The early chapters of Arnav Das Sharma’s debut novel Darklands suggests we are in for post-apocalyptic survival horror in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. One-fourth into the novel, Darklands turns into a coming-of-age story of a young boy, who’s not quite human, like the replicants from the classic sci-film Blade Runner. The final one-fourth becomes a Great Gatsby-style melodrama with themes of revenge and redemption.
All through this, the dark lands ominously described by Das Sharma in the opening bits barely appear in the story. Darklands is mostly concerned with the young-adult themes of childhood romance, parental love and friendship amidst a volatile atmosphere too similar to contemporary India to be a truly unreal and unimaginable dystopia.
Perhaps, then, Darklands shouldn’t be read as an out-and-out dystopian novel despite its cosmetic gloom and doom. Das Sharma’s book is rather an emotional journey of an outsider struggling to find love and acceptance among the people he grows up with.
Story and setting
The novel is set across Old City and Millennium City. Global warming and climate change has ravaged India, with water becoming prime currency in the future. Ash rains from the sky. Days are excruciatingly hot, nights just as cold. Millennium city, run by the Inspire Corporation, is a capitalist paradise. Here, transhumans called Metas are created for labour. Has India solved the population problem? We are not told, but Adityanath’s two-child policy may have worked.
One of these Metas is stolen from a Millennium City facility by Easwaran, a member of a violent gang engaged in smuggling and sundry illegal activities. This gang belongs to the Old City, which once used to be Delhi. The city is in tatters. People no longer live in mixed neighbourhoods but in colonies segregated by religion.
The Old City is run by a Hindu traditionalist outfit that is determined to maintain religious purity. One of Das Sharma’s most interesting decisions is separating Hindu fundamentalism from Big Capital in his fictional post-India. While Old City is a communal hotbed, Millennium City, which remains unexplored in the novel, is imagined as a liberal techno-mecca by Old City residents.
The Meta stolen by Easwaran, out of compassion for the baby, grows up to be the protagonist Haksh. Had Das Sharma focused on just Haksh’s existential conundrum of being a perpetual outsider, we could have had a more focused book. Haksh grows up from being a curious Dickensian hero to an angel-of-death-type figure. His journey and transformation alone could have been exceptionally interesting.
But Das Sharma is more interested in world-building and creating a multitude of supporting characters. Unfortunately, this world is hardly exceptional. Reminiscent of a number of post-apocalyptic films and novels, and additionally drawing too much from the headlines, Das Sharma’s New New India is not all that new new. His vision is also stymied by a first-time novelist’s inexperience and limited literary arsenal.
For example, his attempts to paint the titular dark lands, which is the deserted hellscape between the two cities, as something belonging to the Stone Age with descriptions like “antique”, “prehistoric”, “vestigial rituals of an age” and “charnel house of a country”, quickly become old. It’s another conundrum that the novel titled Darklands quickly moves away from the place it’s named after and settles down in a mohalla in Delhi.
However, Das Sharma’s cast of characters is promising. There’s Phanai, once a skilled sharpshooter who killed his boss in a coal mine over labour issues, who has turned into a mysterious sage-like figure later in the novel. There’s Jaideep Singhla, who recruits Easwaran into his gang, and later becomes a top cop in Old City. There are the brothers Abdul and Latif, two dreamy and resilient Muslim boys who are Haksh’s only friends.
But Darklands doesn’t follow these characters with the intensity and flourish with which they are introduced. The biggest example of this is the pack of wild beasts appearing in the first 20 pages. In the novel’s only moment that flirts with horror, one of these creatures shows up, scores a kill, but they never return.
Haksh is the novel’s beating heart. As a non-human, he is not loved by his step-mother and step-brother. He is disliked in the neighbourhood as well. His stoic father who rescued him may be kind to him but does he love Haksh?
Haksh is only sure of the love of his step-sister Chhaya, who is his constant romantic interest through the novel. Burdened with existential “who am I?” sort of queries, the chapters introducing a young Haksh are most excellent. If Das Sharma ran all the way to the finish line with the stranger-in-a-strange-land themes of these parts, Darklands could have lived up to the promise of its initial chapters.
A problem with writing in the dystopian genre in India right now is that it’s sufficiently bad in the real world anyway. So one has to really cook up the absolutely nightmarish to make a fictional dystopia work. One way to get around this is adopting magic realism, as South American and Soviet novelists once did.
This is what Das Sharma does in a small section of the novel. This part is a short story separate from the central narrative, but inspired by and informing it, like The Tales of The Black Freighter comic book within the Watchmen graphic novel. It’s a fable-like surreal story which absorbs the world of Darklands and is yet extremely uncanny and lyrical. The range of potential directions Darklands could have taken is more impressive than the actual novel.
Darklands, Arnav Das Sharma, Penguin Books.