JayantNarlikar_The Hindu

Jayant Narlikar. Photograph: Thulasi Kakkat / The Hindu.

singh (1)

Vandana Singh. Photograph: ASU.edu.

When writers tell stories in their ‘mother’ tongue, perhaps fiction becomes more real. After comparing Hindi and English translations of Jayant Narlikar’s Marathi science fiction novella, “The Cosmic Explosion,” [1] at Sahitya Akademi bookstore in New Delhi, I decided to bring home its Hindi version. I thought the Hindi translation would be closer to the original as the language reflected the native characters, sounds and settings better than the English translation.

Once home, “The Cosmic Explosion” was soon lost among the menagerie of books-to-read. When I finally got around to reading it, I was amazed to spot a page-turner rooted in Indian culture, history and landscape with a genuine scientific spirit at its core. Plus it was interesting to note the parallels between the imaginary worlds of Jayant Narlikar and Vandana Singh. Both Narlikar and Singh are Indian-origin scientists and writers. Even though they are very different writers, Singh is a huge fan of Narlikar’s stories. And I could see some of their concerns and themes overlap.

Jayant Vishnu Narlikar (born 1938) is an astrophysicist from Cambridge. He has worked with leading scientists of his generation; real science, not fantasy or mythology, informs his work. A Padma Vibhushan laureate and proponent of steady state cosmology, Narlikar has written several fiction and non-fiction books, and his interviews are filled with interesting anecdotes:

“I knew [Stephen Hawking] at a time when he was a normal healthy person. I remember during our summer vacation at Greenwich observatory, we were not doing much research, it was the beginning of research. He was still an undergraduate, one year behind me, but at Oxford. He joined Cambridge after graduating from Oxford. At the end of the five or six week course all the students had organized a table-tennis tournament. In the final I was playing Hawking. I beat him, but he was very normal, that’s the point I am trying to make. [2]

In a 1995 Biblio article, “Stories of the Future,” Narlikar stated his preference for hard SF a bit harshly. He didn’t like the liberal use of the term “science fiction” when applied to the sub-genres of speculative fiction. “There is so much trash going under this genre with horror, black magic and fairytales essentially hijacking the true sprit of science fiction. This demeaning feature is reflected in the Indian version also, though to a lesser extent.” [3]

It takes a scientist to ground his fiction in reality and science in a land of speculations and myths. As a hard SF writer, what Narlikar managed to accomplish in his native tongue is very admirable. While reading his stories, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was inviting us to take science seriously and write scientific stories rooted in the world most familiar to us. His work demonstrates how the “Indianness” of Indian science fiction comes from cultural ambience and setting rather than a distant, imagined culture or its geography.

In “Stories of the Future,” Narlikar praises Bal Phondke, a Marathi sci-fi writer, who edited It Happened Tomorrow (NBTI, 1993), a remarkable anthology of sci-fi stories by Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, Oriya and Hindi writers. For Narlikar and Phodke, science fiction crosses boundaries of countries and puts forward an imagination rooted in scientific facts. “Even though there are some in this country who decry the science done today as Western,” Narlikar writes, “there is nothing in the truths discovered by science that has Western cultural values.” [4]

Let us examine two of Narlikar’s stories, “The Adventure” and “The Cosmic Explosion,” to see how these ideas play out in his science fiction.

“The Adventure” is perhaps Narlikar’s most widely read short story, also included in the 11th grade textbooks produced by the National Center for Education Research and Training (NCERT) in India. The story’s main protagonist is 55-year-old Professor Gangadharpant Gaitonde who is fond of presiding over public seminars and functions. He is actually looking forward to make a personal record by chairing the 1000th public function—a seminar on the Third Battle of Panipat. His 999th function, however, turns out to be a seminar on Catastrophe Theory. Soon afterwards, a catastrophe follows: he collides with a truck and vanishes into an alternate world.

On 14 January 1761, one of the largest battles of the 18th century was fought between the Maratha soldiers and Afghan army. On that decisive day, Panipat saw the greatest number of fatalities in a single day reported in a classic formation battle between two armies. For its far-reaching consequences, the Third Battle of Panipat was crucial to the map of South Asia as the battle of Waterloo was to Europe. What if the Marathas had won the battle of Panipat? In his alternate world, Narlikar envisions a future in which India is a democracy that has not been subjected to “slavery to the white man.” The Mughal emperor of Delhi remains “a figurehead to rubber-stamp the ‘recommendations’ made by the central parliament.”

The more Professor Gangadharpant learns about this alternate universe—a result of his own speculation at the time of the accident—the more he begins to appreciate it. He is overjoyed to discover that his great nation had “learnt to stand on its feet and knew what self-respect was.” The leaders of the independent country had shown the magnanimous and pragmatic gesture of allowing the British to retain Bombay as the sole outpost on the Indian subcontinent from “a position of strength and for purely commercial reasons.”

In the story, a character attempts to explain the science behind Professor Gangadharpant’s adventure:

“By making a transition, you were able to experience two worlds although one at a time. The one you live in now and the one where you spent two days. One has the history we know, the other a different history. The separation or bifurcation took place at the battle of Panipat. You neither travelled to the past nor to the future. You were in the present but experiencing a different world. Of course, by the same token there must be many more different worlds arising out of bifurcations at different points of time.” [5]

“The Adventure” is a seminal work of Indian science fiction, one whose influence on new Indian SF writers is hard to miss. For example, there are striking parallels between the stories of Jayant Narlikar and Vandana Singh. Singh clearly admires [6]  Narlikar’s stories, and has been engaging in a fascinating and enriching dialog with him through her literary projects over the years. While Narlikar insists on hard SF, Singh takes the flights of imagination required to speculate about marginal characters, diverse cultures and alien tongues.

In Singh’s “Delhi,” originally published in So Long Been Dreaming, a 2004 anthology edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, her protagonist Aseem can see and interact with people from various periods. Sometimes he wonders if he has influenced the course of history because of his awareness, thoughts and actions. It is a poignant tale about Delhi where its past, present and future exist simultaneously:

“When he was younger he thought the apparitions he saw were ghosts of the dead, but now he knows this is not true. Now he has a theory that his visions are tricks of time, tangles produced when one part of the time-stream rubs up against another and the two cross for a moment.” [7]

Singh seems more interested in the exploration of the internal spaces and traumas of her characters than the outside events. She is aware that the individual choices made by her characters do affect the world.

singh_torIn her brilliant new story, “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination,” (Tor, 2015) [8] Singh returns to the theme of alternate time-streams but the cultural setting is more diverse and global. Perhaps it reflects her concerns as an Indian-origin author living in America. Narlikar returned to India following his studies abroad, and his fiction captures this sense of belonging and inwardness even in the visions of alternate world.

In “The Adventure,” events have taken a different course from “a turning point” in history but the space and time remains more or less the same. However, a trigger—a catastrophe—is required to disrupt the fabric of reality and reveal many possibilities and alternate futures. In “Ambiguity Machines,” Singh’s characters can travel to faraway places from a local point. She employs Conceptual Machine-Space—“the abstract space of all possible machines”—to allow “intrepid explorers” to venture into various destinations.

These conceptual machines are necessary for research and study to further our understanding of the known and unknown universe. They can be found, as Singh suggests, in “reports, rumors, folktales, and intimations of machines that do not and cannot exist.” When we refuse to search, catalog and interpret the ancient knowledge captured and transmitted through time in form of indigenous cultural artifacts, we put the fate of humanity at risk.

“The Cosmic Explosion” and “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” have more in common than a shared concern for the diverse and local forms of knowledge that might not be in the dominant scientific canon of the time for various reasons. Structurally, both works contain three linked episodes or stories.

The Cosmic Explosion_Narlikar“The Cosmic Explosion” is a cautionary tale about the dangers of collective amnesia. It is also a tribute to ancient Indian astronomers and mathematicians. Set in three different periods of the same timeline, the story opens in 632 AD when a group of astronomers leave behind their observational records to help the future astronomers to study and prepare against a possible celestial catastrophe. However, the scientists of 1996 don’t recognize the value of such ancient knowledge or artefacts until it’s too late—the civilization has to start in 2710 from scratch again.

In Narlikar’s story, “The Ice Age Cometh,” collected in It Happened Tomorrow, a scientist ridicules the peer review system, which adheres to the scientific dogma. A proponent of steady state cosmology—an alternative model of the creation of our universe which has lost its currency today—Narlikar is sharp in his criticism of biases and prejudices of the scientific “establishment”:

Vasant’s face carried fleeting shades of sarcasm and frustration before it became featureless again as he continued, “You people think of us as perfect scholars in search of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, undeterred by jealousies and temptations. It’s all bunkum! We scientists are human. We possess all the weaknesses of the human mind. If the establishment finds new discoveries unpalatable, those belonging to it will do everything to suppress them. I had to water down my hypotheses, blur predictions in order to get some of my ideas in print. The rest—those in manuscript form—were considered too crazy or outlandish to be published.” [9]

In “Ambiguities Machines,” the Ministry of Abstract Engineering sends the topographers of Conceptual Machine-Space to various destinations to collect folklore and stories about “impossible machines” or tools that do not and cannot exist in the immediate world. These cultural artifacts represent “the negative space,” or the counter narratives where diverse, marginal or indigenous ways of seeing and thinking about the world exist. These conceptual tools “blur or dissolve boundaries,” and are difficult to categorize or fit into the dominant epistemology, “because they violate known laws of reality,” prevalent wisdom or popular science.

singhSingh has been a champion of Indian SF outside the subcontinent but her work can be often demanding. “Ambiguity Machines” could be a good starting point for those who haven’t read her work. The last time I fell in love with her work was while reading the title story of her 2008 anthology, The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet And Other Stories. “Ambiguity Machines” benefits from its non-Indianness and alien setting; anyone interested in SF could enjoy this story for reasons other than the biographical note of its author, which can’t be the criterion of its literary or aesthetic merits.

In “Stories of the Future,” Narlikar points out that Indian science fiction could be set in distant future but the trick is to let the Indianness of the characters and setting stand out against the international backdrop and intermix of cultures. With “Ambiguity Machines,” I think Singh is finally going beyond the definition of what it means to be an Indian SF writer. “Ambiguity Machines” is an example of work that defies categorization and liberates our imagination. The only thing Indian about it is perhaps its author and her influences that could be traced back to the eastern shore.


1 Narlikar, The Cosmic Explosion, Sahitya Akademi, 1992.
2 Narlikar, Interview with Gonit Sora. Read.
3 Narlikar, Stories of the Future, (Biblio, 1995). Read.
4 Bal Phondke, It Happened Tomorrow, NBTI, 1993. Amazon.in.
5 Narlikar, “The Adventure” Read.
6 Singh, “Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF,” 2014. Read.
7 Singh, “Delhi,” The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet And Other Stories, pg. 20. Read.
8 Singh, “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination,” (Tor, 2015). Read.
9 Narlikar, “The Ice Age Cometh,” It Happened Tomorrow, pg 9.


Become a patron at Patreon!
Salik Shah
Salik Shah is the founding editor and publisher of Mithila Review. You can find him on Twitter: @Salik Website: salikshah.com