The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

Little Fen’s funeral took place three days later. I walked woodenly among three dozen fellow villagers in a procession led by Widow Liu, accompanied by the sad tune of trumpet and suona horns. It was a cold spring day. The sun was shining without giving away much warmth.

It pained me to look at the mother of my deceased friend. A piece of white cloth tied around her head, like a bandage on a head injury. She was being supported on each side by a friend. Her grief had whitened her hair and aged her twenty years. And her thin form resembled that of a dried shrimp.

The funeral procession came to the village’s graveyard, which lay on a gentle slope of a mountain some twenty minutes’ walk from the village. Little Fen’s body was put to rest on the edge of it, next to a large plot with castor-oil plants. When the wind blew, millions of tiny castor seeds made disturbing noises. Black crows squawked, their cries echoing in the trees, like whimpers from those no longer able to speak.

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TBASS

“There’s no poison in this,” Grandma said.

The teacup rattled, sending spurts of black liquid onto the saucer. Grandpa grunted. He ignored the wafts of steam that curled out of the cup like fine strings floating in the air. He kept his eyes on the typewriter as his fingers drummed on the keys, weaving crisp black letters on paper. Grandma shook her head, knowing that there was no way Grandpa was going to inch away from the machine.

For as long as I could remember, it was the same routine every morning at ten. Grandpa, or Tok as my siblings and I fondly called him, would crouch on a stool in front of his butter-yellow Remington typewriter. He would take a Good Morning towel and rub the machine until it gleamed like Aunty Noh’s marble table. Satisfied, he would load a sheet of paper and turn the carriage knob. After adjusting the paper arms, he would set his fingers free to do the jig on the keys, competing with the sound of Grandma’s ladle on the wok as she busied herself in the kitchen.

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

He swept his gaze on her from head to toe. “Who are you?” he asked.

She turned towards him and stared back. “I’m the pink rose you kept on top of this table here,” she explained, pointing at the table by his bed.

He ran towards the table. Frantically he looked around for the rose. The king noticed that around the soles of her feet there were rose petals. “DID YOU STEAL IT?” he yelled.

“No, I did not. I am that rose. I’m here to tell you that …”

“LIAR! GUARDS, TAKE THIS THIEF TO WHERE SHE BELONGS!” he shouted, cutting her off mid- sentence. He grabbed her upper arm and threw her down to the floor.

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I figured I must have fainted and dropped the phone. Probably I got a bump on the head, and that was the cause of the change in my eyesight. I hurried to pick up my phone before anyone could step on it. I saw my arm reaching out—but somehow my hand couldn’t pick the thing up. I tried several times, thinking I had bumped my hand as well as my head and numbed it, like when you hit your funny bone. The feeling was different, though. Not a flash of painful sensation in my elbow or tingling in the wrist. Just—nothing. I was puzzled. How could I have hurt myself so badly that I didn’t even feel any pain?

Thinking I’d go and find some help, I stood up slowly, my feet on either side of the smartphone to keep it from being stepped on. That’s when I noticed that there was no one nearby. Turning carefully, I saw that a small crowd had congregated in front of a train which had stopped on the other side of the platform. The light and the colours were still blinding, but the sounds from the scene came up only gradually. I began to hear exclamations, and one or two women screaming breathlessly. Suddenly, a brilliant flash of white rushed past me—two men in white uniforms, with a stretcher between them piled with blankets. A group of policemen followed closely behind. Like the light and the colours, the movement of the men was so intense it made me dizzy. The policemen hustled the crowd aside while the men in white jumped down in front of the train and busied themselves with something there.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

TBASS

Title: The Best Asian Short Stories 2018
Editor: Debotri Dhar
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab
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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 Best Asian Short Stories 2017, edited by Monideepa Sahu, series editor Zafar Anjum, set the tone for Kitaab’s Best Asian series that includes literary and speculative fiction, travel writing and crime. Zafar Anjum shares with us his vision for this seminal book and for the series that he has envisioned. Monideepa talks about her experience as editor for TBASS 2017.

Monideepa Sahu
Monideepa Sahu, Editor, The Best Asian Short Stories 2017

Sucharita: Zafar, what was your vision for the series? Why did you feel the need to bring together short stories from across the continent?

Zafar: The whole idea behind Kitaab is to connect Asian writers with readers everywhere in the world. Coming from this context, I felt that we needed to collect the best contemporary Asian writing across themes in edited annual volumes. I had seen this kind of anthologies in the USA, but nobody was doing it in Asia, collecting Asian voices. That’s how the idea behind the Best Asian series took shape. The vision is to create a series of The Best Asian writing in fiction (literary and speculative), crime writing, and travel writing. Each volume is a mix of new and seasoned voices that makes it so exciting. Through the pages of these volumes, you get a glimpse of what the respective societies in Asia are going through. If there is enough support by readers, hopefully we will be able to sustain the series. That’s my hope.

 

(from left) Kitaab’s publisher and Series Editor Zafar Anjum. Mithran Somasundrum, Rohan Menteiro, Kaiyi Tan, Timothy Yam and Chris Mooney Singh

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.

The Best Asian Speculative FictionThis 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.’

Best Asian fiction
(from left) Timothy Yam, Chris Mooney Singh, Zafar Anjum and Mithran Somasundrum

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.’

Ernst Ingmar Bergman (14 July 1918 – 30 July 2007) would have been 100 today. Film-making for much of the 20th century was dominated by Bergman along with the other greats including Akira Kurosawa, Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Satyajit Ray.

In this interview, first published on Senses of Cinema, Zafar Anjum pays tribute to the auteur whose corpus of work includes such films as Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, Scenes from a Marriage, The Silence, and the experimental film Persona, among many others.

Ingmar_Bergman_1957

 

Can you describe your condition when you learned that Ingmar Bergman passed away?
One morning I was generally trawling the internet and chanced upon the news of Bergman’s death. It came as a shock to me. I was sad for a while as unquestionably one of the towering figures of international cinema had passed away. In Bergman’s death, we saw the end of a great era of filmmaking. Perhaps he was the last of the greatest filmmakers the humanity has ever known. I loved the way Peter Mathews described his experience on Bergman’s passing away: “Cinephiles are a superstitious lot, so the recent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni within hours of each other seemed laden with portentous meaning. It was as though blind chance had certified what many of us knew in our bones: that the great, visionary enterprise of cinema is over. Henceforth there are to be no more masterpieces–uniquely luminous works describing the finest vibrations of the creator’s soul. Instead we will get (have been getting for nigh on 20 years) an industrial cinema, streamlined, impersonal, marketable and crudely derivative” (A Cinephile’s lament, Sight & Sound, October 2007).

On the other hand, I was also a little angry as the local media had largely ignored the news. Soon after, when I saw his well-written obituary in my copy of The Economist , I felt a sense of relief. At least one of the world’s most respected newspapers had chosen to pay homage to this great philosopher-filmmaker who for decades had devoted his life to the examination of the human condition, plumbing the depths of human emotion and exploring the metaphysical questions of life and death.

Clearly from your blog, you admire Bergman.  Can you talk about the things you admire about his work?
As a matter of fact, I got introduced to Bergman’s work quite late in life. I was born in a nearly isolated small town in northern India where there were two or three cinema halls that showed only B-grade Bollywood fare. When I started watching films in those cinema halls (video parlours soon emerged in the 1980s), I had no idea if a different, more artistic and satisfying cinema existed beyond the Bollywood kitsch.

In my 20s, when I arrived at a university near Delhi for higher education, and joined the university’s film club, I got introduced to Hollywood and Iranian films. My perspective on cinema began to change. I also began to read about the Indian parallel cinema movement, which was in its waning phase in the 1990s and began to go to film festivals that I got introduced to the greatest filmmakers of the world. That included Bergman, among other directors.

As a lover of cinema, I generally like all kinds of films, from the epic to the noir to surreal cinema, but what I like the most, the kind of cinema that is closest to my heart is the one that talks about human relationships and explores various shades of those relationships in a microscopic way. I think Bergman did that and much more. I like his brooding, philosophical cinema, done in an aesthetic way that is simply mind-blowing.