Sci-Fi Visions of the Future Mumbai
Liberalisation was supposed to mean that India—in particular, its throbbing economic engine, Mumbai—would have its course charted resolutely toward the future. So where’s the science fiction?
Literature hasn’t fared much better. The genre that practitioners like Samit Basu call speculative fiction has an august pedigree in India stretching back to the 1880s, if not earlier. There has always been, and there remains, a healthy handful of sci-fi writers in the vernacular. Marathi has its Jayant Narlikar; Bengali had the prolific Satyajit Ray, among others.
The genre blossomed from the 1950s to 1970s, and has recently seen a micro boom in Bengali and south Indian languages. Yet, these days it is under commercial and conceptual assault. As Basu has written, “Even if we set aside the existence of India’s wealth in natural resources as far as spec-fic is concerned, the sparsity of finished Indian spec-fic is all the more remarkable given the abundance and immense popularity of Indian writing in English.” Some of my favourite Indian novels fall into this category, including Ian McDonald’s ambitious River of Gods (which generated a kind of sequel, Cyberabad Days) and Ruchir Joshi’s haunting The Last Jet-Engine Laugh, but they seem not to have generated much of a following.
Maybe there’s just no readership. What sells these days is not space travel but mythological heroics. There has even been a speculative Ramayana contest judged by two SF writers, Anil Menon and Vandana Singh. A Marathi writer, Y. H. Deshpande, “used Einstein’s equation e = mc2 to explain Karna’s birth”.
Even as sci-fi ought to be performing an ever more important role in thinking about our technology, Indian fictional futures have offered an increasingly constricted view of humanity’s possibilities. Internet billionaire Peter Thiel has complained of the narrowed horizons of recent sci-fi as a bellwether of our ability to innovate:
“One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction,” Thiel said. “Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’ ”
Or, as his venture capital website puts it, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” We stand astride the rubble of civilisation, dystopias as far as the eye can see.
What if the innovations of the future came not from top-down technological innovation but from local adaptations to shifting socio-economic sands?
And if so, where better for them to bubble up from than the former swamp of Dharavi?
A “documentary” depicting a Dharavi powered by mushrooms is making the rounds of planning and architecture websites. The scenario sprung from the imagination of Tobias Revell, whose Twitter handle advertises, “Bringing Un-shiny Futures to Life Since 2045”. He sets his “New Mumbai” in an India of the near future that (as in River of Gods) has been shattered by civil war. Mumbai, still a centre of economic dynamism, is deluged by refugees.
Like them, a genetically modified mushroom finds its way to Mumbai’s slums. Having failed in its initial application as a narcotic, the outsized ’shroom nonetheless has an intriguing property: it generates electricity. Residents of the SRA blocks on which the fungi are grown simply hook up wires and, bam: a whole mini-city jumps off the grid.
Fungi are often pioneer species, making new environments suitable for habitation. And Dharavi, where industry already operates in the grey regions of the law, is a zone where such innovations can figuratively take root. As it took the work of several generations of migrants to turn Dharavi into solid ground, so does it take a slum to domesticate a transformative technology. In Revell’s fungus fantasy, attempts to funnel the samples to Mumbai’s wealthy failed “because they had neither the incentive nor the expertise to use the material”. One electricity farmer with the lean aspect of an NGO jholawala explains, “We’re not really interested in money”—as opposed to, say, survival.
That vexed assertion smacks of well-meaning middle-class patronisation. In our wishful thinking about the resourcefulness of slumdwellers, we risk forming a view that glosses over the complexity and variety of their obstacles. (It will take a different mushroom to clean the public toilets.)
Revell’s Dharavi is an unapologetic composite. In robustly reimagining the slum, Revell circumspectly cribs shots from Crawford Market, Hong Kong and somewhere in the rickshaw zone. Still, it’s comforting that India of the fragmentary future looks not so different from our own.
Rather than a dystopia, Revell has given us a weird but sensible improvement. Wouldn’t we all use local, renewable energy sources if we could? In this eminently imaginable scenario, those of us who can afford not to think about it won’t. And if we’re not looking to invite miraculous changes into our lives, we have to countenance the analogous possibility that we’re no longer interested in nurturing radically new fictional visions. By “we”, of course, I mean those with the leisure to write and read such fiction, but also those of us reconciled to the political status quo.
In the meantime, most of the fiction written about Mumbai will be done by architects and planners. There are ecological fantasies highlighting neglected features of the landscape. Within a smaller circle, there are academic exercises, meant to provoke a re-evaluation of underused spaces. Circumscribed even more drastically are the commissioned plans, subject to feasibility studies rather than the test of imagination. Until we invite the most radical visions for the city into the conversation, the realm of the politically possible will remain vanishingly small.Tags: Dharavi, New Mumbai, science fiction, The Holdout, Tobias Revell