It will soon be three weeks since we in India collectively locked our doors – those of us who are privileged enough – and forbade Covid-19 from entering our lives. Locking up one’s imagination, however, is a far more difficult task. There have already been innumerable comparisons between films like Contagion (2011) and Virus (2019) and our situation at present.
The most crowded places now stand empty and abandoned, and the most intense social activity we engage in is occupying one of the windows on a Zoom call. There is something undeniably apocalyptic about the whole affair. It is difficult not to let our imaginations run wild and imagine that maybe the world is ending. Perhaps not the world, but for some time at least, life as we have always known it has ceased to exist. Never before have we washed our hands with such diligence, or competed for bottles of hand sanitiser. As many have pointed out, it does feel like there is something distinctly dystopian about life in 2020.
Dystopia as a literary genre first emerged as the cynical successor to the idea of utopia: an imagined place or time in which everything is perfect, everyone is happy and everyone is provided for. For the writers of dystopian literature, such acts of social imagination and literary production were nothing less than a form of totalitarianism themselves. After all, who is to decide what a perfect society is?
Can a single person or group decide what is ideal for an entire population without privileging the needs of the many over individuals? Surely, if everyone is subject to the same laws and the same way of life, irrespective of their own identity and circumstances, the world would be a dream for some but a nightmare for many others. Sound familiar?
Some of this is already in effect in the Clean New India of Covid-19. It is, as the events of recent days have shown us, a privilege to be able to quarantine ourselves from the outside world. It is not the survival of the fittest, but the survival of the richest that seems imminent.
That’s because for most Indians, home is not as much a sanctuary as it is a loud, messy, cramped room packed with generations of relatives and objects. Hygiene is an unrealistic goal when you share a single toilet with your entire neighbourhood. For many, home isn’t even where they stay – it lies a brutal, bruising walk of over a hundred kilometers away. A walk that involves being hosed down with disinfectant like a disobedient houseplant.
As much as it may be uniting us under a new way of life – sanitise everything, overbuy groceries, don’t step out – the coronavirus crisis has also laid bare the deep inequalities that define modern India. Covid-19 has exposed how unsustainable our daily routines are (the sky hasn’t hasn’t been this blue in a long time), the inefficiency of our businesses (that meeting definitely could have been an email), and the exploitative nature of our socio-economic structure (the way we treat those who keep our homes and economy running).
Exaggerating and extrapolating
From a literary standpoint, this has always been the first and foremost purpose of a dystopia. Unlike an anti-utopia, which is simply a work that rejects the idea of utopia and offers no hope of a better world, a dystopia seeks to jolt its reader to re-examine their ideas of what is desirable. Dystopian fiction has always drawn inspiration from contemporary circumstances, exaggerating and extrapolating from them to deliver a warning about the future.
As the reader uncovers the tensions, contradictions and failings of a dystopian future, they may find themselves re-examining their present with a critical eye and discovering the beginnings of a less than perfect future. The dystopian text, thus, functions as a form of course correction for its society, warning the reader about the path humanity is on and emphasising the need for a timely intervention before our dreams turn into a nightmare.
Now, we take this literary definition of dystopia and return to reality. What life under Covid-19 has allowed many of us is a similar critical distance between ourselves and our daily lives. It has forced us to take a step back from our routines and, whether we wish to or not, re-examine them. As a result, many of us have found ourselves having our own personal epiphanies, great or small, over the last few weeks.
Some of us have realised the importance of the local kirana store, while some of us have realised that under capitalism the majority of our countrymen are treated like disposable labour, not human beings. Thus, whether we emerge from our homes in the next few weeks or the next few months, one thing is for certain: we will not come out of this lockdown the same people we were going into it.
Though there is no doubt Covid-19 is unlike any crisis Indian authors have envisioned for our country’s future, they have envisioned plenty. Each of these fictional crises, however, springs from our socio-economic realities: It hasn’t been beamed down from a spaceship or burst out of a latent volcano. The result is a selection of dystopian Indian futures that are, frankly, less than desirable. But they do make for immensely desirable additions to any bookshelf, especially at a time like this.
That’s because the most important feature of a dystopian work is not the dismal future it prophesies, but the human capacity and desire for change – even in the most dire of circumstances – that it embodies. So rather than fearing such texts, now might be the best time to pick up a dystopian novel and discover what keeps people going, despite the most insurmountable of odds. To discover, at its simplest, that most human of inventions: hope.
What might be
Leila, Prayag Akbar
Leila is perhaps the best-known work of the lot, thanks to a star-studded Netflix adaptation helmed by Deepa Mehta. While the series embellished the plot to create an even darker tale, the novel itself paints a fairly unsettling picture.
Set in an unnamed Indian city of the near-future, the world of this novel is crisscrossed with 59-foot concrete walls that divide it into dozens of sectors. Each sector acts as a residential colony where people of one caste (and, in the case of non-Hindus, religion) can live with those of their “own kind.” There are no prizes for guessing which endogamous aspect of contemporary Indian society Leila critiques.
Through the tale of Shalini, its Hindu protagonist who is married to a Muslim man, the novel shows us the bigoted world we could well be headed towards if we shut our doors and our hearts to the people around us.
All Quiet in Vikaspuri, Sarnath Banerjee
Sarnath Banerjee’s graphic novels are known for their socio-political commentary, and All Quiet in Vikaspuri is no exception. It opens with Girish, a plumber, being forced to migrate to the city as the mining town he belongs to collapses after its economy is privatised and plundered. But, unlike his town Tambapur, the city of Delhi has no shortage of plumbers. A month goes by before he finds himself contracted for a job.
Apparently, a water shortage is brewing in the city, and a shrewd businessman wants Girish to plumb the earth in search of the mythical river Saraswati. His plan? To privatise the water supply and sell it at a profit. A particularly delightful section of the graphic novel is the one devoted to short-termism, a term Banerjee coins to describe urban India’s refusal to engage with the long-term consequences of its wasteful ways.
Harvest, Manjula Padmanabhan
The winner of the Onassis Cultural Prize, Harvest was written in 1997 and is set in 2010. Manjula Padmanabhan, an eminent name in Indian science fiction, set out to envision what our country would look like in the next millennium. Her prediction stood in sharp contrast to the myriad hopes that society pinned on the economic reforms of 1991, with many expecting that poverty would soon be a thing of the past.
In Padmanabhan’s vision of the future, however, Indian citizens have resorted to selling their organs to the highest international bidder in a desperate attempt to secure food and shelter. The play is a stinging commentary on the commodification of the human body in the age of global capitalisation.
Clone, Priya S Chabria
Clone, perhaps the most traditionally sci-fi work on this list, is set in the 24th century in an unnamed, barely recognisable world. The majority of the planet was destroyed in the Great War and those who survived now live in one large community in the last habitable place on Earth. On the flipside, however, humanity has mastered genetic engineering. The Global Community of Clone is led by the Originals: a group of human beings who live in abject luxury, while a host of genetically-engineered, human-animal hybrids keep its factories, infrastructure and institutions running.
Clone builds a rich world and weaves a narrative that calls into question more than one aspect of contemporary Indian life: from censorship and gender, to caste and class. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say a second or third read will prove just as rewarding as the first.
The Lesson, Sowmya Rajendran
The author of The Lesson is well-known for her children’s books. This one, however, is no child’s play. In her feminist dystopia, Rajendran employs the tools of satire to spell out the unwritten mores and morals of Indian society. In this world, much like ours, the Holy Institution of (heterosexual) Marriage is the key to maintaining social order.
But here there is a literal Moral Police Force which patrols the city for any premarital hanky-panky, and worse, is a man simply called The Rapist, whose job is to teach particularly disobedient women the proverbial and titular lesson. By officialising and legislating the “harmless” gender norms of the present day, Rajendran gives her work its impact: it is the familiar language of misogyny without the rhetoric of outrage contemporary India uses to cushion its blow.
The world she builds is thoroughly recognisable, but also thoroughly reprehensible, raising the question: can a reader object to the book without objecting to the very society that produced it?