Indian writing in translation is in a wonderfully prolific place at the present moment. The ennui of English language hegemony stands broken as more and more writers from other languages stake their claim to the traditional territory of writers in English. The reader has been the beneficiary, of course.
We now have access to a range of genre fiction, non-fiction, and that abstract and much debated category, literary fiction, made accessible by translators we owe a deep debt of gratitude to. TD Ramakrishnan’s debut 2003 novel, Alpha, translated from the Malayalam into English by Priya K Nair, is one such.
Part speculative fiction, part cautionary tale, part dystopic narrative, Alpha is a tale that starts with an anthropological experiment to step outside of a flawed socio-political structure and to start afresh. Only, like other utopias gone wrong, it soon turns into an illustration of Yeats’s prophetic words:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
Human endeavour in the face of human selfishness is a lost cause, the novel seems to say.
The story of Alpha starts in 1973. In an India after the 1971 war that led to the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, with Upelendu Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, proposing an experiment to explore the potential of freedom with the relinquishing of all societal relationships, norms, and expectations. He heads a team of twelve people from different professions and different states (by extension, different languages and cultures), and makes an experiment of their lives.
Each of them is to leave behind their past, their relationships, their specific skills, all their acquired knowledge, and settle on an unmapped, uninhabited island, re-setting to a new point of origin of what he imagines will be a more liberated, more advanced civilisation. Most of the members of this group are in their thirties, well educated, and successful.
For twenty-five years, they are to live as “primaeval beings”, “uncontrolled by the norms of society, without rules or laws.” They are to leave behind taboos, inhibitions, clothes, language. The island, this brand new start of an alternate world, is dubbed Alpha, leaning into the possibility of future iterations of Beta, and Gamma, and so on.
Having discarded language, the subjects of this experiment can keep no records. In twenty-five years, they are to be met by the only other person aware of both the experiment and the location of the island. The Professor imagines they will return in triumph, having progressed significantly, outside of the debilitating confines of society, family, and morality.
What starts with idealism turns into a grotesque image of failure and desperation when the world outside makes its connect with Alpha twenty-five years later. The narrativisation of the intervening years is what makes up most of the novel.
Power and patriarchy
The premise of an island world, a microcosm of a universal order, is not new, of course. William Golding’s 1954 Lord of the Flies has already shown us a world casually cruel, innately selfish, where human behaviour is driven by the pursuit of power. Alpha shows us something similar – only, in an adult version that has no playfulness, no possibility of redemption.
The inhabitants of Alpha are not stranded on a remote island but choose it as a space outside of a confined world. In debunking rules, Alpha has also absolved its inhabitants of any responsibilities or accountability. What emerges, instead of being an exceptional first, is a world jarringly familiar in its patterns of oppression.
There is no state, no authority, and yet, the Professor is accepted as a sort of unacknowledged leader and allowed his own space. “Leaders” emerge and establish their authority by brute force. Withdrawal from society and civilisation does not mean a reversal of patriarchy. Men and women on Alpha fall into pre-determined, hyper-gendered roles.
Men are “overcome” with sexual urges and perform acts of sexual violence and dominance. Women are to make their bodies available to the men to further the race as well as to meet the sexual demands of the men. Women are raped repeatedly. They also birth and rear children, albeit as a community of nurturers and not as individual mothers.
If Ramakrishnan is trying to say that patriarchy is a human imperative, it is a bleak vision of a world on the brink of self-destruction indeed. In an echo of Lord of the Flies being an echo of King Lear, Alpha is a world where the human loses all its markers of humanity, and those who hold power think nothing of trampling on everyone else: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport.”
Language and nature
Alpha raises many questions about the nature and purpose of language. The men and women on Alpha give up language. They communicate through gestures, and in a somewhat unbelievable hypothesis, by “glances”. How the complexity of human behaviour and needs can be communicated through glances is anyone’s guess.
When they turn their backs on language, they also seem to turn their backs on empathy and the possibility of making connections, of forging a community that works together, towards defined goals, particularly when that goal is the reification of civilisation.
To anyone invested in patterns of communication, this regression to a world minus dialogue, poetry and storytelling, is already a dystopia, a violation of the human need to connect. It is interesting to see that while Upelendu takes cognisance of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that “the progress and uniqueness of language mark the growth of a culture”, he sees the discarding of language not as a self-inflicted obstacle but as a means of making sure that “natural” results are obtained from this experiment. What it does result in is what the survivors of the experiment themselves call a “loss of humanness”.
In her essay “Dire Cartographies”, Margaret Atwood speaks of the ustopia: “Ustopia is a word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.” Upelendu’s utopia turns into a dystopia, particularly for the second generation of Alpha inhabitants, born on the island, in the absence of language and culture and history. They are the victims of the Professor’s hubris, the collateral damage that no one takes responsibility for.
That Alpha fails is something the reader learns early on in the novel. What then is the point of the book? Perhaps to hold up a mirror in the peculiar way that speculative fiction has; of telling the truth but telling it slant. Human behaviour is fundamentally flawed. Freedom is not an absolute. Escape from a society that is prejudiced and dysfunctional does not magically create a better world. All societies establish power structures of their own. In its bleakness and brutality, Alpha is both thought-experiment and warning.
Alpha, TD Ramakrishnan, translated from the Malayalam by Priya K Nair, Macmillan.