Book Review: The Beast With Nine Billion Feet - Anil Menon

July 16, 2010

I have never eaten a buttered scone. I came close once, at a baker's in a hill station in the Western Ghats, but the woman behind the counter, who looked like she had an appointment with a coffin, exclaimed, "Scones!" as if I'd asked if she stocked porn. I didn't get the scone.

But why did I want a hard rock-like baked object that is not one of the world's great gastronomic delights?

Good question.

Because of Enid Blyton and her ilk of course, and the many evenings spent with the Secret Seven or with the Five Findouters or with Billy Bunter of the Remove. I knew 20th century England, public school England and what passed for English cuisine, better than I knew anything in India, urban, rural, pedagogic or culinary. Over time American pulp replaced the English, the court battles of Gardner, the laconic private dicks of Chandler, the LA cops of Wambaugh. And a wish was born.

A wish that we could read great desi pulp fiction where the action is set in Dadar or Basant Nagar or Greater Kailash or Esplanade or Indira Nagar or Marredpally or Senapati Bapat Road. Where the characters would be called Ravi Manikandan and Manisha Gupta and TVS Reddy and Zaheer Ansari and Baby Kutty and Rohinton Irani. Finally, a decade or so back it happened. Publishers from Penguin to Rupa published books by desi authors, set in the sub-continent and with desi characters that rang true and were not caricatures. It is one of life's lingering mysteries why it is impossible for a non-South-Asian author to create desi characters who are not called Singh or Khan. A recent travesty by the otherwise impressive detective fiction writer Peter James in his novel Dead Simple is a character named Suresh Hossain. The fatwa is in the mail.

While mainstream fiction in India has thus lumberingly got off the ground with the execrable Ashok Bankers, Shobhaa Des and Chetan Bhagats, speculative fiction, i.e. mod science fiction or fantasy set in India has not. Indian bookstores equate fantasy with Indian mythology especially the luscious graphic art of Amar Chitra Kathas. But modern desi speculative fiction or desi sci-fi (we will cafll both SF) is invisible in the bookstores. Of course for bookstores to stock-em, authors have to write-em and there have not been many. Prior to 2000, only a handful of spec-fic books were published, Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome (1997) and Boman Desai's The Memory of Elephants (1988) being two.

Thankfully, the first decade of the 2nd millenium, is seeing an increasing trickle of SF novels be it Payal Dhar's Shadow in Eternity series (2004), Samit Basu's Simoqin Prophesies (2004), Rimi Chatterjee's Signal Red (2005), Priya Sarukkai Chabria's Generation 14 (2008) and Vandana Singh's recent anthology The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet and Other Stories (2009).

In a further welcome development, a few desi SF authors based abroad are trying actively to share their experiences and educate prospective desi authors not just in pushing their own writing but on the craft of getting published. In mid 2009, two US based science fiction writers, Vandana Singh and Anil Menon conducted the First workshop for desi speculative fiction writers at IIT-Kanpur. The workshop modelled on the iconic Clarion West program in the US was a hit with about 16 authors attending the workshop. The impact of the workshop has been immediate with the closing months of 2009 seeing a spike in the number of spec-lit short stories published by workshop alumni in international spec-lit magazines. Some of the workshop alumni have even begun work on books.

All this is a prelude to taking a peek at Anil Menon's science fiction novel set in India, The Beast with nine billion feet which was published last year.

The Beast, set in 2040 in a suburb of Pune, tracks the lives of 2 pairs of siblings, Tara and Aditya (Adi) and Tara's friends Razia (Ria) and Francis. Tara is 13, Adi older by 4 years while Ria and Francis are twins Tara's age. Tara and Adi are Puneris while Ria and Francis have just moved in from Sweden, well, or so they say. Behind this benign foreground is a deadly shadow tug of war going on between two genetic camps. Those who want to make genetics affordable in an ethical for-public-good way and those who wish to monopolize the IPR. Tara's father Sivan a famous genetics scientist is in the former camp while Mandira aka Vispala, is in the other camp.

Tara is a social creature and soon she, Ria and Francis form a troika. Anti-social Adi on the other hand is hooked on to virtual worlds. Adi also wants to emigrate to Nurth, an artificial island near the North Pole. Mandira / Vispala, whom he knows as a friend in a virtual world, has promised to help him in realizing the dream. What Adi does not know is that Mandira has a hidden agenda that involves him and Sivan.Years ago, Sivan and Mandira were both a part of the same genetics group but have since gone in very different directions. Sivan came home and founded the Free Life genetics movement aimed at making genetically modified seeds available free of cost, through open licensing of gene research. Mandira on the other hand works with a genetics corporation that ties the farmer forever to the organization. Sivan succeeded in his movement but has been forced to go into hiding to escape trumped charges. But now, on the aftermath of the Vermillion party's win at the polls, Sivan returns to Tara and Adi. Tara is delighted to have Sivan back but to Adi, Sivan is a stranger and the years of resentment at having an absent parent spills over into the relationship. Meanwhile the shadow war between Sivan and Mandira is gathering pace. It is left to 13 year old Tara to singlehandedly to sort things out.

The Beast is an extremely readable book, crammed with ideas about the future and with a fascinating and intriguing story line that makes this a compulsive read for YAs. The icing on the cake is Menon's masterly use of English, in beautiful and understated prose that is often lost with normal Indian English pulp. Here's a Saki like snatch, "Adi hadn't apologized. It is annoying when one is ready to accept an apology but none is forthcoming".

The book operates at 2 levels. The first at the level of Tara and Adi and Ria and Francis where the concerns are day to day, from Tara's dislike of her dark skin pigmentation to Adi's difficulty in preventing Aunt Sita with whom they live from discovering that a genetically engineered very articulate parrot is lurking in their house. It is this level that shows a different world. Just by hanging around Tara and friends we hear about nictitating eyelids, Lynx, an emotional hover car that needs praise to perform well, Illusion Pods that transport you to a touchy feely 3 D virtual world where your avatar can do fun stuff with your posse, the avatars of other players, and my personal favourite, the Experience Room, a virtual reality environment that allows us to actually participate in historical events as any of the main actors of those events.

The second level is at the level of the major social and ethical and global issues that exist in 2040 and the battle for minds and control. A bleak level where the parents of these children are among the Guderians and the children, the foot soldiers, either blissfully ignorant or being forcefully manipulated. Sivan, heads the Free Life movement while Mandira is trying to kill this movement. Mandira is also convinced that Sivan knows the secret of longevity and determined to wrest it from him.

Three things differentiate the Beast from other SF books. The first, the setting in India, in a milieu and context familiar to most urban Indians. Thus Tara and her friends eat ice cream at Appa Balwant Chowk and the Vermillion party wins at the Lok Sabha polls. It is unclear whether Menon is hinting at the evolution of today's Hindutva parties to the vermillion of tomorrow but the intriguing possibility is another hook with which he snares you into tomorrow's India which also features a tongue in cheek peek into the political rally of the future with 6 story tall holograms of grinning political figures. The second aspect, the book being set just 30 years away, a future that one can almost reach out and touch. Third, the central characters and events in Menon's book are normal human beings. One finds not aliens with quivery antennae asking to be taken to our leader or Zx121 being teletransported to the planet Zog but human beings being human (well, mostly human). This genre of looking at the near future is called mundane SF and Menon is forecast by many to become one of its high pandits.

In sum, the Beast is a great book and a wonderful read. Go and grab a copy.

A few observations and would-have-likeds.

Wish that Menon had made the future just a tad more recognizably different from today. Menon's other works such as Harris on the Pig, Archipelago, Love in a Hot Climate and Dopplegestalt display a prodigious imagination so it is not a problem of ability but perhaps him holding himself back. Wish he had let it rip.

The equation between the West and today's developing world has not changed. The centroid remains the West attracting the best talent of the East. Graduate studies are done abroad and emigration is the desired option for Indians. One would have liked some of these positions to be questioned.

From the point of characterization, Tara, Adi, Francis, Ria and Mandira are well etched and believable. Most of us have met a dominatrix like Mandira and a troubled adolescent like Adi.

But Sita, Sivan's sister and Tara and Adi's aunt is a strangeness. Sita, around 70 in 2040 would be about 40 in 2010 and like any modern urban woman so to my mind, perhaps a little unlikely to be that stereotypical 20th century aunt. Her language too is odd involving Oxonian cricketing metaphors last heard from AFS Taleyarkhan. Sivan could have been more fleshed out. He remains a ghostly figure to the end.

There is always the line between critique and what is best stated as "if I had written the book, this is what I'd have done". We cross over to the latter.

Pune, the locale for the book, is a city with a rich history, a distinct Maharashtrian personality and some of its quirkiness and millenial history could have been weaved into the book.There is a tantalising mention of Shaniwarwada, the old seat of the Peshwas but the Beast merely flirts with it. Some of the gastronomic offerings that typify Pune too could have featured. No misal pav, no pitla bhakri, no bhel, no sabudana khichdi, no Chitalebandhu bakarwadi or Laxminarayan chivda. Personally I'm happy that pitla has disappeared off the menu in 2040 but the others will be sorely missed.

While there are these bits, they are blips because the book time shifts you into the future and keeps you there most of the time. The oddities occasionally disturb the segue but within a few minutes you are back in 2040, wearing your nictitating eyelids, riding on Lynx and hoping the darn hover would not get too upset at having a stowaway.

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