As you ratchet through the gears of Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s novel Clone, prepare to strap yourself in for an engaging albeit slow-moving ride. I’d recommend reading this book after having already finished the author’s second full-length work of fiction, Generation 14, which inaugurated several themes that she treats in this book as well. Sarukkai Chabria amplifies the trajectory of the character of Clone 14/54/G in this new book, further adding to the world she created by drawing starker borders, providing more concrete definitions and clarifying the existing distinctions to a greater degree.
To list some things that Clone did not prove to be: a tear-jerker; a sentimental novel; a book of speculative fiction written according to the conventional lines of plot-character-action. What it turned out to be instead, was a fresh, genre-bending variety of Indian speculative fiction – a compound comprising elements of magic realism, stream-of-consciousness narration, fabulist storytelling and certain characteristics of historical fiction. If Generation 14 was a meditation on what it means to be human and an exposition on the implications of human-ness, Clone is the author’s attempt to position the role played by literature in this perplexed, dehumanised society.
Sarukkai Chabria’s choice of setting is an ordered, linear and terrifyingly neat world, which is governed entirely by scientific knowledge and inhabited by clones of persons who now exist solely as historical figures in the annals of this sterile dystopia. The author has built a lexical universe alongside the physical one called the “Global Community” – common signifiers in ordinary English come to denote their own meanings and implications in this dark universe where human life is exploited for its biological utility.
What is most unsettling in Sarukkai Chabria’s descriptions is that, in parts, the narrative reads like a bleak, unfamiliar vision of India, not entirely regressed to the norms and customs of the Vedic age, nor situated inside the Mughal era, and not completely rooted to the twenty-first century either. The end result is, in fact, a yoking of all three timelines – birthing, in the melee, a strange new world-order residing in a future that is best escaped. Memory is currency in this unsettling world. Any aberration is monitored and swiftly penalised.
Who is human?
Clone, like Generation 14, is deeply fraught with the question of what it means to be human. At the heart of the novel is another dilemma – if Artificial Intelligence as a life form does indeed embody or emulate (“clone”, if you will) human powers of calculation and cognisance, can it ever be truly cleansed of human emotions or organic memory from its system? We are privy to the protagonist’s interior monologue – she is as desperate to be understood by us as she is to comprehend the workings of her own mechanical self.
The impulse towards affection, the need for intimacy, cannot be eradicated entirely from her nature. Her mechanised alienation baffles Clone throughout most of the plot, but also delights (when she begins to menstruate after desisting The Drug; when she feels sexual desire for the Leader and he reciprocates, knowing that there is no singularity to his desire for her since she is a “clone...there are many who look exactly like [her]”).
Through the protagonist’s slow discovery of her own humanity by means of flashbacks, the author provides us with a meditation on the purpose and function of literature, reminding us at every turn, to reclaim our humanness through desire, history and the act of remembering. Upon encountering a museum exhibit titled Woman in Grief, Blank Verse, a character in the novel remarks:
“Sorrow makes sounds but its root, grief, is soundless.”
The flashbacks in the novel, historical or speculative, are ultimately philosophical exercises in trying to understand grief. As Clone 14/54/G is continually haunted by memories of her Original (the human whose DNA was used to construct our protagonist clone), it becomes increasingly evident that events on this timeline which is being gradually being revealed are, by and large, mostly tragic. Our Clone bravely continues to remember in her attempts to make sense of these various flavours of mourning and grief. Sensitivity is resistance to grief, living, loving, feeling is resistance. After Clone has managed to unearth a considerable portion of Aa-aa’s life history, a conversation ensues between Clone and Couplet:
“Couplet patted my hands. ‘Open your eyes. What if grief and memory and tenderness are again stirred up?’ Its antennae sparkled; tiny starlights scattered...Couplet pirouetted towards the door...
‘Nothing more now, dear Clone, or I shall collapse from a surfeit of hope! You realise, don’t you, that the sensitised are especially susceptible to its winged weight?’”
Sarukkai Chabria’s prose has light touches of humour like a stone skipping across the surface of the water in a still, clear pool. As when a guard declares with great solemnity that their name is “Bottlenose Guard” invoking immediately in our mind – in keeping with the practice of self-descriptive nomenclature in the book – a rather ridiculous figure with ridiculous facial features incongruous with its serious role. The text is also sometimes infused with notes of dark humour, for example, when the following interaction occurs between our clone and another gatekeeper:
“The dark voice of a Superior Zombie spoke to me.
‘Call me Ishmael.’
Although one cannot confine the merits of the language or the appeal of the context used in the novel as simply literary, but being a student of literature, I thoroughly enjoyed the references (sometimes, in passing) to several texts and figures from the literary canon, ranging from Flaubert to Virginia Woolf, from Andal (Eight century mystic from Southern India) to Rilke and Tagore. The novel also contains variously named characters called Stanza and Blank Verse, Comma.
The vibrant collage on the cover (by Sukruti Anah Stanley) manages to gorgeously capture the eerie drama of the episode contained in Chapter Six, “The Visitations”. Here appears a metaphysical, sensuous tale written from the perspective of an anthropomorphised homoerotic parrot and her human mistress whom the bird is deeply besotted with. This parrot, much like our Clone, is “sex-confused” throughout much of the story.
A complex narrative
The writing, particularly in this section of the novel, is instilled with an ephemeral, almost transcendental quality. Sarukkai Chabria’s descriptions of the rose ittar wafting in the air of the room, the colour of peacock feathers, the perfumed muslins in the chamber of the Mughal-seeming courtesan are striking enough to read like passages lifted straight out of a volume of The Arabian Nights.
Clone, although fiction, is by no means an easy read. It carries a complex narrative richly dotted with literary and historical allusions, and requires that the reader possess a keen ear for poetry. The pacing of the novel, too, demands close devotion to the text – the abrupt back-and-forth between plot lines and historical periods might prove baffling, at times, to the less attentive reader.
The book chooses to offer a Borgesian, philosophical experience of time and reality in which the story is more descriptive than plot-driven – the author lays out the “Global Community” in great detail before us, recounting its landscape, manners, clothing and naming conventions, and cataloguing painstakingly the human/machine hierarchies within the social matrix of this world.
The book, in its entirety, including the thoughtfully designed cover is a cerebral exercise in unravelling, collecting the myriad pieces of apparently disparate elements, and fitting the puzzle pieces together to ultimately hold up a magnificent tapestry as ephemeral, mystical and philosophical as the prose and style employed by the author.
The three most accurate epithets for Clone appear, interestingly, in a stray sentence inside the book: “strange and light and wonderful”. It is fair to say that Clone should be considered more a companion novel than a sequel to Generation 14. The author has managed the daunting task of writing a sympathetic character in a world where no sympathy exists, where any act of affection, desire, or organic interaction is inevitably subsumed into a vortex of insignificant machine interaction devoid of any real human feeling or consequence.
Clone, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Zubaan.