On the way to office, Grandpa would peep in to find the little Neha sitting quietly in the corner, her red-nosed, big-eyed clown near the books, on the bare stone floor. He would say nothing and leave. As soon as the cook, that fat old lady, went out to chat with the neighbours, Neha, now empress of a silent cottage near the small railway station in the middle of the desert, winked at the clown and said: “Come on, let us play, my little brother.”
The clown, waiting for the invitation from his human mistress, would nod, jump up and down, roll and make faces at the puny girl. Neha screamed with laughter, eyes lit up. His red nose twitching, white hair under a faded cap, the ill-matched bright-hued tunic upon a thin body, the clown danced, his painted enormous eyes full of laughter and kindness. Neha and the clown played together in the silent house. When the cook returned home, the clown shrank back and resumed his place either on the iron table or the pile of the books. Neha sat quietly, staring out of the barred window, at the huge expanse of the moving sand and across the stretch of desert, at the village many miles away from the railway station, shimmering in the hot sun. Bare brown hills, except an occasional babool tree here and there, loomed up high in the arid landscape of hot sun, shifting sands and a cold moon.
The moment that Shalini had waited for years had arrived. It was no longer a wait as the event was unfolding before her eyes…Accomplishment had never tasted more satisfying.
She took a deep breath as she sipped cold beer from a can and indulged in a bout of nostalgia…
Jolly Club had been the place where the richest families of Bhopal had gathered for their Sunday lunches. The club, situated in the heart of the city, housed the only restaurant that overlooked a shiny, turquoise swimming pool. During winters, the families preferred to be seated outdoor near the pool. These seats would be abandoned in summers as the affluent moved indoors to lounge in air-conditioned comfort. It was a busy place – the restaurant.
The lavish menu of kebabs was deemed to be among the best in town and the most popular feature. The resplendent exhibition of the most expensive sarees worn by women dining in the restaurant was the best in town too.
Kitaab, Singapore, has just published an anthology—The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018, which was launched at the Singapore Writers Festival on 9 November 2018.
This unique anthology is being seen by industry pundits as the most comprehensive speculative fiction collection from the continent. Comparisons are already being made with time honoured works like Dark Matter, the turn of the century anthology of speculative fiction from the African diaspora. However, as the editor of the volume Rajat Chaudhuri tells us, ‘We are just making a beginning with fresh-from-the-oven stories. Between stardust and dystopias, we are offering a sampling of flavours from the infinite breadth of the Asian imagination.’
According to series editor Zafar Anjum, ‘Richness of imagination is key to this collection; we plan to make it a series.’ Tales that take off on a tangent from the real have a special appeal to readers of all ages, he says.
Chaudhuri, who is a novelist and short story writer tells us how fulfilling it was for him to put together this volume of two and half dozen stories and some more, covering countries all the way from Kazakhstan to Korea and China to Indonesia. ‘The authors of this volume are either of Asian origin and Asian descent or have been residing in Asian countries for long. Twenty countries have been covered, sixteen (counting Hong Kong, SAR) of which are in Asia, the rest accounted for by diasporas and mixed ethnicities. Also, most of the stories have Asian settings and characters. But we are neither cartographers nor accountants,’ he adds, ‘though we love variety, we don’t want to mark each page of our book with flags and numbers.’
Quoting acclaimed novelist Amitav Ghosh, Chaudhuri says, “The great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities.” Explaining the selection process and some personal favourites, the editor says, ‘From the mountain load of submissions, I had begun by looking for stories that imagined possible worlds. Lopa Ghosh’s powerful story Crow depicting singularity ruling as a totalitarian dictatorship and Shweta Taneja’s darkly funny The Daughter that Bleeds about a post-apocalyptic India are from that tradition. We have of course included a ton of so-called genre stories from the stables of science fiction, fantasy and horror and then those with some of this and some of that, and things further still. Xu Xi’s engaging tale about a time-travelling ghost, Joseph F. Nacino’s spine-chilling story about AI on a singing asteroid, Eliza Victoria’s thought-provoking sci-fi Web, and Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s mesmerizing Slo-Glo are those that immediately come to mind. The spook-o-metre goes crazy as you enter the horror stable to read stories by Kiran Manral and Rohan Monteiro while Tunku Halim leads you into poetic darkness. Each story that got included here had something unique to offer while the focus on geographical diversity was also one of my considerations. It has been quite difficult for me to choose the winners.’
Art is not an accident; it does not happen by mistake. It is a deliberate, conscious act of creating an art object; it is a willed human endeavour. Art does not depend on a general acceptance of attractiveness. In fact, subjective notions of beauty are entirely secondary to the act of art creation.
Art probably began from humankind’s need to map or record life as a survival strategy. Much like animals, early humans also discovered that they could use their limbs and voices to interact with their surroundings and make markings and sounds. But soon these tools became something more than record books or sonic appeals. Somehow the human mind discovered within itself the capacity to extract essence from life and reimagine, recreate and curate that spirit in the form of shape, sound, colour and space. What was vital was that the nub of life was preserved in art creation. The real world around and the experiences felt within provided the inspiration. From the never-ending flurry of images, sounds and events, some individuals began distilling moments, movements, tonal combinations and shifts in light and space. What were they distilling: literal shapes, colour and sound? They were securing within art the emotionality of nature through the soliloquy of a creative meditation.
These processes, for want of a better word, had a deep impact on the emotional nature of humans. From this arose imagination and, from its overflow, the unbridled desire to create things that allowed us to be in touch with that spirit. Imagining possibilities from all that existed and beyond what they saw, heard and felt, they created objects of art. Playing with colours, space, shape, materials, tones and rhythms, humankind entered an entirely new area of emotional enquiry. Art was mystical, its conjuring evoked an untapped experience, almost a magic trick. I say ‘almost’ because the intention of this magic was not to trick someone into believing but to draw them into experiencing. At times, the impact of such art could become more powerful than the ‘original’ inspiration from the real world. Art does not copy life; it encapsulates the essence of life.
I would have believed her had I not spent several hours at the 1001 Muslim Inventions exhibition in Sharjah last month. There I witnessed what happens when you ponder the universe, in awe of the creator, and follow the words of the Prophet Mohammed: “Seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China.”