In a country where science is regularly stranger than fiction, who needs science fiction? Science fiction writer Sukanya Datta remembers going to interview a well-known doctor from AIIMS who had won a major award. He told her: “Duryadhona and his 100 brothers in the Mahabharata proves we had cloning.” Unfortunately for the doctor, Datta is not just a science fiction writer but also a scientist. “How then did you get his sister Dusshala?” she asked him. “He became pale and said ‘What’s your degree?’”

Datta is an award-winning science fiction writer. The National Book Trust publishes her books. But few know about her. Indian science fiction has been a bit of a stepchild of the Indian literary canon. The umpteen literature festivals all over the country rarely include science fiction writers or honour them. Within the field, the English language science fiction writers know little about the Bengali ones or the Marathi ones even if they live in the same city.

A band of science fiction enthusiasts tried to change this a few weeks ago at a conference titled “Workshops of Horrible Creation”, timed with the centenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, held in conjunction with the English department of Jadavpur University in Kolkata.

Archiving the gems

Dip Ghosh is one of the moving spirits behind Kalpabiswa, the moving force behind the conference. It’s a digital portal that tries to both archive the lost gems of Bengali science fiction and chart a new future for it. “There has to be more interaction,” said Ghosh. “We don’t know what’s happening in Assam or Chennai. And when our Bengali readers read English science fiction they read Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, not Indian writers.”

That’s partly because Indian science fiction is often dismissed as derivative of an outdated Western pulp fiction that never grew up – all bug-eyed aliens and Annihillin vaporising guns. “The age of juvenile science fiction is passing,” said Dip Ghosh.

That’s clear just from the titles of some of the 60-odd abstracts their conference attracted. Science fiction and heavy metal music. Do humans worship android gods? The origin stories of Indian superheroes. Postponed teleology in Bangla science fiction works of Satyajit Ray. And more.

But that old science fiction, part fantasy, part adventure is also on display at the conference with the colourful covers of magazines like Fantastic and Ashchorjyo and Bismoy, where spacemen float and Godzilla monsters snarl. That golden age of Bengali sci-fi is long gone, but some of the old-timers are still around and the conference was a rare occasion for a glorious reunion.

Bengali sci-fi magazines

Ranen Ghosh, the powerhouse behind classic series like Fantasy and Bismoy, remembers the hard-scrabble days of trying to put out sci-fi magazines in Bengali. “We would sit on a khaatiya in front of the house, have muri (puffed rice) and telebhaja (fried snacks) and discuss things,” he said. “The day we broke even we ate at a restaurant for the first time. The next day one of our partners sold off our letter press and that was the end of that.”

Ghosh’s friend Amritananda Das remembers going to railway stations to sell new issues. It was always a hand-to-mouth existence. “I once created a character named Suranjan,” he chuckled. “When the story came out it had been changed to Binoy. The type for compound letters was too costly.”

Ranen Ghosh is one of the pioneers, along with Adrish Bardhan, who coined the Bengali word for science fiction: “kalpabigyan” – part imagination, part science. Bardhan, at 86, is still alive but has lost his memory and hearing. “We went to his house to honour him,” said Ghosh. “But I am not sure he understood much.” He still wants to make sure those who are around get some recognition at least. “They deserve a lifetime achievement award,” he said.

But science fiction cannot survive on nostalgia alone. The Kalpabiswa teams wants to ensure that the work that has come before them is not lost. They are bringing out some of the collected works of Siddhartha Ghosh, a half-forgotten figure from the ’80s, better known for his work on technology and photography. Ghosh is proof that sci-fi in India was both mature and imbued with local sensibilities. In one of his young adult stories, he imagines a cricket match between Earth XI and Lunar XI, a story that marries science, technology, politics, capitalism and no-balls in a spaceship.

In the dystopian “Mahakasher Monimukto” (“Jewels of Space”), a distraught father tries to track down what happens when a spaceship filled with schoolgirls disappears. He stumbles upon a mining colony inhabited by dangerous criminals and a government which supplies them with young women. It takes ten years for the ships to reach and that is why they send schoolgirls.

Always on the fringes

Jadavpur University professor Abhijit Gupta recalled a story to the effect that Ghosh once met an up-and-coming author who wanted to know about Hindu cosmology. Ghosh told him about the turtle and the elephant holding up the world. That author was Terry Pratchett, whose magical Discworld remains mounted on top of four giant elephants atop a humongous turtle.

Despite these global forays, science fiction has never had it easy in India, not even in its heyday when the likes of Satyajit Ray were running a science fiction cine club. Enakshi Chattopdhyay, one of the few women in what was largely a boys’ club and co-author with her husband Santimay Chatterjee of a book on nuclear science, remembers arguing with publishers about why they only brought out western classics like Robinson Crusoe.

She wanted to translate Peepre Puran (The Legend Of Ants), Premendra Mitra’s 1927 classic of a world taken over by ants. She got her way and published it as Ants’ Game. But she said so much more needs to happen. “I am tired of reading about middle-class Bengalis in their 800-square-foot flats,” she sighed.

Science fiction can break free of those confines. Datta said at its best it can be hugely empowering. She suffers from a skin pigmentation disorder and said matter-of-factly “growing up society was nasty to me.” But in her science fiction she could exact revenge by “getting rid of all the melanin people, but killed off with correct science.” However, she admitted she was closeted about her writing because as a scientist, “writing science fiction was crossing a Lakshmanrekha, so I wanted to stay hidden”.

With little by way of a real community it sometimes feels Indian science fiction is stagnating. What has happened here instead is a resurgence in fantasy. “Mythology can be co-opted more readily into regressive politics and it’s much more popular than science fiction which is more elite,” said Bodhisattva Chattodpadhyay, the keynote speaker at the conference, who is producing a documentary on the early days of Bengali sci-fi.

“Translating nationalist myth into fantasy isn’t much of a stretch because the narratives are already there, you just have to spin them into nationalistic tropes,” said Indrapramit Das, award-winning author of The Devourers. But he added that even in the West there are many “white canonical science fiction writers” who are “essentially writing in a conservative mode that valorises the heroism of the white man. Ultimately any art form can be used across the political spectrum.” Many of the original space settlements in science fiction were not called colonies for nothing.

And what of the future?

Das said he hopes conferences like this spend less time trying to define what is pure science fiction and what is not. Science fiction today is an iridescent shape-shifting spectrum. For example, he pointed out, Vandana Singh writes about humans going to space but “in a way that imagines alternatives to the colonialist mode of expansion”. Mimi Mondal was nominated for a Hugo Award for editing a book about marginalised experiences. Vikram Paralkar’s The Wounds Of The Dead is about a poor rural family coming back from the dead to repair their wounds.

Monsanto and farmers’ seeds, gods who are actually extraterrestials, or zombies as Islamic territories are all showing up in Indian science fiction these days, written by fanboys, fangirls and scientists alike. “And publishing it is a political act,” said Salik Shah, editor of the Mithila Review, an international SFF magazine. Shah remembers growing up in Kathmandu and writing a poem about wanting an android girl friend. “I want more Indian stories in Mithila Review,” he said. “I want to create a better society. As an editor I want to build a community because I feel like I cannot do it alone.”

This conference was a step towards seeding that community. “We are now planning to translate our Bengali science fiction into English for Mithila Review and vice versa,” said Dip Ghosh. Whether the conference becomes annual or not, he hopes the connections endure. But they need one secret ingredient, said old-timer Ronen Ghosh. Which is? “A bit of madness. Without a bit of madness you cannot do anything. Some madness and a khatiya on which you can all sit.”

In today’s age the communal khatiya might well be digital, but the madness has to be contagiously real.