Issac Asimov once famously defined  Science Fiction as literature that deals with human response to changes in the level of science and technology. When an ancient civilization like India, meets the rapid modern changes that science makes in our relation to the universe, what kind of science fiction would emerge?

Indian science fiction has never dealt completely with this important question. Whether it is the popular science fiction work of celebrated Tamil writer (Late) Sujatha Rangarajan, who enjoyed a cult following in his state or even Jayant Vishnu Narlikar who attempted a science fiction novel ‘Return of Vaman’ or many different science fiction short stories that periodically appeared in the now defunct ‘Science Today’ (later renamed as ‘2001’ shortly before it was shut down), one often finds the science fictions not rooted to this soil and alienated from Indic cultural context. Perhaps they have the Indian outer shell like Indian names for the character or the story may be set  in an imagined,futuristic India  but they are not rooted to the Indian culture.

It is in this respect the science fiction anthology of Jeyamohan becomes important. This anthology contains twelve science fiction short stories all of which have a characteristic Indian flavour. Jeyamohan bases most of his stories in the rural settings of South Travancore his native place. He skillfully weaves the local traditions and knowledge-bases confronting the modern scientific worldview and capitalizes on the creative tension this confrontation creates.

Take for example his story on alchemy. Alchemy in classical Newtonian worldview is at best a precursor to modern Chemistry and at worst a pseudo-science. However what if alchemy is a scientific premonition for which the modern science has not yet equipped itself technologically? And what if some mendicant literature in the deep interiors of South India, had actually stumbled upon a cost-effective technology to really alter the atomic number of one element into another? And what if the ultimate success of alchemy also brings in an inner void for the seeker? Set in early 1950s when the Dravidian movement, which ridiculed the traditional knowledge base, was in its ascent,  the author explores these possibilities. There is much here in this story for a Jungian symbolic analysis.

Neuro-theology is a fast growing toddler science in the West today. Jeyamohan explores some novel dimensions of the neural correlates of religious experiences in two of his stories. What if a man is to live completely in the presence with no unconscious, his functional neural architecture permanently altered so by enriched chemical cognitive enhancers including a traditional herbal formulation? Would he become a mere presence – a hollow bamboo for all existence to flow through him like the seer of Arunachala? This is an exciting speculation Jeyamohan makes in his short story ‘Purnam’.

How does a religion evolve? There are strange stages in the evolution of each religion – particularly violent, dark stages. Merciless killings are there in every religion forming an archetypical stage of a religion’s life-cycle. ‘The Observing Bird’ explores this aspect through a fictious cult set in the early centuries of colonization in Travancore. A yogic method of conscious development of schizophrenia ultimately creates split personalities altering between saintly and the beastly over the lunar cycle. Do all religions essentially use this technique in their formative stages? And in this process do those who succeed become religions and their violence becomes acceptably transformed into symbolic victories over evil? And do those who fail become labeled as cults and stamped out? Are all religions merely such evolved and institutionalized cults which have violence and grace as part of their split personality roots? The short story throws up disturbing questions through a racing narration.

There is also a humorous piece. How natural loud voice – a hereditary trait of a family- becomes varied kinds of advantages through changing socio-political situations of generations. Initially made a guard in a famed sacred waterfall because he could raise his decibels higher than the roar of the water fall, his descendant becomes an important office bearer in Communist Party because his voice could thunder the party slogans in a way bourgeois would tremble and because he could never lower his voice, the man could never be told a secret and hence would become famous as the most honest person in the party.

In every story the scientific principle involved is as sound as the picturesque story-scape that the writer weaves around it and Jeyamohan is also extremely knowledgeable in Indian cultural traditions and Indic knowledge as well. His famous novel Vishnupuram is an epic work that spans through centuries and depicts how a mythical city goes through Buddhist triumph, Brahminical revival and experiences an ultimate deluge and cyclically opens its petals again. The novel can be read at different levels for different interests: historical, social, cultural and most importantly it is also a spiritual journey of an individual seeker. The novel encompasses all Indian traditions, its magnificent highs and also its dark underbelly. There is sublime adoration and let true believers be warned there is also equally irreverent ridicule bordering what one might consider as blasphemy. Then that irreverence has also been always part of the Indian tradition, he reminded this writer in a personal conversation, “You cannot have Advaitic wisdom as a living phenomenon if you censor all irreverence to everything held sacred.”

His next famous novel is ‘Voice of the haunting shadow’ (Pin thodarum Nizhalin Kural). This is also a novel of epic proportions which explores the inner world of an Indian Marxist trade-unionist who discovers some documents of an excommunicated Marxist writer of a previous generation and whose memory has been successfully erased by the party. His search leads him to Nikolai Bukharin with whom the excommunicated Marxist writer had empathized to the point of identifying himself with him. Ultimately the writer died an orphan in the streets of a local town. And the trade-union protagonist of the novel identifies himself with the excommunicated writer and undergoes a complete mental breakdown. The novel ends with a traditional ceremony that remembers all the victims of all the power structures that have been created in pursuits of golden utopias.

Jeyamohan, also has strong spiritual roots nurtured by his association with Nitya Chaitanya Yati, a seer in the advaitic lineage of Sri Narayana Guru. His novel for children is about the search for Yeti the abominable snowman. Here the children novel becomes a journey of exploration rather than that of a human-centric adventure, like the ones we see in Verne genre. Darwin meets Buddha and modern science and the child reader is also introduced in a lucid way to the basic aspects of Indian culture and philosophy. He has also penned down many non-fiction books which deal with Indian culture, philosophy, modern literature, social problems and their roots. His recent collection of short stories deal with heights of human virtues based on real life personalities. He also has an avatar as a successful screen-play writer for choice Tamil films like ‘Naan Kadavul’ and ‘Angaadi Theru’.

Long before this writer has ceased being a personality and has become a living phenomenon and I am only too glad that I was asked to write a profile about him for centreright.in readers.

(Image Courtesy- The Times of India/ Google Images)

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Aravindan Neelakandan

Co-author of acclaimed book "Breaking India", Aravindan Neelakandan has worked for the past decade with an NGO in Tamil Nadu serving marginalized rural communities in sustainable agriculture. He is also a popular science writer in Tamil and is part of the editorial team of highly popular Tamil web portal www.tamilhindu.com.

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