reviews and essays

Superhumans and Standard Gods

What do two recent popular novels say about our vision of the transcendental?

By ANJUM HASAN | 1 March 2011

SAMIT BASU’S Turbulence is that customer-friendly thing—a racy read. Several hundred passengers on a flight from London to Delhi are suddenly endowed with superpowers—they miraculously become what they’ve always wanted to be. Basu leaves out the backstory—not just the previous lives of these once-ordinary people, but also their transformation into airborne gods. He cuts straight to the action.

When the novel opens, some weeks after that magic flight, superhero and gravity-defying Vir Singh is soaring above a Pakistani nuclear research centre, seconds away from striking it. Just then, he gets an anonymous call from a man who tries to restrain him.

“You want to…make the world a safer place for one and all? Well, going down there and re-enacting King Kong isn’t going to achieve that…it’s not possible. Not in this world, not even with your powers,” says the mysterious caller. A little later he asks Vir, “Who’s the greatest Indian leader ever?” Gandhi, says Vir. “Ask yourself this. If Gandhi had your powers, would he be flying around above a Pakistani nuclear site, wiping his foggy glasses and trying to start World War III, or would he be doing something slightly more productive?”

This exchange touches on one of the novel’s key ideas. How to be a convincing superhuman without being, in comic book terms, predictable? For if there’s one thing Basu knows well, it’s the saturated nature of the superhero genre. So how will he ensure that a new set of superheroes does not remind us of the old ones, even if this time the world-savers are not Caucasian cape-wearers but tall, dark and beautiful Indian ones?

Basu deals with possible superhuman fatigue by making his creations ironic about themselves. “We’ve got very functional powers, very sidekicky powers, very mass-media powers,” says lead player Aman Sen, the man on the phone to Vir. Basu’s players aren’t meant to be giants. So King Kong, as in the above exchange, cannot be emulated. To those who grow megalomaniacal, our hero Aman (who’s trying to build a superhero team from his base in Mumbai) says things like “Don’t go Darth Vader on me.” And when the time comes for Vir to go out into the world and proclaim his powers, Aman dissuades him from taking on a grandiloquent superhero name. “All the good ones are taken. Trust me, I’ve looked,” he says.

These touches of irony add to the charm of Turbulence. They enhance the realism of the fantasy which is exactly how fantasy works—by leading us to believe in a small corner of our hearts that, despite the hyperbole, none of what we’re seeing is, strictly speaking, impossible.

But despite the frequent allusions to his forerunners in the genre, this is not a novel only for the initiated. Basu talks to the genre by writing in all kinds of pop culture references from manga comics to Star Wars, but he also talks to those who might miss the in-jokes. Our proxy layperson is the British-Pakistani beauty and aspiring Bollywood actress Uzma Abidi, who wishes, once she throws in her lot with her fellow superhumans, that she had read more science fiction. Another proxy is flying wonder Vir Singh.

“We’ll be hunted down, imprisoned, either way—by you people or by someone else,” says Aman. “It’s like the X-Men.”
“Who?” asks Vir.
“Have you been living under a rock? You don’t know the X-Men? Not even the movies?”
“Aman I don’t have time for movies. I spend my time defending India.”
“Good for you…”

The references don’t come just out of a sense of humour or affection, however. They are also there to illustrate another key idea. Which is that superheroes matter—they are potentially more than just the colourful constructions of writers who want to publish entertaining novels. “Heroic myths and legends through the course of human history are all true,” says Basu through his Mad Scientist character Sundar Narayan. “And these heroes…appeared because of these legends; the legends were not records of their actions, but prophetic texts derived from collective human aspirations that paved the way for their arrival.”

To imagine something vividly can sometimes be enough to realise it. This is the premise of Turbulence, too. Each of the passengers on Flight BA 142 acquires powers that matches her or his dreams. But having got what they wanted, having fulfilled the first requirement of extraordinariness, they must now fulfil the second. They must put their superpowers to meaningful use. What would this be?

Basu’s superhumans are, in their moral confusion over power, recognisably human. It’s all very well to be able to save the world, but how does one go about it? True to the genre, the first thing superhumans must save is themselves. For, inevitably, pitted against the good guys is the arch-nemesis, the one whose greatest failing is hubris—the Icarus who is going to fly too close to the sun.

Jai Mathur’s dream is military conquest of the world. He would have liked the armed forces to back him so that this could have been an Indian military conquest of the world, but the armed forces prove too slow to understand. So Jai is going it alone with his own band of super-soldiers.

Even though Jai is the enemy, Basu doesn’t downplay any thrills one might get from having a hero with an Indian name say things like “London’s such a lovely city, and I would hate to have to destroy it.” He also clearly hugely enjoyed setting his denouement in the British capital, with all its reinforcements thrown helter-skelter, although this final battle goes on for far too long (the one drawback of superhumans is that, given their enhanced abilities, no fight between them can ever be efficient.) Nor can one miss the elation of the thousands watching Vir Singh fly in a perfect arc over Delhi’s India Gate or fail to feel a frisson of excitement at Aman’s intuition of what the world’s thinking when it learns of Jai’s exploits—“Superman exists, and he’s not American.”

In the end though, the novel’s apotheosis consists not in the triumph of good over evil or of India over the rest of the world but in restating, in a way that is both serious and funny, the question about what is the good. Even if Aman Sen can and does erase Third World debt in an afternoon, to save the world, it turns out, is both harder and much simpler than that.

THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING GOOD, the politics of power, and the doings of superhumans are also the subjects of Slayer of Kamsa, the first book in Ashok Banker’s proposed Krishna series. The book ends with the birth of Krishna. What we have here, therefore, is almost entirely backstory. Centring on the doings of Kamsa, wicked prince of Mathura, and the attempts of Vasudeva (king of the Suras and eventually father to Krishna) to thwart Kamsa, the tale unfolds leisurely, detailing the political organisation of the kingdoms of Arya Varta and their feuds.

There are, of course, numerous ways of entering into the mythology of Krishna. The Krishna of Meerabai’s bhajans is different from the Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance. And that Krishna is, in turn, different from the Krishna of Gita Govinda.

Banker’s Krishna, at least in this first volume, belongs to a world of kings, warriors and battles; his aesthetic is Ramanand Sagar, complete with ornate palaces, giant armies, archetypal lovers and stock dialogues. While viewers of TV mythologicals might be the primary audience for Banker’s series, he also seems to want to pull in consumers of fantasy and science fiction; Krishna is described on the blurb as a superhero and “super-being in human form”. Amidst the pomp and warfare—and the parampara and sanskriti—of Aryan society, there are some distinctly nerdy moments such as when Narada, the messenger between gods and men, explains how he uses a “vortal” to move about, something which is, tautologically, defined as “a kind of portal that enables one to travel between worlds”. And King Kong may be too comic for Samit Basu’s 21st-century heroes but Banker’s colossus, Kamsa, definitely owes something to him.

The title of the series too—Krishna Coriolis—is telling. According to my dictionary, the Coriolis force is “an apparent force that as a result of the earth’s rotation deflects moving objects (as projectiles or air currents) to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere.” I’m not sure what this has to do with Krishna but it’s got a nice sci-fi ring to it. Meanwhile, the birth of the god himself could be something out of a low-grade science fiction film.

A shape very much like a large oblong had appeared on the wall, at eye level. It seemed to be formed entirely of some kind of brilliant bluish light. He had never seen the likes of it before. It glowed rhythmically, pulsing and throbbing slowly, like…like…a heartbeat? Yes.

Slayer of Kamsa illustrates the challenges in retelling mythological tales. Should one render them as modern fantasy and make full use of contemporary technology and cinematic special effects? Should one go the exotic, gentle, timeless Amar Chitra Katha way? Should one try to historicise them—locate the lives of gods and demons in a temporal world?

Ashok Banker attempts to do all three and the result, naturally, is a bit of a mishmash. For instance, Vasudeva, the good king of the Sura nation who strives to practice a king’s dharma, is an engaging character except that he is very conveniently aided in his pursuit of justice and duty by his supernatural powers. So, he can prevent a gigantic shower of arrows from hurting him by simply raising his staff. His explanation is that he is no god himself but that the gods, possibly pleased with his pursuit of dharma, have stepped in to lend him a helping hand.

Vasudeva’s blasé attitude to his superpowers makes his pursuit of dharma a little glib. While Basu’s characters find that their newfound superpowers complicate their relation with themselves and the world, Banker’s Vasudeva does not pause to reflect on what his powers mean in an otherwise supposedly rational world where “the use of maya was forbidden.” The explanation that the powers are the intervention of Lord Vishnu only renders the god a deus ex machina and does nothing for the story.

That leaves the historical bits—the Vedic North Indian world of warring republics. It’s interesting to read about the mores of the wealthy herder Yadava community into which Krishna is born, till one encounters the following sentence in the mouth of Jarasandha, king of Magadha, which unlike the Yadava nations is a not a republic but a kingdom created as a refuge for “out-castes”. Talking about what happens to the children born of marriages between people of different castes, Jarasandha says, “They become non-varnas. Or, to use an inaccurate but more familiar term, out-castes. Although, of course, varnas are not castes at all, not in the sense that our Western brothers across the oceans use the term.” Huh? This seems to be a contemporary Ashok Banker talking in English, certainly not an ancient Indian king.

A little later, Jarasandha’s historical authenticity grows even wobblier when he says that he is building the new capital of his empire “at the site of the ancient hermitage of Gautama”. Krishna, who will be born soon after Jarasandha says this, is reckoned to have lived at least as far back as 900 BCE, while Gautama Buddha dates from about 500 BCE.

Despite all these shortcomings and the often clichéd prose style, one follows Slayer of Kamsa to the end simply for the consolation of seeing the god set the mortal world aright. For that is a primordial idea which continues to compel—the idea that simply because we so badly want it, either a superhuman or just a regular god will one day come down to influence the affairs of men.

Anjum Hasan is the Books Editor at The Caravan. She is the author of the novels The Cosmopolitans (2015) Neti, Neti (2009) and Lunatic in my Head (2007) as well as the short fiction collection Difficult Pleasures (2012) and book of poems Street on the Hill (2006). Her reviews, short fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in various publications in India and abroad. 


4 thoughts on “Superhumans and Standard Gods”

Interesting but somewhat uninformed review. There’s clearly much misreading done by the reviewer with regard to both books. Basu’s book is childish in its attempts at humour and seems to appeal to the new trend of adults reading YA books. Why? Have literacy standards dropped suddenly? Also, the reviewer seems to overlook the numerous "lifts" from various comic series by Basu – some quite blatant. This kind of derivatism is better left to Bollywood than to Indian authors, surely? Haven’t read the Banker book so can’t comment. But must point out that despite the reviewer’s naive assumptions, there’s no hard evidence to prove that these characters were historic. At best they’re part of itihasa or assumed oral history. So why the repeated efforts to prove historicity – is that the author or the reviewer’s attempt? Can’t tell for sure. Oh, and ‘Gautama’ was a renowned ancient sage, clearly not Gautama Buddha (who was in any case named Siddhartha, the ‘Gautama’ in his case merely being a title, not his name). I hardly think Banker or any author would make such a gaffe but for a reviewer not to know even such a basic fact is deplorable.

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