WHENEVER WE ARE governed by an ideology or system of rule whose ‘power seems inescapable’, the great science-fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin reminds us, that so once ‘did the divine right of kings’.
We don’t begin our days in most of the subcontinent paying fealty to a royal ruler, as we may have done in times past. Kings, once so grand in their pomp and power, are now so played out that we don’t think about them much anymore. Indeed, dynasties themselves seem to be played out as well. No longer do we want power to leach from generation to generation as birthright. Our thirst for some possibility of equality is such that we want our leaders to embody that great democratic rise—from humble beginnings to the highest echelons of power—in the very flesh; nothing less will do.
From this great change—of acceptance of dynastic rule, to its damnation—we can realise that, as Le Guin continues, ‘Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in… the art of words.’
It is through the art of words that a range of writers have imagined the future from a perspective that is rooted in the South Asian experience, as well as confidently universal. For in the future the universe, as much as the Earth, is part of the great human game. We find their words in two recent books: Prayaag Akbar’s 2017 novel Leila and the 2019 anthology The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, edited by Tarun K Saint.
But in contemporary South Asia, words themselves, at least words in English, at least words in conventional book-form, are not enough to convey alternative imaginaries of the future to any meaningful number of people. At such a moment—where typescript on paper alone just doesn’t cut it anymore—the Netflix shows Leila (based on Akbar’s novel) and Ghoul (from a script by Patrick Graham) have re-energised the art of words with imaginative visuals to create a powerful new genre that narrates the future from South Asia.
‘13-12-2049’ shows a time-capture-screen from Leila, Episode 3.
2049. What will the world look like then? What will the air feel like in our cities, given what it feels like today? Will we have water, given that we are facing the greatest water crisis in India’s history, already? Who will be included in this world? Who will be excluded, and what is to happen to those who are to be left out?
These are not rhetorical questions. I’m requesting you to take time to answer them. Look outside your future window. Sketch what you see. Do you see utopia? Dystopia? Business as usual? Fill in detail, imagine a cityscape, imagine characters, imagine yourself, imagine your own aged body and the form of artificial intelligence that makes you that perfect cup of future chai.
I say chai, for if you read Gollancz, you’ll find that in the South Asian future, no matter what else happens—and a great deal happens over the course of 28 stories, written in four languages, and over a span of almost one hundred years—chai seems to endure. What increasingly disappears is water, and even, in a striking story by AA Farrukhi, the sea itself.
Let’s move to 2089, the year in which Anil Menon’s Shit Flower is set. If you choose to imagine your own aged body then, speculate as to whether you would choose not to die, as a character in the story decides. Instead of dying, they opt to shift into a new body and identity whenever Yamaraj comes calling, because this is what future technology has enabled.
TO READ GOLLANCZ IS to fear not the fantastic, and to see it, in fact, made familiar, for in these stories the future emerges not from some distant suburb and empty corn field, but from a Himalayan apple orchard and Lajpat Nagar.
Of all the stories in the book, it is perhaps most rewarding to read Rahul Sankrityayan’s Baisvin Sadi (The Twenty-Second Century). For in this excerpted story, written shortly after 1917’s Russian Revolution, we see a subcontinental utopia, so rare in speculative fiction, where the dystopian dominates.
How much Sankrityayan predicted in the 1920s: electric cars and trains, video phones and wireless wires to allow for the ‘swift transport of images and texts across the globe’, as translator Maya Joshi notes.
And how much goes not quite the way Sankrityayan had hoped. It is something, in 2019, to read this passage written by a hopeful young writer 100 years ago: ‘I said, laughing: ‘Brother! You have done wonders in all spheres. Made all problems solvable and the impossible possible. Perhaps you know no such thing as impossibility. These very same cows caused Hindus and Muslims of the twentieth century and before that to thirst for each other’s blood.’
Haque: ‘They were our ancestors. It is not proper to speak ill of them now. That said, it was pure ignorance. Both failed to consider their long-term good. Gold was being plundered, and they were stick-fighting over coals. Truly, to this day we can’t help laughing when we read about those times.’
Like Sankrityayan, like all the other unfettered writers in Gollancz, it is a worthwhile exercise for us to imagine the future in some level of concrete (or Kryptonite) detail.
The rub of Leila, of Gollancz, of Ghoul is that their futurism is a magnification of the ruptures and environmental catastrophes of the present
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You’ll come up with one set of answers. Akbar came up with another set in Leila, a novel that places us in a totalitarian future where purity rules. From his prescient source material emerged the series Leila, a must-watch because there has been no cinematic depiction that comes anywhere close in portraying what Saint calls ‘South Asian Futurism’.
There is great power in imagining the future, even greater power in translating these imaginaries to film. To date, the trailer for Leila has been viewed more than one million times, occasioning over 10,000 comments. Taken collectively, these comments—those that call for Leila’s banning and those that call for its celebration—show us the importance of creating future-art. At a moment when thinking about history seems somewhat foreclosed, at least cinematically—the past is a minefield of boycotts, hurt sentiments and threats of beheading—cinema about the South Asian future is a site of both possibility and danger. As a theme, it is rousing, potent and largely unexplored.
It is worth asking here: who gets to think about the future?
Along the road in the long walk towards modernity, when it became clear that the future was going to be very different from the past, we can say that it became divided up in the West between four types of dreamers: the scientist; the economist/planner; the politician/revolutionary; and the artist/visionary. Each of these wielded differential levels of power at different moments. Each was susceptible to having their ideas appropriated for all manner of political ends. Indeed, as the economist JM Keynes says, ‘Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back… The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right, and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.’
The capacity to imagine the future—through technology, through bureaucratic rationality or through art—is in many ways the ability to rule the world. And without a democratising of future imaginaries, we run the risk of remaining forever ensconced in other people’s dreams. And too few people’s. In all those moments when we are busy not imagining the future, someone else is. In the vacuum of our own dreams, others’ visions proliferate. If you were to ask me to name two people from whose heads have emerged our current scenario (a reductive and simplistic exercise I know, but perhaps such exercises are useful in reductive and simplistic political times), I would say that we are living out the consequences of whatever went on in the minds of the architect, planner and builder-of-Chandigarh, Le Corbusier, and the British-era Deputy District Magistrate and novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay.
“We must kill the street,” said Corbusier, “We shall truly enter into modern town planning only after we have accepted this.”
“The sanyasis of those days were of a different type than of today’s,” said Chattopadhyay, “They were upright, well educated, strong and knew the science of warfare.”
Hyper-ordered urbanity; warrior-rebel sanyasis—a Chattopadhyay-Corbusier hydra if you will—from these combined fantastic imaginings we have come to monumental cityscapes, to rigidly-zoned sectors and to a desire for order that seems unachievable, all policed by the blood-stirring figure of the militant sanyasi, carrying out his work to the tune of the national song that Chattopadhyay penned.
Within these contours—give or take the gazillion detours that necessarily happen when two people’s fantasies become a billion people’s realities—our everyday life plays out, to such an extent that when Leila came to be filmed there was a cityscape readymade for it. No sets needed to be built to create a stubbornly high-Modernist world of gated sectors, megatronic ‘flyroads’ and stillborn malls, all presided over by a political monk. Greater Noida more than sufficed. Indeed, the rub of Leila, of Gollancz, of Ghoul is that their futurism is chiefly a magnification of the ruptures, fault-lines, expulsions, garbage mountains and environmental catastrophes of the present.
Prayaag Akbar’s Leila places us in a totalitarian future where purity rules. From his prescient source material emerged a must-watch show
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WE CAN SAY that this is a divided moment in South Asia. For some, we have just entered a glorious future, a longue durée of good days, from a difficult, corrupt and dynastic past. For others, a monstrous present stretches into a monstrous future. In this milieu, the Indian army sights a Yeti footprint. In fiction, in the series Ghoul, an ancient monster is called into the future through blood sacrifice to set right a great injustice.
A great deal is changing in the world. With the twin spectres of automation and climate change, it seems unclear what humans should be doing. We don’t know what the future of work will be. We don’t know what the future of the world is to be. At another moment of great global uncertainty in the 1930s, Antonio Gramsci wrote, ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’
In the time of ‘morbid symptoms’ we need new narratives. As the author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, put it, the time has come to imagine ‘as many as six impossible things before breakfast’.
Who should imagine these impossible things? Many people—for in South Asia the imagination itself needs to be fundamentally democratised—but especially children, who are reined in, in our schools, to do the opposite. In the final episode of Leila, there is an extraordinary scene where the eponymous character, a little girl, takes an oath of allegiance to her purity-upholding homeland. But her oath-taking is intercut with the voice of another little girl, Roop, a feisty anti-authoritarian character. Circumstances have unfolded such that Roop is incarcerated and coerced into taking the same oath. The child who is free has had free will and the ability for critical thought educated out of her; the child who is caged is forced to parrot words that she doesn’t believe in, even as her spirit refuses to be tamed. Surely this fictional nation must do better by both children, by all of its children.
There is a better future out there; we start by dreaming it. Particularly the artists among us. It so happens that our gullies have inhered, despite Corbusier’s desire to destroy them, and as that lovely lyric in Gully Boy has it: ‘Kalaakaar hoon main, kal ko aakaar doon’ (which can be roughly translated to, ‘I’m an artist, I give shape to the future).
The artist Omar Gilani’s images show us some other possible aakaars of the South Asian future.