Sunday, January 9, 2011

Genre Fiction: Fantasy

Continuing from my previous post, the only Indian English fantasy work I have is The Immortals of Meluha by Amish. It is difficult to call it fantasy, though, which is where its problem begins.

Fantasy—high, low or in between—is permitted to field any cast of characters its creator chooses, and any number of anachronisms. You can have dinosaurs and dragons, ray-guns and swords, kings and corporations. There is a high degree of suspension of disbelief, so long as the story has an organic integrity within its universe.

Great fantasy writers provide this integrity by basing their stories outside our timeline, even our dimension, sometimes with no reference points to connect with our world. Ursula K. Le Guin, that beautiful storyteller, does not opt for intense sub-creation, but we do not mind, because her stories are mainly about the human condition, which remains the same whether it is in this world or the next galaxy or dimension. C.S. Lewis, after creating the magnificent Aslan, disappoints us with allegory, but his works have an integrity within their universe. Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion is the common thread in his super-cycle.

Tolkien is not a part of this discussion because he did not create Middle-Earth or its people: he just chronicled some of them.

If you trawl the web, as I did after reading Meluha, you will find two broad kinds of responses to it: enthusiastic support on one side because Amish narrates a god’s life, and derision on the other side because he uses ‘modern’ speech patterns to narrate a god’s life. Meluha fans mostly seem to have read the book after watching his video. The writer, it appears, does not share the chronic self-effacement of the Mennonite sect which is his namesake. Remarkably, very few readers have discussed the book within its genre, and I hope this is not because serious readers have been put off by the Shiva connection.

Being a Pastafarian by religion, I have an equal respect for all gods, although I must say that our god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, has bigger balls than any of the rest.

Any story that recreates a theogony has the potential to be exciting. I have followed Thor, for instance, in his travels in the Marvel Universe, or in his partnership with Dirk Gently in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul or all the gods and monsters in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

But the moment you establish a god as a historical character, your book is faced with a curious and difficult choice: will it become historical fiction, or will it continue as fantasy?

Meluha is based at the end of the 20th century BC. Alright, says the reader, so it is historical fiction, set in our world, in our timeline. The reader then remembers that Sumerian tablets from that period recovered in Iraq mention three trading partners—Magan, Melukhkha and Dilmun. Magan was, experts say, somewhere around Oman. That leaves the other two, and we still can’t be certain Melukhkha was the Indus Valley Civilisation. In the writer’s defence, though, The Immortals of Dilmun would sound like a story about ghosts in a pickle factory or some kind of Indian romantic movie.

A little after the reader has decided it just might be historical fiction, the discrepancies start emerging. Any work, if based in our timeline, must follow the rules of our timeline. That is the whole basis on which fantasy and science-fiction are separated from other genres, including historical fiction. Even within science-fiction, writers today follow this rule. Steampunk, which is mainly about what the world would have been like if steam had remained mankind’s prime motive power, does not introduce instruments of the electronic age. If such devices are introduced, the writer makes the effort to describe a concept device which adheres to the integrity of the steampunk premise.

In Meluha, the people have gained immortality or at least remarkable longevity by drinking somras, a concoction which, as the scientist Brihaspati explains to our hero, acts on the free radicals which modern medicine tells us are responsible for some serious diseases. Interesting, but it just doesn’t work here. The idea of free radicals is not possible without the idea of a free shell configuration existing in the first place. Radicals are sub-atomic particles. To study them in any useful measure you need electricity and an extensive knowledge of the human body. It took us two thousand eight hundred years to go from Sushruta, the surgeon, to what we have today. Ancient India’s idea of the anu, loosely translated as atom, was an amorphous concept comparable to ideas of any ancient culture.

There are other equally visible anachronisms. The Meluha cities have arches connecting citadels to one another, and yet page after page mentions characters swimming or rowing across rivers. Historically, the arch was first used for aqueducts and viaducts before it became an architectural mainstay. Shiva mentions that he read about asuras in books in a library. A newcomer from a different land masters the written language without it being mentioned anywhere in the story. Also, in 1900 BC India did not have a script because the Phoenicians hadn’t sailed over to Spain to make their alphabet. Even Megasthenes, one thousand seven hundred years after our hero, mentions that Indians did not appear to have much to do with writing.

The point which I have found particularly disconcerting, but which is also forgiveable, is iron. The Assyrians hadn’t unleashed their secret weapon on the Bronze Age world just then. Siege engines were crude but could be such fertile ground for some concept work. There isn’t any.

Mohan-jo-Daro, far from ‘the hill of Mohan’ in some ancient language, stands for ‘the mound of the dead’ in 19th century (CE) Sindhi. There are other instances where Shiva is quoted speaking in Hindi, of all languages.

The story could still have been redeemed by the plot, but it isn’t, with more focus on Shiva’s hash stash and his blue throat than his other attributes. Nor does the writing redeem itself. If the series is being built on a philosophical premise, the reader can benefit by reading any speculative Shaivite text, regardless of its provenance. It is a pity, really. Shiva is such a fascinating subject for this kind of endeavour.

You might ask why I should be concerned about a book whose chief claim to fame is it has sold well. I am concerned, because as a reader I would hope that if other readers are buying a book, whether it is critically acclaimed or a bestseller (or perhaps both), at least they get value for their money.

The bigger concern I have is: fantasy fiction by Indians based here is such a small pond that it is very easy to muddy its waters irretrievably even before it gets fresh inflow. Meluha, thus, does its genre a grave disservice. If, on the other hand, it is a historical fiction novel, I hope future works in this equally small field will be more thorough.

I have liked Ashok Banker’s Ramayana because it is clear about its nature: it is fantasy and sticks to it. I look forward to his Krishna series. There are other works of Indian fantasy emerging, and fans might be advised to follow them within the context of their genre and not just because of a possible emotional connect with the concept on which the central character is based.

In an interview to my friend, Amish had said that he was inspired by Shiva to produce the trilogy. We are yet to see the second book, but we must remember that the god was an intransigent, filicidal, borderline misanthrope with a history of drug abuse and a remarkable proficiency with a weapon that is, trust me, very difficult to use. He might have very little patience with this sort of work.


  1. Enjoyed the review. Seems like a must-read book, despite the issues you outlined.

    I have mixed feelings about dragging the Hindu gods into fantasy. For one thing, it's a habit that's near-reflexive in desi fantasy. Secondly, as your post suggests, the books are often indifferent to the historical contexts of these gods; today's chubby and adorable Ganesha is far removed from the malignant demonic entity he was to first-century desis. Finally, for a lot of people, these gods are not fantasy. It's curious that authors rarely invoke Jesus Christ or Allah as myths whereas the heathen gods seem to be fair game. There's been a lot written about the origins of myth, and I hesitate to add to that tedious corpus, but perhaps one of its rationales is theocide. Turn a god into myth and watch it die.

    Keep 'em posts coming.


  2. Yes it is near-reflexive in Indian fantasy, I agree. About the other gods, I think there are more immediate issues preventing their being cast in similar works. Christ has historical moorings. Allah or Yahweh never physically manifested themselves. Pagan gods are more...human, that way. So they are used as characters. Didn't know about the theocide part though.