IT HAPPENS ONLY IN INDIA,
GREAT JOB MR. PARMAR
it is good to eat as many as vegetables and fruits (totally vegetarian), but my aurvedic doctor asked me to stop eating every...
In 1896, Jagdish Chandra Bose wrote a bilingual science fiction story, Nirrudeshar Kahini (The Story of the Missing). The main narrative is in Bangla, but the scientific material is in English. The story is about a man who calms a storm at sea by pouring a bottle of hair oil on the troubled waters.
Hair oil? Yes. In 1891, Hemendramohan Bose, an entrepreneur, created the Kuntalini Puruskar Short-Story Competition. It was open to all, with only one condition. The stories had to refer to his Kuntalini hair oil in some essential way. Bose submitted Nirrudeshar Kahini, won the prize, thereby joining an illustrious pantheon of past winners like Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Mankumari Bose and Probhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay.
The story offers another reason for the hair oil. The male narrator explains that due to a protracted illness, he has lost most of his hair, except for a few “islands”. Before he embarks on a recuperative sea voyage to Ceylon, his daughter gifts him a bottle of Kuntalini hair oil.
The oil may or may not have been hair-raising, but Bose’s story was a brilliant beginning for desi sci-fi. It was tongue-in-cheek and quoted snippets from the Scientific American. It anticipated chaos theory’s butterfly effect, where tiny changes in initial conditions can have profound global effects. Perhaps Bose was sensitised to the phenomenon from his remarkable work on the measurement of tiny changes in plant growth.
Bose’s story had all the elements that would characterise western sci-fi in the 1930-1950s (the so-called golden-age): an idea-centric plot with not much emphasis on characterisation or style, a secular world-view, the suggestion that science could solve almost any problem, and an author with professional expertise in science. These were new things in Bose’s time.
Unfortunately, some hundred years later, we see similar stories. The robots are Asimovian robots, time-travel is Wellsian time-travel and mad scientists are desified Frankensteins. The problems are technical problems and not social, cultural or emotional ones. Often written by well-meaning scientists and engineers, their social conservatism gets reflected in the stories. Science is assumed to be pan-cultural and objective, independent of establishment values or vested interests.
As in Bose’s time, hair-oil entrepreneurs and prize competitions are few and far between. Desi sci-fi is published either by the Children’s Book Trust, assorted childrens’ magazines or the occasional young author anthology. Most of the stories written for children are nauseatingly bland, didactic and bow-tied with a safe moral.
Bose was justly proud of his story, and included a rewritten version in his collection Abyukta (1921). The second version is solely in Bangla. The descriptions are more filled out, the pace more leisurely. The name Kuntalini hair oil was changed to Kuntal Keshori. But Bose also unraveled his most significant achievement by giving the hair oil a supernatural origin. He added a back story for the hair oil, involving a balding lion, an English Circus manager, and a sanyasin who conjures up the formula in a dream. The reason the hair oil calms the storm has nothing to do with science and everything to do with magic. Perhaps Bose had been gripped by nationalistic fervor. The 1921 version is more about an oriental using native magic to befuddle firang science than about the effect of small actions.
This retrogressive mysticism is also seen in desi sci-fi. Vedic crystals, mantras and reborn sages are standard desi ropes. We have stories where aliens can be contacted by broadcasting “OM” sound waves because as the Indian scientist explains in the smash-hit Koi Mil Gaya, “it is a Hindu religious word containing all the vibrations of the Universe”. The future is mostly a matter of discovering the glorious (Hindu) past. The future in these stories is not invented or made, but revealed. Pradip Ghosh’s novel A Long Day’s Night (2002), a fine realist story about an IIT-Kanpur professor’s day-long struggles to fix an expensive American spectroscope, offers an example of this strange predilection; at the novel’s end, the author uses the professor as a mouthpiece to present a thermodynamic defense of pre-determination.
After Bose’s great story, we missed an opportunity. But we’ve begun to regain lost ground. The true inheritors of Bose’s 1896 story are works like Amitav Ghosh’s Calcutta Chromosome, Lokenath Bhattacharya’s The Virgin Fish of Babughat, Premendra Mitra’s short fiction, films like Manish Jha’s Matrubhoomi and S P Jananathan’s Tamil movie E. Some of our best speculative stories come from Urdu and can be sampled in the works of authors like Surendra Prakash, Khalida Asghar and Hasan Manzar. There’s also a new generation of writers. Perhaps there is, at this very moment, a future Bose scribbling away at what is missing.
Anil Menon is a science fiction writer