Review: It Happened Tomorrow: A Collection of 19 Select Science Fiction Stories from Various Indian Languages

edited by Bal Phondke

various translators

National Book Trust, India, 1993

grab a copy here or through your local independent bookstore or library

translated stories:

“The Ice Age Cometh” by Jayant V. Narlikar, tr. from Marathi by the author

“The Impostor” by Bal Phondke, tr. from Marathi by the author

“Einstein the Second” by Laxman Londhe, tr. from Marathi by Arundhati Deosthale

“A Journey into Darkness” by Subodh Jawadekar, tr. from Marathi by Arundhati Deosthale

“The Man” by Niranjan S. Ghate, tr. from Marathi by Arundhati Deosthale

“Ruby” by Arun Mande, tr. from Marathi by Arundhati Deosthale

“Birthright” by Shubhada Gogate, tr. from Marathi by Arundhati Deosthale

“Catastrophe in Blue” by Anish Deb, tr. from Bengali by Manjushree Chaudhuri

“Time” by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay, tr. from Bengali by Manjushree Chaudhuri

“The Elevation” by Niranjan Sinha, tr. from Bengali by Manjushree Chaudhuri

“Dilemma” by Sujatha, tr. from Tamil by Sakuntala Narasimhan

“Venus is Watching” by Rajashekar Bhoosnurmath, tr. from Kannada by the author

“The Lift” by Sanjay Havanur, tr. from Kannada by the author

“An Encounter with God” by Debabrata Dash, tr. from Oriya by the author

“Goodbye, Mr. Khanna” by Devendra Mewari, tr. from Hindi by Nishikant Mirajkar

“The Adopted Son” by Arvind Mishra, tr. from Hindi by Nishikant Mirajkar

With seven stories translated from Marathi, three from Bengali, two from Kannada, two from Hindi, one from Tamil, and one from Oriya, It Happened Tomorrow offers a fascinating window onto the landscape of science fiction written in Indian languages. I’ve added a map below to give you (and me!) a sense of where in India these languages are mostly spoken.

In his Preface to the anthology, Bal Phondke (who’s own story “The Imposter” is included) briefly discusses the evolution of “science fiction” in the West before turning to Indian science fiction, itself influenced by American and British writers. As time went by, of course, Indian science fiction authors started experimenting with stories that were more uniquely Indian, with themes, mythical references, and landscapes appropriate to the country. Bengali science fiction started being written at the end of the 19th century, while Marathi science fiction came into its own in the 1970s with the work of internationally-renowned astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar. Ultimately, Phondke argues, Indian science fiction needs to mix with the genre in other parts of the world in order to help it continue to develop–thus the existence of this current volume: “What is needed is cross-fertilisation of the Indian offerings with the fare the world at large has to offer. For that to occur, an introspective look at the entire spectrum of Indian science fiction would have to be resorted to, so that the strengths are recognized and the weaknesses identified. The present collection should act as a catalyst in promoting this much needed interaction” (xxii).

Most of the stories in this anthology are excellent, well-translated, and fascinating enough to draw the reader in and leave them wanting more. A perfect example of this is the very first story, written and translated by Jayant Narlikar himself- “The Ice Age Cometh” (presumably titled with a nod to Eugene O’Neill’s 1946 play). Set during a highly unusual blizzard in Bombay, Narlikar’s story follows a journalist (Rajiv) as he tries to understand how a scientist (Vasant) he once met predicted this catastrophe (which is affecting the entire world). According to that scientist, the decreasing temperature of the oceans is influencing a drop in atmospheric temperature, which is leading to a cycle of cooling that will bring about another ice age. Despite warning the world about this years before, Vasant was ignored because his results weren’t aligned with those of other scientists studying the climate. Once he’s taken seriously (and a large number of people have died), Vasant is allowed to launch a host of small metallic particles into the air, which will “absorb the sun’s heat and convey it to the earth down below.” This project is called “Invasion of Indra” because “Indra is the Lord of the Heavens whose abode is up above where all the trouble lies” (17). Though this is ultimately successful, the Earth and its population still must recover from the catastrophe’s consequences.

Three other stories take up similar themes relating to Earth ecology: “A Journey into Darkness,” “Catastrophe in Blue,” and “Venus is Watching.” In the first, darkness settles across the Earth because of the dust thrown into the air from bombs dropped during a war between America and the USSR. Ultimately, people start dying from radiation poisoning, suggesting an escalation to nuclear war. In “Catastrophe in Blue,” everything on the Earth takes on shades of that color, explained at the end in strictly scientific terms: “about thirty hours earlier, there was a massive explosion inside the sun. Scientists have not yet been able to find a plausible explanation for this phenomenon, but they have found that the explosion resulted in the production of a strange radioactive envelope around the sun. This radiation absorbed six out of the seven colours of the sun’s rays. Only the blue color was given a ‘gate-pass’ by them, because of which everything appeared blue” (139). Like “A Journey into Darkness,” “Venus is Watching” is concerned with nuclear war. This time, though, it is triggered by aliens living on a planet at the center of the Milky Way, using Venus to set off explosions on Earth in order to figure out how they can fight their enemies on a neighboring planet.

Other stories take up such themes as time travel (“Time,” “The Lift”), robotics and AI (“Ruby,” “The Man,” “The Elevation,” “Goodbye, Mr. Khanna,” “Dilemma”), and genetic and manipulation (“The Impostor,” “Birthright,” “The Adopted Son”). One story even features a brilliant scientist’s brain being removed against his will before he dies of cancer so that it can continue to work on the unified theory (“Einstein the Second”). Also, strangely, two different stories here feature robot secretaries named “Ruby” (“Ruby,” “Goodbye, Mr. Khanna”). Two others have scientists transferring memories via RNA between brains, prompting the recipients to think they are the person whose memories they now have (“The Impostor,” “The Adopted Son”). Only “Dilemma” is set on a spaceship, with a self-aware, increasingly-intelligent robot who may or may not be deliberately sabotaging the mission.

Ultimately, It Happened Tomorrow gives us a rare opportunity to read some fascinating science fiction from source languages we don’t usually encounter in translation in the West. I highly encourage you to grab a copy for yourself!

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