You know how sometimes you read something, expecting it might be a slight chore, and then your brain has to take a moment to catch up with your heart because you had not realised there was a hole in it that has just been filled by this thing you just read?
So desi sci-fi. I've read some, though not as much as I should for a representative sample, because of childhood disappointments when comparing Dilip Salvi to Isaac Asimov. I shunned a lot of desi writing in my early adulthood; resenting it for not meeting the standards my colonised palatte had set for it, not realising the jury was rigged.
I'm more forgiving now, and more eager to see a world that matches my own brown, Indian one, regardless if the craftsmanship is not as slick as what I was weaned on.
In that context, when I was pointed to Sultana's Dream
, I was charmed by this feminist utopian sci fi novella written in English over 100 years ago by a Bengali woman called Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. The story seems a little naive (but then what utopia isn't?) and the feminism a little dated (but imagine how many boundaries her imagination would have had to break to reach to that point then?), but the joyous celebration of women and what they can do made it a fun read.
It's one of the perils of women's writings--their obscurity not only hides them from the mainstream male gaze, but also from their own literary descendents. People talk about Jules Verne and Tolkein as forefathers because they have been read since they were published--the lines of influence can be clearly traced. But women have often had to reinvent the literary wheel--each generation having to carve out its own space, and then, perhaps, having the resources to look back and discover; someone was saying similar things back then, too.
I don't know if vandanasingh
or Manjula Padmanabhan
or Priya Sarukkai Chabria
have read Hossain's short story, as they have set about contructing their own versions of feminist Indian sci fi.
But today I read a story that was written by Rokeya Hossain's textual granddaughter.
It's fanfiction, set explicitly within the fannish context of a story written for someone's prompt, but there are plenty of other posts that have already established the ridiculousness of segregating 'fanfic' from 'profic' on the basis of genre, so I'm not going to get into that here. I do actually, hope that this story will be picked up by a print publisher and distributed to a wider, or at least different, audience than the online fannish one, because it deserves to be read on its own merits.Fifty Years in the Virtuous City
can be read on its own; like Neil Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan", there is enough heft in the world building to satisfy a reader who does not get the references that reward all the metatexuality. As a stand-alone, this reads as a quiet, poetic story of two women scientists and the challenges they face to build a world shaped in their image.
But read as a response to Hossain's original, this story coalesces into a deep pool of historiographical literary commentary.
The writer, you see, has lived the life Hossain could only imagine, and can therefore strengthen the warp and weft of her humourously fantastic world by weaving in the threads of hindsight and experience. Her approach to academia is painstakingly honest--the writer knows
that women in power do not change the fundamental nature of politics and bureaucracy.
‘Can you imagine Suhela as an administrator?’, she asks Chaitali, who has come by her rooms that evening to find her still sorting through the intra-university mail.
‘Straight out of the Arthashastra,’ says Chaitali, who knew her in undergrad at Razia.
‘What do you bet that she has spies?’
‘Maybe I am one of them,’ says Chaitali, raising her eyebrows.
‘The fraudulent disciple! With a knife at your ankle. No, it doesn’t bear thinking of. But – no, really,’ says Amrita, scanning a paper in disbelief, ‘this is marked VERY URGENT, and it is to tell me that there’s a leak in the roof of Choudhury’s office. I wish people would use the system properly.’
Can you see why I'm so gleeful? It takes the nonchalance of a 21st century product of co-ed academia to joke about paperwork, but to make a reference to Chanakya requires a connection to a specific shared historical past.
Hossain herself was still struggling to find an audience. Although she wrote other stories in Bengali, this one was written in English, and in 1905, I suspect the readership of The Indian Ladies' Magazine
was too select and Anglicised for the sort of integration of code-switching that this story does.
Hossain's imaginary world is called Ladyland; this story translates it (back) to Naaridesh, and gives it a geographical context that restores the geo-political tensions present in the past the story was written. Written today, the author knows that "the Republic is under constant threat from the Trucial States and the Ingrej", that during its formative years there will be rumor of invasion from Andhra Pradesh.
With a post-colonial pickaxe, this writer demolishes the self-effacement that had Hossain's protagonist defer to a Sister Sara and a deracialised, deculturalised Queen and Lady Principal. When the war happens--and it is ugly, because this writer's feminism knows the futility of flinching from the brutality of struggle and resistance--there is an invasion from the Ingrej Robert Jennings. This story celebrates the intersectionality of Hossain's identity as a Muslim, by building a world replete in the words and laws and customs that the author could not herself infuse her world with.
The first steps we take to place ourselves at par with our colonisers often imitate their flaws, and we write our own unassimilated selves out of those stories, having had no examples of how to include them. That's why I love this story so much--because a young desi author is restoring to a long dead woman the voice that it has taken a century of nationalism and anti-imperialism and subaltern studies and anti-communalism and, of course, feminism to find.
I know I sound all dry and academic, in this theory-based recommendation. I'm sorry. I love this story with an enthusiastic squeeful heart--I love it for its femmeslash. I love it for its older women, who are still loving and active. I love it for science. I love it for its humour. I love it for the meticulous poetry of its images.
Amrita herself should not like to be compared to a flower or a fruit, an animal or a bird, and she turns this problem over sometimes in her mind, what Barnali’s beauty is like: if she solves it, she can forget it, and go on to something else. This is how her mind works: turn the thing over, turn it over, pry, catch at its seam, pry, crack it apart, work the kernel out and pick up the next. After she decides that Barnali’s beauty is like an electric light in glass – the slenderness of the brightening and dimming filament, the clarity and fineness of its casing, the perfected minimalism – she ceases to be distracted, or attracted. Once categorised, the thing is safe.
I love it for passages like that.
(I should say that while I am 99.9% sure I know the friend who wrote this, it is possible that I am wrong, and that perhaps the writer is not even desi. In which case, I would heap even more accolades on the writer.)
(And for those who are fannishly inclined, dark_agenda
's Kaleidoscope Exchange
has a wealth of enjoyable fanworks to offer.)
ETA (6/1/12): Soon after writing this rec, I learned that the author was not desi. I have made a follow-up post here
that discusses a few of the repurcussions of that reveal. I still stand by the rec, though.