As part of this week's issue, we asked a panel of writers, critics, academics and editors to answer some questions about Indian SF. But first: introductions…
Samit Basu writes novels, comics and films. His debut novel, The Simoqin Prophecies, the first in the GameWorld fantasy trilogy, was published in India in 2003, when Basu was 23. He recently made his US debut with Turbulence, a superhero novel. It was one of Wired's books of 2012 and IGN called for a Hollywood adaptation. His next book, Resistance, will be published in the US and the UK in July 2014. Basu is on the web at samitbasu.com and @samitbasu.
Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay is a researcher and science fiction fan. He is Kultrans fellow at the University of Oslo, where he and his cactus Albert work in the areas of science fiction, science studies, and postcolonial studies. His email is email@example.com.
Indrapramit Das is a writer, artist, and aspiring adult from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Apex Magazine, Redstone Science Fiction, and other publications and anthologies. He often writes reviews for Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, and Strange Horizons. For more, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter (@IndrapramitDas).
Payal Dhar's flights of fancy help her seek out new life and new civilisation—mostly in her fantasy novels and short stories for youngsters. Sometimes she also travels for real. When not lusting after gadgets or playing computer games or working on her website, Writeside.net, she writes on technology, travel, books, and reading.
Swapna Kishore lives in India and writes fiction and non-fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Nature (Futures), Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, Sybil's Garage, Breaking the Bow, and various other publications and anthologies. She also blogs and creates online resources for dementia caregivers in India. She has published books on software engineering and process management. Her website is at http://swapnawrites.com.
Suchitra Mathur works in the areas of Indian English fiction, with specific reference to genres such as science fiction and detective fiction. In recent years, she has ventured into studies of popular Hindi cinema and Indian graphic novels. As a faculty in English at IIT Kanpur, she constantly grapples with the curious case of teaching Humanities at a technological university by unsettling her satisfied science-savvy students with the ambiguities of literary language and the possibilities offered by speculative fiction. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arvind Mishra studied Fisheries Science at Deemed University in Mumbai and received his PhD in Fish Genetics from the University of Allahabad. A prolific popularizer of science, he has hosted numerous radio and TV shows, published more than 1500 popular science articles, edited two SF anthologies in Hindi, and edited the proceedings of the first ever national conference on science fiction in India. His SF stories and reviews have been translated into Czech, French, Croatian, and German. He is a member of the Indian Science Writers Association and the founder secretary of Indian Science Fiction Writers Association. His most recent work is the anthology Kumbh ke mele mein mangalvasi (Martians In Kumbh Mela), published by the National Book Trust.
Shweta Narayan was born in India, and has lived in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands, California, and Scotland. You can find several of Shweta's poems and stories in our archives, as well as in Goblin Fruit, Expanded Horizons, Clockwork Phoenix, and Realms of Fantasy; the novelette Pishaach was a 2011 Nebula Award nominee. Shweta edits the poetry magazine Stone Telling with Rose Lemberg.
Manjula Padmanabhan is an author, artist, and playwright. She lives in Newport, Rhode Island. Her play Harvest won first prize in the Onassis Prize for Theater, in Greece, in 1997. She recently finished a science-fiction novel, tentatively entitled Island, set in a dystopian future where men and women live in highly segregated communities. Three Virgins And Other Stories (July 2013) is her most recently published book.
Our first two questions were about getting a sense of the boundaries of "Indian spec-fic." We sent both questions together and some participants chose to address them as one.
Question 1: What do you understand by the term "Indian speculative fiction"? In your opinion, what kinds of works does it include or exclude?
Question 2: What are some of the elements, if there are any, that strike you as characteristic of Indian speculative fiction?
Manjula Padmanabhan: Q1: Oh clever question! Because it seems so simple.
Some of us may feel that "Indian" has an obvious definition. But as the organizers of literary festivals in India have discovered, the difficulties begin with so many "Indian" authors living and working outside India. Many of them are the front runners of the Indian Literary World. Many of them have changed nationality, while still considering themselves Indian. But are they?
It's a bit like that well-known conundrum about a ship that leaves port on a long journey; along the way, it gradually changes all its constituent parts, until, by the time it returns to its starting point, it has been completely refurbished. The question is, is it the same ship? It has the same name and is considered by its owners, and by the ports that receive it, to be the same ship in much the same way that we ourselves shed the cells of our bodies all the time, while nevertheless continuing to be ourselves. And yet. . . ? Are we? Surely we are changed by our location, our stated nationality and our daily routines, the air we breathe, and the range of seasons we are exposed to? Even the food we eat must, surely, affect our inner being along with the outer.
For the festival organizers the question expresses itself with particular difficulty in the reverse. It's easy enough to include Indians who live abroad. But what of the "non-Indians" who live in India, write about India and immerse themselves in India to the extent of feeling deep, genuine loyalties to the country and culture—surely their books can legitimately be assessed as "Indian" books? Yet many festival organizers and Indian authors alike feel unhappy about this inclusion.
So to lead with a question which includes the word "Indian" is to create a knot right at the outset.
I am not going to even pretend to open this knot—I just wanted to put it out there—like a giant open-air sculpture. It may well be the central feature of what defines "Indian" spec-fic.
As for Q2, I haven't been reading much of any SF for many years. I am aware that a flood of spec-fic has been pulsing out of India in recent years but I haven't read more than the tiniest sampling. (There's a reason: I am terrified of seeing that someone has written about something I wanted to write about!) When it's good, it's like any good fiction from anywhere else—the names and skin colours are South Asian but the ideas belong to the world. When I've not liked something (i.e. by an Indian SF author), it's because it has felt merely descriptive, without the kinds of ideas that would keep me interested.
The question that I believe is worth considering is whether or not mythology can be considered spec-fic. If "yes", then of course South Asians have two huge and immersive sagas in their/our cultural archives. At the same time, the fact that for a majority of those who know these sagas, they aren't "fiction" at all, may disqualify them from this discussion. I mean, it alters the nature of art if it isn't regarded as art.
Arvind Mishra: I'm travelling and will respond more fully later, but on Indian identity: I think it is cultural and should not be restricted with any geographical boundaries. So SF written by an Indian is 'Indian SF'. And how much 'Indian-ness' it contains is a different issue.
Regarding your second question, what I have noticed in reading mainly Hindi fiction it is mostly a saga running parallel to contemporary society and all its paradoxes, exploitations, customs, and ethos. A lot of it has a social focus.
Samit Basu: I remember asking many of you—Anil, Vandana, Manjula, Payal—the same questions in 2006, and you were both generous and insightful in your responses. So I'm going to throw in these links:
- The trousers of time: possible futures of Indian speculative fiction in English
- IWE and genre
- Anil Menon interview
- Payal Dhar interview
- Vandana Singh interview
- Manjula Padmanabhan interview
Just want to add a bit that refers specifically to the last 7 years.
I think there are two ways to approach these questions, and this project in general. One is from the writer side, which is really more fun to do, because we're in a nice little ideaspace there. Broadly speaking, I'd say any spec-fic by Indians or set in India or adapted from stories (again, by Indians or from India) counts. As to what the elements are, I don't think there's enough work out there to really tell. We'd probably end up going to characteristics of Indian epics vs. Western epics, and I don't know if that really serves this discussion.
The other way to look at it is from the publishing angle. I think most people grow up reading without being too concerned about genre, and the gradual awareness of, and swearing of loyalty to, any genre is something that's driven by how publishers, distributors, event organizers, and channel programmers arrange material—they draw you to conventions where you see several writers you like in panels, they publish anthologies and magazines where you discover new writers you love, they build the field. Not just out of love for the genre, of course: publishing is a business and it makes sound commercial sense. I was on a book tour in the UK last year for Turbulence, and the difference in how spec-fic is treated is shocking, especially after ten years of publishing in the field in India. It was literally like coming to the big city, and I had so much fun. (Look at the reviews!)
But if you look at what's happened in Indian spec-fic over the last decade, you won't find any evidence of publisher support. It's not like there's any lack of talented writers or editors who genuinely want to help build the field—I've seen you and Vandana specifically come to India to conduct workshops, put together anthologies, and so on. But spec-fic in India grows only in a couple of ways—one, a window opens when a particular work gets published and gets good reviews and sales. Simoqin, running solely on word-of-mouth and good reviews in newspapers (it's really astonishing how book review space in India has declined over the last ten years) opened a window like that in 2003-04 but there weren't enough people writing spec-fic then.
More recently, Amish Tripathi's Shiva fantasy books sold like wildfire (also more a function of Amish's superb marketing skills than any real publisher support) and that's responsible for the wide range of very similar trilogy-about-a-Hindu-god-with-a-twist books that are coming out now. But these initiatives are all writer-driven: what happens from the publishing side is usually a lazy this-book-is-like-that-book-so-it-might-sell commissioning, and then the books are left to fend for themselves. Right now most Indian publishing is purely of the spaghetti-on-the-wall kind. It's kind of similar to what happened with the Indian graphic novel movement—Sarnath Banerjee made a splash in '04 with Corridor, which led to two or three other GNs being commissioned. But left to fend for themselves, none of those books sold anything in India, leaving GNs as another of those maybe-we-could-throw-in-a-panel things at lit fests. This isn't meant to be a rant about publishing—it's just the nature of the beast. Indian publishing has never been genre-driven: writers are grouped together on the basis of sales, and writers are responsible for generating these sales. So comparing it to, or trying to classify it against Western spec-fic with its specialized imprints and conventions and magazines and workshops and reader-/fan-driven scale is kind of pointless. None of those things exist here. It's like cricket in India vs. cricket in the US/Japan.
Swapna Kishore: Frankly, I've never understood the term "Indian speculative fiction", because it has too many potential interpretations and yet there is a risk of it being used as some sort of clear-cut category to include and exclude.
Suppose I take a story and remove all information about the author. Is reading the story (stripped of author data) sufficient to decide whether it is "Indian speculative fiction"? I suspect that such a test would not satisfy many persons. There are stories written in an Indian setting, very much placed around things in India (current, past, or future), where the author is not an Indian. Also, Indians write speculative stories that may have no element of India. Looking at just a story, then, may not make people feel they can decide whether it is Indian speculative fiction or not, because most people assume that there has to be an Indian involved in Indian speculative fiction, and would be uncomfortable otherwise.
So it may make more sense to use the "Indian" qualification for the author rather than for the fiction, like saying, Indian speculative fiction writer.
The funny thing is, I'm not sure who would be considered Indian enough to say his/her creation is Indian speculative fiction.
In some cases, it is clear. For example, for a person born in India who has Indian parents, is a citizen, and has been living in India all through.
But there may be a person born in India, now outside India and an active, productive citizen of another country, though the person still feels Indian in some settings. There may be someone who was never an Indian citizen, but whose parents were Indian. Or one parent was an Indian. Or a grandparent. And maybe these parents or grandparents left India long, long ago. . . Or maybe, somewhere down the ancestral trail, one ancestor was of Indian origin, whatever that means (how many generations back can this go?) Would any speculative story by that person be considered Indian speculative fiction? Suppose that person has never visited India (let alone lived here for a sustained period of time), knows none of the languages spoken here, has no exposure to Indian culture and mythology, and so on. When such a person writes a story using some Indian element, is that person writing as an Indian, or as an Other?
What about someone born in another country who now lives here and feels Indian but may or may not be an Indian citizen?
Basically, is being Indian a self-identification here, or is it some sort of legal status? What if someone else disputes the claim, who decides?
Another thing: suppose an Indian writes a story placed in another country (or planet or universe) and there is nothing in the story that is connected to India—no characters with Indian names, no rakshashas, no mythology, no Indian culture or other stuff, nothing at all—can that be called Indian speculative fiction? Doesn't seem Indian to me.
Labels are sometimes useful, and sometimes restrictive, and I'd be wary about forgetting how forced-upon and claustrophobic they can get. For example, would every Indian who writes speculative fiction want their fiction to be called "Indian speculative fiction"? Maybe not. Yet if the label is used more, that person's work gets placed into a category they did not want.
I am not sure we get any advantage labeling a section of fiction as Indian speculative fiction. I think there may some advantage of using the "Indian speculative" label for a writer who self-identifies as an Indian, because that may help glimpse some of what the person is bringing in. Maybe there is also some point in discussing the Indian publishing industry with respect to speculative fiction, or even the market for speculative fiction in India. These terms may help us see some of the issues and challenges and think of ways around them, because they help identify some commonalities or analytical elements.
But I think it is more important to remember that boundaries are very fuzzy.
Which brings me to the other question, that of elements that are characteristic of Indian speculative fiction.
Given that I don't like that label, Indian speculative fiction, that's a tricky question. But when I look at fiction that I've heard others call Indian, the only characteristic element I have been able to determine is that readers somehow identify the author as being Indian enough to be writing Indian speculative fiction. That seems to be a necessary condition, and perhaps a sufficient one.
Of course, some stories are talked of as more "Indian" than others, and I find mythology or religion or philosophy play a part in many of them. Or having Indian characters whose behavior shows some elements of what people consider "Indian" culture/customs, and that cultural element plays some sort of role. Or characters who are supposed to have come from India (and may now be settled in another universe or in an alternate world or a futuristic one). Or a story set in India, with our politics and customs and bureaucracy and other such stuff. Or using the sort of mystical/magical creatures we have seen in our older stories or mythology, the sort our parents and grandparents regaled us with, things like that.
I guess that's sufficiently confused rambling for the time being!
Payal Dhar: On the first question, of definitions: It's an interesting question, but overall, I think I'm made slightly uncomfortable by the term or an attempt to define "Indian speculative fiction" since, as Swapna just said (and others have said in other words), it could so easily become something that includes and excludes. If you put a gun to my head, I'd say, technically speaking, any spec-fic that is produced (published) in India is Indian speculative fiction. But what about Indians and non-Indians abroad who have strong influences of Indian cultures in their work? There is also the equally complicated conundrum of how to define "Indian". Can an idea or plot or thought be pegged as Indian? Does Indianness define people, a region, a way of thinking, all of the above, none of the above? And what about how writers of speculative fiction want their work to be identified? Moreover, it might be presumptive to sit down and attempt to work out how to define this ethereal beast when a lot has to do with the makers of the work themselves and how they choose to define their creations.
As for the second question, I guess that any work of fiction will feel Indian to me if there's any sort of "Indiannness" in it that I can identify (not the same as identify with). With speculative fiction specifically, I'd say, anything based on Indian mythology or history, or broadly on a cultural motif that can be recognised as Indian. So, yes, "Hansel and Gretel" would become "Indian" to me if the protagonists were called Ravi and Sunita, and were trapped in a house of laddoos belonging to the vahshi dayan.) But again, this is a quagmire in a way. So much depends on how the writers themselves want their work to be looked at.
Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay: Wiser heads than mine have already said most of what needs to be said. What speculative fiction is would also be up for debate, and I have many problems with the use of the word "speculative." I just want to add a couple of thoughts to the mix. I wonder to what extent we can even apply the term Indian to a body of production of which most of us know perhaps extremely little. Are we specifically referring to writers writing something of the sort in English (IWE), or are we taking into account productions in the many different languages of our country? The attempt to isolate a geographically delimited generic trend, as well as its elements, appears to me a critical malaise. Even if we define the issue from the perspective of the author (as Arvind Mishra does), we don't exactly know who we would be dealing with, as Swapna Kishore has discussed. I agree with her and Manjula Padmanabhan's excellent analysis of the issues in question.
I do see the need to have a label for marketing purposes, in particular for drawing attention to work by "Indian" authors and creating a market. Whether that helps the cause or not is a different matter entirely—and practicing authors and publishers are in a better position than me to comment on this issue. But Samit Basu's words do not inspire hope.
Frankly, I think we need to push it further. Using the label Indian SF makes it appear like a subset of a larger body of SF, whose origins, coordinates, destination, analytical tools, are all decidedly Anglo-American. It's like creating a local version of something that comes from an external source. If we have to use a term, why not use something like "kalpavigyan" which is used by some Bengali writers, as a term to refer to all SF, which reverses to a large extent the perspective from which the body of work is seen? It is a very rich word, and the etymological unpacking reveals marvelous possibilities—ranging from time to the transformation of knowledge. What I mean is, shouldn't we be working towards an alternate term that does not pre-orient the literary production towards a certain critical position that is decidedly not "Indian"?
A discussion of elements of this body of work raises similar issues. I don't agree with a reading of mythology as spec-fic though, although the use of these may be characteristic of a body of work produced within the geographical boundaries of South Asia. This use is certainly not a contemporary trend in IWE with a Shiva trilogy and so on, but quite old, at least in Bangla language SF.
Samit Basu: Not my intention to take away anyone's hope! I was just trying to give you all a sense of ground realities in India. If hope is what you want, well, I've made a living writing spec-fic in India for ten years now across media, and there are plenty of wonderful readers and editors and journalists around even in these dark times. And growing interest in Indian spec-fic across the world. And there's no reason why discussion about a field that exists, or the ideas and possibilities within it, should be tied to the unpleasant practicalities of publishing.
Shweta Narayan: I think everyone's covered the complexity of the first question better than I can; I'm especially feeling the idea that calling it "Indian Speculative Fiction" has problems, because, doesn't that privilege Desis living in the Global North over actual writers in India? Since it inherently situates the writing with regard to the (US/UK) work that gets called "speculative fiction" without modifiers.
Now I've not lived in India since I was three, and I was raised mostly on the western literary canon, and setting my stories in India is an act of reclamation of identity for me—so for me, the term works. But should it? Do we want to talk about "speculative fiction, only Indian" or do we want to talk about contemporary Indian work of the fantastic? I think those are different things, and while I can speak to the former, the latter is more interesting.
Two things, though, I'd say "Indian Speculative Fiction" should not be. One is, restricted to high-caste Hindu writing. There's so much more to us than that, and that gets erased in the US and UK a lot. The other is, writing by people whose relation to the subcontinent is that of the colonizer, directly or indirectly. I think there is a noticeable flavour of exoticism/othering to these stories. (I speak of relations rather than people because even people with Indian ancestry or citizenship can do this. People like me, on the fuzzy boundary of Indian-ness, need to watch ourselves and consider whose stories we're telling and to whom.)
On the second question I'm speaking from limited experience, and I don't think this is unique to fantastical work from India, but it's something that stands out to me—that the rules of the fictional world are not realist; speculative sensibilities are worked deep into the fabric of the stories. The work may be grounded in and commenting on, or spinning off from, our mythologies, but even when it's not—I feel that in the work I've seen, it's not just superficial events and characters who are "spec", it's the perspective of the entire story.
Suchitra Mathur: First, let me identify where I'm coming from—I'm approaching the whole question as a teacher of literature, as someone who engages with 'SF' as a 'critical' reader, not a writer. Now from that perspective, I find the category 'Indian Speculative Fiction' immensely problematic, for all the reasons already mentioned, and also because I find it to be unnecessarily restrictive for me as a reader. If I'm reading a work under the label 'Indian Speculative Fiction', then my time would be spent in trying to figure out what makes it particularly 'Indian', in extracting a definition of 'Indian' from the text. Since such an excavation does not, for me, in any way really enhance my understanding/appreciation of the work as 'speculative fiction', I would consider this exercise fruitless. Now, if the idea is that an 'Indian' speculative fiction is distinctive for the way in which it intervenes in the established canon of speculative fiction (predominantly Anglo-American, from my understanding of the canon), then I would suggest that it would be the nature of that distinctiveness, rather than the term 'Indian', that would be a more apt qualifier. And this distinctiveness may well be shared by other writers across the globe who may not share the 'Indian' label in any way/form/shape, but who do share a similar idea about what speculative fiction can do. Just to go out on a limb here, as a reader I would prefer a category such as 'postcolonial speculative fiction' wherein the works so labeled may be put into conversation with each other around a concept rather than making us wonder about the author's geo-political affiliations. After all, if it is 'speculative fiction', shouldn't it make us speculate about concepts/categories rather than seeming to perpetuate limited (and limiting) definitions that appear to privilege geo-political boundaries (since that is the only definition of 'India'/'Indian' I can even begin to wrap my mind around).
And having said all that, I find myself utterly unable to answer the second question—can't really identify any distinctive features of a category of fiction that I don't see as a category. However, I will use this 'second paragraph' space to address a question that has been raised by at least one other person already—what exactly do we mean by 'speculative fiction'? 'Speculative' in any form, shape or direction? Or 'speculative' specifically within the context of the modern scientific/technological paradigm which makes this a historically rooted genre? This really is a clarification question since I've found this term used very loosely at times, and the critic in me craves more definitiveness.
Shweta Narayan: I just want to jump in really quickly to say that I find the term "postcolonial speculative fiction" really helpful, to describe both what I write and what I'm increasingly looking for in my reading. So yes yes yes to that!
Manjula Padmanabhan: Maybe, maybe . . . we should apply a taste test: if something tastes Indian, that's what it is. I mean, we continue to call Chop Suey "Chinese" or spaghetti "Italian" even though these dishes have traveled so far from their origin that their national identities have worn thin.
To rephrase Rupert Brook's famous lines ". . . think only this of me/That there is some corner of a foreign dish/That is forever Tandoori."
Okay, being naughty here—but do we all see the point? There is something that collects around the name/word/description "Indian" that is so easily recognizable that we/they/everyone immediately understands what it is. And yet, this definition struggles to match the demands made upon it by committees and bureaucrats.
I think postcolonial spec-fic suffers from Bureaucratese—in that it's a helpful term, as Shweta points out, but is also the kind of thing that no-one can "taste".
(Meanwhile, here's a link to an article that may be of tangential interest, on the subject of national identities.)
Indrapramit Das: For me, the answers to these questions aren't too complicated. I see the term "Indian speculative fiction" as little different from, say, "Japanese speculative fiction" or "French speculative fiction," etc. It's a marker to indicate fiction within a recognized set of genres (in itself greatly disputed, debated, flexible, and undefined), or rather a spectrum if we're to respect the work of authors who work within or combine multiple sub/genres into splipstream/interstitial (etc. and onwards to infinity), being written by authors who are Indian. For example, Ian McDonald's River of Gods is a British science fiction novel set in India, while Samit's Turbulence is Indian speculative fiction (or superhero fiction, or fantasy, or however one might want to categorize it).
Like all genres and categories, the term is basically a marketing tool. It helps people who are looking for spec-fic from Indian writers to find it. We can argue that it's also about giving Indian SF/F writers a cultural identity of their own outside Western SF/F, but as many of the above writers have mentioned, not only does it push us wide-eyed and bewildered into the contextual hall-of-mirrors of what speculative fiction denotes, it also comes down to marketing once again, in that that cultural identity is ultimately for the benefit of readers (Indian and not) who might be interested in the work of Indian writers writing within certain parameters (non-realist, non-mimetic, fabulist, whatever you want to call it), and need a banner telling them where to look.
Now I wish we could all eschew genre labels and be done with the high art/low art hierarchy they come with, but since we live in a world dominated by market, and need money to survive, we're stuck with them. As far as the term Indian speculative fiction goes, I see it as helpful enough to group writers from India who are writing a certain kind of fiction that deviates from realist fiction. Whether or not that "speculative" is replaced by any other word to denote non-realist fiction is another matter entirely, and it will happen, over and over again, just as the term "speculative fiction" itself is debated and replaced and re-replaced and pondered according to context.
I will say that I find the term "postcolonial speculative fiction" a little reductive as a label for all Indian non-realist writing. I think it's a helpful category for some writers, and some stories, but I'm not sure it captures the sheer potential diversity of speculative writing. For example, postcolonial speculative fiction might be somewhat incongruous a label for a story that's going for small-scale, pulp horror thrills with supernatural elements set in India, even though it's technically accurate in that it's being written in a postcolonial context. That's just one example. But as I mentioned before, I don't think speculative fiction, no matter what national prefix you add to it, is a fixed term; it's one way of describing a certain kind of fiction, as is "postcolonial speculative fiction."
As for what constitutes a writer from India, I'd see anyone who has a familial connection to India and seems to want to engage with that background in their fiction as an "Indian" writer. Again we come to degrees. I've written stories where India makes nary an appearance of any sort, that are set on worlds which are entirely a fantasy. There's all manner of influence from my upbringing in India that goes towards creating those worlds, and there's all manner of influences from cultural contexts that have nothing to do with India that I use as well. But I don't think I stop being an Indian writer when writing a story on an imaginary world that doesn't mention India or appear Indian in any explicit way.
The second question is difficult for me to answer because, as others have pointed out (and as we've discussed) 'Indian speculative fiction' is a nebulous and unformed thing. As a tradition of contemporary non-realist fiction from India, I think I'd need to read more of it before making generalizations about its content. I mean, Salman Rushdie's (though Rushdie's British-Indian) Midnight's Children, Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome, and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (the telepathy between the twins—or am I making that up?) are all Indian speculative fiction under a certain light, but then we get back to the argument of what exactly that is. Rushdie, Ghosh, and Roy all have a stylistic bent that tilts towards 'literary,' but again, I can't say I've read enough Indian writers identifying as having written spec-fic to say that's common or not. And I should add that none of those three writers has, to my knowledge, said that they write speculative fiction.
Arvind Mishra: Before fully answering to your first two questions, I would like to put certain points which have been bothering me since the very beginning of the discussion. First I restrict myself to science fiction only. All science fiction may be grouped under speculative fiction but science fiction may not be what 'speculative fiction' is about here. Perhaps it was Robert Heinlein who suggested the term 'speculative fiction' for science fiction, having thought of its concerns with human society and people. But speculative fiction came out to be a weak word in dealing with science fiction as almost anything could be a speculative fiction. Romance, crime, history, etc. could be accommodated in speculative fiction but this is not precise description of the genre we call science fiction. Asimov once quipped that speculative fiction nomenclature has been used to get rid of science and still keep SF.
Moreover is there such a thing as non-speculative fiction? Why then cling to speculative fiction? All fictions—social, romantic, historical, etc.—are speculative. Fiction is from a Latin word which itself means to invent and is used exclusively for made up items and never for real ones, so why emphasize it as 'speculative' fiction—speculative seems redundant here.
But yes it is in very nature of science fiction that it deals mainly with locations, characters which are usually unfamiliar and exotic to us. It does not deal with our contemporary, existing society. And if any form of fiction is dealing with familiar things that may be anything else (you may call it social fiction) it is not science fiction.
So with due apology to all on panel I must submit that for me SF is science fiction because I have a little understanding of this genre only. I said earlier that spec-fic (a cumbersome unpalatable word, isn't it?) seems an umbrella term and therefore I limited myself to science fiction only.
Question 3: Ideally, fiction transcends nationalities and perhaps even languages. In reality, Indian fiction intended for, say, a western audience does differ in both style and content from Indian fiction intended for an Indian audience. For example, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake probably belongs to the first category while Raja Rao's Kanthapura belongs to the second. As Daisy Rockwell has pointed out, when writing about India for western audiences, authors sometimes use language to signal a certain exotic atmosphere (for example, writing 'punkah' instead of 'fan' or, say, elaborate descriptions of some homely ritual). Similarly, non-Indian readers might enjoy descriptions of native spectacle that would only bore Indian readers. As a writer, how does this audience dependence play out in writing your stories? Or as a critic, how does it influence your reading of an Indian story?
Shweta Narayan: For me as a writer—I write in English, and I've been published mostly in American venues, so my work isn't primarily reaching an Indian audience. But I'm increasingly uncomfortable with pandering to a western gaze. The readers I want most to reach are other Desis (and other POC) who are also feeling alienated; I want to tell stories for "us", as best I can, and I cannot do that while self-exotifying.
I do want to be accessible to my majority audience; I want to get through. But at the same time, well, not by using narrative tricks I find problematic. Eh. I don't have answers, just. . . issues that I'm struggling with. I try to be true to my characters, and expect to cringe at what I'm doing now down the line, just like I now cringe at my earlier work.
Suchitra Mathur: Let me begin by reversing this question—when we read a piece of 'American spec-fic', are we thinking of who the intended audience is, and how 'America' may be described depending on this intended audience? Or are there unspoken assumptions here where only some writers/texts have to take varied audiences into account, while others can simple 'be' without worrying about such variations? And from the other end, is the choice of 'exotic' or 'natural' (if I may be allowed to use that as the descriptive alternative) in the portrayal of a setting only a question with certain places, or can the two be seen to be operative with respect to all places in different texts? Is there, for instance, an 'exotic' representation of America that would contrast with a more 'natural' representation of America? Now to this latter articulation of the question, I would answer in the affirmative, and there I would say that, as a reader, I see the difference often being determined less by who is the intended audience, and more by what is the narrative function being served by the setting. Pandora in Avatar for me is as 'exotic' as Ghosh's description of railway stations in The Calcutta Chromosome, and both are very different from say the more 'natural' presentation of Middle earth in Lord of the Rings or the Calcutta in the same novel by Ghosh. Such kinds of 'exoticism', which may be read by me as being symbolic/metaphorical, make the text much more enriching for me. On the other hand, specific local details that I may recognize by virtue of being familiar with that specific locality will increase my reading pleasure by invoking a sense of familiarity and the empowered sense of being a 'insider'-reader—I strongly recall this feeling while reading Rimi B. Chatterjee's Signal Red where the portrayal of the Center eerily echoed the very privileged campus I live on, and created that sense of strong familiarity. However, both of these are very different from the mere sprinkling of exotica for its own sake where passing references to Banaras ke ghaat or crowded streets of Delhi where cows jostle with cars intrude into the narrative for no organic reason except for a stereotypical establishment of setting. I characterize this as lazy writing and find it offensive as a reader, irrespective of whether it is done with respect to 'India' or elsewhere.
Samit Basu: I wrote my most recently published novel, Turbulence, without any concern about who the audience was. It's largely set in India, features a nearly all-Indian cast, and makes no attempt to explain India. It's doing just fine in both the US and UK, not in the diaspora market that literary publishers aim at with Indian fiction, but in the SF/fantasy space among UK/US readers who seem to be taking it in without too much of a problem. When I wrote it, I had no idea it was going to be published outside India at all.
The only reason it happened was that my US/UK publishers liked the story for what it was, and weren't at all interested in making my Indianness, or the book's, a feature. Which I'm deeply grateful for, because this doesn't happen too often.
The perceived problems with books set in 'foreign' places exists largely in the minds of publishers/booksellers/reviewers. Not among readers. So, for example, print newspapers in the UK (except The Sun, of all places!) didn't carry reviews of the book either because it was Indian or because it was genre. But the web spaces had no such problem. I think (and fervently hope) that we're heading towards a world where this question stops being a troubling one.
Indrapramit Das: When I write, like Samit, I try not to pay any heed to the possible nationality or background of readers; I want my work to be accessible to, and to affect readers from all around the world. This is especially so when I write fantasy/off-world fiction. When I write fiction set in India, the idea of who's going to read it does crop up; but I try to write in a way that would present the country as familiar to Indians and non-Indians alike. As in, immersion, a sense of place, etc. I'm sure I slip into the occasional habitual explanation of non-English words, though that really stands out to me as a critic. In general, there is sometimes a definite tilt of the head to any non-Indian readers when I'm writing India, to explain something that might be utterly bewildering in the most organic fashion that I can (no doubt I fail many a time). The exoticization of the east is, no doubt, a problem any and all Asian writers should be aware of.
I do tend to love description, and building setting, and I love reading fiction that makes an effort to build setting well. For example, I love Ghosh's descriptions of Kolkata, as a Kolkatan. Do they cater to non-Indian readers? Probably, I don't remember them well enough, having read his work years ago. But they felt real, organic, not pandering. Sam Delany's a good example of a writer that lays it on thick in terms of describing place; each planet he describes feels real, palpable, you can smell and taste and see these places, and feel an intense sense of wonder, curiosity, fascination at these worlds and their inhabitants and their habits and customs and food. They feel simultaneously alien and familiar, like real places people live out their lives in and constantly evolve their cultures and microcultures in. That, I suppose, is my goal as a speculative fiction writer, when it comes to writing place. Even if my stories are set in the real world, I want to inflect that reality with the magical, the embrace of unfamiliar and familiar, like seeing the world as a child, or on drugs. I suppose it's tricky to do that when portraying India to non-Indians while avoiding exoticization. Still, challenges are good.
Another example of a speculative fiction writing place interestingly is Nalo Hopkinson, who creates a Caribbean-influenced off-world culture in a remote planetary colony in her novel Midnight Robber. This world, Toussaint, is rich with the sense of a culture she's clearly familiar with and the reader isn't necessarily. I think it's a fine example of a writer walking the line between a beautiful, evocative sense of place and exoticization, and succeeding in not falling over into exoticization. I get the sense that it's written with equal attentiveness for readers that might be familiar or unfamiliar with Caribbean culture. That's what I aim for when writing India, or imaginary cultures strongly and clearly influenced by India.
Swapna Kishore: My impression is that persons outside India expect more "Indianness" if the author name seems Indian. A story I put up in a very large critique group once was set in a (fictional) multinational in contemporary Bangalore, and many commentators complained that the office I described was pretty much like their office. Some were disappointed; they said that they picked up my story because, seeing my name, they assumed they would know more about India, and even mentioned that my setting was not exotic. One suggested I should stick to writing about "real" and "typical" India (and what would that be, I wanted to ask—elephants and snake charmers? gurus and yoga?) I've had this type of experience repeatedly.
But I don't look at an "Indian-ness index" or "exotic potential" when exploring an idea—I just go with it and see if it can be shaped into a story.
As for the use of language to signal atmosphere. . . Well, some situations are exotic by their very nature. And sometimes, some words or small pieces of description can emphasize the different setting and make it seem more vivid and fascinating, and even add a touch of exotic. I think choices depend on the story and not on an algorithmic injection of "x" amount of exotic vocabulary. But yes, I am more alert about language choices and descriptions when writing for a non-Indian audience, because I want my work to make at least some sense to persons from different backgrounds, and I don't know what mental images they may use to fill in gaps in my descriptions.
In a way, to me, writing India-based stories for a Western audience feels like "writing for the other (audience)." When I say that, I don't mean I am keeping them in mind while selecting an idea or writing, more like I keep them in mind during edits to see if some different word choices or elements of description would make things easier for non-Indians to picture things. . . Not sure I'm putting that clearly enough even now.
Manjula Padmanabhan: For me, the issue of audience has been intense from the first time I was told by an art director (at an ad agency) that my drawings were "not Indian" enough. I could write a book about the constant sense of alienation I encounter in the course of being an author and artist . . . haha . . . because of course, that is what I do! Alienation is my most consistent subject matter, whether I'm writing SF or not. I am often asked why I choose a genre that many lit crits consider beneath contempt. I answer "Because I grew up outside India. For me, being 'alien' is normal."
When I wrote my play Harvest—which is, I feel compelled to add, unusual in that it is a spec-fic play; theatre often makes reference to mythology and magic, but SF is very rare—I was acutely aware that I was sending it to a non-Indian competition jury. I tried to keep the language culture-neutral in order to reduce the chances of translation issues—I guessed (and was right), that it would be translated into Greek. In which case, it was important to keep the issues at the level of universal ideas, with cultural references reduced to a minimum. This weekend, I will see a performance of it at the Milan Theatre Festival called Tramedautore, where it will be performed not merely in Italian, but with the characters transposed from Indians to Italians. It has been performed in Australia and the UK and is taught in colleges in the US. But in India? If anyone's even heard of me, it's because there's a vague memory that someone with a long name won a lot of money for "a play".
So for me, yes, audience is what I'm thinking of all the time. Perhaps, of course, it makes a difference that I do write for a theatre audience, not just prose. I don't speak or think in any Indian language other than English, which means that I cannot create touchy-feely resonance through language.
Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay: I am fond of a certain kind of writing—the kind that deals with the future of humanity rather than its past, even if the past is given a technological spin. So, in an ideal situation, the country where the fiction comes from is less important than what the writer has to say. We live in an ever increasingly multicultural and multiethnic world, and any work that does not keep it in mind while plotting the future of humanity can be a problem. New fiction of this kind will need to recognize the relations between the local and the global, without exoticising the one or reifying the other. In many ways, I think writers from the global south might be better equipped to do this because of their unique historical and economic position.
Payal Dhar: I'm going to go out on a limb here and possibly shame myself before this illustrious bunch and say that I don't think (that much) of the reader when I write (other than the fact that I'm writing for younger people, and thus the perspective has to be strictly adolescent at the oldest). This probably differs from writer to writer, but as someone who dabbles in fantasy, my aim is mostly to create realities that are different from our own world and culture (I say "aim", but I haven't succeeded yet; our social conditioning is too firmly hammered into us to escape it so easily!) Thus, there have been times when I'm specifically writing trying to escape my Indiannness, whatever that might be.
That said, it's not like I don't use localisms in my writing. For instance, something I've been working on recently has "payasam" in it. The entire conversation plays out in such a way that even someone who doesn't know what it is will figure it out and even if they don't, it's no biggie. Heck, I often read books with French and Italian and Spanish in them and I have no clue what they mean, or come across cultural references that I'm not clued in on. As a reader, I'd either look it up (much easier these days than when I was a child) or just ignore it and move on.
Probably digressing here, but it particularly bugs me when Indian writers in English use pidgin English to indicate someone speaking in a local language!