As much as Samit Basu is claimed to be a SFF writer, he certainly has a penchant for subverting the norms of the genre and sometimes even challenging the very definitions of the genre itself. From 2004 to 2020, he has experimented with fantasy and mythology in his Gameworld trilogy, children’s writing in The Adventures of Stoob and created his own Superhero universe in his Turbulence and Resistance. Needless to say, as someone who was first introduced to the SFF scene in India through the Gameworld trilogy, I have read and thoroughly enjoyed all his works. Which is not what I can say for his latest book, Chosen Spirits (2020), published by Simon and Schuster India. Don’t get me wrong. I highly recommend this book, dear reader. But to speak of enjoying this book puts the reader in the same dilemma as that of “liking” an article or picture about an atrocity on a social media platform. This book cannot be enjoyed. This book is not comfortable.
Chosen Spirits is set at the turn of the 2030s, a decade from now. All pretense of a democratic India has collapsed after large-scale de-citizenings and unpersonings, voter-list erasures, internet shutdowns, news censors and data-driven home invasions. The protagonist, Joey or Bijoyini Roy, has the job of a Reality Controller, i.e. she manages Flowstars and their Flows, reality TV meets Instagram Live, and lives in a gated neighborhood (called India China Harmony Place) with clean water and air. Her memories of protests in the early 2020s (The Years Not To Be Discussed) are foregrounded in the narrative. She remembers not only the protests but also the gradual disappearance and eventual silencing of the dissenters. For these reasons and many others, she has learnt to turn her face away from any aspect of the uncomfortable, unfiltered, and un-curated reality of life in Delhi until a sequence of events that began with her hiring her childhood friend Rudra and thus insulting Chopra, an access-caste elite with one-degree relationships with real power. As a result, Joey is forced to confront her complicity in maintaining and protecting unequal and oppressive structures. This confrontation with the “monster” she had turned into begins with a bucket of pink paint being hurled at her, takes her on a journey from her gated neighborhood to a truly Delhi experience: a ride on a crowded Delhi metro to Cyber Bazaar (formerly known as Nehru Place, a market famous in Delhi for all things electronics). By the end of the novel, Joey is the Reality Controller for a new set of Flowstars and while she is not on a heroic quest, unlike her former colleagues Rudra and Zaria, she is trying to make the world a better place one flow at a time.
Pictures of the poor suffering first in newly built detention centers in India and then on the streets due to the lockdown, images of war and weaponry flashing on news channels with loudmouthed, fear-instilling anchors, and fake news intended to communalize and spread hate that is disseminated without discretion on WhatsApp and other social media platforms; these are commonplace in India in the second decade of the 21st century. Inequalities embedded within our systems, the violence prevalent in our own cultures and religions, caste-based atrocities, communal hate and politics, police brutalities, internet trolls, and mob lynchings are not imagined dystopian horrors but the lived realities of multitudes. Alongside this, Delhi as a city has its own unique dystopian features that lend themselves easily, if not a little too obviously, to the writing of a dystopian novel with the city as its setting.
And it is here that Basu sets his story. He utilizes a temporal distance to fabricate a world that we are hurtling towards, but reduces that distance by locating the story in the near future—only a decade from now. This allows him to sharpen the strangeness of that which has become familiar in the present and to delineate the horrors of the future that exist today already.
Basu thus doesn’t need to use a defamiliarizing device to make this a sci-fi horror narrative nor does he need to explain the fictional world in the beginning; he only explains the present and then unfolds the near-future as the narrative moves along. The reader understands the 2030s world as she knows and understands the world from which it emerges. The verisimilitudinous telling of the present, with a myriad of details, small and big—pogrom, pandemic, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, Shaheen Bagh, Jantar Mantar, Resident Welfare Associations, Delhi University, autoguys, K-dramas—frames the dystopia of the future and engages the reader by emphasizing the proximity of the two worlds.
One of the most interesting moments in the novel features a group of young women, bravehearts and rebel icons, of their respective countries (not to be missed here also is the intertextual referentiality of the names of their avatars: Olamina, Rokheya, Omu-Ako, Khutulu amongst others) in a virtual reality meeting at the Sadface café. Calling themselves the Ambassadors of New Tion, they narrate parables embedded with codes and links about their worlds, conveying truths that linear plot-lines are no longer allowed to convey. Omu-Ako of Ife has not yet learnt the doublespeak and freely calls out rich nations for using poorer countries as cradles of global experiments to field-test their strategies and dump their waste. When she demands to know who will take responsibility for it all when these experiments fail, Olamina from America reassures her of their solidarity in working towards overcoming these dystopian times.
“There’s nothing dystopian about it,” Zaria snaps: Rudra can hear the change in her voice, and so can everyone else. Formal Rokheya’s left the café.
“Dystopia is pornographic, Olamina. You see it and shiver, but it’s also kind of fun because it’s happening somewhere else, to someone else, you know? It requires distance. Some of us are actually sitting in the fucking middle of it and we may never learn to care in time. This isn’t dystopia. This is reality.”
Here, Basu, through Zaria/Rokheya, not only writes the most quoted lines from the book but also a thesis statement of the novel. He does not set himself to write a dystopia because dystopias need distance which is no longer possible in a world where we are already in the midst of the horrors.
The novel, however, does not endorse horror for its own sake but as a warning—in the book’s acknowledgments Basu claims that the setting is a “best-case scenario”— and if this is the best we can hope for, what can we do collectively and individually? It is a first in a Samit Basu world for the action to take place off-stage. Even Rudra and Zaria’s heroic quest against the evil and powerful is not part of the storyline. Basu’s story does not in any way alleviate or sublimate our anxieties about the world with a cathartic resolution. Yet the sense of inevitability about the world of Chosen Spirits is short-circuited by its hopefulness and its desire for a better world, and it is this hope that frames the narrative.
In the novel, the Resistance work is being led by those that are outside the privileged social circles of caste, class and religion: Raja (his name literally translates into King) of Cyber Bazaar; Laxmi, a domestic worker and Raja’s girlfriend; E-Klav, the Dalit counter-culture artist who refuses to work with Savarna liberals like Joey; Dr. Magan from Berbera; and Zaria Salam, the Muslim investigative journalist.
Joey’s journey to Cyber Bazaar towards the end of the novel makes her realize how little she knows of the city she has lived in all her life, and how alien and inaccessible it is to a woman of her class and caste even though she asserts a degree of power in her own social circle. Early in the novel we are told that Joey’s father, Avik, often tells her to leave India because things are not changing. Avik, a progressive bourgeois liberal, may believe this; his former best friend, Rajat Gupta, has accepted the fast changing pace of the world and like a true disaster capitalist, made a fortune riding the changing tide of new world orders, governments, and corpocracies. His elder son Rohit is now set on gaining absolute power over Delhi and fashioning himself into a neo-Gupta king by building perfect children for the richest of the rich. He’s already thinking and preparing for the disasters and failures of the future: climate change, new diseases, tech disasters, and mass uprisings. As megalomaniac as Rohit sounds and is, he does articulate certain realities of “modern” India that Rudra and Joey, due to their caste-based privileges, are blind to, even if it is to justify his own maintenance of caste-based hierarchies and alignment with power.
The warning at the centre of Basu’s novel is directed less at the right wing fundamentalism in the narrative and more at the bourgeois liberalism that too has benefitted from the marginalization of communities, the continuation of which can lead the present world to the world of the novel. More than one character in the novel claims that “we,” the liberals, had won, had saved India from fascism and yet they have failed to recognize the India that has changed and is continually changing.
Basu thus rejects both 2020s Delhi and 2030s Delhi, refusing to succumb to a naive dystopian dualism of good-before and bad-after. He achieves this with his wry humor and satiric quips at his privileged characters (he even directs these at himself during interviews). In doing so, he satirizes two temporally distant yet compatible worlds. But in a story framed by the hope and terror that revolutionary moments contain, Basu leaves us with a promise of change. And possibly a sequel.
A few years ago, I came across a Reddit thread by u/thmsbsh looking for recommendations of cyberpunk novels set in India because on his visit to Delhi, he was “amazed by the prevalence of makeshift electronics shops, and clusterfucks of telephone cables above ramshackle bars and markets selling chickens, cassette tapes and knockoff smartphones.” If the comments weren’t closed, 6 years after the thread’s first appearing on Reddit, I would go back and recommend Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits as the cyberpunk novel that’s not only set in Delhi but also uses the electronics market (Cyber Bazaar) and other markets of Delhi, described with a generous dose of cyberpunk aesthetics, as his setting.
The story is about a lot of things: multiple cities, multiple realities, multiverses, and metanarratives. But in an attempt to contain a multitude of ideas and realities in a stand-alone book, Basu marginalizes the plot. The story is taken over by ideas and events so that at times it felt as if this was a long preface to the works that are to emerge from this world. As a reader, it is frustrating to see so many strands in the story left unexplored or unresolved; we are constrained to view this world through the perspective of Joey, but as a fan one is left with the hope that these multiple strands will eventually be explored by the writer. Multiple sequels perhaps?
With Olamina as an avatar in the novel, I couldn’t shake off the central verse of Earthseed from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower: “All that you touch/ You Change./ All that you Change/ Changes you./ The only lasting truth/ Is Change.” Change is the central tenet of the story that’s giving the reader a best-case scenario for the 2030s and the reader can only hope for change—or fear it.