Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The BS Column: From Dune to Cyberabad

(Published in the Business Standard, December 8, 2009)

If a future historian were to examine the ways of humanity via a library of science fiction, these would be the scholar’s conclusions. Most rocket scientists and space explorers are white and male. UFOs, ETs, alien life-forms and spaceships prefer to visit the United States of America and large parts of Europe, with the occasional foray into Japan and very rarely, deserted patches of the globe.

Astronauts and spaceship crews are chiefly drawn from the West, though an occasional Indian (usually a doctor) or Chinese member (usually a mathematically gifted technician) might find a place on board alongside the token blacks. Africans, Brazilians (and other Latin Americans), and Indonesians or Malaysians rarely explore space, though Russians often do, and even Australians might. (Canadians and New Zealanders are conspicuous by their absence.) Robots, androids and humanoids are either based on Caucasian or more infrequently Japanese models, but evil aliens may reflect certain racial stereotypes of the time.

Around 2006, SF author Ian McDonald began exploring landscapes outside the Western world as possible terrain for speculative fiction. His River of Gods offered a Balkanised India, while Brasyl travelled to both the Brazil of the future and a Brazil of the past. He’s just out with Cyberabad Days, and his vision of India of 2047 is both riveting and eerily plausible.

McDonald has travelled extensively in India over a period of years, but sees himself as a tourist rather than an old India hand. This allows him to make the occasional gora mistake, as when he refers to “fields of dhal” when “fields of masoor” might have been more accurate, but these errors are minor. What makes Cyberabad Days work as a short story collection is not just that he writes brilliant SF; it’s that he creates an incredibly recognisable view of a future India.

In the hands of a seasoned SF master, India/ Cyberabad emerges as a fractured state, torn by increasingly vicious water wars. Marriage bureaus augment the shaadi.com routine with the assistance of aeais (artificial intelligences); hijras transform into “nutes”, taking on the slick mantle of future technology; steel monkey-robots can be found on the pink walls of Jaipur; Ardhanarishva Clinics assist in gender-transformation surgery; and the rivers, down to the Ganges, are “starved and frail” across the land.

One of McDonald’s aims, as stated in his interviews, is to shift the focus of SF to the developing world—a shift that, as he says, should have happened internally, with Colombian or Bangladeshi writers, for instance, joining the phalanx of Indian SF writers. To some extent, that process is happening. Samit Basu’s Gameworld series is an unselfconscious fantasy saga set in a very Indian world, with explicitly desi references. Manjula Padmanabhan’s more recent Escape explores a dystopian world where women are exterminated as a matter of course. Padmanabhan didn’t name her country of the future, but as she says, references to food, clothes and geographical terrain make it clear that her dystopia is a very Indian one. It’s influenced by the present-day phenomenon of a skewed gender ratio caused by the killing of female foetuses and infants by Indian families who want sons, not daughters.

Authors like Anil Menon, Anshumani Ruddra and Basu also have an understanding of the workings of the international market—explicitly Indian SF and fantasy is less saleable than more conventional works set in a recognisably Western world. Anil Menon bluntly counselled Indian authors to look to a local rather than a global audience, though writers like Ashok Banker have had some success with wider audiences—Banker’s updated fantasy reworking of the Ramayana found many readers outside India. It’s not an easy market for writers in India—or Brazil—to penetrate, though, and perhaps McDonald’s success with Cyberabad Days, Brasyl and River of Gods will open those firmly shut doors a crack wider. There will need to be several McDonalds (or Orson Scott Cards) before editors and publishers abroad begin accepting SF set in the developing world.

What we need is for the wheel to come full circle. From the 1850s onwards, India saw a curious phenomenon—a healthy appetite for local science fiction, especially in Bengal and Maharashtra. Early Bengali SF writers wrote about explorations to Venus, automated homes and suitably respectful household robots. One of the great pioneers, Premendra Mitra, allowed his imagination to aoar in the other direction—outwards from India to the wider world.

In his classic Piprer Puran (Saga of the Aunts), Mitra writes of the invasion of “monstrous Ants” who bring the cities of Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador down. Their story, told in the early 20th century, is narrated by a multicultural cast: Asesh Roy, Senor Sabatini, Sukhomoy Sarkar and Don Perito. By setting his SF in Brazil and India, Ian McDonald is returning a very old compliment.

The BS Column: Faiz Ahmed Faiz: the poet in prison

(Published in the Business Standard, November 2009)

The thousands who still recite Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry honoured his 25th death anniversary earlier this month in various ways—through mushairas, book releases and some, Faiz-style, raised a glass of single malt to his memory.

Faiz, born some four decades before Independence, has been claimed by three countries: he was born and brought up in pre-Independence India, made the decision to remain in Pakistan, where he graced the coffee houses of Lahore for many years, and is honoured by many Bangladeshis for his impassioned poetry opposing the massacres that accompanied the bloody birth of that country.

As far as I know, there have been no celebrations of Faiz in Sargodha jail and Lyallpur jail, where he was held in solitary confinement for four years, from March 1951 onwards. Faiz was arrested as part of the Rawalpindi conspiracy, under the antiquated Bengal Regulations of 1818 that deal with crimes of sedition against the state. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a friend of Major General Akbar Khan, who led a failed coup against Liaqat Ali Khan’s government in Pakistan, but the level of his involvement in the coup was relatively low. He was one of the last of the 15 accused to be released from jail, in 1955.

As Ted Genoways has written elsewhere, Faiz’s prison experiences were perhaps the most formative in a life already shaped by history. He spent a considerable portion of the prison years in solitary confinement—an unusual experience for the man who was at the centre of gatherings of poets, writers, intellectuals and political thinkers. His wife, Alys, and he exchanged letters through these years—Faiz wrote over 140 letters to her in this time. These are collected in Dear Heart, and are well worth reading.

In 'A Prison Evening', Faiz wrote:

“This thought keeps consoling me
though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed
in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,
they cannot snuff out the moon, so today
nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed…”

The prison years, he said later, gave him quiet time to write. He produced two of his greatest works, Dast-e-Saba and Zindan nama, in this period, adapting his techniques to the exigencies of prison life. Deprived of paper and pen in solitary, Faiz composed four-line verses called q’itas instead; they were easy to memorise.

Poets seem to be imprisoned far more often than other kinds of writers, and perhaps a nation’s record on human rights might also be judged by the number of poets it holds in its cells. In the months before Faiz’s anniversary, Vietnam finally pardoned and honoured four poets who had been persecuted for their writings against the earlier regime. Two had died by the time the pardon was issued. Samina Malik, the Lyrical Terrorist, was held in Britain for her provocative but not terribly good verse extolling beheadings and terrorism. She was released on appeal in 2008.

Burma holds many of its poets in cells. Especially celebrated is the poet Saw Wai, who wrote the apparently innocuous ‘February the Fourteenth’. Only close examination revealed that the first words of each line spell out: “General Than Shwe is crazy with power.” Perhaps the best understanding of what life in jail means comes from Abbas Khidr, the Iraqi poet tortured by Saddam’s regime: “You leave the prison behind, but you carry it within you, in your mind.”

For Faiz, the prison years were different. He had imagined he would be held for a few weeks, perhaps a month; but he said later that his four years in jail taught him patience and brought him peace. “I sometimes fear that I might turn into a saint when I get out of jail,” he quipped. His political views remained unchanged by his time behind bars. He had been a communist, was fearlessly outspoken—one of his poems, ‘Poem to a Political Leader’, criticised Gandhi, and he made his sorrow at Partition clear in these famous, often-quoted lines:

“Ye daagh daagh ujaalaa,
ye shab-gaziida sahar,
Vo intizaar thaa jis-kaa, ye vo sahar to nahiin..
(This stained light,
this half-bitten dawn
Is not the dawn we had long awaited).”

Prison foreshadowed his years of exile in Beirut, an exile from Lahore and Pakistan that would be followed in turn by dislocation when he had to leave Beirut again. The late poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote with understanding of the imprint these years left on Faiz:
"Twenty days before your death you finally
wrote, this time from Lahore, that after the sack
of Beirut you had no address... I
had gone from poem to poem, and found
you once, terribly alone, speaking
to yourself…”

Perhaps, as the tributes pour in to Faiz this year, and we recite his verses at mushairas or just among gatherings of friends, it is Agha’s words in ‘Homage to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’ that capture the poet’s legacy best:

“I listened:
and you became, like memory,
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