(This was supposed to be a gentle ode to the joys of reading books in connected series, rather than in isolation, but I got caught up with Manjula Padmanabhan’s Escape and its predecessors. As sometimes happens, I discovered later that I’d drawn on information I’d first researched for a column written many years ago, but I think I put a different spin on it. As I get older, my memory shreds into tinier and tinier bits.)
Many readers often wish there was an accurate system of “book pairings”, in the same way gourmet chefs suggest wine pairings, just to enhance reading pleasure. We do our best, with collected editions dedicated to a particular author or genre, or with Amazon-style attempts to suggest books that might go together, but there just isn’t enough out there.
Here’s a classic instance of how it might work. If you’re interested in Vietnam, start with The Quiet American (1955), Graham Greene’s blackly funny dissection of US intelligence efforts in that country, then move on to Michael Herr’s tour of duty reportage in Dispatches (1977), and close with Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (2007). All three books are Nam classics in their own right, but read together, they have an indelible, cumulative impact.
Or, to take another genre, start with Mary Shelley’s horror classic Frankenstein (1818), where a scientist’s dream of creating life has monstrous results, move on to Rosemary’s Baby (1967), by Ira Levin, where an ordinary New York apartment building conceals Satan’s child, and close with Stephen King’s Bag of Bones (1998), about a secret that menaces generations of children.
As Manjula Padmanabhan’s Escape came out last week, I found myself hoping that readers wouldn’t read this intriguing work of dystopian science fiction in isolation. I can’t comment on the literary merits of Escape for reasons of conflict of interest, having read a very early draft, but as one of the few works of modern Indian science fiction, it’s an important debut.
A brief plot summary: Escape is set in a world devoid of women, dubbed the “Vermin Tribe” by the generals who run the land. There is, however, a single woman left— a young girl called Meiji, who has been raised in isolation by her three uncles, and as she emerges into adulthood, must escape in order to survive. It’s a complex tale, where, as with much of 21st century science fiction, the development and growth of the characters is just as important as the futuristic setting.
To read Escape in a vacuum, however, would be to do both the book and yourself a disservice. It should be book-ended by a utopia and a dystopia— both written by Asian women. In 1905, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein published Sultana’s Dream, set in the relative utopia of ‘Ladyland’. Women rule this world, but view men with maternal affection, seeing them as helpless creatures at the mercy of their own appetites, who must be placed in purdah for their own protection. Rokeya Hossein was born and brought up in Bangladesh, and her gentle utopia is filled with touches of whimsy— the work day in Ladyland is only two hours long, for instance, because the men used to waste the remaining hours in smoking hookahs. Rokeya Begum continued her exploration of utopia and its challenges in a second novella, Padmarag.
Almost nine decades later, the feminist scholar and imaginative writer Suniti Namjoshi published Mothers of Mayadip in 1989. This fable was set in a far darker world than Ladyland, and Namjoshi set down a flatly didactic novel: what if a feminist utopia depended on killing off all men? How utopian would it remain, set on a foundation of fear and deliberate cruelty? What would happen if any one of the women decided to save even a single baby boy? Namjoshi’s world was the exact opposite of the world Padmanabhan evokes in Escape, but they share a common basis: in each, one gender’s sense of identity is based on its fear of the other.
Mothers of Mayadip is much shorter and much less ambitious in scope than Escape; Namjoshi’s interest lay in writing a fable, not a full-length novel. Like Padmanabhan, Namjoshi offered no easy conclusions: a world minus men was not guaranteed to be fair, equal or free of fear, and would inevitably face its own troubles. Escape is far more interested in the question of what form a world inhabited by just one gender would take; Manjula Padmanabhan’s predecessors were more interested in the idea of a feminist utopia/ dystopia as a thought experiment.
Reading the three together— if you can find Padmarag and Mothers of Mayadip in secondhand bookshops— is well worth it, and not just as an academic exercise. It’s interesting to see how the same questions are raised by three members of very different generations of women, and how the answers become increasingly complicated over time.
(Published in the Business Standard, November 25, 2008)