Everything in this quirky speculative fiction is about a search for essence
It’s quirky, but then, speculative fiction, or spec-fic, tends to be so: it’s in the nature of the beast. The quirks begin at the beginning, in a five-page prelude to the contents. It contains what seems to be a pretentious assertion that writers present their works to the public with the humility of those aware of their incompetence. And then there’s the uncertainty about the number of stories – “about” seventeen – included in the book. But then the prelude also tells an anecdote about Rajaji’s idea of the relationship between the title of a literary work and its story: the title is a summary of the book. The example is Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, which, Rajaji said, without reading the book, was about vast ambition and limited means. From there on the wit becomes apparent until prelude’s end, where another pretentious bit offers blessings to those courageous enough to proceed past it.
Another idiosyncratic bit is a sort of academic essay, and, perhaps the reason for the doubt about the number of stories in the book. Its title in full: “O Adikavi, how many ways are there HOW NOT TO TELL THE RAMAYANA and yet, somehow, tell it?” This essay contains the question every writer confronts frequently, usually without answer: is there an essence to a story? From this come other questions: what, for instance, is common to all versions of the Ramayana? Is there some way to define the essence of the Ramayana by way of what shouldn’t go into the story? There are no answers, but, instead, references and insights.
The stories are no less quirky. Some are witty, some dystopic, some jagged and sharp-edged, some with elements of romance, and there are some where the very basis of the story seems to shift. In the first story, “The Man without Quintessence”, the narrator looks for one Ringo Singh Mann, killed in an “autocide” (death by automobile?) and finds him in a housing colony in what used to be salt mines. In a series of surreal scenes, the gender of one of the characters seems to shift during the course of his/her single conversation with the narrator, while a pedantic government official questions the narrator’s use of the word ‘quintessence’: it should be ‘quiddity’, instead.
There’s “The Invisible Hand”, in which Vishnu and Shiva swap their roles of preservation and destruction, with consequences inevitable but unforeseen even by these gods. This raises the likelihood of man having created the gods in his own image rather than vice versa.
There’s “Seven Questions in a Gear-Constructed World”, which contains only six questions but leaves the reader hauntingly aware of the seventh question and the death of stories…
In “Love in a Hot Climate”, the protagonist, desperately in love with the daughter of a government functionary, sure to be rejected as a suitor by the father, finds a way to impress him: he amuses Milton Friedman, just then on a brief visit to India, in the presence the father. And in “Robots of Eden”, romance takes a shape far more complex than a triangle: there’s the narrator, his mother, his ex-wife, their daughter, the ex’s Turkish lover. Some of these characters are drug-enhanced, which perhaps accounts for their surreal behaviour.
And there is the story from which the collection gets its title. In full, it’s named, “I gave you a flight of words to make visible THE INCONCEIVABLE IDEA OF THE SUN. How was I to know, it would strike you blind?” The narrator searches for a book that he remembers changed his life. He and his wife, with her own collection of books, decide to get rid of one copy of all the books of which they each have a copy. When they are done, he finds the book, but his wife loses the book that changed her life...
The theme running through the stories and the Ramayana article, the theme that comes through clearly when the book is done, is simply this: what is the essence of a story? Everything in this book is about a search for essence, in stories, in romance, and, eventually, in being human. And since that essence can’t be classified, the essential story is beyond genres, as every writer hopes his story is.
The writing is clear, educated, and fluent, with few flourishes and much wit. Not one of the stories is unreadable. So, if you, too, concern yourself with essence, and are willing to have your mind bent, this book is a must-read.
Excerpt (from “Contents”): It seems that in one Belgian army unit, the perennial feud between Flemings and Walloons got so exacerbated, the Commandant had no choice but to gather all the men. 'Flemings to the left side,' ordered the Commandant. Half the men clattered to the left. 'Walloons to the right.' About an equal number crowded to the right. One man, visibly nervous, remained at attention in the centre of the field. 'What is your problem, soldier?' barked the Commandant. 'I'm a Belgian, Sir!" The Commandant slapped his thigh. At last! A patriot with sense and sensibility. In the army, nonetheless. 'Excellent!' beamed the Commandant. 'What is your name, soldier?' The soldier saluted and replied: 'Rabinowitz, Sir!" Trust the only real Belgian in the group to be Jew.
The moral is clear. As with Belgians, Flemings, Walloons and Jews, a story can be filed under many names. Fortunately, a great story survives its classifications to become part of literature.
The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun
pp. 260, Rs 599