Hear the term ‘fantasy writing’ and the images that leap to your mind are likely to be from the Tolkien universe—The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, the mythological back-stories collected as The Silmarillion—or from CS Lewis’s Narnia, or one of the countless series inspired by them. These are fictional settings that have been created from the ground up. Even when the things that happen in the story comment on aspects of our own world (as is notably the case in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials), the reader knows that the place itself is invented.
But fantasy is a broad word. Another, subtler form is that of the allegorical narrative which is located in a mostly familiar setting but has things happening in it that don’t fit the straitjacket of ‘realism’. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an iconic example: In reality (as far as we know), pigs don’t use human speech or organise themselves into dictatorships; yet this novella is set in our world, and most people with knowledge of Orwell’s life and the political events of his time would recognise it as an allegory about the Russian Revolution.
Such writing sometimes takes the form of speculative fiction set in a future (or alternative) world—as was recently done by Shovon Chowdhury in the splendidly imaginative The Competent Authority, set in the 2030s. The India of this dystopian novel, having been comprehensively nuked by China, is run by a mad bureaucrat, and the only hope for the future may lie in going back to the past—a group of people with special time-travelling powers set off to see what can be done to alter history. Weird and ‘fantastic’ as all this may sound, there are instantly identifiable figures here, such as an unnamed prime minister who comes from a long political dynasty (she is the granddaughter of a much-feared woman PM of the 1970s, if that helps) and a crude, bullying policeman.
A slimmer, less ambitious but often-potent satire is Sowmya Rajendran’s The Lesson, which takes the unsavoury facts of gender discrimination in real-world India and only mildly exaggerates them to create a picture of a society where state-sanctioned rapists coolly make phone appointments with their next victims—the women who are “asking for it”—and Dupatta-Regulators ensure prescribed standards of morality (while having fevered nightmares about an anarchic world where everyone roams around naked). The icy detachment of Rajendran’s writing is sometimes very effective—as in a scene where a woman who is to be raped on a live TV reality show is briefed about the “hot” actress who will play her in the buildup episodes—though I did feel that a little more could have been done with the premise, and the satire could have been more cutting.
“He feels empty. Hollow. Unreal. He feels he has no business being alive.” These words could describe some of the people in Rajendran’s book, but they are the opening lines of Altaf Tyrewala’s long story ‘MmYum’s,’ included in the collection Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation. And they refer not to a flesh-and-blood person but to a mascot clown named Arnold, made of plastic and sitting on a bench outside a chain store. Fed up of being someone else’s puppet, he decides to get up and wander the streets.
(This story appears in the July-Aug 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)