The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

“I have always loved books,” the head librarian confessed, “and my love of books led me to the love of scholarship. After reading so many books, studying so hard throughout my youth, it was a dream come true when I was appointed as a librarian here. What better place for me to have ended up than in the greatest library in the world, among so many books, so many treasures of scholarship. So I read and studied, until no one could match my erudition, not even the librarians who were older and had been here longer. So it was inevitable that I ultimately became the head librarian.

“But then, in the midpoint of my life, I was overcome by a terrible loneliness. I had spent so much time among books that I had lost touch with everyone I had known, including my family. I knew that both of my parents had died at some point, but I was too busy with my studies to attend their funerals. I know that they loved me, and I vaguely remembered loving them, but all that seemed like a story I read in book a long time ago.

“One day, while I was perusing a newly acquired work in my study, I heard some voices outside the window. When I looked out, I saw one of the younger librarians speaking with a girl from the town who worked as a cook at the library. They were holding hands, smiling at each other, and saying things that made them blush with happiness. The way the sun was illuminating them, they looked so fresh and beautiful that it caused a terrific pain in my heart. Perhaps it was a vision of what I missed out in my life, or perhaps it was the awakening of a feeling that lay dormant in my heart.

Advertisements

By Suvasree Karanjai

IMG_0388

Title: The Butterfly Effect

Author: Rajat Chaudhuri

Publisher : Niyogi Books,2018

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

(W.B. YEATS, The Second Coming)

                                          The earth is doomed to be a ghost,

                                         She who rocks all death in herself.

(Sophia De Mello Breyner, I Feel the Dead)

We all dream of a utopia, an ideal, the zenith of flawlessness and excellence. With the concept of utopia comes  its inverse, dystopia, which lurks behind curtains with equal power to devastate and destroy. In recent times, dystopias have become an independent literary genre, a potent medium to envision and warn against catastrophes, a result of what could have started as an alternative futuristic ultra modern/utopian state. Rajat Chaudhuri’s “well-oiled” and polished novel, The Butterfly Effect,is a welcome addition to such tellings that aim to reiterate obliquely the oft-quoted saying: “With great power comes great responsibility” and to question whether we are ready to shoulder that liability.

The Butterfly Effect is a brilliant exploration of the local and the global, Calcutta and the world, in a post-apocalyptic state in the face of ultra-modernisation, totalitarianism and technologization.

Rajat Chaudhuri, an esteemed bilingual (Bengali and English) novelist and short story writer with a number of prestigious fellowships under his belt, has been involved with environment and development. His concerns are reflected in his  earlier works (like Hotel Calcutta, Amber Dusk) as well as in his recent novel The Butterfly Effect (2018). 

 

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

For some time, I tried to find my way towards the centre of the station. I encountered dead-ends and paths blocked by fire, metal, and machines. I had to backtrack several times and wondered if I would be killed by a whirring gear out of nowhere, or impaled on an inopportune girder. After the longest hour of my life, I saw my destination: a massive metal ball in the middle of the station, supported by several pylons. With the propulsion rig, I roved over the ball’s surface to find a hatchway into the control centre. Steadying myself against the wall near a hatch, I keyed opened the door and pulled myself into the structure.

The inside of the control centre had a similar appearance to the command centre in the habitat section: a wide, 360-degree view of the whole interior of the station, two chairs instead of one, and a wide array of consoles and banks of monitors. Though it was dark inside the chamber, the viewing glass allowed the industrial lights around the centre to paint the whole chamber a stark white.

By Neera Kashyap

IMG_0391

Title: Lion Cross Point

Author: Masatsugu Ono

Translated by: Angus Turvil

Lion Cross Point by Masatsugu Ono has been recognised as a lyrical and a psychologically astute novel, lucid but spare, haunting with a tangible evocation of mystery. It has been beautifully captured in translation from Japanese by Angus Turvill, an award-winning translator.

Masatsugu Ono himself is the recipient of the Asahi Award for New Writers, the Mishima Yukio Prize and the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s highest literary honour. Born in 1970 and having first published at the beginning of this century, Ono’s work belongs to the post-Murakami period, strongly marked by the seriousness of modern Japan’s literary tradition.

Lion Cross Point portrays the mind of ten-year-old Takeru, who arrives in his village to live in his mother’s home by the sea. He is haunted by memories of unspeakable atrocities committed against his mother, his older brother and himself in distant Tokyo. As Takeru is befriended by Mitsuko, his new caretaker; by Saki, his spunky neighbour and by Ken Shiomi, his mother’s childhood friend, he discovers his mother’s history and moves inch by inch from the palpable and submerged layers of trauma to a new idea of family and home. The book emphasises the fact that memories and dreams are not individual aspects of one’s personality, but shared by the community and the environment, making it possible to heal through others, and through the forces of dreams and the seascapes that imbue them all. The boy  returns to his mother’s roots to  find catharsis and truth in a setting by the sea.

 

By Rajat Chaudhuri 

IMG_0386

“Anything conceivable I believe is possible.”

Black to the Future, Walter Mosley (Dark Matter)

A sorcerer-librarian in ancient Korea who transforms people into books locking them up in his shelves for ever, a far-future civilisation on the planet Ruo, remembering their ancestors in the drowned world of BlueGemm — finished off by greed and climate change, a time travelling ghost in Hong Kong disconcerted by the rules of afterlife.

These are just a few of the characters and situations that we present before you dear reader in this book of amazing tales — stories from Asia, a continent blessed with mindboggling creativity and chutzpah, zen and brio, or what they sometimes call the Asiatic imagination, which is born of course out of its chequered fabric, the diversity of its peoples, the textures of our histories. Asia, a multitudinous hundred-headed medley of contemplativeness and chaos, a mélange of landforms, a kedgeree of ideas, a crucible of cultures, and you get it all here in this book, served fresh, sizzling, wok-fried and ready to tease your taste buds.

TBASS

Labli was woken up by the dawn chorus. It was hard not to smile at the chirping of the sweet birds. She grabbed her long scarf from the foot of the bed and threw it over her head. Brushing back a loose strand of black hair from her forehead, she opened the door quietly so as not to disturb her younger brother, Joynal. He still had a few hours of sleep before waking up to go to school.The door squeaked as she pulled it shut behind her.

Labli looked down at her red shalwar kameez and tried to brush out the creases. It didn’t look as rumpled as it had before. Anyway, it would have to do; her only other set was still drying in the kitchen after yesterday’s thunderstorm.

As she felt her way along the cold, dark hallway, she noticed her parents’ bedroom door was ajar. Her mother was stirring on the bed; her father’s place was empty. Labli unlocked the front door and made her way to the tube well at the bottom of the veranda steps. The air was crisp and cool. Doel birds flapped overhead and one landed in one of the betel palm trees, lifting its white tail as it whistled. The Adhan, the call to prayer, blared out over the masjid’s loudspeakers. She filled up a plastic jug with water and made ablution. After praying the four units of the dawn prayer, she collected firewood from around the courtyard and milked the cow. She had just lit the fire when her mother walked into the kitchen.

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Hermitage

Title: Hermitage
Author: Aamer Hussein
Publisher: Ushba Publishing International
Price: Pakistani Rs 800/-

 

In 1968, Aamer Hussein met Qurratulain Hyder, the literary stalwart from the subcontinent who was also his mother’s friend. He was 13 at the time. This meeting with Hyder – Annie Khala to him – and her presence in his life, despite the miles separating them, would become one of the defining influences on Aamer Hussein’s life as a writer. He wrote about her ‘intellectual influence’ on him in his introduction to Fireflies in the Mist, 2008 (translated by her from her Urdu Aakhir-i-Shab ke Humsafar). A decade later, he writes, once again, about the relationship and her continuing influence on his writing and reading sensibilities: ‘Annie would guide my reading, criticizing one writer and praising another in a dialogue that continued from trip to trip,’ he writes in “Annie” from Hermitage, his most recent collection of short fiction, published in 2018 by Ushba Publishing International, a small independent press in Pakistan.

‘We shared a past in three countries and two languages… I’d like her to know, I did keep the promise that I made to our shared mother tongue and, tacitly, to her, and tell her as I had at that last meeting: Annie Khala, your hand was always on mine.’

There are others who guide him, shared pasts and literary traditions – Attar, Rumi, Shefta, Ada Jafri, Hussein’s grand-uncle Rafi Ajmeri. Hermitage borrows from their writings and their lives, from stories heard and read. It spreads the oeuvre, drawing from the mystics, from traditional storytelling of the subcontinent and its tradition of storytelling through fable, myth, memoir and music. Persian and Urdu narratives and poetry inform its tonality; the structure of the stories is most often parabolic, the references inter-textual, the undertone one of deep, reflective conversations with the self woven through with a filigree of images and the restrained prose of folklore and metaphor.

Hermitage is a tribute to storytellers, to music and art from this shared past, layered with cultural memory and influenced by oral and written narratives. Love that is ephemeral is made eternal through the words on the page that not only reflect but speak of its melancholic beauty, its music clearer in the gaps and the unsaid than in what is crafted for the reader. ‘And it seemed to him that if one listened to the silence, everything sang to everything else: breeze to water and leaves, water to cloud and branch, birds to the sky…’ (“Lake”).
The larger theme of love and longing draws into itself the sub themes of exile and homelessness, migration, creativity and identity, themes that have occurred earlier in Aamer Hussein’s stories. In Hermitage, their iterations are more intense and subtle, requiring of the reader a greater engagement with the very act of storytelling.   As meaning deepens, brevity becomes meditative.

Exile is not only a physical truth but also a state of mind. Aamer Hussein’s characters are exiles, belonging to yet torn apart from the very sense or place of belonging, often leading a sutured existence, giving rise to the solitude that layers many of the stories. Love and longing, unfulfilled and unrequited, whether for geographical spaces or for emotional geographies, meanders like a stream through these stories, both imprisoning the characters and releasing them.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

TBASS

Title: The Best Asian Short Stories 2018
Editor: Debotri Dhar
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab
Buy

The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 is a collection of nineteen short stories, that saunter through the wonderland of Asia to dwell on vignettes of life in the vast continent. Edited by Dr Debotri Dhar and series editor Zafar Anjum, the second volume of the series has a mix of stories by eminent and upcoming writers.

Our emotions are played on from all angles as each story flavours our palate with different moods. We pause to smile over an unusual light-hearted Goan romance among the elderly in Geralyn Pinto’s “Cakes” and cringe with horror at the impact of acid attacks on women, a reality in Bangladesh and Pakistan as portrayed by Reba Khatun. Dr Rakshanda Jalil’s story with the tale of Zuliekha’s transformation from a shy Muslim girl to a glamorous club diva brings to mind Eliza Doolittle, heroine of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, except this story has a twist which colours it with class stratification that are essentially Indian.

“Festival”, a translated story from Japan, gives us a glimpse of the intermingling of old and new in a country that retains its traditions despite its modernity. William Tham Wai Liang’s nostalgic “At the Moonlit River’s Edge” brings us close to the theme that has been explored in The State of Emergency, the 2018 Singapore Literature prize-winning novel – the communist insurgency in 1950s Malaya. Strangely, Martin Bradley’s “Bougainvillea”, set in modern day Malaysia also hovers around the same theme as the protagonist journeys to Ipoh in search of his father’s grave, his father having lost his life in 1951 during an encounter with communist insurgents. However, this is a story that transcends the angst of history to bring in themes of friendship and wonder generated by the multicultural flavour of life in this region. We have another lovely story of ASEAN friendship in the Singaporean Thai romance named after the delicious Thai dessert, “Mango and Sticky Rice”.

The unusual and paranormal have been explored by a couple of writers. “The Rescuer” is a supernatural adventure set in a Japanese railway station, a strange tale that leaves the reader stupefied! “The Grey Thread” by young Vanessa Ng is another one that explores an unusual, bizarre journey into a world of paint and paper.

Some of the stories fiddle with recent natural disasters and contemporary issues. The impact of the historic cloudburst in the Himalayas in 2013 and the arbitrariness of all existence is explored in “The Cosmic Dance”. “Begin Again”, set in Phillipines, explores teen adjustment issues. “For Chikki’s Sake” not only comments on marital issues, parenting but also on caste based marriage, which still exists in parts of India. The dichotomy that exists in women’s world between feminism and reality in India is well captured in “Don’t Even Ask! Poochho Mat!” “The Amulet” explores the disappointment of a diva; “The Bureaucrats’s Wife” reflects the breakdown of values in a rich man’s home; “Lola’s Honeymoon” is a strange tale which gives a glimpse of moneyed life as does “The Cycle”, though this story does ascend social boundaries drawn by economic barriers and the futility of addiction to drugs and violence.

The Assassinations

The evening sky had deadened to the colour of cigarette ash by the time Jaswant left his office. On his way home, he passed cars and buses on fire, burnt shells of shops and houses billowing smoke, dead bodies of Sikhs cremated alive, bands of goondas brandishing machetes and crowbars… It was as if Partition had descended one more time. The stench of fire and smoke, the hapless victims and their remorseless tormentors, even the mob’s war cry of khoon kabadlakhoon. Everything was the same, right down to the dread rising from his soul.

He could feel the goondas’ eyes probing the car as it went past. They were stopping cars at random to check if there were Sikhs inside. Many times they’d tell the driver to open the boot to make sure no Sikhs were being smuggled to safety. But they made no move to impede his progress. That he was in a government car kept them at bay. That and the fact neither he nor his driver appeared to be a Sikh.

No sooner had they entered the posh southern part of Delhi than the goondas melted away. The stench of fire and smoke receded. The burnt bodies and buildings disappeared…instead, there were shuttered shops and deserted streets and empty pavements…. Even the dogs were not barking. It was as if someone had thrown a blanket of silence over the entire place. The silence resounded louder than all the mayhem Jaswant had witnessed. It spoke of fear and apathy.

Even though it was still evening, the first thing he did after reaching home was lock his front gate. Deepa, Savitri and Rakesh were waiting for him in the drawing room. Deepa’s face was wan, her eyes puffy. She had been crying since getting home from Rakesh’s school. Rakesh was hunched in a chair. Normally, it was hard for him to sit still. But that day he looked as if all life had been sucked out of him.

Savitri told him about the attack on the Sikh they witnessed while returning from Rakesh’s school. The sheer brutality of the assault took Jaswant unawares, despite what he had seen on his way home. When Savitri came to the part where the Sikh’s assailant shoved locks of his hair into his mouth, Jaswant recoiled. It was several seconds before he could find his voice.

He told them that he had no news of Prem. He had contacted one of his friends who was a superintendent in the Home Guards and stationed less than ten kilometres from Trilokpuri. His friend had promised to call him with information in the morning.

Deepa, who was dying for news of Prem, erupted. “He said that and you accepted it?” she shouted. “You didn’t tell him to send a man there at once? You didn’t tell him that this is your future son-in-law?”

Her voice collapsed as she finished. She leapt up from the sofa to half-run, half-stumble in the direction of her room. Savitri went after her. Jaswant dropped into the sofa. It pained him to see Deepa so upset. He wished he had better news.

“Will everything be all right, Daddy?” Rakesh asked.

His voice betrayed how much he was struggling to make sense of what was going on. It was as if they had gone back in time and Rakesh was a little boy all over again. A lump grew in Jaswant’s throat. He went over to embrace Rakesh. “Don’t worry, beta, everything will be all right,” he told him. “Now go put your mind elsewhere.”

There was a short pause before Rakesh nodded and left for his room. Jaswant slumped on the sofa, wishing he could feel some of the conviction with which he had assured Rakesh that things would work out.

His friend in the Home Guards had sent a man to Irfan’s flat. That man got nowhere near the flat. Instead, he came back with news of a neighbourhood under siege. An army of goondaswas running wild in Trilokpuri. They had cut all the telephone wires and blocked the way out with a huge concrete pipe. Near the pipe, there was a car all smashed up. From the description, it appeared to be Prem’s. There was no sign of Prem; so there was a chance that he had survived. But it didn’t appear likely, given the evidence on hand.

He hadn’t been able to look into Deepa’s teary eyes and tell her the man she loved was probably dead. On the phone with Amarjeet, he had found himself just as powerless. So he had lied to both of them, saying his friend would call with news in the morning.

What was worse? The hammer blow of tragedy or the torture of not knowing?

As far as he could tell, there wasn’t much to choose.

It was almost morning before Deepa gave in to sleep and Savitri could leave her room. She plodded, heavy-footed, through the house. Although she had been up all night and was aching everywhere, she had no wish to go to bed.

Jaswant was still fast asleep on the drawing room sofa. She had found him sitting there last night when she came out of Deepa’s room to get her a glass of water. He had wanted to come speak to Deepa. She had talked him out of it. It would be hard for him to deal with her, given the mood she was in. Evidently, he had stayed where she left him, until fatigue got the better of him. Because of Deepa, she hadn’t been able to speak to him last night. She wondered whether she should wake him up. She decided against it. Before that she needed a few moments to herself.