Aishwarya Subramanian is a reviews editor at Strange Horizons. Gautam Bhatia is an articles editor at Strange Horizons. They both grew up in Delhi. This conversation was conducted via Google Docs, in June 2020, for the annual Strange Horizons Fund Drive.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Right; I know we’ve both been reading a recent Delhi-based SF novel, Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits (which we’ll get to!). I’m also cunningly using this opportunity to pick your brains for some research I’ve had planned. But perhaps we should start by locating ourselves with respect to the city. Where are you now, how long have you lived in Delhi, and what’s your relationship with it?
Gautam Bhatia: I’m temporarily living in the UK as a student, but I was born in Delhi and grew up there. Badam milk from Aurobindo Market, pastries from Rainbow’s, and twenty-percent discount on books from Midland’s Bookshop were constitutive of my childhood.
I left at eighteen for college, and then came back eight years later, this time to work. All in all, I’ve lived twenty-one years of my life here, and so it’s home in a very simple and basic sense. In that time, I’ve both loved it (when I was away) and hated it (when I was working there), but now it feels too familiar for love or hate: it’s just settled into home—not the feelings you may traditionally associate with home (sanctuary, warmth, affection)—but just something ... constant.
I should also say that I have three aborted speculative fiction stories set in Delhi—lying around in various stages of disrepair—so that probably sums up my relationship with the city! And you?
AS: I’m in Delhi right now; partly as a result of the pandemic, as during normal term-time I teach at a university an hour or so outside the city. I wasn’t born here—my parents (who both grew up here) and I moved here when I was ten. But most of my formative growing up experiences were here, including some of those you mention (I spent more time at the South Extension Midland than the Aurobindo Market one—also at the bhel puri stand immediately outside). And even though I’ve left it a few times since, mostly to do various academic degrees, as you say this has become home. It’s not a comfortable city by any means (I laughed at “sanctuary, warmth, affection”), but it’s mine.
I don’t think I’ve ever tried to write about Delhi though. As much as I call it my city, I always feel quite nervous about how authentically I belong to it; writing a Delhi story seems like something that would expose me as a fraud.
Which, I suppose, brings me to another question—what writers, for you, have captured your experience of the city?
GB: This is interesting, because I can’t actually think of a book set in or around Delhi that has “captured” it, for me. There are, of course, some writers and poets you associate with Delhi (Ghalib)—but I recall reading somewhere that Delhi’s literary heritage is in Urdu, and the loss of Urdu has meant a severing of links with literary Delhi (“Without Urdu, Delhi is a city eloquent only in its violence”). There is, of course, Samit Basu’s very recent novel, which I imagine we’re going to get to very shortly!
I do feel, though, that Delhi can be a great site for SF writing—much what Beijing has become for contemporary Chinese SF (thinking of stories like Folding Beijing). There are, of course, the obvious dystopic features—the literal mountain of trash near Delhi’s northern border that sometimes spontaneously bursts into flame, the days when the pollution is so severe that the air turns half-opaque, the undefinable—but very brutalist—architecture of the colonies beyond the river (“Yamuna paar”), and of course the heart of the capital itself. Sometimes it almost seems too easy—as if Delhi is just built for an SF treatment—and then of course, there is the possibility of kitsch, or just bad portrayals—but I see a lot of promise, some of which is realised in Chosen Spirits.
AS: I think any experience of Delhi has to be fractured and incomplete, and not just in the sense that experiencing anything obviously has to be those things, but because it is such a fractured history. There’s a very cliche way of thinking about it (“Delhi is built on seven or possibly eight cities!”), but it’s a city that is historically splintered across language, religion, etc. There are definitely writers who capture very specific and familiar things about Delhi for me—I really enjoyed (though uncomfortably!) Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society (2019), for example. Of SF that’s set in Delhi, I love Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings (2012). And recently I reread Sarnath Banerjee’s All Quiet in Vikaspuri (2015), in which Delhi’s current inequalities in access to water lead to all-out war; very bleak and very funny.
I think one thing that Chosen Spirits does well is demonstrating how much our experience of the city is dictated by class, caste, and other forms of social positioning. I’m thinking of the incident quite late on in the book where Joey goes to Nehru Place (renamed in the book’s future, but always Nehru Place in my heart) and discovers some of the resistance work that’s being done by people quite outside the social circles she has access to. In a different sort of book this would happen near the beginning, and it would be the scene where she’s invited in and has access to this parallel social world; instead, Basu leaves her with the sense of how alien and inaccessible it is to her, and her to it. I liked that. There’s also that point where Rudra makes the typical savarna denial of “I don’t even know what my caste is,” and his brother (who is awful, but at least a bit more realistic about the ways in which power in Delhi works) points out that not only is this pure privilege, but that class and caste are deeply intertwined—all Rudra’s liberal, upper-middle-class friends are in jobs congruent with their place in the caste hierarchy. I think that the extent to which this social ordering frames all our lives, across Indian society but perhaps most intensely in Delhi, is something that's hard to explain to people outside that framework. For example, our Strange Horizons colleagues find it both comic and unlikely that you and I, from a city with a population of nineteen million people, went to school together, and eventually (and independently) joined the same SF magazine. And it is quite funny, but we both know that it's not that unlikely; that the operations of class and caste ensure that certain cultural spaces are actually quite small and incestuous.
Regarding Delhi as current dystopia: there were several points as I was reading the book where I’d have an instinctive eyeroll reaction to something that felt a little too on the nose as dystopia, before realising that, oh, right, I remember a version of this happening recently. I do think there’s a lot about the city that lends itself to dystopian tropes; there’s also just an undercurrent of the surreal which I suspect is inherent to any place when its peculiarities are put on display. I had to explain to a friend last week that monkeys had punched a hole in part of my parents’ house, for example.
(I understand they’re now planning to landscape the fiery trash mountain into a beautiful park, which really does feel like something out of fiction.)
GB: I like the fact that you bring up the issue of class. I’ve been thinking for a while now about how far too much SF—near-future, far-future, utopian, dystopian, and everything in between—has a massive blind spot when it comes to class. This is both in acknowledging that our societies are riven and stratified by class, and in accounting for the fact that any genuine transformation is impossible without reckoning with class. So, even in some really good contemporary SF—SF that is otherwise nuanced and layered—you keep falling back into the trope of individual heroic action that ultimately saves the day, saves the world.
But if you’re of Delhi, and writing a novel of Delhi, then it’s kind of impossible to ignore class—as it’s something that hits you in the face every moment that you navigate through the physical and social landscape of the city. I think what I like about Chosen Spirits is the care with which it portrays all of that: you have, for example, the “Resident Welfare Associations” (RWAs), this really unique feature of the Indian city, these little islands wielding absolute power within their gated domains (something that’s happened a lot recently, during Covid), and you have a depiction of what happens when an upper-middle-class person with mildly progressive views runs up against the cussedness of the RWAs; you have the sprawling “farmhouses” of South Delhi, playgrounds of the very rich, that we all go to for weddings and enviously congregate around the swimming pools—you have the malls—and then of course, you have, as you said, sites of resistance. I think it’s easy to fetishise or valorise these sites as well—especially in light of the recent protests that we’ve seen—and one thing Chosen Spirits does well is that it avoids that trap. As you say, Basu’s protagonist is not of that world (and nor is Basu, or you, or me), so what we can get—and what we do get—is a sympathetic portrayal that doesn’t try to claim a familiarity that simply isn’t possible—again, because of the class divide.
And lastly—and I think importantly—Chosen Spirits is also clear about the limits of individual heroic action, outside of class movements. I found that quite refreshing. I wouldn’t call it a dystopic novel, strictly speaking, but at the same time, it doesn’t try to do too much, if that makes sense. I do agree with you that some of the events felt a bit on the nose—but that could be because the book was, quite literally, taken over by events!
AS: As you say, the book was taken over by events. I’m generally not a fan of readings of SF that judge it by how well it “predicts the future,” but I think with near-future SF, which by its nature is extrapolating from the immediate present to some degree, it’s inevitable. (There’s a point towards the end of the book where a character, sarcastically, says “Surely if people were invading our country we would have known” and in the context of current events … [and who knows what will have happened there by the time this goes out into the world].) But I also think Chosen Spirits puts itself in that position by rooting itself so deeply in the present. The characters remember the anti-CAA/NRC/NPR protests of 2019-2020, and there are specific references to Shaheen Bagh and to particular events that one could probably put dates and times to. I know I attended at least one of those mentioned here. I know that Basu has said in his acknowledgements that this isn’t a dystopia but a “best-case scenario,” and while that’s bleak to contemplate, I think that there’s something important about the fact that it’s rooted in a revolutionary moment that is also in some ways quite utopian. I think about the definitely-utopian lyrics of “Hum Dekhenge” and other revolutionary poetry that we spent a lot of time thinking about and quoting to ourselves over the winter, and the sort of fierce pride in watching young people across the country organising, and it feels like there is a direct link between that moment and some of what is still visible in the Delhi of Chosen Spirits.
I think this links back to what you say about the limits of individual heroic action—without wanting to assume too much about the author or his motivations, there’s an acknowledgement of collective action that feels built in at a foundational level. Perhaps it’s also why the characters with the direct, heroic arcs tend to be offstage once those arcs begin.
GB: I like that you brought up the protests, which of course feature as an important historical memory in Chosen Spirits. I think that, like so many others, I watched (and occasionally participated) in those Delhi protests, suspended somewhere between hope and fear. Hope, because this kind of reclamation of the public sphere had seemed unthinkable for so long, right up until the moment that it actually happened. Fear, because of how fragile it seemed, and the consequences of failure, that seemed too momentous to even think about, let alone articulate. Ultimately, Covid-19, which also gets a mention in the novel—a post-proofs insertion, surely!—cut short that story, and so we’ll never know what would have happened had the protests continued.
But it makes me think about how, perhaps, the best of SF (and the best of near-future SF, in particular) is actually suspended in that space between hope and fear. It illuminates what might be possible, but gives you no guarantees that we’ll get there (essentially, Heaney’s haunting poem on hope and history rhyming). That’s probably how I’d read Chosen Spirits as a “best-case scenario.”
AS: Hope and fear, but also perhaps commitment? The book opens with a quote (translated from Urdu) by the poet Mir Taqi Mir, written (I think!) after he’d moved to Lucknow, after the repeated sacking of Delhi by Ahmad Shah Abdali. It ends: “Fate looted it and laid it desolate, / And to that ravaged city I belong.” My own love of Delhi is often mournful, but also quite stubborn. In the face of all the evidence (that the city is brash, rude, unsafe for women, so polluted you can barely breathe, so hot you can barely survive), I find myself wanting to defend it and claim it and love it anyway. And I think that claiming and being claimed can be a source of real power.
GB: Well, I’ve always found that the SF that has moved me deeply has been, in different ways, about difficult loves: belonging and commitment through hostility. Two recent examples are Arkady Martine’s A Memory of Empire and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire (damn, I hadn’t actually put them together and noticed the common word before!). I was up late at night, shivering, through both. To circle back to something we began with: maybe what makes Delhi such a wonderful terrain for SF is, above all else, that difficult love!