Science and fiction meet in India: The scientifiction of Jayant Narlikar

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05-Aug-2016

 

The year is 1974. The Marathi Vidnyan Parishad – an institution dedicated to propagating science in society – receives a submission from one Narayan Vinayak Jagtap for its annual story writing competition. This science fiction story, Krishna Vivar, goes on to win the first prize, heralding a new voice in Indian science fiction. It’s only later that people find out that Narayan Vinayak Jagtap or NVJ was in fact just a nom de plume for JVN, Jayant Vishnu Narlikar.

Jayant Narlikar. Scientist. World-renowned astrophysicist. Champion of models alternative to the Big Bang theory, who developed the conformal gravity theory with the English astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle while at Cambridge. Padma Vishushan Awardee. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Prize for his autobiography, Chaar Nagarantale Maze Vishwa (now available in English from National Book Trust, as My Tale of Four Cities). Tireless populariser of science – through books, articles, and radio & television programmes, including the popular Brahmand on Doordarshan – for which he was honoured by UNESCO with the Kalinga Prize. And like his mentor, Fred Hoyle, a writer of science fiction.

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Science fiction is often accused of not being adequately ‘scientifically rigorous’ or grounded in real science; of portraying places and situations that people cannot relate to, not rooted in a world familiar to us; of being complex and convoluted; of not anticipating the future enough. Sturgeon’s Law is applicable here, as is the problem of definition (both of which we read about in NWW01: Dreams our Stuff is Made of). But none of these so-called accusations can be made against Jayant Narlikar’s stories, not least one of definition.

As Jayant Narlikar has himself stated, a very loose definition of science fiction has led to even pure horror stories being depicted as ‘science fiction’. He himself prefers science fiction in the vein of Jules Verne and HG Wells, grounded in the science of their day, but ones that foresaw the future that was to be or will be. Seen from that perspective, the term most applicable to Jayant Narlikar’s work then is ‘scientifiction’, coined by Hugo Gernsback (mentioned earlier in NWW02: Brave New Words) and this is how Gernsback defined it, “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, HG Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision… Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are always instructive.” Jayant Narlikar’s stories fits this definition like a glove – they’re charming, contain scientific fact, prophetic vision, make for tremendously interesting reading and are instructive, sometimes cautionary, and additionally, are ‘Indian’ in spirit and outlook, reflecting its long history and rich culture.

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They’re charming because of the simple prose and the style – remember Narlikar is no dilettante when it comes to writing (he’s won a Sahitya Academy Award!) – and because his wide range of non-science interests enlivens his work. As to scientific fact, it is a given that being a scientist of the highest order gives him an edge. To quote Narlikar himself from his book, The Scientific Edge, “Can scientists write good science fiction? Certainly, with their knowledge of the subject they start with an advantage, but boldness and vision are needed to make it good science fiction.” In the book, he mentions Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud to illustrate this point, but he could just as well be talking about his own work.

But why did he decide to write sci-fi in the first place? Says Narlikar, “I like storytelling and felt that science has so many interesting aspects that one can tell them in the form of stories. I saw how Fred Hoyle had made a name for himself in this way and so felt encouraged to try myself”. I for one am glad he did. But did reading and writing sci-fi make a difference to Narlikar, the scientist? ‘Yes’, he says. To quote him verbatim, “Perhaps I have a deeper appreciation of science than I had without sci-fi.” He personally recommends A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough by Fred Hoyle & John Eliot and the works of Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.

“I like storytelling and felt that science has so many interesting aspects that one can tell them in the form of stories. I saw how Fred Hoyle had made a name for himself in this way and so felt encouraged to try myself”

Science via sci-fi. It has a nice ring to it. And perhaps this explains best the purpose of Narlikar’s scientifiction, why most of his protagonists and key characters are scientists and why, in his stories, science doesn’t overshadow the tale to be told.

If you’ve seen the movies Deep Impact or Armageddon, about the earth being threatened with a collision with a comet and asteroid respectively, you’ll remember that the use of thermonuclear weapons to destroy these objects, break them up or veer them off course was key to human survival. But for readers of Narlikar’s stories, this is nothing new. His 1976 story, Dhoomketu (The Comet) features all the these elements – a comet named after its Indian discoverer, Comet Dutta, on a collision course to earth which leads to a daring plan to use nuclear weapons and veer the comet off course.

The Comet is also a great example of the ‘Indianness’ that informs his work. It goes beyond just naming the characters Manoj Dutta and Indrani and setting them in a city like Kolkata. In the story, while an international team of scientists is working on the plan to divert Comet Dutta from its collision course, albeit secretly, Dutta’s own wife arranges for a yagna to be carried out to ward off any evil effects the comet may bring with it. After the mission is successful, and Earth is saved, his wife gives all credit to the miraculous escape to the yagna that was performed. Change the names and the city this story is set in, and it would work just as well, but what would stick out is the yagna and the other elements like the rasagulla shop down the road, which could not be anywhere else, but in India. This is just an illustration of how the ‘Indianness’ in Narlikar’s sci-fi stems not from mere nomenclature or geography but from India’s unique cultural ambience and many a times, its history.

A great example of this is his story, The Adventure, in which the protagonist, the historian Gangadharpant Gaitonde, gets transported to an alternate universe in which the Marathas won the Third Battle of Panipat and sees for himself how the course of Indian history was changed by that one turning point, leading to a future in which India is a prosperous and self-reliant democratic nation, that ‘…had not been subjected to slavery to the white man; it had learnt to stand on its feet and knew what self-respect was’.

The Return of Vaman begins at Gauribidanur in Karnataka when a group of scientists stumble upon a metal container deep underground which seems to have left behind by a long-lost, yet advanced, civilization. It contains instructions to create a super computer that leads to the creation of a robot – the titular Vaman, named after the most famous dwarf in Indian mythology – but which also happens to be Von Neumann machine.

Another theme that runs through many of Narlikar’s stories is a nod to forgotten history, lost knowledge and of collective amnesia. In The Cosmic Explosion, which begins in the time of King Harshavardhana and ends in the distant future, this forgotten knowledge are the events recorded in the 7th century by astronomers of that time to help future generations prepare for a celestial event that might have momentous implications for Earth and its inhabitants, but the value of which is not recognized by present-day scientists. The Cosmic Explosion is as much a tribute to ancient knowledge and civilizations past, as it is a cautionary tale.

Just as with the full-length novel, The Return of Vaman, which begins at Gauribidanur in Karnataka when a group of scientists stumble upon a metal container deep underground which seems to have left behind by a long-lost, yet advanced, civilization. It contains instructions to create super computer that leads to the creation of a robot that is a metre tall – the titular Vaman, named after the most famous dwarf in Indian mythology – but which also happens to be Von Neumann machine. All those fears of a superintelligent machine taking over the world – a theme we see so very often in sci-fi – become very real once Vaman the robot is ready. While there is a lot of science, explained in simple terms, with corporate intrigue and criminal elements also in the mix, The Return of Vaman reads at times like a Hindi thriller movie.

Science. Fiction. Future. History. All of this and more, told in a simple style, is what makes his sci-fi stories such good, easy reads. Writing as he does, in his native language Marathi, there are still many stories that await their English translation.[/perfectpullquote]

Cricket. That great national obsession. Jayant Narlikar has written a story that features cricket as well, The Rare Idol of Ganesha. Probably the only sci-fi story that begins with a cricket match; to be specific, a test match at The Oval between India and England. In which Pramod Rangnekar, India’s right-arm bowler who is playing in what is possibly his last match, suddenly transforms into a left-arm bowler, decimates the English batting line-up and ends up taking all of the 20 English wickets on offer. Behind this remarkable, nay miraculous feat is – as always in Narlikar’s stories – a scientist. As fantastic as the premise may sound, there is, again as always, a sound scientific explanation. Clue: It involves non-Euclidian geometry, general relativity and a twist in four-dimensional space-time.

Science. Fiction. Future. History. All of this and more, told in a simple style, is what makes his sci-fi stories such good, easy reads. Writing as he does, in his native language Marathi, there are still many stories that await their English translation, including the intriguingly titled Antaralatala Bhasmasur (Bhasmasur in Space; after the mythological demon), which I certainly hope will happen soon so that those of us who don’t know Marathi can read more of Jayant Narlikar’s scientifiction.

That said, The Return of Vaman, The Cosmic Explosion and Tales of the Future, which collects ten of his best stories including The Comet, The Adventure and The Rare Idol of Ganesha, are available in English for anyone who wants to read some simple and good Indian sci-fi. And to make it easy for you to do just that, we’re giving away this great book.

return of vaman

Apart from The Return of Vaman, this collection also includes The Rare Idol of Ganesha and insights into the genesis and scientific background of the stories in this volume, along with an autobiographical account of the Jayant Narlikar’s life-long interest in sci-fi and his contributions to the genre. All you have to do to win this book is answer this simple question – borrowing from the central premise of Narlikar’s The Adventure – ‘Which event in Indian history, had it turned out differently, would have had the greatest impact on our present day India? And why?’ Best answer with the most details – or story that tells us all how – wins! It’s that simple. Tell us your answer, story or scenario in the comments section of this post on or before Independence Day, August 15, 2016. You can also tweet on Twitter (where else?!) or post your entry on Facebook, with the hashtag #NWWonFD or leave a note for us on the FactorDaily FB page.

NWW contest:

Last but definitely not the least, the announcement of the winner of the Philip K. Dick Collection. While there were some very nice explanations of why androids may – or may not – dream of electric sheep or , there was one creative entry that took the shape of a very short, evocative story, and that came from Sourish Dey. You can read his winning entry on Facebook, here. Congratulations Sourish! Your book will reach you soon; enjoy the read.

On that happy and winning note, I bid you peace and long life, and hope to see you again next week as we continue to explore the many worlds of science fiction.

P.S. If you’ve liked what you read above, it is in the largest part due to Jayant Narlikar himself, who kindly had a look at the draft and made it better with his inputs, sharing not just his views and opinions on sci-fi with me, but also the background and the details behind the story we began this edition of New Worlds Weekly with. I’m now an even bigger fan of Jayant Narlikar than I was when I began writing this post.


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