In the Financial Times, Jonathan Derbyshire chose “polycrisis” to designate the year that was 2022. This forces us to think about how we are caught up in multitudes of crises because of a wide range of diseases (not only the medically approved ones) attacking us and destabilising our lives.

Keeping this “polycrisis” existence in mind, climate activist Rajat Chaudhuri’s latest novel Spellcasters, compels the readers to see through the glossy bubble of lethal capitalist-consumerist culture and how it is germinating an existential void – one that is cancerous and contagious.

Most of the human population is sinking in an endless, deadly desire for what it knows not. Our capitalist-consumerist society is taking maddeningly fast steps towards interconnected megacrises. It would be interesting to see how Chaudhuri, who has been writing and conducting lectures on polycrisis for over a decade now, sees this phenomenon from a writer’s perspective. Excerpts from a conversation with Scroll:

Spellcasters can be classified in the climate fiction genre, though such classifications are always reductive. How would you like to see the novel?
Spellcasters is a novel that tries to mirror these times – both the planetary crises and the psychological impact of dangerous ideas that drive these crises. In a way, it is a book about madness – individual, collective and planetary, and yes indeed it is climate fiction if you consider the academic definition of climate fiction.

The first-person narrator in the novel is a psychologically debilitated character, and hence, the narrative is a little chaotic, which is very interesting. What made you conceive such a character as the first-person narrator and how do you think it would affect the readers? How was it for you to see the world through his perspective?
I guess the book, especially the parts with the first person narrator Chanchal Mitra, will mess up the reader’s mind a bit and the effect, as a reviewer put it, will be like being in a fever dream or even a psychedelic trip. I intended to convey first-hand how this character is affected by the transformations of the city and the larger world he inhabits, plus the unprocessed trauma of childhood and the recent past bearing down upon him. Naturally, the first person was most suitable for this material but it was challenging no doubt. I did extensive research and may have been affected while trying to imagine myself in Chanchal’s shoes. So, you really don’t know who you are interviewing, nor can I tell you with certainty who is speaking on my behalf.

What prompts you to create characters like Chanchal Mitra and JRK in Spellcasters who are not exactly ordinary or common?
The books I enjoyed reading as a kid and those I still enjoy, the people I mostly associate with, the terrifying face of the planet that we increasingly see nowadays are all steeped in this soup of darkness, uncommon, uncanny, improbable, or the unthinkable if you will. My fiction naturally reflects all these. Amitav Ghosh writes somewhere, “to reproduce the world as it exists need not be the project of fiction … the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities”. I guess that is also how the roads to the unthinkable possibilities, the uncanny, or the “dark” open up in the stories I write. This is not to ignore the fact that the possibilities could be hopeful too, and I am equally invested in these new genres of fiction where we try to weave better futures where the murderers, perverts, and misogynists of Spellcasters turn into saints and wander around the streets of Calcutta playing the harmonium.

While reading Spellcasters, I had this strange feeling of oscillating between science fiction and contemporary realism. This was also true for some of the sections of The Butterfly Effect like those involving the lost travellers or the detective in present-day Calcutta. Have you deliberately merged sci-fi, cli-fi, and contemporary realism to comment upon the perils of the rapidly growing technological, capitalist-consumerist world?
I am genre agnostic. Like many of my contemporaries, who are often clubbed as speculative fiction or science fiction writers, I don’t consciously respond to a genre. Still, I have found the so-called novum of science fiction or the “uncanny” of climate fiction to be necessary and useful devices (as well as lenses) to tell (and analyse) the stories I am writing these days. As one tries to portray the impact of dangerous ideas, beliefs and practices like limitless growth, conspicuous consumption, ecomodernism and so on upon the planet and our minds, it becomes necessary to plant one foot in the present (as observer and record-keeper) and another in the near future (to imagine possibilities). This is possibly why contemporary realism and sci-fi elements seem to merge in my books.

A large part of the Spellcasters narrative is driven by the work of mysterious forces, the occult powers. How far do you think “mystery” and the unknown guide our lives? Does the darkness bear an inherent light?
On the surface, yes. But I will ask the reader to dig deeper and discover what or who these occult forces represent. Having said that I must also mention that there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns in the universe and what is magic today can be science tomorrow, so the story is also a nod to that. The unknown guides our lives every moment, be it a known unknown, like the still-to-be-uncovered mysteries of the human brain or the unknown unknowns about which it is difficult to talk logically. You might remember, that Sudhir Kakar did a very important study about the shamans and mystics of this country and there he had expertly drawn out parallels between Indian and Western systems of healing. We can see there how “reason” and apparent “unreason” can flow in parallel courses.

Does darkness bear an inherent light? How can I answer that question without sounding like a complete idiot? It would be much easier to refer back to the words of sages like Blake who wrote “If the doors of perception are cleansed, man will see things as they truly are – infinite” or Aldous Huxley who borrowed from those words while writing about his experiences with psychedelic drugs and his realisation that the “antipodes” of heaven and hell can both be arrived at through that route. Even easier, think of Buddha’s journey to enlightenment.

And then you turn around to give the reader pages from a scientist’s journal who is developing a designer psychedelic drug. Do you think reason and unreason can hang out together and play ball?
Absolutely. This novel does go into some detail about the possible beneficial effects of psychedelic drugs and entheogens and their associated risks. You would know that some of these substances, though largely banned, are being used in therapeutic contexts by certain institutions. I take a deep interest in this subject but to return to your larger question – reason does have its uses in running the world in a certain way but to ignore the unknown or what cannot be grasped with reason is sheer stupidity. I remember the famous Bengali author Nabarun Bhattacharya telling me with a glint in his eyes, right after receiving the news of the death of a famous astrologer, that the balance between reason and unreason had got somewhat disturbed that day.

How do you think mental illness and climatic status have an interwoven relationship?
As I mentioned before, planetary illness and mental illness are connected through the agency of dangerous beliefs and practices like limitless growth, techno-nirvana, eco-modernism, conspicuous consumption and so on. These ideas have not only precipitated multiple crises from climate change to species extinction but they have also taken hold of our minds as the be-all and end-all of our existence. Spellcasters is an attempt to expose this connection through the story of a commoner caught in a web of powerful forces.

Clinical psychologist John F Schumaker writes, “If consumer culture were a separate individual and assessed psychiatrically, its diagnosis would be criminal psychosis of the most fiendish variety. But since its lunacy is agreed upon, we lap it up.” So there you have it – the connection. Beyond that, there is also the direct impact of planetary illness (climate change) on the mind.

In these times of concatenating crises, do you see the rise of the superhero industry again? We are seeing a rise in the Viking narratives and other historical dramas and the anime industry. Also, there is an upsurge of institutionalised spiritualism. Is humanity feeling a need for the “super” to restore the balance and peace lost in the pursuit of happiness?
This is a question for a PhD scholar. Many of those forms and genres are popular among children and young adults – I suspect the new popularity is partly explained by marketing. But beyond that I feel children and the audience of these genres you mentioned are looking for something beyond the “human” be it vampires or superheroes, or simply trying to reconnect to myths indigenous or imported. Maybe they are tired of “progress-based narratives” but many superhero stories are narratives of progress. What I suspect here is a deeper quest to look beyond the human and look for genres where images are as important as words. Planetary crises may have triggered an intuitive understanding of the agency of the non-human and a realisation of our connections with other beings, and so these genres are growing in popularity.

Most of your writings are based in Kolkata, including your translated work of Hemendra Kumar Roy, Calcutta Nights, which is very interesting. Anyone who knows you personally would also know how well you know the secrets of the city. Why do you think Kolkata being the “city of joy” is a myth?
“City of Joy” is a name given to Kolkata by those who haven’t read Dominique Lapierre’s forgettable book set in Ananda Nagar, a Howrah settlement for the urban poor. By a stroke of bad luck and mindless marketing, the English translation of that name got tagged to Calcutta. So, this particular nickname doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t consider Calcutta to be a city to be studied on the joy-sorrow axis. Yes, of course, I am deeply involved in recording, memorising and storifying Calcutta through my fiction, translation and other work. Every city has its storytellers and myth-makers and so has Calcutta in its writers, poets, and artists. This may sound cliched, but perhaps there is something about the “atmosphere” and the “energy” on the streets that make some cities better candidates for fiction. One thing I have felt from my vantage point of a flaneur is that the per square kilometre density of those we call “characters” is higher in Calcutta compared to many other cities which are plagued by uniformity.

In India, we still have very few writers writing on the climate emergency and the tech-doom. How do you reflect on this?
Well, that has been changing. There are more and more writers engaging with climate change in different ways. While climate change may not be a major theme of their work, these writers have addressed concerns and issues connected to global warming in their stories. Often postcolonial writers approach ecological and climate issues using lenses of hegemony, power, and exploitation among others which make their fiction difficult to slot into the so-called cli-fi genre but that doesn’t mean no stories are being told. As for cyberpunk, techno-apocalypse and allied “genres”, there are now many authors working in that space. Samit Basu’s name immediately comes to mind.

Lastly, do you feel humanity is losing its ability to be visionaries and living in moments, so much so, that they are unaware and irresponsible about the future of the planet? Is declining readership (that gives an immense space for thinking, visualising and recreating) a reason behind it? If so, how would books have a future in this world which is dominated by screen?
A large part of the thinking public has been entrapped by social media algorithms and aspirations fuelled by psychological manipulation and advertising. Forget books or the planet, we will chop off our own feet for a better lifestyle.

I feel books and screens can complement each other but what matters more are the stories we tell. While dystopia does have its entertainment appeal it is increasingly more important to tell stories of transformative future imaginaries and that is exactly what solarpunks, hopepunks, lunarpunks are doing. I have much faith in these new stories, and I am bursting with hope about the success of grassroots movements pushing for change.