The City and the Genre

A Giridhar Rao

home.gif (831 bytes) With so many experts having lectured before me, and with so many experienced teachers sitting before me, I am hardly likely to be able to say anything beyond my experience, such as it is, of research. Any account of my current research in Science Fiction has to take my introduction to English studies as one of its starting points. Since that introduction is inextricably entwined with my arrival in Hyderabad--from Haryana with a science degree--this city invariably plays a very important role in what follows.

To compare Science Fiction, or SF, to Hyderabad may seem fanciful at first sight. But let us see how far the comparison holds. One knows of the city, of course, before one has been to it. One knows of it as a point on a map. And so it is with SF. On the literary landscape SF too is merely a dot among other dots. However, if one happens to look at a map of the right scale--say a tourist brochure--A Readers' Guide to Science Fiction--one sees the dot explode into criss-crossing lines, a very chaos of irregular quadrilaterals, a confusion which might well turn one back to that unintimidating, aesthetic dot on the map.

But one would do well to recall that Euclid's notion of a point becomes clear only when one reads beyond the definition and sees how points are related to lines and planes and circles and spheres. A point has no existence by itself. It exists only as a part of the pattern of relationships which constitute the geometry of Euclid. The point is an abstraction. And, indeed, to wonder how this city of Hyderabad or this genre called SF fits in with other dots on the map, to wonder, in other words, about the communication lines, the roads and railways, radiating from and into the dots, is to already drive in a wedge into our seemingly self-contained, enclosed dot.

And so we begin again. We see the city and the genre now, not as a dot among other dots, but perhaps as a point, a node, in a particular reticular pattern. And as we learn more about what these lines are, which roads and which railways, what themes and what influences, we begin to form some partial pictures. As often as not, these are metonymic pictures--the Charminar and Star Wars standing in for the city and the genre. Intrigued, we resolve to visit this still-exotic domain.

One day, by design or accident (or a combination of the two) we get there. We hurry to our metonym and discover, behold, chaos. There is so much more here that demands attention--so much more that flourishes under the metonymic umbrella crying, "look at this and this and this--this too is Hyderabad, this is SF too." Now, were we mere timid tourists on a package tour, we would quickly sample maybe one or two of these and retreat hurriedly to Suryapet or Simla--Saul Bellow or Shakespeare. But we are intrepid. Or if not actually intrepid explorers, we can at least be patient visitors. For,

The efficacy of place, like that of prayer,
Lies in no overt effort of the will;
To keep the mind unquesting but aware,
The heart unmoving but responsive still
Opens the way to forces which prepare
Answers whose questions lie beyond our skill.

What is SF? What is Hyderabad? Well, look around. Each locality in the city turns out to have its own landmarks: Chikkadpally its cinema theatres, and Abids, perhaps, its restaurant, Palace Heights. But, an out-of-the-way bookshop in Abids might prove more memorable to some: not Isaac Asimov but Cordwainer Smith perhaps. And you get other curious landmarks as well. A theatre demolished two years ago might still exist in public memory--the bus stop continues to be called Liberty, long after Liberty Theatre's demolition. Here, old-timers are a particularly rich source: ordinary old-timers, long time fans, who can tell you the splendour and scandal of street after street. As informal, oral historians, they may be in error over this point or that (and you smile to yourself--you, the outsider-expert, armed with written records, and an irritable reaching after facts). But no matter. It is their feel for the past that counts: who lived where, said and did what, and was considered to be what--way back then. My grandfather is equally interesting on Eden Bagh and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Be it the city or the genre, the past, after all, is a foreign country.

Thus, listening and looking, the city begins to get familiar. You begin to see familiar architectural patterns on familiar routes--"Oh, hello, another Heinlein novel"; with the occasional surprise: "So, Le Guin writes this too, eh?" You discover fellow visitors too: others who have been exploring the city for a longer time. They might tell you of this Joanna Russ book in the CIE library, or that long-out-of-print edition at the State Central Library. They also tell you which by-lanes have little traffic, and what short-cuts work.

But the old-timers and our fellow-visitors are not our only available source. Like any healthy city, this too, has active on-going commentaries on it. In newspapers and journals, in seminars and speeches, inhabitants rise to the occasion, and sometimes sink to it: praising, quarreling, summarizing, and dissecting. Increasingly, as the city grows, events in it are reported elsewhere too: the birth of a book, the death of an author. Other visitors may come to the city reading these.

Earlier, when the city was still considered provincial, its inhabitants who made it big in the metropolises often chose not to advertise their origins. Their dakhani accent was deemed interestingly different but not alarmingly so. With the city expanding, however, not only are its citizens becomingly un-embarrassed to declare their Hyderabadi origins, but influential media such as film are beginning to raid the city for themes and locales. And not a few old-timers shake their heads sadly at these invasions by film crews. They see film and television distorting the city by representing only the sleazy and the spectacular in it: the flesh markets and cowboys in space-suits. But this too is changing: Hero Hiralal takes off in Hyderabad and dazzlingly parodies the film industry. A great Tarkovsky takes a Stanislaw Lem epistemological parody and turns it into a surrealistic examination of anxieties.

The old-timers' complaint raises the question: what is the "real" Hyderabad that they want represented? The Hyderabad of Quli Qutub Shah? Of H.G. Wells? But that too is a culture that has components from both far-off Arabia and nearby Maharashtra--from medieval romances and nineteenth century science. Hyderabad was once called Bhagyanagar, remember, and Science Fiction was Scientific Romance.

It is easy, of course, to be overwhelmed by the city--by the sheer diversity of detail. And being but visitors, we might well depart with impressions rather than understanding. So, we must be on the look-out for recurrent patterns. We must, after our visit, be able to offer an account (no doubt provisional) of the continuities and disjunctions in this city we have been to.

Understanding Hyderabad, then, turns out to be complex project, touching upon a variety of concerns and requiring several frames of understanding. The city yields to a single methodology at the price of its richness. And to know something of its richness requires magnification of some of those other dots on the map as well. But before we cross the border to go to Maharashtra, we might do well to recall that references to this city, are, almost invariably, as twin-cities: Hyderabad and Secunderabad.

If Hyderabad is Science Fiction, what is Secunderabad? Fantasy? Perhaps. We haven't even looked at it yet. How can we claim to know one of a pair of twins without knowing the other. For,

Each is the other's soul and hears too much
The heartbeat of the other; each apprehends
The sad duality and the imperfect half.

Thank you.

A Giridhar Rao

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