Friday, January 09, 2009

Biophilia, intolerance, future Ramayanas: Vandana Singh Q&A

An email conversation with author Vandana Singh, mostly about her short-story collection The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (which I blogged about here)

The title of this collection leads one to expect science-fiction, but some of these stories (“Hunger”, for example) are more concerned with the everyday lives of people who feel like aliens in their own skin. How would you classify these tales?

Really, I don’t classify my stories, I just write them! The story, as it is being written, tells me what it will become and after that it is up to critics and readers to make of them what they will. But in hindsight I admit I write some stories that, while not explicitly science-fiction, have a science-fictional feel to them, in that they make you become aware of the wonder and/or strangeness in everyday things and events. The editors who first published “Hunger” were looking for something that was what they called “interstitial”, that defied boundaries and classifications (ironically enough) and what they liked about this story was that although in one way it was realist, you couldn’t fully understand it unless you were aware of the themes and concerns of science fiction.

There are other stories I’ve written, not in this volume, that can be read as realist fiction but have an undercurrent, or ethos, that is fantastical in some way. And part of it is that this is the way I see the world, as a source of unending wonder, from which we’ve divorced ourselves, so that each reunion is a recognition or remembering of something we’d forgotten.

Strangeness – finding it in familiar things and occasionally in oneself – is a recurring theme in your writing. What do characters such as Divya (in “Hunger”) and Susheela (in “Thirst”) help you achieve?

Divya and Susheela have a kind of binocular vision. They’ve never really separated themselves from the wider world – unlike other people, who live in a closed circle of mostly human making, limited by their jobs and responsibilities, by social custom, by unquestioned cultural limitations, the daily humdrum-ness of their lives, not noticing anything outside of their little cages. These two protagonists maintain some connection with the greater world, a world that is complex, ancient, sometimes terrifying. And what they know, as the protagonist of the story “The Wife” comes to realise as well, is that this wilderness, which is echoed in the geography of the human mind, also holds the possibility of liberation.

You wrote an essay recently about the self-absorption of our species and our refusal to “see” other life-forms. What in your view are the repercussions of this apathy?

I think the current ecological crisis we are in is a direct result of our alienation from what we so distantly call nature (as though it were possible to be outside it). We have the mass extinction of numerous species – among mammals alone, 20-25% of the world’s mammals are in danger of extinction due to habitat loss and other things. We have the collapse of every ecosystem in the world, we have global warming, threatening to destroy not only the human species but possibly all life on Earth. We’ve isolated ourselves so well mentally from the fact that we are subject to the laws of nature, that our fate is tied in with the fate of other creatures on this Earth, that we find these dire predictions surprising, or unbelievable, despite all the scientific evidence.

Imagine now that instead of being obsessed solely with our lives and bank balances, instead of trying to keep up with the neighbours or comparing the largeness of our houses and the number of vacations spent abroad, we were, instead, aware of the greater world, open to its wonders, appreciative of our belonging to it. Imagine that we noticed other creatures around us, and were sensitive to their lives and deaths. This tendency might actually be deeply ingrained inside us, as the biologist E O Wilson surmises – he calls this affinity for nature biophilia – and, in fact, studies show that people are happier in the presence of trees, that greenery and birdsong are necessary for our psychological survival.

Unfortunately consumerist culture suppresses this, trivializes it, or worse, Disneyfies it. So people lose a sense of connection to nature and fill that emptiness with dead things, and wonder why they are unhappy. If we were aware of the natural world of which we are a part, and were open to it and appreciative of it, would it be so easy to clear-cut forests, pollute the air, let sparrows disappear from Delhi?

Does this apathy also tie in with the human tendency for intolerance towards other people who are dissimilar from them (in terms of religion, class or whatever other categorisation)?

I can speculate that the human tendency for intolerance toward other humans is related to our modern distancing from Nature, because their roots are similar: fear, greed, self-absorption, the inability to recognise that another’s fate is tied up with yours. I think one of the things that has become apparent in today’s India is not only the communal divisions but the class divisions, where we become blind to the suffering of the rural poor or the boy with the jharoo on the street corner. We shut out all this in much the same way as we have shut out nature. We are putting protective walls around us, and each time we do this the space we are in gets smaller, until we realise (or not) that we’ve imprisoned ourselves in our own fears.

How do you define speculative fiction? As a reader, what are some of the works that drew you into this genre?

I don’t define it. There are enough arguments about the definition! I can tell you some things about it, however. Speculative fiction has the largest canvas of all fictional forms: the universe itself. Speculative fiction is the oldest form of story – look at the oldest tales in every culture. I like to think of realist fiction as a sub-genre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is the place where the imagination ranges freely, where realism is only one option. And in fact speculative fiction allows us to examine reality in a deeper and more powerful way than realist fiction. In allowing us to reinvent reality, it enables us to question things as they are, to indulge in deep social critiques and thought experiments, to answer, as imaginatively as we can, “what-if” questions.

What drew me into it were a multitude of things: hearing the Ramayana and Mahabharata from my mother and grandmother, reading lurid little paperbacks in Hindi about paris and jadugars, reading Asimov and Clarke in my pre-teens, discovering Ray Bradbury when I was eleven and Ursula K Le Guin much later. But also what drew me to it was a desire for freedom, a desire to ask questions, such as: what if things were different from what they are now?

What are the possibilities of speculative fiction in India, given the rich variety of legends and myths that we have?

The possibilities are endless. I think we Indians are naturals at this stuff. I’m not talking solely about myth-making but about our absurd and contradictory tendency to come up with new ways of thinking, to adapt and reinvent tradition, to embrace modernity and question it at the same time, to allow for diversity and contradiction – to appreciate complexity. Think about the ideas that have come from this subcontinent: not just flying chariots and ten-headed demons but Satyagraha and the micro-credit scheme!

Currently the world is becoming increasingly homogenised, mono-culturated, if you will, to create the largest market we have known, merely to serve the needs of small-minded capitalists with limited imaginations. We are continually distracted from what is real and meaningful in the world. Only our tendency to go against the grain, to resist conformity, to risk appearing foolish in order to be revolutionary – in other words, only our imaginations will save us. And we have plenty of that.

Would you ever consider doing, say, an imaginative retelling of an existing story such as the Ramayana or Mahabharata?

I know people have done this, and there is nothing wrong with it. But personally for me I would not rewrite the old stories: I have clear and fond memories of my grandmother’s voice declaiming parts of the Valmiki Ramayana. However, I do enjoy writing variations on the theme in different times and settings. So for instance what I’ve recently done in a story that came out earlier this year is to imagine a possible Ramayana in the future – a man whose world was taken away from him, who models himself on Ram and goes on a mission that takes him on an intergalactic adventure. The result isn’t quite what he imagined. This is only one possible future Ramayana; even the current epic has so many versions, which comes back to the Indian tolerance for multiplicity, for many voices. That is something to celebrate.

[An earlier post about Singh’s writings here]


  1. Though I quite agree with Vandana Singh that people don't "connect" with nature anymore, I do feel people in cities tend to romanticise nature far too much (as i once did). Recently I moved to a village in Goa. And i have come to realise that nature is not just birds and trees. It's a jungle really. It's snakes and monkeys and frogs and rats. It's often scary. People built cities to get away from the jungle. It's easier for man to deal with a thieving human than a thieving, destructive monkey.