Wednesday, October 29, 2008

No woman's land: Manjula Padmanabhan's Escape

“What I like about science fiction,” wrote Manjula Padmanabhan in the Introduction to her short-story collection Kleptomania, “is that it offers a writer the opportunity to go directly to the heart of an ironical or thought-provoking situation by setting up a theoretical world. It’s a bit like writing a problem in mathematics, reducing reality to a tangle or pipes and cisterns or a group of three people traveling at varying speeds up a mountain, in order to reveal the relationships between matter, time and space.”

The situation in Padmanabhan’s excellent new novel Escape is that the story is set in a land almost entirely bereft of women. We make gradual discoveries about this setting as the plot progresses; the use of words like paratha and veena suggests that this could be an alternate/future version of India, but at any rate it’s a country that underwent a great Change a couple of decades earlier. Now it exists in a bubble, cut off from (and ostracized by) the rest of the planet, and run as an autonomous, smooth-functioning dictatorship by generals who are clone-brothers to each other. They view themselves as sculptors who have re-shaped reality and their attitude towards the now-extinct women, referred to as the Vermin Tribe, is symptomatic of the death of individuality in this land. “Females are driven by biological imperatives that lead them to compete for breeding rights,” explains a General in an interview with an appalled reporter from the outside world, “In order to control breeding technology and to establish the collective ethic we had to eliminate them.”

The one survivor – or the one survivor we know of – is a young girl named Meiji, who has been raised on an Estate managed by her three uncles, called Eldest, Middle and Youngest. They have so far succeeded in keeping her existence a secret from the local General and his servants, but eventual disclosure is certain and the brothers realise that Meiji’s minuscule chance of long-term survival rests with her being transported into the world beyond. This entails first making a long journey across a wasteland to a distant city, and Youngest has the difficult task of escorting her on this trip. Along the way, he must maintain her disguise as a boy, shield her from curious eyes and, perhaps hardest of all, help her understand her own uniqueness and deal with concepts and ideas that she was never brought up to imagine. Throughout, he must also hold himself in check, for he knows - and fears - that his baser instincts are capable of overriding his avuncular affection for Meiji.

Escape works on many levels: as a solid adventure yarn, a well-realised work of speculative fiction, and a sensitive character study. Padmanabhan nicely balances Meiji and Youngest’s internal conflicts with the external details of the places that they travel through and the people or creatures they meet – from the sadistic but dimwitted groups of Mad Max-like riders called the Boyz (who blow each other up at the slightest provocation) to the mechanical slaves known as drones. (“Drones are what the Vermin Tribe should have been: servile, dumb and deaf”, reads one of the many quotes taken from fictitious manuals – presumably written as guidebooks by the regime – that are provided at the head of each chapter.) But the book is driven by conversation and character development. Especially notable is the sensitivity with which it depicts the confusion in Meiji’s mind: her exchanges with imaginary friends, her predicament as the innocent abroad, so accustomed to living in confined quarters and familiar settings that she is afflicted by agoraphobia when faced with the “crushing limitlessness” of the outside world:
It was not possible, she realised, to own this kind of formless space, with no walls or ceiling to define it. It could never be befriended or tamed. In every direction, the alien endlessness engulfed and annihilated her. She could not so much as control how far her own steps would take her, or the sound of her voice upon the air. Even her shadow, that kindly, friendly companion that had danced with her upon the walls of her room, allowing her to fashion it into antlered deer and knob-nosed swans, had here become a stranger, a monstrous giant.
One of the things I most admire about Padmanabhan as a writer is her unselfconscious ability to create disturbing, morally complex, even cringe-inducing scenes; there’s an honesty and transparency to the most shocking passages in her work and you never get the impression that she’s making a deliberate effort to shock. (For a sense of what I mean, see the unflinching description of an exploitative sexual encounter between an older man and a “smooth-skinned and beautiful” 14-year-old boy in the title story in Kleptomania. Or another story in that collection, “Betrayal”, where a character reflects that a woman’s body can betray her during a rape. Or just read Harvest, her dystopian play about organ-selling in an alternate India, which should really be more widely available than it is.)

Escape is for the most part a gently flowing narrative, with graceful, reflective passages such as the one where a group of men sit about recounting their dreams and wondering what they mean, or a lengthy account of a juggler plying his trade. So the edgier passages, when they do appear, are all the more effective. There’s the description of a prosthetic penis that Meiji must wear to pass off as a little boy, and of her first period. A sudden, entirely unexpected burst of violence directed at a helpless creature. A passage where a character recounts a distant memory of a woman’s vagina in threatening terms, as “a great scarlet gorge, ringed with writhing black serpents”.

Meiji and Youngest – equally compelling and sympathetic characters with their own internal dilemmas – inevitably become distanced from each other as their journey nears its end (at one point Meiji’s draws a parallel between the Generals’ callous reshaping of reality with her uncles’ sculpting of her own life), and this adds to the complexity of the tale. But an earlier passage that acutely captures the book's moral ambiguity is the one where the two of them are bathing together and though Youngest’s feelings are not explicitly spelled out for the reader, a throwaway sentence indicates that he has become aroused by the naked girl; that in spite of his conscious ideas about right and wrong, his body is instinctively responding to hers. These sexual stirrings are a source of discomfort for both him and the reader (it’s inappropriate – by our conventional notions of propriety – because of his status as her blood relative and guardian), but the ambivalence of this passage comes from our knowledge that he is capable of these stirrings because he can see her as a human being, an equal, rather than as an object of loathing; for others like the General, she is nothing more than a vermin. Here and in other such passages, we see that it isn’t easy to separate our finer human qualities from what mortifies us about ourselves.

All of this adds up to make Escape difficult to classify. As an adventure and a work of imagination, it has more than enough that will appeal to younger readers, but it is an intrinsically adult book, and very much a novel of ideas. In India, science fiction and fantasy are still often thought of as genres for children, though this is slowly changing: Padmanabhan is one of a number of Indian writers – Samit Basu, Vandana Singh and Priya Sarakkai Chabria are among the others – who are shifting boundaries that were once firmly marked, and expanding the possibilities of what can be achieved in the genre.

Escape ends on a note that makes it obvious that a sequel is on the way. I was slightly disappointed because it amounted to being cut off from Meiji and her story midway, and I was unprepared for this. I can only hope Padmanabhan finishes the story: during an email exchange a few days ago, she told me that she would write the sequel “only if this book does well, whatever that means. I can't bear the thought of writing a book for which there's no market”. These temperamental writer-types...

[Manjula's blog is here. Also, can't resist re-linking to my graphic encounter with Suki a few years ago]


  1. Ok, so you've totally sold me the book.. :) But on a more serious note, the novel does seem to fascinating....the use of a fictitious manual is of course a classic SF tool, be it the "Encyaclopedia Galactica" in Foundation, or the eponymous "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy". The overall settings remind me of Manish Jha's film "Matrubhoomi" , a film which was brilliant in parts, but ultimately flattered to deceive...

    P.S. The first Foundation novel is in fact a collection of loosely connected short stories, and not a novel per se.... so I guess you can get started :)

  2. You know, I wish you hadn't included that last quote - I was actually thinking that the book sounded interesting till then, despite the fact that I've been underwhelmed by Ms. Padmanabhan's work in the past. But a 'writer' who will only write a book if there's a market for it? No thanks.

  3. Aditya: I reviewed Matrubhoomi here. Coincidentally the first comment on that post is by Manjula - I made that connection only midway through writing this review. (We discussed it during an email Q&A subsequently.)

    Falstaff: I wouldn't take that assertion completely at face value: also bear in mind that Padmanabhan is hardly a very mainstream writer (and she is known for shying away from attention/treading her own path). But if you've been underwhelmed by her past work, it's probably best to skip this.

  4. The plot seems very similar to P. D. James' "The Children of Men" -- this time, it's women rather than children who have disappeared from the world -- but I'm quite sure Padmanabhan has different concerns than James.

  5. eeoww manjula P? THAT ONE should hang up her pen or word processor, whatever

  6. Hey, briefly delurking to say there's something for you at my place.

    Also to say I loved the comic strip!

  7. Sunayana: thanks! Very embarrassed.

  8. Dear Jabberwock,

    Glad to read your critical commentary on Escape. I am researching on the very novel. I was hoping if I could get some help from you on that, since you have analyzed it so well.