Apart From Ourselves

What underlies the popular genre of speculative fiction? Righteousness and redemption or brutality and truth?

01 January 2012

ADULT SPECULATIVE FICTION is a dwarfed genre in India, though the market for such fiction has exploded in the past two decades. The HBO adaptation of George RR Martin’s AGame of Thrones was a success on Indian screens, as were the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies. The digital era, moreover, fosters cross-continental fandom, and the Internet is awash with Indians reading, and writing about, the genre.

But perhaps because our epics themselves remain alive, Indian writers have shied away from the topic of this essay: “epic fantasy” or “swords and sorcery”. As AK Ramanujan argues in his essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’, our tradition thrives on rehabilitating ancient tales rather than replacing them. Most Indians grow up on a steady diet of the Panchatantra, Jataka Tales, Arabian Nights and Amar Chitra Kathas. The ‘mythological’ is as prevalent in adult writing. An English translation of the complete Adventures of Amir Hamza was published in 2007 to much acclaim. Aubrey Menen retold the Ramayana in 1954; this year’s Sita’s Ramayana written by Samhita Arni and illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar combines folklore and tribal art; Zubaan Books is publishing a ‘speculative’ anthology inspired by the epic next year. The Mahabharata, too, inspires legions of retellings and interpretations. Some of the best, as Jai Arjun Singh pointed out recently in these pages, are to be found in translation: Irawati Karve’s Yuganta (Marathi), Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni (Oriya), Prem Panicker’s Bhimsen, an adaptation of the Malayalam Randamoozham.

A few Indian writers have broken through this reticence regarding imported tropes. Aubrey Menen’s speculative satire, The Prevalence of Witches (1947), explores the encroachment of colonial civilisation upon native populations. Set within the “Federated States of Limbo”, the novel is haunted by an acute sense of dislocation and cross purposes. More recently, Samit Basu’s books draw their stories from across genre and geography. Last year, he wrote the superhero thriller Turbulence as well as Terror on the Titanic, which was partially inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894). His GameWorld Trilogy (2004-07) takes its cue from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, treading very lightly upon epic territory. Of course it’s swords and sorcery, I remember insisting to a friend, it has dragons and dark towers. Bah, came the retort, not enough people die. The poet Sridala Swami articulated it better. Basu is an ironist, she told me; he teases, but he never despairs.

Nandini Ramachandran is a graduate of the National Law School. She writes a column for Bookslut.com and a reading blog for Firstpost.com.

Keywords: speculative fiction fantasy JRR Tolkien The Lord of the Rings George RR Martin A Song of Ice and Fire Steven Erikson