Scientists doing scientifiction: The science fiction of India’s people of science

Gautham Shenoy February 10, 2018 10 min

A scientist. The history of true science fiction in India starts with a pioneering scientist. The great Jagadish Chandra Bose, who in 1896 wrote a story of how a ‘cyclone that was about to put the heart of the British empire in danger’ was tamed with hair oil. The story was called Niruddesher Kahini (Story of the Untraceable) and would earn him the title, ‘Father of Bengali Science Fiction’. But while JC Bose might’ve written this sci-fi story to win a competition, and promote Kuntalin hair oil, it was done without compromising on hard scientific principles.

To that, the later generations of Indian scientists who’ve followed in his footsteps in writing science fiction would add another layer of purpose – that of getting people to think about science. After all, stories are one of the primary ways humans learn.

The term that best suits the kind of stories our scientists have written is “Scientifiction”

Science via science fiction. Entertainment intermingled with education. Tales of imagination told well while being rooted in scientific principles and technological possibilities. Seen from this perspective, the term that best suits the kind of stories our scientists have written is “Scientifiction”. A term coined by pioneering sci-fi editor Hugo Gernsback who defined it thus, “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, HG Wells…type of a story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact …Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are always instructive. They supply knowledge that we might not otherwise obtain—and they supply it in a very palatable form. For the best of these modern writers of scientifiction have the knack of imparting knowledge, and even inspiration, without once making us aware that we are being taught.”

Left: Bal Phondke. Right: Cover of the science fiction anthology – It Happened Tomorrow – edited by Phondke.

Harking back to this definition of what ‘science fiction’ is, is Bal Phondke, in his preface to ‘It Happened Tomorrow’, an anthology of science fiction stories curated and edited by him. The nom-de-plume of Dr Gajanan Phondke, Bal Phondke was a nuclear biologist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, who would go on to become the Editor of Science Today magazine, and finally become the Director of the Publications and Information Directorate of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Also see: What’s Jagadish Chandra Bose and his hair oil doing in a sci-fi column?

Like JC Bose, Bal Phondke also broke into the literary scene – in Maharashtra – with his prize-winning sci-fi story ‘Sadashivacha Totaya’ in 1978, in the annual competition conducted by the Marathi Vijnan Parishad. Along with Bengali, Marathi holds the distinction of having a long tradition of science fiction, beginning 1911 with S.B. Ranade’s Tarecha Hasya. And in Marathi science fiction, Bal Phondke would shine as one of its brightest stars, publishing short stories regularly, including a series of detective fiction where a police officer and a scientist partner to solve crime, publish anthologies in Marathi, and edit the aforementioned sci-fi anthology, It Happened Tomorrow, that collects stories – many translated into English for the first time – from Kannada, Oriya, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, etc., including one of his own stories, ‘Second Einstein’. And one of the authors whose story features in this anthology is Bal Phondke’s fellow Maharashtrian, scientist, and perhaps the only person whose contribution to Indian sci-fi matches that of Phondke – the renowned astrophysicist, Jayant V Narlikar.

Left: Jayant Narlikar. Center: Cover of Tales of the Future that contains ten sci-fi stories written & chosen by Narlikar. Right: Cover of The Return of Vaman (Vaman Parat Na Aala in the Marathi original), one of his most popular novels.

Like JC Bose and Bal Phondke, Narlikar came into prominence when he won a story writing competition, under the assumed name of Narayan Vinayak Jagtap, in 1974, four years before Bal Phondke won the same Marathi Vijnan Parishad competition. “I like storytelling and felt that science has so many interesting aspects that one can tell them in the form of stories. Perhaps I have a deeper appreciation of science than I had without sci-fi,” says Narlikar.

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

Over the years, Narlikar has been prodigious in his sci-fi output, inspiring not a few young minds to get interested in science. Many of his stories are now available in English translations, including his famous novel that deals with the discovery of an ancient Von Neumann machine, Vaaman Parat Na Aala (translated in English as The Return of Vaman).

Left: Prof. Rajashekhar Bhoosnurmath. Right: Cover of Psychorama, an anthology of selected science fiction stories written by Bhoosnurmath.

Meanwhile, down south in Karnataka, the first Kannada science fiction stories started appearing in popular Kannada magazines, by a pioneering writer who also wrote under the name ‘Rabhoo’. They soon became so popular that the magazines would bring out special editions devoted to Rabhoo’s sci-fi stories. Who was Rabhoo? Professor Rajashekhar Bhoosnurmath, who amongst other things also held the position of Principal, Karnakata Science College in Dharwad, and in the Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishad. While his stories squarely fell in the ambit of science fiction, Bhoosnurmath though preferred to call them, Scientific Stories or in Kannada, Vaignanika Kathegalu, and his books – of which Operation UFO and Manvantara were most successful – as Vaignanika Kadambarigalu, or Scientific Novels. Rabhoo’s sci-fi was always entertaining, and the stories range from space adventures to disturbingly plausible future worlds, but always with the primacy of science, across disciplines, with the tales being rooted in scientific principles. Even to this day, years after his passing, Bhoosnurmath remains the only writer who has a substantial body of work in science fiction in Kannada and the most influential to the extent that the genre is called ‘Vaignanika Katha Sahitya’ or scientific literature.

Even to this day, years after his passing, Bhoosnurmath remains the only writer who has a substantial body of work in science fiction in Kannada.   

Next door in Tamil Nadu, while not strictly a scientist, and with an emphasis on fiction more than hard science, and with the purpose tending more towards entertainment than education, Sujatha – the pen name of S. Rangarajan, the engineering mind behind India’s Electronic Voting Machines – in a career writing spanning almost four decades would write, along with pulp fiction, science fiction in Tamil that would not only become very popular but would cement his name as one of the most widely read sci-fi writers in India. From dystopian futures to stories featuring his scientist hero, Dr Raghavanandam and his incredible inventions, Sujatha’s stories brought the present sharply into focus via the future. The Rajnikanth-starrer Enthiran (Robot) was based on one of his stories, with Sujatha working on the screenplay for the same when he passed away.

While it is hard to come by English translations of his stories, one sci-fi story by Sujatha, along with one by Rajashekhar Bhoosnurmath (translated into English by the author himself), can be found in the Bal Phondke-edited anthology mentioned above. Meanwhile, continuing the tradition of scientists writing science fiction, in Tamil Nadu is a man who paused his writing because he got busy with India’s first lunar probe project, Chandrayaan-1 – Nellai Muthu, who balances his work as a scientist working at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), with his passion for writing science fiction revolving around space, interstellar contact, and alien civilisations.

Above: Sukanya Datta, with covers of three anthologies containing her science fiction stories, Worlds Apart, Beyond The Blue, and Once Upon A Blue Moon.

If Nellai Muthu writes predominantly about space, for that’s his chosen field, and physics dominates Rajashekhar Bhoosmurmath’s writing, it’s biology in the case of Dr Sukanya Dutta, across its branches, from botany to zoology, the latter being the field in which she holds a doctorate in, and currently working as a scientist with the CSIR, and her stories are often described as, ‘perched at the point of the just possible’. Infused with humour, Datta’s stories span the gamut of possibilities – from stories set on Mars, to tales based amongst tribes, and many set in the near future. Photosynthesising people, humanoids that don’t just pass the Turing test, but score high on the EQ (Emotional Quotient) scale, mind transfer, and bio-hacking, all these and more appear in Datta’s sci-fi. Like Phondke, Datta’s repertoire also includes short detective fiction, with her detective, Lucky Shome invariably using his vast knowledge of science to solve a crime. Of the scientist-cum-sf writers mentioned here, Datta is a notable exception in that most of her stories are written in English.

Left: Dinesh Chandra Goswami. Right: Cover of ‘The Hair Timer’, an anthology of Goswami’s Assamese sci-fi stories.

In 1970, when still a student in Assam, a young Dinesh Chandra Goswami was asked by the editor of a magazine to contribute a story for a special Durga Puja edition. A student of science, it was but, natural that he would pen a sci-fi short story. Thus began a new era in Asamiya literature with regards to science fiction. Goswami would go on to be a physics teacher, before working as a scientist at CSIR, New Delhi, and at the Regional Research Laboratory in Jorhat. But during all this time, he would continue to write science fiction stories and novels, which today stand at seven novels, multiples anthologies, and over 80 short stories, some of which have been translated into English and collected in ‘The Hair Timer’. Goswami would go beyond the written page to take science to the people and has also written over 40 science fiction radio dramas for All India Radio (AIR). Goswami too is a believer in the ‘scientifiction’ definition of sci-fi that ‘if there is no futuristic vision of science, if an imaginary world is not created on the basis of science; then it will remain unscientific, cannot be considered science fiction’.

What all of the above people of science have in common – apart from being writers in science fiction – is their desire to educate young minds.

What all of the above people of science have in common – apart from being writers in science fiction – is their desire to educate young minds and interested readers in the concepts of science. As evangelists of science, it is then little wonder that invariably almost all of these people have written many non-fiction books on science and technology. And at the heart of all their writing is a sense of being rooted not just in science, but in India, and its cultural milieu. Especially given that most of them write in their native language. What this also means is that very few are available in English translations for those not from that particular state, or who can’t read, say, Kannada. Which is unfortunate, because these science fiction tales are quite charming, and speak to us as Indians, and deserve to be read more. One also wonders how many more such scientists writing science fiction lie undiscovered by a larger pan-Indian audience.

Because children and sci-fi readers everywhere would relate to them. Not just are the names familiar – the Ravis, Patils, Rajeshs, Chaudhuris, Junaids, and Deshmukhs – what is also familiar is the culture which their characters inhabit. As Bal Phondke notes, Indian science fiction is not merely that which comes from within the geographical or political boundaries of a republic called India but is one that speaks to its people in their language. And in the case of translations, that language would be ‘Indian English’.

Another defining feature of all these stories written by these Indian scientists is that they almost always have happy endings.

Another defining feature of all these stories written by these Indian scientists is that they almost always have happy endings, and while science is in focus, the stories are about people, Indians, human emotions, and a solution and resolution that satisfies human needs, hopes and dreams. In that sense, another apt description of these stories would be Theodore Sturgeon’s definition of a good sci-fi story, “A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content”.

As they say, the people that love science best are scientists. And we must be thankful as a society that perhaps more than in any other country, professional Indian scientists have turned writers too, writing about science, and science fiction, educating their audiences while entertaining them. Long may this tradition continue!


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