[In this interview, Strange Horizons co-ordinating editor Gautam Bhatia speaks to Dip Ghosh, the editor of Kalpabiswa, the first online magazine of Bengali SFF. This interview was conducted through a collaborative Google Document, in June 2022.]
Gautam Bhatia: Hi Dip, and thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview with Strange Horizons. I want to start by asking you something basic: the name of the Bengali SF magazine you edit is Kalpabiswa. Bengali SF itself is known as kalpavigyan. Can you take us through the etymology of these terms, and how we should understand them in translation?
Dip Ghosh: The first work of Bengali SF was written almost 190 years ago. However, the term kalpavigyan, and the umbrella definition of it, was coined by SF writer and pioneering editor Adrish Bardhan around 1975 for his SF magazine Fantastic. Before that SF was known as ‘বৈজ্ঞানিক কল্প কাহিনি/boigyanik kalpakahini’ or Scientific imaginative stories, ‘বিজ্ঞানশ্রয়ী গল্প/bigyanasroyi golpo’ or scientific story, and ‘কল্পগল্প/kolpogalpa’ or imaginative tales. Adrish Bardhan decided to invent a common terminology to bring all these stories under one roof. The term ‘Kalpavigyan’ is an amalgamation of ‘Kalpa’ (imagination) and ‘Vigyan’ (Science). This is not synonymous with science fiction etymologically, and over time it has represented a broad spectrum of speculative fiction. When we decided to start a Bengali SF magazine, we looked for a term close to ‘Kalpavigyan’ so that the reader and aspiring writers could easily understand the type of literature we are interested in. Hence, one of our founder editors, Supriyo Das, came up with the name ‘Kalpabiswa’, which means the world (Biswa) of imagination (Kalpa). We wanted to publish both science fiction and fantasy, and hence thought the name covers the entire spectrum. I must also add that in Bangladesh, Bengali SF is still known as ‘boigyanik kalpakahini’, i.e, one of the earlier variations.
Gautam Bhatia: What are some of the major themes that kalpavigyan has addressed in this 190-year-old history? Has it gone through distinct phases, and if so, what are some of the significant works that, in the course of its history, have shaped or redefined kalpavigyan?
Dip Ghosh: One of the first Bengali proto-science fiction works is A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of The Year 1945 by Kylas Chunder Dutt, where he wrote about a revolt against the British Raj by the students of the Hindu college in 1945. Penned in 1835, when Dutt was only eighteen years old and a student of the Hindu College himself, this fiction of alternate history is also considered the first-ever work of English fiction written by an Indian author. Some of the notable works of Bengali SF in the nineteenth century are also paradigms of alternate histories namely Anguriyo Binimoy (1857) by Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay and Republic of Odisha (1845) by Sashi Chunder Dutt. Hemlal Dutt’s Rahashya/Mystery (1882), Jogadananda Ray’s Shukra Vraman/ The Voyage to Venus (1895), and Jagadish Chandra Bose’s Niruddesher Kahini/Annals of The Forgotten (1896) are considered to be among the first proper works of science fiction written by Bengali authors.
In the early 20th century, a towering figure is Begum Rokeya, who wrote The Sultana's Dream in 1905, a pioneering example of feminist SF. She later translated the story into Bengali, under the title Sultanar Swapno.
For the next few decades, Bengali science fiction was heavily inspired by the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Numerous Bengali translations and adaptations of their stories became available. Most notably, the adaptations by Hemendra Kumar Roy (1888-1963) gained tremendous popularity and established the proper foundations of SF, fantasy, horror, and crime genre in Bengali. Another notable writer in this era is Premendra Mitra (1904-1988). Mitra’s character Ghanada and his tall tales about saving the world from different scientific inventions is the finest example of original Bengali SF of this time. Mitra also wrote many original and inspired science fiction adventures. I should add that Mitra was a mainstream author and poet and very popular in Bengali literature.
Paradigms shifted when Adrish Bardhan (1932-2019) established the first Bengali science fiction magazine in 1963. It was immensely popular and attracted the attention of other SF fans in Bengal. Soon, the famous director and writer Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) and Premendra Mitra joined him. They successfully started an SF movement which consisted of the magazine Ascharjyo, the publishing house Alpha Beta Publication, the reading of SF stories on the All India Radio, the establishment of the Science Fiction Cine Club, Kolkata (First of its kind in Asia), and many other activities. That was truly the new wave in Bengali SF. Bardhan’s influence on kalpavigyan can perhaps be compared to that of Campbell on the so-called golden age of American SF. However, Ascharjyo was short-lived. Bardhan had to terminate the magazine when a tragedy took place in his family.
In the 70s, the post-Ascharjyo era, Ranen Ghosh started a new magazine called Bismoy Science Fiction. Though ephemeral, the magazine attracted new writers like Anish Deb, Niranjan Singha, Amitananda Das, and many more. Enakshi Chattopadhyay started her kalpavigyan journey by translation but soon started writing for Ascharjyo, and contributed to all of the magazines (including Kalpabiswa). Satyajit Ray also started writing the stories of Professor Sanku, one of the most popular kalpavigyan characters among Bengali readers. It can be said that the success of Sanku established a ‘scientist’s adventure’ trope, which is followed to date in Bengali SF.
Bardhan returned with a new magazine called Fantastic, but could not recreate the magic of Ascharjyo. Though many mainstream Bengali writers like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Lila Majumdar, etc wrote SF during the next few decades, the science fiction culture and enthusiasm of Bengal waned. However, Siddhartha Ghosh and Anish Deb kept producing excellent science fiction in the 90s. For some time kalpavigyan went back to the pages of young adult periodicals like Anandamela, Kishor Gyan Bigyan, Shuktara, and Kishor Varati. Readers started treating SF as children’s literature.
In 2016, with the publication of Kalpabiswa, a surge of renewed interest in mature and serious science fiction can be observed among Bengali readers. Right now Kalpabiswa and a few Bengali publications are producing science fiction books regularly, both original and translated. Sumit Bardhan, Debajyoti Bhattacharya, Abijnan Raychowdhury, Yashodhara Raychowdhury, Dipen Bhattacharya, Soham Guha, Soumya Mukhopadhyay, and others are writing excellent science fiction and fantasy in both Bengali and in English.
Gautam Bhatia: Can you tell us something about the preoccupations of contemporary kalpavigyan? What are writers writing about? Does climate change feature, given Bengal’s proximity to the ocean?
Dip Ghosh: As I said earlier, contemporary kalpavigyan is at a crossroads. On the one hand, juvenile periodicals keep publishing stories about space adventures, scientific adventures, and alien encounters. The rest are confronting more serious and mature issues. Some of such stories cover themes like climate change and the water mafia (Mirjafar, by Sandipan Chattopadhyay), ethical use of AI (Design Bias, by Abijnan Raychowdhury), steampunk Bengal (Arthatrishna, by Sumit Bardhan), oppression of women in a fundamentalist regime (Udyog Porbo, by Debajyoti Bhattacharya), poaching and the turbulent relationship between humans and nature (Hasti Sangit, by Soham Guha) etc. So, a new generation of kalpvigyan writers is picking topics that are closer to Bengali culture and the current geopolitical situation of the sub-continent. Also, stories related to daily struggles and social issues of Indian society, such as violence towards women, labor migration, neglect of elderly people, casteism, and dependency on technology are prominent. Kalpabiswa published a special issue on climate fiction in 2018 and after that quite a few stories on the results of climate change were written ( Most notably, the "Song of Ice" by Soham Guha, which was translated in The Gollancz Book Of South Asian Science Fiction, Volume 2, by Arunava Sinha).
Gautam Bhaia: Tell us a bit about your magazine, Kalpabiswa. What is the demographic of the writers who submit to you? What kinds of stories do you publish? Do you only publish stories written in Bangla, or do you translate stories from other language into Bangla?
Dip Ghosh: Kalpabiswa was the logical answer to the growing need for a platform for kalpavigyan. Started in 2016, it was a brainchild of three die-hard science fiction fans: me, Supriyo Das, and Biswadip Dey. In the beginning, there was a severe lack of content and we used to write using pseudonyms (just as Adrish Bardhan did when he started Ascharjyo magazine). But within a year the situation changed. We started getting submissions from youngsters who were eager to dive into the realm of kalpavigyan.
We also used to publish interviews of notable senior kalpavigyan writers in Kalpabiswa, and realized there is almost no written history or source documents for learning about the genre. Along with the magazine, we started collecting and curating kalpavigyan books and stories from the past, most of which were out of print for many decades. Our editor Santu Bag unearthed volumes of old magazines like Ascharjyo, Bismoy Science Fiction, and Fantastic. Along with many out-of-print books, we established a digital archive of kalpavigyan.
With the collaboration of the Jadavpur University English department, we organized the first-ever international science fiction conference in eastern India, in 2018. Also, Kalpabiswa helped in filming the documentary ‘Kalpavigyan’ produced by Prof. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay of the University of Oslo. In the same year, we started a publication house with the vision of promoting kalpavigyan and translating science fiction from other languages to Bengali. At the moment, we have over 40 kalpavigyan books under our belt. Currently, we are translating masterworks of Bradbury, Clarke, Lem, and Elizabeth Bear, among others as well.
Inter-vernacular translation projects are also going on, and we have published an anthology of Hindi SF translated into Bengali. In Kalpabiswa we try to introduce new and contemporary topics or authors from the world of science fiction to our readers and authors. Some of our recent notable issues featured climate fiction, soviet science fiction, kalpavigyan by woman authors, Asimov and Stanislaw Lem’s centenary issues, Japanese SF, etc.
Most of our writers are from the younger, tech-savvy generation. They are well aware of contemporary SF and eager to tell new-age stories. Most of the senior writers are not comfortable with the online format of the magazine, and prefer to avoid it.
We have quite strict guidelines pertaining to what kinds of stories we accept. We actively try to avoid any juvenile stories with overused SF cliches and tropes. We have an internal kalpavigyan manifesto for our editors. Our overall motto is to publish more character-orientated speculative fiction, without losing our heritage.
Kalpabiswa is a Bengali magazine, but we realized the importance of translating kalpavigyan to English for a wider audience. There is also growing pressure from the non-Bengali Indian SF community for inter-vernacular translations. So we have started an English section for translations and original English SF submissions. We plan to convert the magazine into a completely bilingual one in the coming days.
Gautam Bhatia: Tell us something about your two or three favourite stories from Kalpabiswa.
Dip Ghosh: As an editor, I always look for fresh voices and novel styles or concepts. It is a very difficult job to select favorite stories from our six-year-long journey. Instead, I am describing the following stories whose impact remained with me long after I finished them.
One of my absolute favorites is 'Vshundi Kaker Noksha / The Skit of the All-Knowing Vushundi Crow’ by Sumit Bardhan, which is a brilliant parody of H.G.Well’s The War of The Worlds, set in 19th-century colonial Bengal. The whole piece is written following the narrative style and words of Bengali author Kaliprasanna Singha, from the same era. In the story, after the events of The War Of The Worlds, the Martians and the British Raj sign a non-aggression treaty, and several parts of the Raj are now occupied by the Martians. A reporter, the protagonist, is looking for a mysterious man named Kamalakanta (also the main character of Bankim Chandra’s famous novel Kamalakanter Daptor), who has gone undercover to uncover a dangerous secret between the Raj and the Martians. Several other historical and fictional famous characters make appearances in the story, which has a strong steampunk vibe.
‘Dheu/ Our Lives on Tides' by Soham Guha tells us a story of post-apocalyptic Kolkata, which is a megastructure floating in the all-consuming ocean. Totalitarian governments control the remaining floating cities, the last beacons of human civilization on earth. The protagonist is a citizen who has a forbidden affair with a person from a higher caste. After he is sent to space for detonating a bomb on an incoming meteor, he realizes that it is actually a death sentence, because he had a queer relationship. The overall tone of the story, nostalgia for the old earth, craving for a peaceful life and relationship, and the sorrow of betrayal, make this story a must-read for kalpavigyan fans.
The third story is ‘Udyogporbo/the staging ground’ by veteran kalpavigyan writer Debajyoti Bhattacharya. In an alternate fundamentalist religious India, the government figurehead is the high priest. The place of the woman is nothing but a second-class citizen and a sex object. Women are leased to men for a year only to procreate. With the help of some intelligent robot servitors, the protagonist starts a coup against the government with other women. Soon they are discovered and the coup fails, but a more secretive resistance emerges from the sacrifice of thousands of women. The combination of shocking imagery and hard-hitting narrative is a sharp critique of what the future may hold for us.
Gautam Bhatia: What challenges have you faced in setting up and publishing a Bengali SF magazine?
Dip Ghosh: Kalpabiswa is the fourth Bengali SF magazine but the first online one. All the previous magazines perished because they could not survive the difficult print and distribution model. As an online magazine, we do not have to face the same problem. On the other hand, people in Bengali literary circles are still skeptical about online magazines. Many veteran writers avoid online magazines, and not every reader is comfortable with online reading. Still, we have thousands of readers from all over the world each week. We receive lots of submissions from Bangladesh, the USA, and Europe. But primarily, we suffer from a lack of awareness and acknowledgment from mainstream literary circles and media. Many of them still believe that kalpavigyan is merely a form of juvenile literature and not worthy of any attention.
However, times are changing and our books and works are getting reviewed by the mainstream media. Secondly, free access to quality kalpavigyan is our motto. As we do not receive any funding, it is not possible to pay our authors, artists, or staff. Without a strong editorial team, it is impossible to run an SF magazine for this long, and the kalpavigyan community will be indebted to the voluntary work of my co-editors Supriyo Das, Goutam Mandal, Santu Bag, and Pramit Nandy for their time and commitment. To attract more science fiction writers, a sustainable model is yet to be achieved.
Gautam Bhatia: Finally: it’s a good time for translation from the sub-continent, with Gitanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand winning the International Booker. What are your hopes for the future?
Dip Ghosh: The barrier of language is preventing kalpavigyan from reaching out to non-Bengali readers. There are lots of excellent contemporary writers coming from the subcontinent, but the ‘Indian science fiction’ tag is firmly attached to Anglophone science fiction. Due to a lack of translation in Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam, Assamese, Hindi, etc. science fiction (in vernacular languages) remains unnoticed. Gitanjali Shree’s International Booker Award and Amar Mitra’s O’ Henry Award strongly suggest that the translation of vernacular literature will enrich the field. I believe the translation of kalpavigyan is the only answer to push it to the next level, and it is the need of the hour.
To facilitate the exchange, we have started a separate English section and translated stories in our magazine, in the hope of reaching a wider audience. We are undertaking a project for publishing kalpavigyan translations, which I hope international publishers will show interest in and soon, kalpavigyan will be accessible and a respectable genre within the world of SF literature.
Gautam Bhatia: And we at Strange Horizons wish you the best of luck in that endeavour! Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this interview with me.