Author Samit Basu lays out Delhi’s best-case scenario in his sci-fi novel, and it is horrific. ♦
Originally published in India Today.
Dystopia is pornographic,” says one character to another in Chosen Spirits. “You see it and shiver but it’s also kind of fun because it’s happening somewhere else, to someone else, you know? It requires distance. Some of us are actually sitting in the f***ing middle of it and we may never learn to care in time. This isn’t dystopia. This is reality.”
Samit Basu has previously written award-winning fantasy and science fiction, but his speculative account of Delhi roughly a decade from now explores territory much closer to home. The world he describes is horrific enough to qualify as dystopia, but as Basu has said in interviews, he has actually imagined a ‘best-case scenario’. This is true in the sense that things mostly work for Chosen Spirits’ privileged classes, who are surrounded by technological toys (like virtual assistant ‘narads’), never mind the fact that these double as surveillance tools. Everyone else, of course, is screwed as the chasm between haves and have-nots waxes wider than ever. Then, as now, there are glimmers of resistance and subversion if you go looking for them.
Basu’s characters might not be having a good time “in the f***ing middle of it”, but he is certainly having tremendous fun working within the outer limits of what our warped near-future could look like. Here, ‘flowstars’ are the new influencers, and everything from “Genmaicha to gallium, nanobots to neodymium, genetic ovens and CRISPR kits, transilluminators and centrifuges” is available at Cyber Bazaar (erstwhile Nehru Place). Joey, the book’s upper middle-class protagonist, learns ‘about other cities under Delhi’s skin, city-states with their own economies. Not just the fortress-paradise cities of the rich, but watering holes for the very poorest. And Cyber Bazaar is where these cities intersect, where micro-religions come for artificially powered exoskeletons, infotech tycoons for self-updating sex toys, Gurgaon kids for racing hoverboards.’
That’s the fictional glitter, but there’s also plenty of gleefully imagined mud: ‘Film City is on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, a favourite destination for culture-outrage vandals, rape gangs, crowd-sourced flash-robs and fundamentalist lynch mobs.’
If Basu revels in the window dressing, his portrayal of the relationships between characters is masterfully sensitive to detail. Joey is typically on the periphery of everyone else’s life. She is the patient witness to her nostalgic parents (children police television content for easily-triggered elders). She produces her ex Indi’s ‘flow’, he’s the superstar and she the sidekick, even if her job description is ‘reality controller’. When Rudra, the reject son of a business family who profit from social rot, and Zaria, a well-connected celebrity activist, embark on an adventure, Joey can only document from the sidelines.
But Joey goes through her own journey: from doing what she is told, to what she can, a far more realistic trajectory for most of us than saving the world. Fighting to change institutions through small subversions and solidarities, the book implies, is as valuable as exerting all your power and privilege to dive nobly and glamorously into the belly of the beast.