elements of Indian mythology. Yet another example is a series called "The Root and the Flower", written by Leopold H. Meyers, which focuses in part on the Mughal Empire.

Another Indian writer, Samit Basu, continued this synthesis in his "Gamesworld" trilogy. Ramesh Menon is another writer who specializes in writing about Indian mythology. He has written several books focusing on both the major Indian epics along with a few of the Puranas as well. These writers, Basu & Menon have done more than anyone to bring the fusion of Indian mythology with the modern science fiction fantasy movement into the world literary limelight. Thanks to their pioneering efforts, this trend is now catching on in many parts of the literature and entertainment industries. Fluid Friction comics recently came out with a graphic novel series called Devashard that puts a spectacular twist onto the Mahabharata. The writer Grant Williams is currently working on an online animation project called 18 Days or MBX that attempts to give a science fictional portrayal of this ancient Indian epic on a more personal level.

Last but not least, Fabio Fernandes, our fellow FBC co-editor, has written a short story featuring a manifestation of Indian Gods. We are at the forefront of an exciting horizon in science fiction fantasy writing and the future is, no doubt, full of untold and unwritten surprises.

Keep also an eye on Tad Williams as he might write a futuristic SFF book featuring Indian Mythology. Also Anil Menon, Rajdeep Paul, and many other writers of the Epic India forum can be looked upon as the future star Indian SFF writers. This vein of literature has already landed like a hand grenade onto worldwide literary stage. Will it explode? By all estimates, yes. How many people will be swept up in that explosion? We'll see.

Note: The author of this piece would like to thank Rajdeep, Paul, Andrew Tilker, Ritika Verma & Sheshali Wanchoo for their enthusiasm & support.


Fabio Fernandes said...

Excellent article, Mihir! As I already told you before, I´m already buying Ashok Banker´s Ramayana. But I´m amazed with with the information concerning Satyajit Ray (as you probably know, my favorite Indian filmmaker) as a SF writer. I must read his books!

And thank you very much for mentioning my story. I´m really into Indian culture and I fully intend to write more stories in that universe.

Arvind Mishra said...

Mythology and SFF has many things in common -especilly the iamagery and fanatsy elements of both the genre !
A thought provoking and informative post -thanks !
arvind mishra

The Reader said...

Hi Fabio

Thank you for your words, I hope you do enjoy the Ramayana series. Please do let me know if you have any problems locating the Satyajit Ray books.

I'll ask my friend to search them for you.


Charlotte said...

Thanks for this fascinating post!

Plinydogg said...

This was very informative. Thank you.

Myshkin said...

I'm surprised, and a little disappointed, that Salman Rushdie didn't make it into your article on Indian speculative fiction. I know that his novels aren't housed in the SF/F section at the book store, but his work is most certainly speculative. And as perhaps India's most recognizable author, it seems strange that his name wasn't mentioned here.

Kos said...

hi mihir,
as i said earlier, i am less than an amateur in the world of sf, much less indian sf. and i didnt know so much about it. though i have read many of the indian books u mentioned in ur essay, i never saw it in the light of sf, probably because it was always associated with religion, not one of my strong points.
it also contains an amazing amount of info on books and authors and il definitely make it a point to start making a dent on the list.

Anonymous said...

Lots of good stuff here, but how could you possibly leave out Ian McDonald? "River of Gods"... "Cyberabad Days"... "The Djinn's Wife"... The man has a Hugo winner (The Djinn's Wife) and a best novel nominee (River of Gods) all about India and Indian mythology.

If you haven't read him yet, you're in for a treat.

The Reader said...

@ Myshkin

While you rightly pointed out that Salman Rushdie has written books of speculative fiction, he has written only say 1-2 books which have direct Indian SFF connections.

So I didn't include him in the list. My apologies about that but like you said he's also very famous.

@ Anonymous

You are spot-on dude, I missed Ian McDonald's books though I have a copy of River of Gods. I haven't read it, will definitely do so now. Thanks for pointing it out.


The Reader said...

@ Arvind, Charlotte, Plinydogg & Kos

Thank you, I'm glad you liked it.

Cindy said...

Very interesting and informative. It's not something I would actively go looking for but it's always good to expand my horizans.

I think you did great mentioning the people you did. If you mentioned everyone you wanted we might be here all night ;).

Jaspreet Bindra (Jassi) said...

Mihir u rock man.. wonderful article... i was runnin outta tym but just cudnt stop in between...
Yaar ek baat puchun.. i always thought u were a doctor... yeh major change kaise hua???

Anonymous said...

Excellent, u are wonderful,a doctor and a writer,best combination of art and science. Keep up the good work man!

Anonymous said...

Excellent work ! You are a doctor and a writer ,best combination of Arts and Science. Keep up the good work man!

Heena (mom's friend) said...

Hi Mihir,

Your article is excellent. Informative and resourceful. I will read some of the stories available online.
I really enjoyed reading it.

Sandesh said...

Great blog, Mihir. Lot of good pointers in the article. I guess I have to catch up on the reading.
Keep them coming.


Ευθυμία Δεσποτάκη said...

Greetings from Greece.
I enjoy fantasy and sf very much but I recentrly got bored of Anglo-American writers. I went looking for some exotic ones and there, I found your perfect article! Well done, here.
One question remains though: almost none of them titles you're mentioning is easy to find for me. Amazon won't deliver if it's not from its own stores. Any suggestions as to where else I could find some of them?

Thanks in advance and keep it up,


Chandrapal said...

You can't miss SHIVA TRILOGY by Amish Tripathi

Amant said...

I have not come across a Epic Fantasy novel from India so far. For clarity, I distinguish mythological fiction (eg. Immortals of Meluha and Chanakya's Chant) from Epic Fantasy (i.e. Tolkien).

However, one is coming out shortly under the nomme de plume of Kevan Dinn. The series is called 'The Shinmah Trilogy'.

The Reader said...

Hi Amant

Interesting point you have brought up and yes The Shiva trilogy can be thought of as mythological fiction. Chanakya's Chant is more like historical fiction mixed with a thriller.

For books in English, I can guess The Gamesworld trilogy by Samit Basu can be thought of as fantasy (a bit epic and with overtones of mythology and SF). There's also "The Archer's Heart" by Astrid Amara which will fit this criteria but is a copy of the Mahabharata story with Gay overtones and is a good tale.

There's also Chandrakanta & Chandrakanta Santati but I don't think they have been translated. There was also a story of a dwarf (Appu something) set in India in the magazine called Chandamama.

Thanks for alerting me in regards to the Shinmah trilogy. I'll keep an eye out for it.


Vinay said...

I also love Indian writers some of my FAVORITE INDIAN BOOKS are one night @call center, my three mistakes and some other books. Your blog is nice having some great information

Anonymous said...


I had a query regarding Indian speculative fiction and fantasy. Do you know of any fantasy in regional languages other than sukumar ray in Bangla or writers in Hindi or Urdu. I am looking for titles from other vernacular traditions in India and from S East Asia. I am new to this genre although I enjoyed Samit Basu's trilogy and am reading up some Urdu fantasy texts.

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