Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mainstream and Genre SF: Emergence and Trends in Hindi vis a vis Western Literature

Mainstream and Genre SF: Emergence and Trends in Hindi vis a vis Western Literature
Arvind Mishra 
Indian Science Fiction Writers Association
16, Cotton Mill Colony
Chowkaghat ,Varanasi-221002
It would be perhaps worthwhile to get familiarize with the terminologies and abbreviations used in the write-up first and then begin a focused discussion on the topic. Literary academics usually indulge in discussions pertaining to the term ‘genre’ which in fact is indicative of a group of literary works having common defining characteristics. For example .in the mystery it is crime, in science fiction it is an extrapolated technology or social system. There are many other recognized genres as well: humour, history, romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, suspense, action .etc. 

  Sf is either labeled science fiction purposefully by some authors or written by so called mainstream writers but seldom mentioned as sf. The term ‘genre sf is used to denote that science fiction which is either labeled as science fiction or the one which is instantly recognized by its audience as belonging to that category or both.(Clute and Nicholls,1995) . Mainstream can technically refer to anything that is not a defined genre/category. It is indicative of the tradition of realistic fiction and encompasses all serious prose fiction. 
It could further be stated that a conscious author of genre sf is very well aware of working within a particular genre which contain certain habits of thought ,certain ‘conventions’ of rules of story telling. .Many different genres could also be easily identified by the fact that they have their own separate sections in the bookstores. The stuff that is under the general fiction sections of the bookstores is considered mainstream fiction. Mainstream is also used sometimes by some people as a synonym for "commercial," which is used to differentiate books like ’Discovery of India’ by Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru and many other well known titles. Thus when the term "mainstream,” is used it basically refers to non-genre fiction, which is the most common definition of the term. As we know there are ‘subgenres ’also within a genre and common sub-genres in science fiction are: hard science fiction (lots of science,) soft (sociological) sf (focused on social and cultural issues,) detective sf, comic sf, science fantasy, and cyberpunk (Cyborg, man –computer interface stuff) etc.
Early writings in Hindi sf appears to have been mainly a mainstream endeavour .The first sf,  ‘Aaschry Vrittaant’ (A Strange Tale) was written by Ambika Datt Vyas and was published in a mainstream Hindi magazine “Peeyush Pravah’’during  1883 -1884 as a serial story. This perhaps was a trend setter to herald an entirely a new kind of fictional literature hitherto unfamiliar to mainstream Hindi literati. The trend continued with more of such literature which were no doubt inspired by the similar western stuff then in vogue in USA and UK. A famous Hindi literary popular mainstream  magazine ‘Saraswati ’published a story in its part -1,no-6,issue entitled “Chandrlok ki Yatra”(A Journery to Moon ) written by Babu Keshav Prasad Singh along with a Hindi prose story which was later claimed to be the first modern  prose story  .of  Hindi literature. The “Chandrlok ki Yatra” was of course inspired by Jules Verne’s “Voyages Extraordinaire” .Later more stories were published in ‘Saraswati ‘ prominent of these being “Aaschryjanak Ghantee’’ ( A call bell wonder ) in 1908 written by Satyadev Parivrajak But most significant contribution was made by a famous littérateur of the era named Rahul Sankrityayan who in 1924 published an sf novel entitled , “Baayisaveen  Sadi ”(Twenty  Second Century ) .This was an original sf in true sense most similar to today’s genre sf but was published and promoted as a mainstream Novel. Some other famous litterateurs of that period viz, Achaary Chatursen Shastree , Sampooranand  wrote sf stories disguised as mainstream literature. 

It is thus evident that the early sf writings in Hindi were being marketed as simply fiction without adhering to the label of sf. Interestingly they were doing it innocently as the term science fiction barely existed till 1930’s even in the countries where the genre was born. Even western writers were not aware of it .Most of the well known litterateurs of the western world did not publish their works as genre sf till 1940’s.Aldous Huxley wrote his famous sf novel ‘Brave New World’ (1932) for mainstream media and not for any genre category. It could be argued though that genre sf existed ever since Hugo Gernsback founded ‘Amazing Stories ‘ in 1926 but it was still a miniscule genre not much publicized. Genre sf came out to be a post -1937 phenomenon when John W Campbell Jr. took over the editorship of ‘Astounding Fiction’ .Onwards, genre sf undeniably became established as a new/known form of literature. Sf that existed till then was all mainstream sf like the works of even H.G.Wells and Jules Verne. H.G. Wells even coined a term –“Scientific Romance” which certainly qualified to an sf like tradition.
A paradigm shift in attitude to promote Hindi sf as a mainstream literature only seems to have emerged with the writings of Naval  Bihari Mishra(NBM) and Yamunadatt Vaishnav Ashok (YVA) beginning from 1930’s .The duo repeatedly pin pointed that the stories being written by them belonged to a special genre called science fiction /fantasy. Naval Bihari Mishra while promoted sf in its contemporary original western form, Yamuna Datt Vaishnav Ashok should be credited for inculcating what should be called ‘Indianness ‘in his stories. He successfully did it with careful introduction of local locations, familiar protagonists and the plot development. But he meticulously planned and dealt with innovative sci fictional theme- contents in his stories. It was his dexterity of writing skill that he maintained both the ‘Indianness’ and scientific romance together in his stories. 

A detailed account of his publications is available elsewhere. It was with the collective efforts of NBM and YVA only that genre sf emerged and soon got recognized amongst Hindi literati.  After 1980’s the visibility of two distinct waves appears to be quite distinct, first being the traditional mainstream sf wave of course not labeled as sf and with its sporadic appearance from time to time and another genre sf as a regular feature of Hindi science magazines like Vigyan Pragti , Vigyan ,Vaigyanik, Garima Sindhu ,Vigyan Gnaga and Awishkar .But owing to reasons better known to its publishers Awishkar has lately discontinued the publication of genre sf. The popular Hindi magazines which published mainstream sf included Saaptaahik Hindustan ,Dharmyug ,Sarika, Navneet etc. But except Navneet the other magazines have ceased their publications long back. This has regretfully dampened the scope of mainstream sf  in Hindi lately. But it’s a good omen that genre sf is now being recognized and accepted as form of serious literature though only to selected Hindi audience. Vigyan Pragati (C.S.I.R) should be credited for publishing genre sf as a regular feature till date , since the  praiseworthy initiative taken by its editor Bal Phondke during 1990’s.

But genre sf is yet to win full academic acceptance amongst Indian literati especially in Hindi literature   (although it is getting closer of late for reasons which give no credit to the academy).The psychology behind the attitude seems to be the dismissive nature of literary-critical rhetoric against the genre. The harsh truth being that it is very easy to try to raise oneself up by knocking others down. It’s the self-appointed conservator of literary taste, in literary criticism, who remains deliberately most critical in their attitude towards sf in general and genre sf in particular. Science fiction is still struggling to attract the attention of mainstream literati. It is still looked down with contempt and ridicule by a group of self appointed and so called great connoisseurs of Hindi literature.

There is also a growing worldwide tendency these days to insinuate sf into mainstream fiction. It makes some people a bit skeptical to think that the tendency may harm the genre sf and its purity and quality may ultimately suffer with the inception of so many well known and stated weaknesses of mainstream literature. But I feel there's a snobbery going on, that if SF is to make it into mainstream markets then it had better be of an artistically vague nature, that somehow good literature cannot come from a more "hard core" approach. In all humility I must submit that a good sf could qualify for mainstream media as it too possesses potential and capacity to allure large readership. So the demarcation/divide in sf and mainstream literature is nothing but the reflection of a kind of snobbery exhibited by so called literary pundits .The divide hopefully would vanish with more intellectual inputs in mainstream media made by ever growing numbers of sf writers in Hindi .In a personal conversation Greg Bear assured me and said. “I quite agree, Dr. Mishra. The more technically and scientifically trained people there are in India--and there are already a great many!--the more accepted science fiction will become.”(

(Paper presented in 11th Indian Sci Fi Conference held in Aurangabad,2009.)