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Home again

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on February 02, 2018 Published on February 02, 2018

On a mild sunny Monday morning in Delhi, I set off towards Delhi University’s North Campus. I’m attending the first day of a week-long inter-disciplinary research scholars’ conference entitled ‘Which Way Home? – Imagining Homelands’. It’s been organised by the School of Germanic and Romance Languages (GRL) as part of their Winter School initiative. I have been invited as a panelist because I write science fiction, a genre in which imaginary homelands are practically the norm.

It turns out that the department of GRL has a lively interest in SF. This is such a welcome surprise. As a writer of SF — two novels, several short stories and a play — I have been made only too aware that the market for SF in India is thin. I have even heard that book shop owners typically keep their SF titles alongside the shelves for children’s books! Which is hilarious, considering the adult content and racy cover designs that are standard fare in SF literature.

But things are changing very fast. Last year, the GRL invited me to talk about both my novels and it was a pleasurable relief to discover both readers and listeners. Sachita Kaushal, a PhD student whose subject is German and Indian SF is, along with her professor, Shaswati Mazumdar, amongst those responsible for this year’s Winter School. The conference is set to begin at 11.

The keynote address is given by Prof Madhavan Palat, historian, scholar and political commentator, who set out the connection between history and science fiction with startling firmness. History has to do with the past and SF with the future: what can be the connection? But, as he points out, the past and future are intimately intertwined! We all know that each one depends on the other. Yet the idea that this can result in SF and history being conjoined is an unexpected and charming revelation. History is a “story” after all, which affects all our futures. SF is about a future which requires all of history to make it worth experiencing (or not!).

The second session is in the afternoon, chaired by Jyoti Sabharwal. Mukul Kesavan, historian, novelist and essayist and Geetanjali Shree, novelist and short-story writer are my co-panelists. We each talk about the ways in which imaginary homelands have been essential to our work. For Kesavan, it includes the works of novelists such as Günter Grass and Marquez and his own novel Looking Through Glass. For Shree, it is the fragrant cultural hybrid, Hindu and Muslim, past and present, that was lost to all of us through the abomination of the Partition. For me it is the imaginary homelands we inhabit as citizens of past glory, as adults remembering childhood and as mortal beings, yearning for the eternal Hereafter.

Both the sessions ripple with rich veins of thought. The students seem genuinely engaged. At lunch we eat warm gajar-ka-halwa in tiny disposal bowls, standing in the soft sunlight of Delhi’s winter. Briefly, we enjoy the friendly homeland of shared hopes and dreams.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on February 02, 2018
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