For thousands of years, the body of an astronaut floats among the stars. One day, no one knows how, it reaches the shores of an unknown galaxy where it receives the gift of life. How “this spacewalker from India” averts a war among the galaxies and gives up his second life in the process makes up the “gripping and hair-raising” novel titled Nakshatro ka Yudh. The book, by a writer called Professor Diwakar, has a cult following with readers interested in futuristic and pulp science-fiction novels. Two Delhi-based researchers are now studying a dog-eared copy of Nakshatro ka Yudh as they explore what makes up science-fiction in Hindi popular culture.
Simrat Dugal and Charu Maithani were programme managers at Khoj, an arts organisation in Delhi, when they began to talk about the explosion of sci-fi in Western media. Their conversations turned to Afro Futurism, a movement that, broadly speaking, attempts to reclaim what the future can mean through representations that are absent in the mainstream. “People of colour and accents are rarely present in Western art and culture dealing with the future. Soon, we were talking about what was happening in India in terms of re-imagining the future,” says Dugal.
Two years ago, armed with a grant from India Foundation for the Arts, they entered into a space that included not only pulp fiction such as Nakshatro ka Yudh but also television series such as Space City Sigma (a human drama by Ketan Mehta that unfolds in a spacecraft), radio plays such as Michael Jasoos, about an agent who has a micro-chip inserted into his body, and “sci-fi-ku” or sci-fi haiku (little poems by a Lucknow-based pediatrician, Dr Arvind Dubey, among others). “Initially, we set out to find adaptations of Hindi science-fiction in radio and television. Along the way, we found other examples in visual culture such as book covers, radio plays, nukkad natak and toys,” says Maithani. An exhibition of their finds is being planned for later this year.
One of the highlights of the exhibition will be organisations such as All India Association of Science Fiction, which promote sci-fi among earthlings. Another is the Vigyan Prasar — a group of scientists, many of who write science-fiction — which creates content that are broadcast in collaboration with the All India Radio. Professor Diwakar of Nakshatro ka Yudh is just as well-read by another pseudonym, Dr Raman. These two names of writer Izhar Asar fill up a shelf with more than 50 titles and inspire modern writers such as Zeeshan Zaidi, whose titles include “comic sci-fi” such as Pagal Biwi ka Mehboob in which one hero is a robot. “Pagal Biwi ka Mehboob was made into a play and got a great response,” says Dugal.
The robot in the play was made of tin and thermocol, an improvisation that indicates that local compulsions, such as small budgets, don’t curtain creativity or impede suspension of disbelief among creators and consumers of sci-fi, respectively. To generations that have been reared on sleek titles of Star Trek and Star Wars, the homegrown avatars may appear comical. But, Dugal and Maithani found that TV series such as Captain Vyom, in which Milind Soman dons a tight suit, and Space City Sigma grabbed eyeballs in families across India. “We find that while a lot of science-fiction in television is derivative from their Western counterparts, writers come into their own when they deal with fantasy, as in Chandrakanta,” says Maithani.
Among the researchers’ collection are also images of toys with a subversive story of their own. “In our conversations with the owner of Ram Chander & Sons, a toy shop in Delhi, we found out how, in the ’60s, a lot of Japanese space-age toys were coming into India and Indian toymakers were copying these in aluminium and metal mix. So, now the Japanese and Indian rockets, discs, UFOs and spacecrafts have become huge collectors’ items, like old comic books. Artist Navin Thomas, based out of Bangalore, is a huge fan of these. He repairs and collects them from people and kabadkhanas,” says Maithani.
What will the future be like, according to Hindi sci-fi? If Buddha Future by Zaidi is an indication, one can turn a car into a time machine in a lab and hit the accelerator, leaving lightning zig-zags in the space-time continuum.