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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.