In this intriguing personal essay, filmmaker and novelist Madhav Mathur explores the conundrum of writing dystopian fiction in modern India. Arguing that while it is an almost absurd pursuit, there is a pressing need for this seemingly dead or ‘stillborn’ genre, particularly in the face of rising fascist ideologies. Quoting M.C. Escher, Mathur maintains that ‘Only those who attempt the absurd, will achieve the impossible’ as he discusses the challenges facing dystopian fiction today.
It was May, the summer of ’99. Delhi baked under a brutal sun. The taps had run dry that afternoon and swirls of dust rose with the wind outside our classroom window. One of my favourite English teachers stopped me dead in my tracks as she read something I had submitted for a competition. She lifted up my foolscap sheets with precocious double-spaced scribbles and waved them in front of the class.
‘Why did you write this? It’s always amusing when science people try to write,’ she said.
Being a thin-skinned, pudgy teen, I was a bit hurt by the ‘you people’ connotation of her casual yet possibly discriminatory remark. Did we ‘science people’ think and write differently? Did my work read like a VCR manual (the real dead medium)? I had to find out for myself. Like a tattoo across my arm, the remark stayed with me. Over time it morphed from an observation into a full-blown insinuation. Was I a talking fish? Or a bear on a cycle? I had to find out what she meant. The question of who writes what had never really occurred to me till that point. I was a busy reader and was lucky to have a decent library of books both at home and in my neighbourhood. My classmates and I were encouraged to read, both as part of the school curriculum and over the holidays. Usually recommendations that were part of course work were harder to get through, at least for me. It felt like they were coercing us to enjoy things. Nevertheless, F. Scott Fitzgerald, F. Dostoevsky, and F. Kafka were equally important to us kids – ‘science-people’ or not. The young women were drawn to Austen, Brontë, and Woolf. The young men devoured Asimov, Tolkien, and Stephen King. We could all agree on Salinger, Rand, and Harper Lee. This was our teething phase with ‘must-read-books’. There was never any restriction on who read what. I was still puzzled by the assertion that people with a certain background were known to write a certain way.
Also read: Papercuts Volume 18 Dead Medium guest-edited by spec-fic author Anil Menon
Cut to years and years later, and here I am: a published author, two novels young. My second book is called Dvarca, and it is the first of a trilogy. It is dystopian fiction set in a future totalitarian India, and starts us off on a world tour of fascism. It is satire, meant to poke holes in ideologies that seek to divide and rule in the name of religion, caste, and gender. One would think that the purpose of such a novel would be self-evident in today’s environment, but that is not the case. Here is the most common question I get asked at book readings:
‘Why did you write this? And why this genre?’ (No, my English teacher was not trolling me.)
I write this way because the stories I want to tell have no other form. My reason for writing is to confront a deep personal fear. I was a kid in 1992 when the Babri Masjid was demolished. It was the first time I became aware of a division in society, one that could be potentially dangerous. There were tensions beneath the surface that, until then, were unknown to me. I struggled to understand how something like that could happen in the India of my history books, in the land of Gandhi and Nehru. I was still reeling from these questions when life delivered a one-two punch and the Mumbai bombings and riots took place a year later. With these ugly events, I think everyone in my generation became aware of a fissure that breaks open from time to time in the fabric of our nation. This was the fear that made me write a book set in the future where the bad guys had won.
To me, there was no medium other than dystopia to say all that I needed to say. It became clearer to me with every passing page that this was a story that needed to be told, and was perhaps best told through a twisted steam-punk projector on a faded and tattered canvas. Many before me have shed light on their doubts and concerns for the future through this misshapen prism. Speculative fiction has existed for decades and serves this unique and specific purpose. It creates the freedom to exaggerate, lampoon, and speak freely.
It is safe to say that as long as there are power-hungry bigots, fiction and particularly dystopian literature will never die.
Was I singlehandedly resurrecting a ‘dead medium’? Certainly not. It is safe to say that as long as there are power-hungry bigots, fiction and particularly dystopian literature will never die. It is with sadness as a human being and eagerness as a writer that I say this. I was imagining a populist futuristic ‘Dear Leader’, desperately in need of derision, mockery, and rebuttal well before the success of Trump, Brexit, Modi, Yogi Adityanath, Wilders, Duterte, Orban, and Le Pen. After the rise of Trumplestiltskin, the first of his name, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four sold the most number of copies it has in years. Sinclair Lewis’ work, It Can’t Happen Here, also went flying off the shelves. Serious dystopia was back with a bang. On April 4th, 2017, independent movie theatres all over screened Nineteen Eighty-four, the film. These works resonate deeply today, thanks to their prescient nature. ‘Alternate-facts,’ ‘fake news’, and ‘ultra-nationalism’ are straight out of classic dystopian literature. Margaret Atwood’s widely praised The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a TV show. It is a profoundly affecting exploration of a future theocratic America where there is complete disregard for women and their rights. All of this sounds familiar, and the parallels between these works and the news are unmistakable. Life is imitating fiction. With the return of inward looking, protectionist, woman-hating, xenophobic rhetoric, dystopia is once again the genre to read and write.
But, this is not the case in India.
There are numerous writers that explore the future through the lens of science fiction and satire in India, but the readership and popularity of these works is not comparable to the West. Films and television too rarely feature stories of this nature. Do we not have grave social and political challenges that need to be explored through art? Do we not have a ruling class that deserves to be seriously parodied – not just for the way they look and talk, but for the meaning (or lack thereof) of their words? Do we not have deep divisions and fissures in our society that must be probed for progress? The answer to all of these questions is ‘yes, we do’. In regional languages we have in evidence a rich cultural history of mocking the man-in-power. Plays, poems, songs have for centuries punched above their weight-class and challenged authority with imagination. They have spoken of real problems like caste persecution and British rule and against divisive ideologies. The narrator in most popular Hindi plays is an irrepressible, irreverent soul who fears no one. He shows kings and leaders no mercy, cutting them down to size with the power of his words. Surely, we are not strangers to satire. Mass popular media like films, however, apart from the occasional flash-in-the-pan, rarely speak truth to power. It’s all about satiating the satiated and finding homely homilies or sweet nothings to sell as widely as possible. It is a big business, and big business is famously risk-averse. Smaller works with smaller budgets have always led the way and blazed new trails – in form and content.
Books that imagine and create entire new worlds tend to sell poorly. This happens, inexplicably, in a country that boasts the richest of fables and deepest of mythologies. Shiva, Rama, Ravana, and Sita still feature as main characters in contemporary popular fiction. The reverence for these books is matched only by our celebration of the romance novel. Stories about Gods and love have ‘built-in’ audiences, though pandering too must be an art. It might actually make for an interesting study to see a trend between the genres of books being published in India today and those being bought, read, and discussed. Don’t break out the regression software just yet though; you could probably just eyeball a correlation. While industry experts tend to believe that there is a need for greater genre-diversification across publishers, the same people also believe that the Indian reader, for some reason, has an aversion to some types of books. Science fiction and dystopia are in the ‘do not sell well’ category. This puts writers like me in quite a bind. It is hard enough to try and get your work published if it fits the few celebrated genres, but if you are writing speculative fiction, you’re shit out of luck, buddy.
Great truths can be revealed and felt through their fiction. To quote another great man, Frederick Douglass, the North Star for free people everywhere, ‘At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed’.
I know that it is a nascent market. A market that is in development and will one day have an appetite for more kinds of literature on a larger scale. There are readers who love the work and write-in to discuss more about it. But this readership is still relatively small and few publishers take a chance on works like this. I’m fortunate to have found one in FingerPrint, after a long arduous journey to publication. I had the chance to come across some really interesting reasons for rejection along the way, though. Here are a few of my favourites:
‘This does not sell.’
‘We don’t know where the satire begins and ends in this novel.’
And this star: ‘Well done, but why?’
I was a talking fish all over again.
Now that the book is out there in stores and online, the biggest challenge remains telling people what they should expect from it. To grow readership and expand appeal, one has to connect with the audience, set expectations, and send the right signals. Recent works in the genre have left readers anticipating a Young Adult romp with loveable rebels beating a system back, black and blue. This is not an unreasonable expectation from a dystopian work, but it is not the only form of dystopia that exists! Dystopia is not for young adults alone. Ask George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.
From a marketing perspective, it is essential to craft a compelling story to draw readers in via social media. There is no escaping tags and classifications as genres, and ‘boxing things into groups’ is only going to get more pronounced and prevalent, with bots and machines doing more of the selling online. To address and share my love for the alternative, subversive, and dystopian, I created a short video. This made me think through what I would tell a new reader about my book to give them a reason to want to read it. It made me break down preconceived notions of the genre and dig into why it exists in the first place, and why I had no choice but to embrace it and live in it. This task takes on a whole other dimension when brick and mortar stores need a simple way of telling prospective readers what this book is about. Now this could be anecdotal and fairly limited, but in my experience, words like ‘satirical’ and ‘fascist’ do not get the average reader’s blood pumping. But there are sections of the audience that look out for alternative thinking and voices.
At my most optimistic, I would say there is a growing group of readers interested in dystopian fiction. The subject matter, too, benefits from an ever-expanding treasure-trove of idiosyncratic idiocy every day. Satirical memes are spreading like wildfire on Facebook, with ‘Likes’ and ‘Loves’ flying thick and fast. Informed, reasoned critiques are becoming crucial to our public discourse, finding their rightful place on the editorial pages of newspapers. Jokes will amuse us on social media, academics and journalists will guide and shape discussions, but novels on dangerous subjects will have to do what nothing else can because they connect with readers at another level. Great truths can be revealed and felt through their fiction. To quote another great man, Frederick Douglass, the North Star for free people everywhere, ‘At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed’. I don’t think dystopia is dead or dying, but on the rise. Seeing how the world is today, this is a great time for grim art.
Madhav Mathur was born and raised in Delhi. He lives in Singapore, where he works for an MNC by day and as a writer-filmmaker by night. His first novel, The Diary of an Unreasonable Man, was published in 2009 by Penguin. His award winning films, The Insomniac and The Outsiders, have been screened at numerous festivals. Dvarca, published by Fingerprint Publishing, is his second book and the first of a dystopian trilogy, more on the book here. He tweets at @madhav_mathur