The parables of Akbar and Birbal, only in a far-future galaxy where fifty light-years can be covered in a matter of hours. Courtroom battles over land ownership, only they arise out of the catastrophic destruction of a planet. A magician’s guild that exists alongside the world of early 20th-century England, always on the cusp of saving the world—or breaking it. These and other such stories make up the world of Iona Datt Sharma’s Not For Use in Navigation: a mélange of earthy magic, queer protagonists, love stories involving sentient spaceships, fables in the distant future, and much else.
The thirteen short stories in Not For Use in Navigation are collected from Sharma’s short fiction over the last few years, most of which has been published as stand-alone work in magazines and anthologies. On a first reading, it may not be possible to locate a common thread that binds them together. Yet broadly, these stories fall into three categories. First, there are the Akbar-Birbal parables. The Mughal Empire transmutes into a far-future galactic Empire—that Akbar has just done conquering—and it is now a time of peace. Aided by the wit and wisdom of Birbal, Emperor Akbar must now deal with famines on faraway planets (“Akbar and the crows”), fall-outs with lovers (“Akbar’s holiday”), learning to write (“Akbar learns to read and write”), and playing a Daniel at judgment (“Birbal and the sadhu”). These parables will be familiar to Indians who have grown up with the world of Akbar and Birbal, with two (initially) disorienting twists: their setting, and the fact that in Sharma’s world, Akbar and Birbal are women.
The second set of stories concern magic in our world, and in the backdrop of war, or the aftermath of war. “Flightcraft” is the story of two women—and their apprentice—using (and rediscovering) magic to build a flying machine. “Nine Thousand Hours”—the first of the Salt stories—is about repentance and restitution after a rash use of magic goes awry. “Quarter Days”—the longest story in the collection—introduces us to the world of the Salt—a guildhood of magicians in interwar England—in much more detail. Magicians of the guild are forced to work out what is going wrong with the railway signaling system that they built, while fighting against their own (unjust) expulsions. In all these stories, Sharma’s magical world rubs shoulders with historical England in unexpected—and often uncanny—ways.
Thirdly, we have stories of the quotidian, set in and around space, often involving coexistence—and conflict—between different species. “One-Day Listing” traces the struggles of human lawyers in non-human courts, pleading cases arising out of planetary destruction. “Landfall (your shadow at evening, rising to meet you)” tells us of the cynical Dr. Prathiba Magnus, trying—and failing—at making recruitment pitches for Mars exploration. A space wedding (“Archana and Chandni”) and a political dispute over the future of a human colony (“Ur”) round off this set.
What unites these disparate stories—and others that this summary does not include—is how Sharma takes the deeply familiar (a lovers’ quarrel, a courtroom dispute, an unjust censure, the tangled relationships between mentors and their apprentices) and inserts them into a setting that is recognizable—yet unfamiliar. Accompanied by Sharma’s spare—almost objective—prose, this gives them a unique effect: a blend of the familiar and the uncanny in a way that the two are never quite reconciled with each other (that would be too easy!), but always at arms length, in a somewhat uneasy equilibrium (the easy satisfaction of reconciliation is something that Sharma denies to their readers in the stories as well).
The famous Russian formalist critic, Victor Shklovsky, spoke of the concept of “defamiliarisation.” In the context of language and words, Shklovsky wrote that “today, words are dead, and language resembles a graveyard, but newly-born words were alive and vivid.” The point of art, Shklovsky argued, was to “give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make the stone stony.” Alexandra Berlina, Shklovsky’s translator, renders into English this fundamental idea by calling it “enstrangement”—a cross between “estrangement”, and “making strange.” Art exists, therefore, to make what has become familiar “strange” again; or, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “counter, original, spare, and strange.”
The stories in Not For Use in Navigation—disparate and diverse as they are—are bound together by Sharma’s ability to bring about the enstrangement effect. To those who grew up with the fables of Akbar and Birbal—in books and on TV—the pronoun “she,” when placed next to their names, is a powerful disorienting moment, as is the setting in a space empire—with everything else remaining the same. Similarly, a story like “Archana and Chandni” comes across as a typical tale of wedding-day conflict between the bride and the extended family—until the presence of the sentient ship places it in a different plane altogether. And to anyone familiar with the impersonality—and indeed, the dreariness—of the legal process, non-human courts where land claims arising out of planetary destruction are litigated with all the formality of an everyday lawsuit in an everyday court present a powerful and moving narrative.
This is, of course, a difficult balance to maintain at the best of times. Too much unfamiliarity, and the story escapes into the realm of fantasy, where it is judged by a different yardstick. Too much familiarity, on the other hand, and the inklings of magic risk getting subsumed into something collateral, or ancillary. And of course, in both cases, both the story and the world risk losing coherence. But for the most part, Sharma succeeds in finding that balance, and it is this that creates in the stories of Not For Use in Navigation that sense of “delicate magic”—strange yet familiar—that gives to this collection its soul and identity.