Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Martian and the Mumbaikar

A short story by Prashant C. Trikannad

The young Martian sitting beside me in the first-class compartment of the 7.45 am Churchgate local did not look as weird or creepy as the ones in Mars Attacks! He was a proper native of the Red Planet but he wasn’t scary or anything like that. His skin was a translucent green. His head was the shape of a rose apple. He had oversized eyes and no ears. He had a nice set of yellowish-white teeth. And he wasn’t sneering. He seemed like a decent bloke for an alien and quite friendly, for twice at least he tried to strike a conversation. I was in no mood to talk. I was engrossed in reading my e-book. I wanted to finish it before I got off in downtown Marine Lines so I could start on Ray Bradbury’s A Graveyard for Lunatics on the way back home.

“What’s that you’re reading?” He asked suddenly in a metallic but not unpleasant voice.

“A book,” I said, without looking up.

“I know it’s a book. But what’s that thing you’re holding in your hand?” He pointed a long thin finger at my tablet. I noticed he didn’t have nails. The tip of his finger was bulbous and curving outward.

“It's a tab,” I said. “I’m reading an electronic book as opposed to a paper book. It’s called an e-book. Do you guys have anything like this?”

I looked at him and almost jumped when I saw my gaunt reflection in his luminous black eyes.

“No, but we have this,” he said, and raising his finger in the air drew a three-dimensional holographic image of an open book with strange signs and symbols which I guessed must be some kind of Martian script.

“Wow,” I said. “How did you do that?” A stupid question. His civilisation was light years ahead of ours. By the time we caught up with it, the Martians would have inhabited half the universe; if that was, indeed, possible, the universe being without beginning or end.

“This is how we read books. In fact, this is pretty much how we do everything back home.” He traced an invisible line across the image and the astral projection vanished. The two office goers and the college kid who sat facing us were staring goggle-eyed at the Martian.

“Iron Man does that in his dream lab,” the teenager blurted out. He was a medical student. He was reading a chapter titled A brief overview of cranial nerve anatomy from a large open book on his lap. I was reading J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye whose confused and rebellious young hero seemed to be the antithesis of the studious lad before me.

“Who’s Iron Man?” The Martian inquired.

I smiled, “He’s our superhero. I mean, he’s not real but we like to think he is. We all need a hero to look up to, and watch our backs.”

“We Martians have a hero, too. He’s called the Great Alphard. We worship him just as you earthlings worship your gods. He’s the absolute, supreme one. Except...” He paused a moment before continuing. “...we don’t fight over him.”

He couldn’t have been on earth for more than a few hours or days. No idea how much that was in Martian time. But, already, he knew enough about us.”

“Can you see him?”

“No, but we can feel him, here...” he pointed to the right of his chest, probably where his heart was, “...and here,” he said, tapping the side of his head. “He comes whenever we call out to him.”

At least we had something in common, even if our practice of faith went in opposite directions.

*        *        *

We fell silent. I went back to reading. The Martian looked out of the window. The train pulled into Dadar station where a dozen people jumped off even before it came to a halt and dozens more rushed in even as it moved out again. The compartment filled up and people talked in excited tones. To one uninitiated in suburban rail travel in Mumbai, it’d have felt like a party atmosphere.

Two large Martians managed to disengage themselves from the herd of perspiring commuters and pushed their way to where we were sitting. They were Martian Police. They wore bright red uniforms and yellow-ringed tin badges on their lapels. The badges represented their logo, a red cross against a dark green background. They were not allowed to carry firearms in civilian areas. That was the deal with the Martian Federation. 

“Blimp,” one of them said curtly.

So that was his name. I turned to look at Blimp. His green complexion had turned ashen. He was shaking violently, no doubt with fear. And his eyes were spinning in their oval sockets.

“Easy, Blimp. What’s going on?” I asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“They have come to take me back to Mars,” he stuttered.
I don't want to go back.” He was almost in tears.

“But why?”

Before Blimp could answer, the second Martian cop said, “He is wanted in Kraz for a crime of a considerably serious nature. He must face trial and punishment. It won’t be easy for him, I tell you.”

“What is Kraz? And what crime?” Although I barely knew Blimp I’d already grown to like this young Martian who showed prospects of a good friendship.

“Kraz is the largest city in the province of Zanzar in the northern hemisphere of Mars. I was born and raised there.” He was so terrified I was surprised he even spoke.

“What did you do, Blimp?”

“He ran away,” the first cop said.

“How is that even a crime?” I asked, incredulously.

“Sir, under Martian law running away from home is equal to defection or desertion. He did more than that,” the second cop said pointing at Blimp. “He abandoned our world for yours.”

“So what?” I shouted.

“He had no permission for interplanetary travel. You see, he’s too young, only a thousand years old. He was a stowaway on the Centaurus that came in last week.”

*        *        *

There was a buzz of excitement in the compartment as people, normally starved of a public spectacle, jostled each other for a glimpse of the runaway Martian. Some of the commuters were clicking pictures on their phones. The ones behind Blimp and me were taking selfies and probably had them up and running on social media already. We were soon going to become notoriously famous. Me more than him. You can’t really tell one Martian from another.

“How can Blimp be a thousand years old?” I asked the Martian cops who were by now struggling to stay on their feet.

But even before either of them could say something, there was a loud commotion — “Chalo bhai, Lower Parel, chalo, chalo, jaldi chalo!” — and the two Martian policemen suddenly found themselves off their feet and herded towards the exit and out on the platform, where they stood with bewildered expressions on their faces.

As the train moved away from Lower Parel station, Blimp stared openmouthed at the empty space where the lawmen from the Red Planet had been moments before.

“What just happened? Where did they go?” He looked astonished.

I laughed out loud and put my hand out to shake his. “Welcome to Mumbai, Blimp! My name is Epic. Have you been to the Gateway of India?”

© Prashant C. Trikannad, 2016

Friday, September 09, 2016

A few eminent Indian writers in English

Whenever someone asks me to recommend good fiction or nonfiction in English, I invariably draw their attention to books written by Western authors. And that’s because my reading of Indian literary works is abysmal. I have read very few writers from my own country known for its rich and diverse literary heritage, including many spellbinding works translated from a dozen languages. There are novels by globally acclaimed writers I should have read long ago. That I haven’t all these years is my loss. Every year I resolve to read Indian writers in English and every year I break that resolution.

Maybe, this chronological list of books by some of the most celebrated desi authors will motivate me to finally give Indian fiction its due. So far I have only read Khushwant Singh, R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, and Rohinton Mistry, though just not these titles. They are all good books and worth reading.

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, 1956

Khushwant Singh was one of India’s most widely readand also one of its most provocativenovelists, satirists, and journalists.

“In the summer of 1947, when the creation of the state of Pakistan was formally announced, ten million people—Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs—were in flight. By the time the monsoon broke, almost a million of them were dead, and all of northern India was in arms, in terror, or in hiding. The only remaining oases of peace were a scatter of little villages lost in the remote reaches of the frontier.

© India Opines
One of these villages was Mano Majra. It is a place, Khushwant Singh goes on to tell us at the beginning of this classic novel, where Sikhs and Muslims have lived together in peace for hundreds of years. Then one day, at the end of the summer, the “ghost train” arrives, a silent, incredible funeral train loaded with the bodies of thousands of refugees, bringing the village its first taste of the horrors of the civil war.”

Train to Pakistan is the story of this isolated village that is plunged into the abyss of religious hate. It is also the story of a Sikh boy and a Muslim girl whose love endured and transcends the ravages of war.”

The Guide by R.K. Narayan, 1958

One of India’s most celebrated authors, R.K. Narayan’s best-known stories are set in the fictional town of Malgudi in South India. The Guide won Narayan the National Prize of the Indian Literary Academy, the country's highest literary honour.

The Guide describes the transformation of the protagonist, Raju, from a tour guide to a spiritual guide and then one of the greatest holy men of India.

“Formerly India's most corrupt tourist guide, Raju—just released from prison—seeks refuge in an abandoned temple. Mistaken for a holy man, he plays the part and succeeds so well that God himself intervenes to put Raju's newfound sanctity to the test.”

Grimus by Salman Rushdie, 1975

Salman Rushdie, whose Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize and whose The Satanic Verses put a bounty on his head, made his literary debut with Grimus—a fantasy and science fiction novel.

“After drinking an elixir that bestows immortality upon him, a young Indian named Flapping Eagle spends the next seven hundred years sailing the seas with the blessing—and ultimately the burden—of living forever. Eventually, weary of the sameness of life, he journeys to the mountainous Calf Island to regain his mortality. There he meets other immortals obsessed with their own stasis and sets out to scale the island’s peak, from which the mysterious and corrosive Grimus Effect emits.

© Emory College of Arts and Sciences
“Through a series of thrilling quests and encounters, Flapping Eagle comes face-to-face with the island’s creator and unwinds the mysteries of his own humanity. 

“Salman Rushdie’s celebrated debut novel remains as powerful and as haunting as when it was first published more than thirty years ago.”

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, 1986

The Golden Gate is the debut novel of novelist and poet Vikram Seth (below). Its uniqueness lies in its narrative form—it is composed in verse, 590 Onegin stanzas. The book was apparently inspired by Charles Johnston's translation of Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

“Set in the 1980s in the affluence and sunshine of California's Silicon Valley, The Golden Gate is an exuberant and witty story of twenty-somethings looking for love, pleasure and the meaning of life. It was awarded the 1986 British Airways Commonwealth Poetry Prize.”

© Penguin Books India

The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh, 1988

Amitav Ghosh (below), who is best-known for historical fiction, has written both fiction and nonfiction of international acclaim. Many of his novels are set around “the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the connections and the cross-connections between these regions.”

“Opening in Calcutta in the 1960s, Amitav Ghosh's radiant second novel, The Shadow Lines, follows two families—one English, one Bengali—as their lives intertwine in tragic and comic ways. The narrator, Indian born and English educated, traces events back and forth in time, from the outbreak of World War II to the late twentieth century, through years of Bengali partition and violence, observing the ways in which political events invade private lives.

© Amitav Ghosh


English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee, 1988

Upamanyu Chatterjee is an IAS officer whose debut novel English, August: An Indian Story was adapted to film. Its success inspired many low budget independent movies in Indian cinema. Punch described English, August as “a marvelously intelligent and entertaining novel, and especially for anyone curious about modern India.”

“Agastya Sen, known to friends by the English name August, is a child of the Indian elite. His friends go to Yale and Harvard. August himself has just landed a prize government job. The job takes him to Madna, “the hottest town in India,” deep in the sticks. There he finds himself surrounded by incompetents and cranks, time wasters, bureaucrats, and crazies. What to do? Get stoned, shirk work, collapse in the heat, stare at the ceiling. Dealing with the locals turns out to be a lot easier for August than living with himself.

English, August is a comic masterpiece from contemporary India. Like A Confederacy of Dunces and The Catcher in the Rye, it is both an inspired and hilarious satire and a timeless story of self-discovery.”

Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, 1991

Indian-born Canadian author Rohinton Mistry’s second novel, Such A Long Journey, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Trillium Award. It has won several awards including the Governor General's Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

“It is Bombay in 1971, the year India went to war over what was to become Bangladesh. A hard-working bank clerk, Gustad Noble is a devoted family man who gradually sees his modest life unravelling. His young daughter falls ill; his promising son defies his father’s ambitions for him. He is the one reasonable voice amidst the ongoing dramas of his neighbours.

“One day, he receives a letter from an old friend, asking him to help in what at first seems like an heroic mission. But he soon finds himself unwittingly drawn into a dangerous network of deception. Compassionate, and rich in details of character and place, this unforgettable novel charts the journey of a moral heart in a turbulent world of change.

A River Sutra by Gita Mehta, 1993

Gita Mehta, who comes from a political family, is a well-known writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. She was a television war correspondent for NBC. Her first book, Karma Cola, 1979, is about thousands of Westerners who came to India in the 1960s and 1970s to rediscover “the magic and mystery missing from their lives.”

A River Sutra is an enchanting collection of vignettes tells the story of a retired bureaucrat who has escaped the world to spend his twilight years running a guest house on the banks of the country’s holiest river, the Narmada. But he has chosen the wrong place for peace and quiet: too many lives converge here and he meets a series of unusual characters including a privileged young executive bewitched by a mysterious lover; a novice Jain monk moving from opulence to poverty; and a woman with a golden voice and a broken heart. As the bureaucrat moves from story to story, he ponders the meaning of each tale and the dark secrets which the river hides within its waters.

© Penguin Books India