The Trousers of Time: Possible Futures of Indian Speculative Fiction in English

Abstract: This project will map the future of Indian speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy literature) in English. It is surprising, to say the least, that even with our fantastic mythic/literary resources at our disposal a nation as culturally predisposed to the fantastic as we are should have produced a contemporary speculative fiction genre that is marginal at best, at least in literary terms. I will study the possibilities for Indian speculative fiction in the following directions: Recasting Indian myths in the patterns established by revisionist SFF and the New Weird, the possibility, in the age of animation sweatshops and comics outsourcing, of Indian SFF graphic novels, the possibilities 18th and 19th century Indian history and literature present in terms of speculative fiction, the superhero in Indian terms, the opportunities presented by the universes created by Indian writers of speculative fiction in various languages for children, and the inclusion and contribution of the Indian disapora in the creation of an Indo-centric multicultural fantasy genre.

Bio: Samit Basu studied Economics in Calcutta and Broadcast Journalism in London before moving to Delhi, where he now lives and works. He is the author of two fantasy novels, The Simoqin Prophecies and The Manticore’s Secret, both published by Penguin India. He’s currently working on the concluding volume of his fantasy trilogy and on the initial volume of a graphic novel series. He also writes an edit page column for the Hindustan Times, and works as a freelance journalist
and scriptwriter

Blog: Duck of Destiny
Reader-List Postings:

Several interviews can be found here.
1/16/06

Hi. My names Samit, I live in Delhi at present and try to make a

living from writing weird fiction. I’m travelling around the country

at present without one of those laptop thingies, so apologies for

being two days late with the first post.

The Trousers of Time: Possible Futures of Indian speculative fiction in English

This project will map the future of Indian speculative fiction

(science fiction and fantasy literature) in English.

The origins of speculative fiction in India are twofold; first, the

incredible wealth of mythical, historical and folklore traditions, and

second, the incredibly popular genres of science fiction and fantasy

in both literature and film in the West.

It is surprising, to say the least, that even with these resources at

our disposal a nation as culturally predisposed to the fantastic as we

are should have produced a contemporary speculative fiction genre that

is marginal at best, at least in literary terms. The works of Sukumar

and Satyajit Ray have not found an audience worldwide because of the

lack of proper marketing, and literary snobbery alone has prevented

Rushdie’s works from being classified as speculative fiction. Amitav

Ghosh is probably the only writer in the world who has won a major SF

award, the Arthur C. Clarke award, for a work he was not aware was

science fiction. Market conditions and literary prejudices are held

largely responsible for the lack of a strong tradition in the field of

speculative fiction especially in English, but the future definitely

looks bright. A slow trickle of fantasy and science fiction

manuscripts has slowly begun to weigh down desks in Indian publishing

houses. This project will discuss future roads down which Indian

writers seeking to produce successful speculative fiction might do

well to tread if we are to have a body of work in the field that

matches western sci-fi and fantasy in quality and richness, while

simultaneously possessing a strong and distinct Indian identity. In

the process, I will also discuss current trends in fantasy literature

worldwide, possible pitfalls SFF writers should avoid and the problems

and opportunities relevant to writers working in a genre that is

popular elsewhere in the world and extremely relevant but still

somewhat out of place in India.

I will study the possibilities for Indian speculative fiction in the

following directions: Recasting Indian myths in the patterns

established by revisionist SFF and the New Weird, the possibility, in

the age of animation sweatshops and comics outsourcing, of Indian SFF

graphic novels, the possibilities 18th and 19th century Indian history

and literature present in terms of speculative fiction, the superhero

in Indian terms, the opportunities presented by the universes created

by Indian writers of speculative fiction in various languages for

children, and the inclusion and contribution of the Indian disapora in

the creation of an Indo-centric multicultural fantasy genre.

The project will be presented in the form of six essays, each focusing

on a particular aspect of speculative fiction and its relevance to

India and Indian writers. Existing speculative fiction in the country,

for children and adults, in various languages, will also be discussed.

Additional material for the archive will be produced in the form of

recorded interviews with writers, illustrators, publishers,

booksellers and academics whose work relates to the field of study.

21/5/06

IWE, genre and the New Weird

“Civilisational or religious partitioning of the world population

yields a ‘solitarist’ approach to human identity, which sees human

beings as members of exactly one group…This can be a good way of

misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world. In our normal lives, we

see ourselves as members of a variety of groups – we belong to all of

them… Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person

simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity. None of them

can be taken to be the person’s only identity or singular membership

category.”

– Amartya Sen, from the prologue to Identity and Violence: The

Illusion of Destiny

Remember, books are people too. It’s fairly clear that questions

related to literary taxonomy are primarily questions for booksellers

and critics, not readers or writers. On the other hand, these are

questions writers at least might consider being aware of, because they

play a very real role in determining their means of earning a

livelihood – which, while obviously not the objective of writing in

itself, is something a lot of writers would enjoy being able to do.

While struggling to get my own work published, I’ve learnt that

writing, while remaining the only meaningful experience in the entire

publishing process, is merely a stage of the entire quest, and in that

light, it’s been rewarding discussing some rather non-writerly

questions with other writers as well as publishers and critics.

Some of this project springs from personal frustration; the division

of books into categories that aren’t immediately obvious (non-fiction,

for example, is completely inoffensive) has always disappointed me as

a reader, and as a writer, simply because nearly all my favourite

books, like my favourite people, are multi-dimensional; they defy

definition, they grumble greatly when categorized. My own work is

found in shelves marked, depending on the speculations of bookstore

managers, Indian writing, SF/fantasy, children’s literature and once,

memorably, cookery. Literary borders are as difficult to draw as

political ones, though their creation fortunately involves less

bloodshed. That said, the social sciences of the literary world are

both fascinating and relevant, and their flaws, such as artificial

segmentation and aggregation, are the same as those of any process

that seeks to study heterogeneous objects as a mass.

This set of essays, however, is fundamentally flawed on many levels –

it is about a nascent, hard-to-define sub-section of literature, the

as-yet-mostly-nonexistent sub-genre of Indian speculative fiction in

English, which is itself a bastard child of two parents who, not

being dead, are difficult to analyze as they are not only infinitely

complex at any point, but, to complicate things further, change all

the time as well. However, since we’re dealing mostly with science

fiction and fantasy here, I’ll hope I can be forgiven for looking into

the future, and for making what might turn out to be wild, fantastical

claims.

What is Indian/South Asian literature in English? Even if we get past

the tricky question of origin, which has obsessed scholars since the

term came into being, and include the non-resident and the genetically

partially South Asian, in recent years the growing diversity in South

Asian English literature should lead to more questions – having

overcome the ‘South Asian’ part of the question by being

all-inclusive, how do we now define ‘literature’? Do we include comics

and graphic novels, speculative fiction, thrillers, chick-lit, campus

novels and crime fiction, all of which have reared their heads in

India over the last decade? This should prove a lot more difficult for

the sagacious and scholarly to do, given that literary snobbery is far

more acceptable than racism – and that Indian-origin writers abroad

might have very thin connections with India, but large advances and

literary awards add a great deal of density to the study of the field

– build its brand, in other words, however gut-shrinking that might

sound, while diversity in the form of new, not necessarily mainstream

writing increases the number of spices in the curry, but, in the eyes

of many not-so-neutral observers, does not necessarily add to its

taste.

The term ‘speculative fiction’ is another puzzler. It’s a beast that’s

known by many names – weird fiction, SFF, literature of the

imagination – literature that in some way transcends the real, though

it’s nearly always a mirror image of the real, with certain upgrades.

Speculative fiction, spec-fic to friends, is essentially an umbrella,

a bar where a number of disgruntled genres come to hang out, its

leading patrons being fantasy, science fiction, horror and alternative

history. It’s claimed by the bartenders that magic realism is also a

customer, though one suspects magic realism, a frequent invitee at

literary wine-and-cheese soirees, would deny this if asked. The term

is often attributed to Robert A Heinlein, who used it as a synonym for

science fiction in an essay in 1948. Whatever the genre includes, the

reason for the term’s existence is simply that books within the genre

are difficult to classify, and terms like spec-fic sound vaguely

impressive, are easier to explain than more bizarre concoctions like

magic realism, and also convey that these books aren’t Literature,

silence disgruntled writers complaining that their work isn’t ‘just’

SF or fantasy, and bring together a great many fascinating writers who

write about mind-bogglingly diverse things in mind-bogglingly

divergent styles, and allow everyone concerned to ignore these facts:

all (good) fiction is inherently speculative, all fiction involves

imagination, and escapism in literature depends on content, not

classification or theme.

In contemporary speculative fiction, one of the most frequently

discussed sub-genres is one that is in the process of being created –

the New Weird, a genre starring speculative fiction writers like Neil

Gaiman, M. John Harrison and China Mieville, who all work under the

speculative umbrella, but blend their tales with other literary genres

as well. This is something science fiction has in common with science

– the most exciting work takes place in the overlaps between fields,

when boundaries are diffused and maps are redrawn.

“Something is happening in the literature of the fantastic. A

slippage. A freeing-up. The quality is astounding. Notions are

sputtering and bleeding across internal and external boundaries.

Particularly in Britain, where we are being reviewed in the papers, of

all things, and selling copies, and being read and riffed off by yer

actual proper literary writers. We are writing books which cheerfully

ignore the boundaries between SF, fantasy and horror. Justina Robson,

M John Harrison, Steve Cockayne, Al Reynolds, Steph Swainston and too

many others to mention, despite all our differences, share something.

And our furniture has invaded their headspace. From outside the field,

writers like Toby Litt and David Mitchell use the trappings of SF with

a respect and facility that has long been missing in the clodhopping

condescension of the literati.”

-China Mieville, author of Perdido Street Station, The Scar, etc., in

a guest editorial in The Third Alternative 35

Of course, spec-fic and mainstream literature have often had

cross-border talks – think of the magic realism of Murakami, or

Rushdie, or Marquez, or the not-SF SF of Margaret Atwood. Some of the

most iconic writers of contemporary speculative fiction blend genres

frequently and with ease – consider the exuberant book-peopled

universe that is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, or Stephen King’s Dark

Tower series – in the last few years, Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan

Strange and Mr. Norrell was a successful marriage between speculative

fiction and the 19th-century English novel. And then, of course,

there’s the most successful writer in the world, J.K. Rowling, whose

blend of spec-fic and school stories have changed the world. Philip

Roth does alternative history; Bret Easton Ellis does horror. In a

sense, the term New Weird examines a phenomenon that’s not new at all,

in a literary world of which the most outstandingly weird aspect is

its compulsive need to segregate stories into categories in the first

place. Given that the term isn’t very old, most New Weird writers

probably aren’t even aware that they could be so described, because,

fortunately, no one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Today I will

start a New Weird novel.’ Jeff Vandermeer, one of the New Weird’s

leading lights, describes it as ” an affliction visited upon many of

us involuntarily. Labels like that one are at this point simply a

marketing tool.”

“I always tell wannabe writers not to read too much in the field where

they work. Obviously you need to keep in touch, but a deep knowledge

of the Old West or world history stands you in better stead than a

shelf of other people’s fantasy books. Import, don’t recycle. That’s

actually wisdom, that is.”

– Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld books, in an interview at

http://www.scifi.com

This is something Indian/South Asian writers of spec-fic would do well

to absorb. While it is, of course, necessary to keep in touch with

contemporary spec-fic (for practical reasons, to make sure you’re not

reinventing the wheel, as well as for sheer reading pleasure) there’s

no particular reason to feel disheartened by the fact that the first

glimmering of a body of work that could be called Indian spec-fic in

English began to be available in India about seven decades after pulp

SF magazines became wildly popular in the US, not to mention about a

century after Bengali SF became popular and a few millenia after the

Indian epics spoke of flying chariots, amazing weaponry and other

worlds – there’s still a lot that Indian spec-fic could give the

genre, though there is also a lot of catching up to do. The sheer

richness of India as a spec-fic source material resource – not just in

terms of myth and folklore and history, but in contemporary politics,

the arts, entertainment and social trends, and in the completely

absorbing story of India as a growing, rapidly evolving nation – calls

out for imaginative speculative treatment. And typically, this

resource has already been mined by Western writers in search of

something exotic to offer saturated Western SF markets.

This is not to suggest even for a moment, of course, that Indian

writers should see themselves in anyway constrained to write only

About India, since that might be damaging for their own writing, and

might only reinforce stereotypes already present in the publishing

world – the last thing Indian writers like being reduced to is writers

whose only possible role could be Explaining India. At the same time,

there’s obviously nothing wrong with Indians writing about India and

things Indian if that’s the space in which the writing is naturally,

organically set, and there are several Indian stories that survive,

indeed, thrive on, constant retelling. And there are still a number of

brilliant spec-fic novels just waiting to be written that are, in

various senses, Indian, and if Indian writers don’t write them, others

will. The process has already begun.

Even if we set aside the existence of India’s wealth in natural

resources as far as spec-fic is concerned, the sparsity of finished

Indian spec-fic is all the more remarkable given the abundance and

immense popularity of Indian writing in English. Of course, the

absence of Indian spec-fic books on bookshelves worldwide does not

mean these books aren’t being written – it just means they aren’t

being distributed even if they are being published. Spec-fic and

literary publishing are mostly segregated (another reason for

genre/mainstream borders) and the remarkable success of Indians in one

field is in no sense a source of increased attention for Indian

writers in the other. Besides, the literati aren’t the only with silly

prejudices in the publishing world; the SFF publishing space has its

own problems, the most blinding one being that readers of spec-fic,

especially in the US, are presumed to be looking for the familiar

unfamiliar – identikit aliens, even more Tolkienspawn, more simplistic

George Lucas clones – that spec-fic, far from being literature that

explores new territory, boldly going where no books have gone before,

is as much literary comfort food as, say, most mass-produced

contemporary chick-lit. As publishers search for the familiar, much of

what is new and exciting but unfamiliar fails to break through the

crystal ceiling. Familiar plots, familiar characters, familiar tropes

gain strength through repeated cloning, making sure that the spec-fic

market remains white-male dominated, both in terms of protagonists and

writers. This is clearly something Indian writers will have to

struggle against, but they will certainly not be the first to join

battle – pioneers like Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler have

already made huge steps to make the spec-fic world aware of these

prejudices, and they haven’t been the only ones. Thanks to a variety

of factors, such as a real tiredness among readers of repetitive plots

and the phenomenonal information/culture bomb that is the Internet,

even American publishers are slowly opening their minds and their

coffers to spec-fic material from across the world – consider the

success of manga, the fastest growing phenomenon in world publishing

today. Spec-fic is certainly less inward-looking than it used to be,

and the New Weird, however questionable its definition, is a very real

symptom of this.

And it’s a better time now, than ever before, to be an Indian spec-fic

writer. The initial forays into Western markets have been made; Indian

spec-fic writing is increasing, albeit slowly, over various media as

the global popularity and increasing mainstream acceptability of

spec-fic trickle across to India; perhaps most importantly, the Indian

readership of spec-fic is growing and diversifying, as more

cutting-edge spec-fic, again, in various media, begins to be available

in ever-expanding bookstore chains. If good spec-fic is written now,

there’s more chance of it reaching Indian readers, and readers

worldwide, than ever before. To achieve that, here’s one possible

future; Indian writers bring their home-grown skills into the world of

spec-fic, blurring and reinventing genres, adding themes, experiences

and visions as yet unseen in the spec-fic world. In other words, they

colonize the New Weird, making it truly new. And truly weird.

________________________________________________________________________

Rana Dasgupta, author of Tokyo Cancelled, on putting books into boxes:

Q: In publishing terms, you’re seen as a ‘literary’ writer. But in

your first novel, you’ve used themes that relate fairly extensively to

the domain of speculative fiction – the memory database, the woman who

turns into a store, the relationship with a doll, and so forth. but

since your writing style puts you under ‘literature’, these influences

would then fall in the realm of ‘magic realism’, another imposed

classification to distinguish speculative-in-literary from

straightforward genre fiction, putting you into yet another artificial

pocket with writers like Margaret Atwood, Toby Litt and David

Mitchell. What are your thoughts on literary/publishing

classifications like ‘mainstream’ and ‘genre’? If, under threat of

torture, you had to classify your own work, where would you place it

on the speculative/literary spectrum?

A: Frankly I find the game of categorization very boring, whether it

is by nation or “genre”. It may have some function for people in

marketing, but it’s of no interest to me in my own writing. I write

something only because it seems to have a particular force to me, not

because it will satisfy the requirements of a particular genre, or

appeal to a certain kind of person.

In my personal view, books categorized as “science fiction” often meet

the standards of “literature” better than books categorized as

“literature” do. This is because i have a particular idea of

literature. for me, literature is philosophy: its purpose is not to

describe what we already know to be the case, but to create an

experiment with the imagination. Science fiction has always done this,

of course. Moreover, “reality” now seems to be an entirely science

fiction-style project, and to eschew science fiction totally is often

to

retreat into some kind of improbable, and uninteresting, refuge.

I don’t think serious writers have any business internalizing the

slogans and generalizations of industry. To me it is entirely

destructive to their work. It can only result in the censorship of

the imagination – because something does not fit easily within a

genre, or will be too complex for the imagined audience, etc. It is

precisely in

the moments when one is surprised by one’s own writing, or fearful of

its implications, that one reaches into spaces that are interesting

and enduring.

16.6.06

“You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long

series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he

appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly

grown….Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”

– Herbert Spencer

Superhumans – Nietzschean uberbeings who bend circumstances, stories

and worlds around their fiery wills – are creatures Indians should be

familiar with. Among the heroes and villains of the Ramayana, the

Mahabharata and the Puranas we have several characters who could teach

Superman a thing or two about high-flying deeds of derring-do. And

through a strange combination of market forces, timing, and

serendipity, the time seems to be ripe for Indian superheroes to step

up and be counted – after making some very serious decisions about

clothing, of course.

It’s an interesting time to be discussing superheroes from India,

because Krrish, a big-budget superhero film, is due to release in a

few days, featuring state-of-the-art special effects, a martial-arts

choreographer from Hong Kong, a cast full of Bollywood stars, music,

dancing, chaste love and lots of leather – and is expecting

competition from another Bollywood SFF film, Alag. Besides this,

Virgin Comics, a new publisher looking to redefine comics and

animation worldwide using India-themed content, is due to unleash its

first collection of Indian heroes (not superheroes, they say, because

cape-and-tights crusaders are best left to traditional comics

powerhouses DC and Marvel) in about a month – which means that the

time to discuss them as ‘potential’ phenomena is fast running out.

While the establishment of Virgin Comics and Animation is definitely

cause for hope among Indian speculative fiction writers looking to

start out professionally and it is to be hoped that Krrish will turn

out to be a compelling, entertaining superhero blockbuster, experience

leads one to believe that Bollywood’s attempts at speculative-fiction

material are best discussed in advance, because the actual viewing of

SFF Bollywood movies thus far has always been extremely inimical to

discussion of these ludicrous masterpieces as anything other than a

source of unintentional humour.

A prime example of this is an internationally famous box-office turkey

named ‘The Indian Superman’, a completely unabashed copy of the

original, featuring Dharmendra as the Jor-El copy, Ashok Kumar as

Jonathan Kent and Puneet ‘Duryodhan’ Issar as Superman, and also

starring Jagdeep and Shakti Kapoor. Fortunately, this is not India’s

best-known superhero film thus far. That honour goes to Mr. India,

where Anil Kapoor plays a man visible only in areas lit by red lights.

The annals of non-superhero SFF Bollywood films, too, are full of

unforgettable classics – Ajooba, for instance, featuring the who’s who

of Bollywood at the time, and featuring Russian-made monsters, large

stuffed tigers and a Rishi Kapoor miniature doll cavorting inside a

blouse. Of course, not even the worst excesses of Bollywood SFF

filmmaking could match Lollywood’s International Gorillay, the climax

of which features arch-fiend Salman Rushdie being laser-skewered by

four lightning-emitting flying Korans. But since these essays aim to

take South Asian SFF and its future seriously, perhaps these classics

are best left for other discussions. Like their TV counterparts

Shaktimaan, Aryamaan, Karma and Captain Vyom, Bollywood’s superheroes

thus far have mostly been badly produced, badly copied version of

well-known western costumed vigilantes from film and comics, though

Bollywood’s defenders might point out this is only right, given how

vigorously early American superhero comics copied one another.

Indian comics have also featured a number of interesting spec-fic

heroes, from Chacha Chowdhury’s sidekick Sabu from Jupiter to Amitabh

Bachchan as the pink-clad Supremo, in an Indrajaal Comics series

featuring Bollywood scriptwriter Gulzar, from half-machine RAW spy

Koushik to Raj Comics snake-man Nagraj. The heroes of Indrajaal

comics, notably the dashing detective Bahadur, commanded genuine cult

appeal and are cherished collectors’ items today. The superheroes of

Raj, Diamond and Manoj comics also inspired a considerable fan

following in India, thriving on local content, the intrinsic appeal of

comics and the lack of high-quality alternatives. Comprehensive lists

are available on the Internet, created lovingly by fans who grew up

devouring the adventures of Indrajaal Comics heroes Mandrake the

Magician and Lee Falk’s Phantom – indeed, the lack of memorable Indian

superheroes is even more ironic when one considers that the Phantom,

widely believed to be the first comics action hero to wear a

skin-tight costume, was originally based in India, in the ‘Bengalla’

forests, and his first enemies were the Singh Brotherhood.

The comic-book superhero in its current from is an American creation,

and has been popular since the late 1930s. Other nations have

superheroes too, of course – Japan probably has even more than the US

– but have not managed to sell them to the world as well as the

Americans. It’s interesting to note that thanks to the superhero,

speculative fiction is the mainstream in comics, and more literary,

serious, set-in-reality comics have to seek audiences in the margins –

a hierarchy that resembles Bollywood more than Hollywood, assuming

that Bollywood films, thanks to their not-so-realistic action

sequences and musical numbers, can be said to contain speculative

content. Be that as it may, the triumphal march of the American

comic-book hero across media and across countries is a sign of many

things – globalization, Americanization, the triumph of hype and

marketing, the universal power of the heroic archetype. And the

evolution of the superhero down the decades has been a potent metaphor

for the state of the world – from the clean-cut, often absurdly

simplistic, high-minded, clean-living and completely unconvincing

heroes of the Golden Age, the confused, violent, bitter heroes of the

Silver Age and the amoral, angst-ridden, equally confused, thoroughly

deconstructed, often self-mocking, ultimately human super-protagonists

of the current day. And as the superhero genre becomes more and more

complex, and succumbs to two major pushing forces – Hollywood, pushing

it towards the pop-culture mainstream, and grown-up comic-books called

graphic novels pushing it towards literature, multicultural, diverse

heroes become a necessity, to deal with an ever-growing, ever-changing

audience not just in America, but across the world.

Mainstream comics down the decades have always been more

audience-driven than writer-driven; the phenomenon of comicbook

writers becoming famous literary figures working in various media with

fan followings outside the field of comics is fairly recent. While

science fiction and fantasy literature have always been a step ahead

of their readers – in fact, the process is interesting and

Ourobouros-like; a path-breaking new work creates an army of fans, and

copies of that work then flood the SFF market to feed those same fans,

resulting in the need for more path-breaking work – superhero

comicbooks, until recently, were much more a reflection of what their

publishers thought their fans wanted. Through letters, conventions and

now the Internet, fans have been one of the key factors in determining

what the superhero industry does, and where it goes – sometimes to the

extent that fans wrote in and voted to decide major plot developments,

such as the death of the second Robin.

And as America became more multicultural, and its comics found their

way around the world, the blatant cultural/social/political

stereotyping of the early days had to be done away with. New,

important sections of fandom had to be represented in the comics they

read, wholly new and very diverse sets of people were reading

comicbooks, and people who were offended by representations of their

kind in comics found it easier to raise their voices in protest – so

black and Asian characters could no longer play just one note or serve

as identikit cannon fodder, female characters could no longer be silly

sex objects, right-wing patriotism had to be toned down a bit, and a

few superheroes had to be gay. While this diversification couldn’t do

away with stereotyping – many mainstream comicbooks remain riddled

with the worst clichés in the world – blatant racism, sexism, jingoism

and other politically incorrect prejudices were no longer openly

acceptable. Along with this came a growing demand for new plots and

new exotic settings – and once the word exotic featured in the list of

demands, could India really ever be far behind?

There are a surprisingly large number of Indian superheroes out there

in the universes created by Marvel and DC, which no doubt means that

there is a significant market among the South Asian diaspora for the

comic series they feature in. And since Gotham comics started

distributing Marvel and DC comics in India a few years ago, the demand

can only have increased. The only thing that hasn’t happened yet,

alas, is research. Indian characters continue to fit into standard

roles, and we’re yet to see a South Asian comics hero who does for

South Asians what Luke Cage did for African Americans, or what

Northstar did for the gay community. And the arrival of Virgin Comics,

and potentially other comic-book companies in its wake if its projects

turn out to be successful, mean that the mainstream speculative comic

becomes a tremendously exciting avenue of exploration for the South

Asian writer and artist, both in its existing form and in potentially

reinvented forms. Which is not to say that writers outside the

subcontinent can’t create South Asian convincing spec-fic comicbook

heroes; just that they haven’t really bothered to, yet, as the

following list of Indian superheroes currently stomping around in the

West will demonstrate. While the list is by no means comprehensive, it

serves as a pointer to the roles available for South Asians in comics

published worldwide today – and also reveals, alarmingly, that the

Indian superheroes created in America, by and large, aren’t

particularly any better or more convincing than the American-clone

superheroes created in India.

Bombaby, the Screen Goddess, was a creation of Slave Labor Graphics,

California, starring Saira Banu-esque Sangeeta Mukherjee, dutiful

daughter (!), struggling sister, potential arranged marriage victim

(!) and avatar of that well-known Hindu deity (!), the goddess of

Mumbai (?)

Grant Morrison, one of the brightest talents in comics worldwide,

mind-bending writer of The Invisibles and Animal Man, came up with

Vimanarama, where a young British-Asian boy named Ali, whose father

runs a corner-shop (!) in Bradford (!) accidentally releases ancient

monsters who want, of course, to destroy the world, and can only be

stopped by the Ultra-Hadeen, a team of giant metal-clad

Vishnu-avatar-esque superheroes similar to Jack Kirby’s Eternals.

Featured Bollywood (!) inspired artwork starring many lotuses.

DC comics’ deadliest assassin, Lady Shiva, isn’t Indian, but is

worshipped by turban-wearing fanatics (!) as an avatar (!) of Shiva

(!) the famous Hindu goddess of death (?)

Chandi Gupta, a DC Justice Leage Europe (JLE) member, was left by her

parents with a cult (!) who, again, thought she was a Shiva

incarnation (?). This cult was evil (!) and planned to sacrifice her.

Like all clever Indians, Chandi turned NRI – in London, where she

lived under the name Maya, she helped the JLE win a battle, and then

joined them. On one of her earliest missions, she encountered and

defeated her former guru, (!) the Mahayogi (!)

Adri Nitall, was an unfortunate young lad from the village of Jajpur

(!) who was turned into a vampire by Marvel’s version of Dracula’s

minions, while his father, Taj (!) Nitall, hunted vampires with Van

Helsingh.

Black Box aka Commcast, Garabed Bashur (?), is a Marvel supervillain

from India, who, now that India is a known IT hub, is a cyberpath who

can psychically process electronic data. Right up there with Bashur in

terms of common Indian names is Shakti Haddad, a genetics expert

code-named Cerebra, who co-founded the X-Men of the future. Their

names, however, fade into insignificance when confronted by Chris

Claremont’s IT genius Muaharam Ram. Chris Claremont, one of superhero

comicdom’s most respected writers, is also a frequent Indian character

introducer, which is nice, except that his Indians are terrible

caricatures like the bindi-wearing Amina Synge (?) or his two most

famous Indian characters, Neal Sharra (?), or Thunderbird, who is from

Calcutta, in Bangladesh and Assam (!), where his family owns a tea

plantation and runs the Indian National Police (?). His lover, Karima

Shapandar (?), the Omega Sentinel, is a former Indian National Police

operative doomed to destroy mutants like Neal, which might have been a

good idea.

Of course, some Indian characters are better drawn than others – where

‘better’ is taken to mean ‘no obvious mistakes.’ Jinx, an Indian

elemental sorceress, is a relatively inoffensive DC supervillain.

Paras Gavaskar, or Indra, is a mutant Marvel superhero from the New

X-Men, who is probably one of the most believable Indian superheroes

out there. Fortunately there’s nothing Hindu or god-like about him, he

just has retractable armour plates. Spiderman India, an interesting

relocation of the world’s favourite web-crawler, featured a lungi-clad

teenager named Pavitr Prabhakar taking on green goblin/rakshas and a

multi-armed Doc Octopus-esque Hindu demon, and drew a lot of media

attention in India, where even mainstream literary coverage is

minimal.

The winner of the prize for best-done Indian comics character goes to

Fables creator Bill Willigham, for his stylish, smart and cliché-free

version of the Jungle Book gang – Mowgli, a world-roaming secret agent

who goes under the name of Vincent Jagatbehari, is an excellent

creation and probably the only charismatic Indian in world comics

today, and Kipling’s animals are well extrapolated from the book.

Of course, given how rare well-rounded (emotionally, that is)

characters are in mainstream comics as a whole, and that the new

evolved spec-fic comicbook (Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary

Gentlemen, Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Fables, V for

Vendetta, Hellboy) is essentially a product of the last two decades,

the result of the maturing of an industry after years of professionals

gaining expertise and experimenting with the form, it seems

unreasonable to expect a wave of intelligent, fully formed South Asian

heroes to emerge immediately, no matter how demanding the market. But

given time, opportunities and a sufficiently large wave of talented

writers and artists, there’s no reason why Indians shouldn’t be a

significant force in the evolution of the superhero comicbook,

adapting it to create new, exciting, entertaining and enriching

varieties of speculative fiction. It’s actually possible now, for the

very first time.

____________________________________________________________________________

…soon to be cross-posted, with hyperlinks, on http://samitbasu.blogspot.com

25.6.06

The Great Indian Diaspora has always been a key topic of discussion

whenever the theme of Indian writing in English has come up. Many of

the world’s most successful writers of Indian origin live outside the

subcontinent yet set their books there, and many critics feel this

harms the authenticity of their work. A lot of the criticism stems

from the fact that a number of serious literary writers from India are

also the most commercially successful writers from India, and the

uncomfortable relationship between the creation of literature and the

sale of literary products to well-defined markets is not something

most critics or writers seem to want to talk about – and hence every

aspect of the plot, the settings and language used by Indian writers

at home or abroad who work in and sell their works to Western markets

has been ruthlessly analyzed and criticized, often unfairly, for being

strung together to dupe susceptible readers . Diaspora writers who

write about India or Indians have also regularly been accused of

selling out, of peddling India to the West with over-exotic,

elephant/arranged-marriage/spices/maharaja-laden versions of India

that have nothing to do with reality, but bring them large advances,

of sitting in comfortable ignorance in the West and not truly

understanding the nation they are seen to be ‘explaining’ to the rest

of the world.

Fortunately for genre writers of Indian origin living outside India,

they are less likely to be accused of distorting reality, since that

is what they set out to do in the first place in order to understand

the real world better. Or of being overly exotic – how exotic is an

elephant when placed next to a demon or a spaceship? Unfortunately

for them, they are unlikely to pick up huge advances from the literary

publishing world at this point, because the publishing market for

speculative fiction is a very different one from mainstream lit, and

while the mainstream fiction market is still eager for Indian fiction,

the speculative fiction world, which already has a fair number of

colourful, mysterious, fragrant otherworlds.

British diaspora writer William Dalrymple stirred up a good amount of

controversy recently with an Observer article where he claimed, among

other things, that the diaspora was the last brown hope as far as

Indian writing was concerned. While his views came in for some

stringent criticism and ridicule, even prompting writer Amit

Chaudhuri, that most literary of Indian litterateurs, to write

speculative fiction (in an article where he compared the planets

Dalrymple and he lived on), one observation he used while making his

claims was that most of India’s most commercially successful and most

widely published authors spend a large chunk of their time outside

India – not noting, however, that this might have something to do with

the fact that in writing, as in all other jobs, access is important,

and resources flow to the places where they are optimally utilized.

In fact, what really most significantly differentiates the SFF writer

in the Indian diaspora and the Indian writer in India is access. SFF

is a very close-knit, community-driven market, possible even more so

than mainstream lit, and a lot of sales of manuscripts are made at

giant SFF conventions, where fans, editors, agents and writers gather

to celebrate all things speculative. While obviously the quality of a

work of fiction would determine its eventual future, the

practicalities are important too – it’s impossible for even great

books to reach bookshelves unless they reach the right editor or agent

at the right time, and simply because there isn’t a tradition of

Indian spec-fic publishing, it’s difficult to establish one. While

opinions are widely divided on how relevant these conventions are for

writers to sell manuscripts to editors and thus get their work

published (completely essential, say some, no longer relevant, say

others, in the interviews that follow these essays), the fact remains

that Indian/South Asians in the diaspora are simply in a better place

as far as getting their work out is considered. Also very relevant is

the fact that apart from the leading names in children’s fantasy

literature, contemporary, cutting-edge spec-fic is not widely

available in India at all. But these problems, while very real now,

will hopefully disappear, thanks largely to the Internet, over the

next few years. As conditions stand now, though, it is very likely

that if there is a genuine wave of Indian/South Asian speculative

writing over the next few years, it will be led by the diaspora. Of

course, the question that comes before this is whether writers in the

Indian diaspora are writing speculative fiction in large numbers in

the first place.

Mary Anne Mohanraj, US-based writer and founder of the Speculative

Literature Foundation:

“Most South Asian/diaspora authors I encounter seem more concerned

with writing mainstream ‘literary’ fiction. In part this is simply

where their interests lie — in part, I wonder whether some of the

leanings in that directions come out of a desire for respectability.

Making your living as a writer is generally not one of the acceptable

career tracks for an ambitious South Asian, and it may be that many

authors are

afraid to venture into sf/f for fear of even more mockery from the

relatives. But that’s pure speculation on my part — it may be just

that most South Asian/diaspora authors didn’t grow up reading and

loving spec fic, and so it doesn’t occur to them to try writing it.”

“Cecilia Tan and I tried to pitch an Asian companion volume to _Dark

Matter_ (an anthology of speculative fiction from the African

diaspora) some years ago, and were told that the publisher didn’t

think there was a sufficient market for it. Maybe in a few years…”

But hopes of a wave of SFF writing from the diaspora aren’t entirely

speculation even at this point. Already, a few writers living in the

US like Vandana Singh and Anil Menon have established their presence

in the SF community, getting short stories published in leading genre

magazines, and in the process of finishing their first speculative

fiction novels.

SFF author Vandana Singh, author of the Younguncle series of children’s books:

“I think there is definitely an interest in seeing something new.

Unfortunately Americans in general are sadly uninformed about India

and what little they know is often caricatured and stereotyped beyond

recognition. In addition there are a lot of Western SF writers who

have used Indian characters or settings in their stories, sometimes

honestly and sometimes with a hostility that harks back to the old

colonial British hack writers of penny-dreadfuls. An Indian SFF

writer thus has to overcome all these stereotypes. One of the things

that helps is that writers of colour in North America are getting

together across ethnicities — African-Americans, South Asians —

forming groups like the Carl Brandon Society that gives out its own

rewards to people or writings that focus on issues of race — or

publishing anthologies like So Long Been Dreaming that are being

treated seriously by SFF critics and academics alike. So I think

there is a lot of hope and new interest, now, in expanding the

boundaries of SFF. We have more and more Indian names popping up.

For instance there is Anil Menon — remember his name, you will see

it again! And emerging others who are going to Clarion workshops,

working away at their stories, getting ready to see their names in

print. “

“It is true that in the West the SFF culture has developed an enormous

fan base and also great support for new, emerging and established

writers, through conventions and writers’ workshops. There is no

reason why these things cannot be organized in India, where we already

have traditions like the literary mehfil. Even in the US conventions

and workshops arose as ideas dreamed up by penniless writers (probably

over coffee at 3 am), evolving from a very small scale to epic

proportions (the last Worldcon I attended in Boston had at least 5000

participants). I think we have to start small, with writers getting

together in neighborhoods and localities and giving honest critiques

of each others’ works. The next steps may include launching

small-press magazines or ezines for publishing outstanding works,

holding conventions, doing readings at bookstores to popularize SF and

generating fan newsletters. “

“We can consider Japanese SF as an example. Now Americans generally

think the world revolves around them, and unfortunately this is mostly

true of American SFF writers and editors as well. But lately I’ve

been hearing more and more about Japanese SF in US publications, and

of American SF writers going to Japanese SF conventions. (The next

Worldcon is in Japan, by the way.) I am no expert on the history of

Japanese SF but I really think that creating their own subculture of

SF helped put the Japanese on the world SF map. There is no reason

why Indians can’t do this as well. Now, with the publication of the

international SF magazine Internova (from Germany) there is a real

interest among SF writers around the world (particularly Europe) to

find SF from all over the globe and publish it. I have heard of SF

from Croatia and Argentina, from China and Sri Lanka. Each SF

community enriches the whole. “

Indian-origin US-based SFF writer Anil Menon, is optimistic about the

future of South Asian SFF:

“If it wanted to, Indian SFF could kick some major ass. Indians

(south-asians) are born storytellers. The earliest speculative fiction

— Jataka tales — was home grown. We have the talent, we have the

untold stories and we have an audience — mostly young and mostly

female — sick of reading about cowboys in outer space. But we’re like

the elephant who doesn’t realize its an elephant. So we politely wait

for American or British editors to develop a taste for SFF with an

Indian flavor. That’s not going to happen any time soon.”

“But it doesn’t matter. The way I see it, the future used to happen

exclusively in the US. It doesn’t any more. The focus has shifted. The

future has been democratized. Look at what the Japanese did with

Manga. Suddenly, Superman is a 60 year old dude with a weird penchant

for wearing his underwear on the outside. We’ve as much a shot at

manufacturing the future as do the Americans. And we can probably do

it cheaper too.”

“What’s to prevent us from building websites like Strange Horizons,

which are entirely volunteer and donation driven? Why can’t we start

small print-on-demand publishing houses? In the US, there’s a lot of

resistance to publishing innovations, and for good reason: they could

lose their shirts. But heck, we are already broke; what do *we* have

to lose? Why can’t we have our own Clarion India, conferences and

awards?”

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t address western audiences. Of course

we must. But sometimes it seems to me that we’re like the dude who

went sailing around the world when the pot of gold lay right in his

backyard.”

On breaking into the SF community and getting his stories into print:

” It’s been a lot easier than I had expected. In my case, Clarion West

turned out to be the big break. I met a lot of writers and editors in

the six week program, got a lot of tips, and my writing improved. But

there was/is no secret handshake. I remember that Charles de Lint, who

was one of our instructors in 2004, was so impressed with a student’s

story, he sent along a recommendation when she submitted it to Fantasy

& Science Fiction. It still got rejected. It’s almost a cliche that

the key to good writing is rewriting. But equally important, a

successful submission is usually a resubmission.”

“There’s definitely a lot of interest. I’ve found my “Indian stories”

move a lot faster than the “ethnically neutral” ones. What I find in

most contemporary stories though is that the Indian-ness, if present,

tends to be an exotic touch; a character may have an Indian name, but

she/he could just as well be Irish-Eskimo.”

Thomas Abraham, president, Penguin Books India:

On the probability of the diaspora leading an Indian SFF wave:

“I don’t see why not. And not just the diaspora but from here. Leaving

aside conferences, access is pretty much available to everything else.

And even going with the notion that flights of imagination are still

inevitably rooted someway to cultural influences; we’re now (at least

in urban India) definitely tech advanced for SF and have a mythology

that’s definitely richer than Celtic folklore to be able to produce

world class fantasy. The problem is we need a basic readership here,

which I think will be available over the next 10 years. All those

Potter and Alfred Kropp readers will hopefully graduate into reading

SFF.”

On Indian SFF writers needing to piggyback on Indian themes:

“Not as a generalization, but if they don’t, they have to labour

against the prejudice that “there’s nothing new here; this is

essentially a western universe”. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation.

It would be far easier to position their work as rooted in their own

cultural contexts and try to break through on the exotica platform.

But conversely they would probably come up with the objection from

agents that this is too culturally alien to succeed in the west. But

that’s now. Increasingly these barriers are being wiped out and

hopefully in ten years it won’t matter.”

Critic, writer and prolific blogger (The Mumpsimus) Matthew Cheney:

“I think we’re already seeing some exhaustion in the SF field with the

typical props and models of writing, and so U.S. and British writers

are looking elsewhere for ideas. Also, we live in a world where it’s

much easier to encounter people from outside our own countries, and to

gain information about places other than our own, and many readers

hunger for it. Some of it may just be the attraction of exoticism,

but I think the success of

books like Tobias Buckell’s “Crystal Rain”, which mixes a variety of

influences in a traditional SF adventure story, or Ian MacDonald’s

“River of Gods”, which is more specifically Indian, bodes well for the

future, because such books show writers trying to bring an honest

sensibility about non-Western or post-colonial cultures into their

work,

and to do so in as honest a way as possible

Ashok Banker, author of the new Ramayana and the best-known name in

Indian SFF worldwide:

“We should be writing about our culture, our mythology, our people,

right? But then you look around at the US genre scene today: There are

fantasy novels with characters named after Indian characters, set in

places like Hastinapura and Ayodhya! There are references to Indian

myth, legend, history everywhere! You can hardly read a genre novel

today without encountering multi-cultural references…and I’m talking

about genre fiction written by white, European or American writers.”

“By the same yardstick, why shouldn’t it be acceptable for an Indian

or Asian writer to write a book using American characters or

European-Celtic elements? For that matter, why should subject matter

be restricted to a writer’s own culture or nationality? A good writer

writes about anything he or she pleases, and should be free to do so.”

“But try stepping across the same line that western writers step

across routinely and see the result. I don’t think you’ll find the

acceptance you accept, and it might often have nothing to do with the

quality of your writing or intrinsic strength of your book.”

Jeff VanderMeer, award-winning SFF author (Shriek, City of Saints and Madmen):

“There’s a difference between an artistic scene or movement and

getting attention and publicity for that scene or movement. No one

needs to rely on a diaspora to create original, innovative, and moving

work. The important thing is to focus on the work and to create

something powerful and important. Then, in the fullness of time, you

make people come to you. This is increasingly true considering we live

in an Internet age where everyone is just a click away.”

“That said, I think it is imperative that non-English speaking

countries leverage the internet by creating website for the fiction of

their country, with translations into English. There’s no avoiding the

fact that English is the language that dominates the marketplace

outside of Asia. But I do not believe you have to physically be in the

US or UK to be successful. It may be harder, but it is possible. You

just have to have people who are PR and market savvy in addition to

people producing amazing work.”

Cheryl Morgan, writer, critic and blogger who runs online SFF magazine

Emerald City:

“Editors are always looking for something new, so if you can blend

South Asian culture and traditions into your writing it will help get

it noticed. Ashok Banker has had some success with that. I’m afraid I

don’t know enough about South Asian writing to answer the last

question, but I do think that we will see more and more SF books set

in “Third World” countries from now on. There’s a general view that

the American Economic Empire is on the wane, and that “the future”

will happen in India, China, South America and Africa. Ian McDonald’s

_River of Gods_ has been a huge success – you guys should build on

that.”

“Remember that Zoran Zivkovic has been very successful despite writing

in Serbian and never leaving Belgrade. He just got a good translator

and submitted stories to places like Interzone, and Jeff VanderMeer’s

_Leviathan_ anthologies. Now he’s won a World Fantasy Award and the

small presses all love him. There’s nothing particularly Serbian

about Zoran’s writing, he is just talented and has worked hard.”

_________________________________________

30.6.06

Speculative fiction and comics have gone hand in hand from the very

beginning; even today, apart from the mainstream superhero comicbooks,

which are essentially spec-fic, the greatest and best-known comic

writers in the world, like Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, are wildly

popular for SF and fantasy creations which use the comic-book medium’s

ability to tell compelling stories and create a sense of scale and

wonder to rival the very best speculative fiction text-only books,

bringing the strengths of both text and art to create a truly

wonderful compound. And in India, the enduring popularity of Asterix,

Tintin, and the home-grown Amar Chitra Katha series serve to underline

the fact the fact that the comic book is a medium the speculative

fiction writer cannot afford not to take seriously.

With the publication of Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor two years ago, the

setting up of comics publisher Phantomville and the arrival in India

of Virgin Comics and Animation, graphic novels have been in the Indian

news fairly consistently for a while.

The term graphic novel is, of course, a controversial one at every

level – attributed to Will Eisners ground-breaking A Contract with

God (1978), though it’s the term had been around since 1964. The

phrase was created as a term to help sell comicbooks to serious

literary publishers, to distinguish serious, literary comics from more

pulp fare, building a serious artistic movement aiming, as per Eddie

Campbell’s 2004 manisfesto, “to take the form of the comic book, which

has become an embarrassment, and raise it to a more ambitious and

meaningful level.”

The next decade should be an extremely exciting time for the comicbook

medium in India – on the one hand, literary graphic novels, and on the

other, high-flying spec-fic comics that revisit myth, history and the

future, should make their presence felt in a very significant way both

among Indian readers and worldwide with Indian themes and settings.

Gotham Chopra, Chief Creative Officer, Virgin Comics and Animation:

“I am proud to be a part of what we think is a creative

renaissance in India. I think India in of itself will become the

dominant market for publishing and other forms of entertainment and

servicing that is certainly our goal. But there is also a richness to

our heritage and stories that we think the world will really fall for

if its package the right way with great quality.”

“As with any new business, there are a thousand new challenges every

day! I think the toughest is identifying the best and most real

opportunities amongst the million that come at us every day and

staying focused on them. Also, of course is building the right team.

I have no doubt that the right mix of creative and managerial talent

exists in India but finding them is not the easiest thing in the

world. We also only want to work with dreamers – those who share our

vision and want to be a part of something truly innovative and bold.”

“I am a sucker for mythology and have always been a history buff as

well. Of course re-inventing our great myths – the Ramayan and

Mahabharat – is a no-brainer and something we are exploring. But I’d

rather take our rich mythology and our Asian thinking and integrate

it into contemporary stories and dramas. I think we have a type of

story-telling that will increasingly find a global audience, a

richness to our characters and their backstories that roots them in a

greater sense than just themselves and propels good narratives.

In terms of things to dodge, I think super heroes in the classic

mold. The days of tights and capes seem to be passing in terms of teh

emergence if new heroes. I definitely think there is room in the

pantheon for new and dynamic characters that have powers as part of

their arsenal but I generally look away from the classic caped

crusaders as we develop new stories.”

Others are more guardedly optimistic, at least about the future of

well-done comics in India.

Sarnath Banerjee, comics writer/artist and co-founder of Phantomville:

“Historically comics reading population was quite narrow-minded,

people could make an acute demographic profile of an average comic

book reader. However that profile has changed already, at least in the

west. It has become a cultural phenomenon since the last ten years, a

lucky number of absolutely brilliant graphic novelists and a vacuumed

in the reading market created this. Pundits says it is here to say,

that is why the top three publishers in the world have developed their

own graphic line, I am talking of Penguin, Random house and Gallimard.

Other powerful words-only publishing houses have joined the band

wagon. Corporations are putting money. The comics form is crossing

over to Cinema and advertising. In short these are exciting times for

comics.”

“Unfortunately, I feel we have to wait till it gets filtered down from

the western, particularly the American market. As Phantomville, we are

trying several approaches to sell a larger number of books without

resorting to violence- multiple distributors, presentations in

Universities, word of mouth, keeping the price of book embarrassingly

low etc. yet the progress is very slow. In France the first print run

of comics is 10,000 copies even for a beginner, in India 5,000 copies

is the magic number, it means you are a bestseller.”

“This embodies the whole phenomenon of the book trade. India is an

emerging power with a vast middle class, a growing consumer economy,

but not for books. Whether comics or otherwise. However I am told that

self-help and management books are doing well.”

“One Corridor is not going to change the outlook to comics. To build a

comics culture in the country a lot of investments have to be made.

Capital has to be spent on training and shaping comics illustrators,

which is a specialised art. As you are aware that although there is

no dearth of good writers is the country comics illustrators are

almost insignificant. I know many talented writers including you,

given an opportunity will want to do and have the capacity to do

brilliant comics, but somehow are crippled by lack of visionary

illustrators”

“In a royalty-oriented publishing house this is almost impossible to

achieve, because the charges of a good illustrator is almost

astronomical, and they tend to charge by panels. Under no

circumstances would the book recover the money spent on creating it.

These are the problems faced by my peers such as Rajesh Devraj, who

conceived this idea of converting the Tamil cowboy, Quickgun Murugan,

into comics, but couldn’t justify the capital to be paid to the

illustrators. I feel your trilogy has great possibility to crossover

into comics, but who will support a project of that scale? These are

questions that bother us. Where will the money come from? Which

marketing department will accept a proposal like that?”

“Although, clearly it can’t be avoided but speculatively there should

be a five-year ban on any thing on Hanuman, for the sake of Hanuman.

And while you are at it Mahabharata and Jatakas, only for five years.

Let us explore some other stories. I feel these tales have done what

cricket has done to hockey and what Bollywood has done to other

cultural forms that could have come out of India.”

Which leads us to the question: But do ‘real’ writers, even

non-literary genre types, write for comics? Yes, of course, they do

that stuff abroad, but comicbooks are still seen as children’s fare in

India, and doesn’t SFF get enough flak even in book form? The easy

answer to this is that comicbooks for grownups have only just started

being widely available in Indian bookstores, and it’s difficult for

Indian readers to become supremely well-versed in the arts and

sciences of good new comics unless they have access to them. As more

comics are created for and by Indians, a readership seems bound to

follow, because comics do hold immense appeal for the most high-nosed

of readers.

Sarnath Banerjee elaborates:

“Comics can fit in a lot of complex ideas in a single page, they can

create atmosphere and psychological states, a theme can be explored in

all its facets and point of views. This is particularly relevant in

discussing history, sociology, anthropology, natural sciences and

emerging technologies, reproductive or otherwise.”

” Informed minds have to come together and collaborate creatively to

get to this phase. “Let’s do comics because it has simple funny

pictures that will instruct simple people on simple principles of

watershed management” is merely one way of looking at things.”

The Indian comics industry as it stands today is extremely

underdeveloped, and relies heavily on the unrelenting retelling of

classic Indian myths, the unabashed regurgitation of American

superheroes and some original comics that are funny, pacy and work for

children at an entertainment level and for adults, both in India and

among the diaspora, as memorabilia, but don’t approach in any sense

the production or stylistic qualities of contemporary international

work. One major reason for this, of course, is a lack of money in the

industry as far as creators, both writers and artists, are concerned;

this needs to change before any indigenous quality comics become

available all over the country, because the production of comics

always has been a laborious, time-consuming and difficult process. But

given the intrinsic appeal of the medium, the kind of devotion that

Indian comics, whatever their defects, inspire in their readers across

ages and countries, and the kind of attention comics have been getting

in the mainstream media, it’s not unreasonable at all to be optimistic

about the future of Indian comics.

For speculative fiction writers, this is actually more of an

opportunity than it is for writers of mainstream literary fiction, at

least in terms of finding readers – spec-fic comics are tried and

tested, drive markets in the US and in Japan, the two largest

producers of comics, and are much more likely to sell (and, thus,

attract publishers) even in India, where comics have been selling in

large quantities for about 50 years. The arrival of more comics

publishers in India, if and when it happens, should see even more

opportunities for people who can spin a good spec-fic yarn, but can’t

draw to save their lives, to see their work in visual form and

actually make that spectacular movie that runs in their head while

they’re writing with their Indian leads that Hollywood would have

rejected, and with the kind of visual effects that Bollywood couldn’t

have afforded.

______________________________________

3.7.06

The luckiest bibliophiles in the world are the ones who aren’t told

what not to read as children, and can make up their own minds

depending on what sort of book they actually like reading. A lot of

these children grow up to be speculative fiction readers, some because

they admire the incredible capacity of good spec-fic to deal with

themes both epic and deeply personal, others because they retain

their childlike sense of wonder and like spec-fic’s special effects.

And the very best children’s literature, from Pullman, Rowling,

Pratchett, Colfer, Snicket and Stroud to Milne, Nesbit, Barrie, Dahl,

Seuss, Carroll, Tolkien and Ray, has always contained speculative

elements; from myths and fairytales to spaceships and werewolves,

children’s literature has always stepped outside the real world’s

boundaries and set minds free. Various people have had problems with

this down the ages, mostly members of crackpot religious organizations

and associations of conservative parents. Adult writers of speculative

fiction have it easier, the only people who don’t like them are

critics.

In a post-Potter universe, it’s no surprise that children’s fantasy

literature reigns supreme in bookstores all over the world, and the

most talked-about authors are usually the next next next JK Rowlings.

Children are far less aware of literary hierarchies than their

grown-up selves, far less interested in what the books they’re reading

portray about them as individuals, and establish literary pecking

orders mostly on the basis of ‘I’ve read more than you,’ which can

only be a good thing for books and their writers.

Jai Arjun Singh, critic and blogger, on spec-fic, children and

literary respectability:

Well, I think it goes without saying that children by their very

nature are more open-minded and receptive to fantastical elements than

adults are. But I think the real reason is more basic and depressing:

parents tend to think it’s alright for kids of a certain age to

indulge themselves with what is perceived as “meaningless fun” – and

then, as they grow older, to read Serious Literature. That perception

runs very deep and is probably responsible for the step-sisterly

treatment given to fantasy for adults, and the schism between

Children’s Literature and Adult Literature.

Vandana Singh, writer of speculative fiction and children’s books, on

the divide:

“The world of the imagination has recently (only in modern times, I

think) been infantilized. The Real World is seen to be for grown-ups,

and all that fairy-tale stuff for kids. This is truly sad and

remarkably stupid as well, because you can see in every culture that

the oldest tales have elements of magic or other-worldliness to them.

Their value lies not in literal interpretations (in which case myths

become nothing but unsuccessful attempts at explaining natural

phenomena) but because they speak the language of the unconscious mind

— the language of symbol and metaphor. They tell us about ourselves

— our fears and dreams. After all, reality is such a complicated

beast. If you are to hold it, understand it, you need something

larger than reality to do so. Enter Imaginative Literature. “

“Speculative elements in children’s fiction has a long history even

in our times — the world, however, needed the Harry Potter

phenomenon to wake up to the fact. We insiders were reading Diana

Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander and others long

before Rowling set pen to paper. For whatever reason Harry and his

friends came at the right time to spark a massive public interest in

children’s imaginative literature, and this led to a discovery on the

part of the public to a literature that they had, for a very long

time, ignored. Now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of children’s

spec fic, and that is all to the good. “

Ashok Banker, prolific SFF author, on the children’s SFF wave:

“Actually, there’s nothing ‘new’ or ‘now’ about this phenomenon. The

most popular books for children for the past several decades have been

SFF stories. From the LoTR books, which were essentially young adult

fiction repackaged and marketed for older readers in the USA, to the

Narnia series, The Dark is Rising series, and several others, the

bestselling works of YA fiction have always included spec fic titles.

At the same time, there’s always been a healthy mix of other

genres–so, for instance, there are excellent YA books which are

wholly realistic and contain zero spec fic elements, my 13-year old

daughter’s favourite author is Sarah Dessen, for instance, who writes

intense, realistic novels like Dreamland and The Truth About Forever

that just happen to feature YA characters but are literature by any

yardstick.”

“What has changed recently has been the phenomenon of J. K. Rowling’s

Harry Potter books. That’s singlehandedly changed the entire

publishing world, not just YA fiction. To a great extent, yes, it’s

opened up the doors for a whole barrage of similar fantasy series

marketed at YA, some of which is quite readable and enjoyable, while a

lot of it is predictably over-marketed, over-published editorially

‘created’ crap. This is no different from, for example, the horde of

‘christian mystery’ thrillers that have exploded since the success of

Dan Brown’s The Da Vince Cold–achoo!”

“The other major catalyst of the rise of spec fic in YA publishing has

been film and TV. As I mentioned earlier, 25 years ago, SF fans were

considered to be wierdos and eccentrics who had their head in the

clouds (or outer space) and were dismissed as ‘Trekkies’ or beanies.

Today, the biggest film franchises almost all have spec fic elements.

It’s the biggest single genre in the movie and entertainment biz now,

and it encompasses gaming, which is a multi-billion industry far

bigger than even the movie biz, movies, TV, books, comics,

merchandizing, toys, you name it.”

“This mass explosion has made SFF not only respectable and acceptable

even to parents who might earlier have become nervous about their kids

reading ‘escapist’ stuff two decades ago, it’s also made the genre

tropes intimately familiar to every kid. Back then, the scene in a

book or movie wherein the hero explained what a werewolf was, and how

it could be killed, was a secret thrill to those of us who spent our

days and nights immersed in such arcane lore…Today, every Potterhead

knows what a Lycan is and how a silver bullet brings him down splat!”

In India, languages which have rich and well-established literary

traditions of their own also have, as is only to be expected,

extremely good children’s speculative fiction. In English, too, we

have some truly wonderful children’s/Young Adult writers, most of

whose books contain speculative elements – Kalpana Swaminathan,

Manjula Padmanabham, Anoushka Ravishankar and Vandana Singh have all

produced work in recent years that’s exciting, entertaining,

intelligent and not didactic or patronizing at all.

But the young reader’s open-mindedness can work both ways; while it

ensures that children don’t see books as political statements, it also

means that children won’t gravitate naturally towards books by Indian

authors just because they are Indian – stories are all-important, and,

in the wake of Pottermania, hype. The global children’s writing market

is probably even more difficult to break into for foreigners than

adult literary fiction, and so far Indian children’s literature hasn’t

produced a champion that’s given it what IWE usually demands as a

token of success, the big UK/US publishing deal that’s the best way of

ensuring that an Indian book gets talked about in India. And as far as

publicity for Indian children’s writing is concerned, the situation is

fairly dismal – most publishers don’t put any significant amount of

money in the promotion of their children’s titles, and while in an

ideal world good work would find huge audiences simply by being good

work, in this world most Indian children hungry to read more aren’t

even aware of what’s good in new Indian children’s writing, while

national news channels continue to flash updates every time JK Rowling

sneezes. This is not to say even for a moment that Indian kids should

read Indian writers’ books ahead of the latest big international

craze, thus missing out on the wave of seriously good children’s books

that have been sweeping across the world in the last decade, but just

that it would be so much more pleasant if Indian children knew that

there were actually books available that gave them great stories in

familiar settings.

Jaya Bhattacharji, editor, Young Zubaan, on current possibilities for

speculative childrens’ writing:

“Pottermania has contributed a great deal to the surge in this form of

writing. Given that the Rowling phenomena has been pivotal in

encouraging reading, irrespective of the size of the book, I think, a

lot of children’s writers, feel that since this is probably the genre

that is selling, it is the one to emulate. “

“There certainly is a market in India for this kind of fiction. I am

certainly all for any genre that encourages reading and releasing the

imagination. But the Indian market has to evolve its own

signature/stamp of fantasy fiction. We cannot rely totally on

imitating fiction that is necessarily based on a Western/Christian

tradition or of even trying to yoke the two systems together. A lot of

the fantasy fiction that comes from the West is in the classic form of

Good vs Evil; or in the Romance tradition of being on a Quest; or in

search of the Holy Grail, whatever it may be; or reliance on Greek

mythology. In India, we have a huge amount of influences to rely upon,

which don’t necessarily encompass the idea of a quest or the Holy

Grail. Sure, we do have a strong sense of Right and Wrong; Good vs

Evil, but it is tempered by the cultural melting pot that we live in,

where a lot of traditions are being intermingled. So, if fantasy has

to emerge in India, it has to develop its own distinctive identity. “

“The book market for children is completely unpredictable, so the

current flavour of the decade is fantasy as it has a reading public,

hence sales. Given the huge investments required in children’s

publishing, most publishers, authors, literary agents will want/ten to

be conservative and capitalise on a winning formula rather than take a

risk. It is pure economic sense to promote fantasy and hence, its

noticeable dominance of the market. “

Payal Dhar, YA SFF author, on Indian children’s writing:

“My biggest complaint with Indian authors writing for children is that

they have a particular idea of what children *should* read and not

what they *want* to read or even need to read. As a result, we get a

very sanitized depiction of the world, glossing over whatever is

uncomfortable. I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see a

Jacqueline Wilson or Judy Blume come out of India.”

“Then again, there is a lot of very good fiction available for

children, even if it is not by Indian authors. Having been a weird and

withdrawn kid (and now adult!) who spends most waking hours reading, I

know that anyone (children as well as grown-ups) who wants a good read

just goes and gets a book that sounds interesting. They don’t say, “I

will only read something by an Indian author.” On the other hand, what

does sometimes matter is, you don’t find anything to identify with –

yourself, your surroundings, your society. It isn’t a crippling

disadvantage, though, and doesn’t spoil the fun of reading, which is

the main thing.”

Jaya Bhattacharji on what she wants to see in children’s spec-fic:

Fantasy for children in India, can be set in any context, time zone

etc, but it has to be well written. In the sense, that there should be

good, cohesive logic to the universe that is being created. There

should be details of the environment and the people and certainly not

a cacophony of voices, which really don’t do much for the characters.

Each character should have a distinct voice. If different traditions

are to be mixed (and frankly, I am all for experimentation in

literature), then it has to be done cleverly, treated lightly and

presented in an interesting manner. By clever, I mean that the author should not be “showing off” their immense reading and familiarity with these other traditions, but create multi-layers and echoes in the story, that will prompt the young reader to submerge, discover and be totally entranced by the new literary creation. At the end of the day,

it has to be a GOOD STORY. Also, a story well told will live for a

very long time to come and not necessarily be written and created with

“a” single market, fixed in time. In fact, it will then be read for

many generations to come. “

The primary mindset barrier Indian speculative children’s writing

needs to break is not the same one its adult counterpart. Even today,

a lot of successful Indian children’s books tend to be ‘about India’

books, rather bland retellings of history and myth pushed down their

throats in large quantities by parents worried about their children

losing their connection with their homeland in the flood of wizards,

goosebumps, American high schools and Unfortunate Events that take

care of their children’s fiction demands. How quality Indian

children’s fiction, speculative or otherwise, can be moved out of

bookstores and into homes is unfortunately not a problem writers can

deal with. But until publishers find a solution, Indian children’s

writers will have to keep on writing good books that are no doubt

hugely satisfying to write, but don’t allow them to afford more time

to write even more hugely satisfying books.

_________________________________________

4.7.06

The project’s up at my blog, the essays I’ve sent in so far with

hyperlinks added, and interviews with:

Anil Menon

Ashok Banker

Cheryl Morgan

Gotham Chopra

Jai Arjun Singh

Jaya Bhattacharji

Jeff VanderMeer

Manjula Padmanabhan

Mary Anne Mohanraj

Matthew Cheney

Payal Dhar

Rana Dasgupta

Sarnath Banerjee

Thomas Abraham

Vandana Singh

Zoran Zivkovic

The link is http://samitbasu.blogspot.com/2006/07/trousers-of-time-possible-futures-of.html

Thanks,

Samit