Turbulence by Samit Basu
Reviewed by Anil Menon
The opening scene in Turbulence captures perfectly what reading Samit Basu’s work is like. Determined to give his son Vir Singh his first taste of flight, fighter-pilot Balwant Singh dangles and swings his three-year old from the uppermost tier of the Eiffel Tower. To read Basu is to become that three-year old, roaring for more, even as we soil ourselves in shock. And Basu’s style is exactly that of Vir Singh’s father, a man described as having a ‘mixture of casual confidence and lunacy that is the hallmark of every true fighter pilot.’
For the subcontinent’s readers, long familiar with Basu’s work, such prefatory comments are superfluous. He is the country’s preeminent fantasist. His debut trilogy The Simoqin Prophesies was India’s first modern fantasy series and his later works, not all restricted to novels, have scored several other firsts as well. Of course, claims of this sort may seem problematic given the country’s some half-a-dozen vibrant regional literatures as well as problems with the concept of modernity. The fantastic is central to the subcontinent’s literature, and as the folklorist and Tamil scholar A. K. Ramanujan showed, many ‘ancient’ folktales could easily be mistaken for postmodern fables. Nonetheless, I believe there is a difference. Basu’s use of myth is that of the modern: rich in irony, secular in belief, disinterested in didactic ends, and populated with characters who point out to each other the ridiculousness of the fantastic.
Turbulence bears all these hallmarks. Its plot is about a group of Indian superheroes—male and female, some morally challenged— charged with saving the world from themselves. Captain Vir Singh, a superhero in the employ of the Indian Air Force, is interrupted on his mission to take out Pakistan’s main nuclear facility by a mysterious voice. The voice, later identified as Aman Sen, computer geek and the story’s conscience, persuades Vir that larger issues other than demolishing Pakistan ought to be at stake for a superhero. Aman is part of a loose coalition consisting of Uzma, a British-Pakistan hottie trying to make it in Bollywood; Tia, a Bengali girl with the ability to duplicate herself at will; and two cannon-fodder characters, Bob and The Scientist.
Vir learns from Aman and gang that there’s a Big Bad, none other than his former squadron leader, Jai. Naturally, Jai has to be stopped at all costs but since he has his dance-army as well, all hell is unleashed. To paraphrase that old joke about the difference between capitalism and communism, if western superhero stories are about the struggle between a superhero and a supervillain, non-western superhero stories are the exact opposite.
This is not to say the plot is predictable. Vir and Jai both have to deal with a common enemy, a mysterious super-being capable of turning crowds into mobs. Since all the superheroes have exactly one super-power, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to deduce the identity of the Mob-maker. But Basu managed to throw me off the scent by a variety of twists and feints. The triangular conflict provides Basu with a lot of plot leverage. The enemy of an enemy may be a friend, but it is much less certain what to do with the enemy of an enemy of an enemy.
Frequently hilarious, the writing shifted smoothly from one protagonist to another, giving each sufficient screen time to accumulate affection in the reader’s mind. I say ‘screen time’ because the writing shows a strongly visual, almost cinematic, imagination. On the other hand, the plot also scatters them in different locations. The problem of course with a great many characters doing different things in different places is that characters have to periodically disappear for extended periods of time. This gives the narrative an absent-minded quality.
Basu’s authorial voice is a delight to read, but he wisely restrains himself. Instead, he relies more on dialogue and action to highlight aspects of his characters. When he does show characters dealing with themselves, as when Aman binges on world-fixing, the novel threatens to become darker and more serious than it sets out to be. It is perhaps to Basu’s credit that he resists this temptation as well.
A case in point is how superpowers work. The logic is a simple and familiar one. A superpower is a realization of its hero’s deepest desire. Uzma has a deep desire to be adored, Vir aches to defend, Tia wants to live many lives, the journalist Namrata wants to be where the news happens, et cetera. Their superpowers reflect these desires. Aman’s superpower is the ability to control any digital configuration. But what does he desire that this particular ability should manifest? As he explains to Uzma in an early meeting:
‘Growing up in Delhi – and Delhi’s a city of networks, the social kind, and contacts and families – I’ve always felt left out of things, like I didn’t know anything, the right people, the right places…. I don’t know how it was for you growing up in the UK, but here nearly all of us have this huge sense of irrelevance. We’ll never change anything. The world will never know us. We grow up thinking hard work and a certain amount of ability are all we need – and then we eventually have to accept that they can only take us so far… we never feel like we’re a part of anything.’ (page 59)
Geoff Klock in his How to Read Superhero Comics and Why makes a great deal about how they reveal Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, and perhaps he’s right about Marvel-DC comics. But it does not explain superhero comics outside of the Marvel-DC continuum. The driving force behind Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa’s The 99 series is the desire to set the story of Islam straight. Langston Hughes’ superman, Jesse B. Semple, his black Walter Mitty, desired to have the White Man taste defeat. Aman’s explanation goes to the heart of the matter as far as the subcontinent is concerned. Here, the desire behind a superpower, any superpower, is relevance. To matter.
Basu, however, chooses not to dig for profundities. Uzma, upon hearing Aman’s explanation, simply changes the topic. I liked the matter-of-fact approach to the changed world. In an age where the Chinese manufacture most of the world, Indians dominate IT, and a black man is the president of the United States, there is no need to marvel that it is up to brown people to save London. Unlike a lot of Indian novels in English, this one isn’t interested in interpreting India for the west.
However, there’s also the reader’s comfort zone to consider. Basu’s technique is to make the desi setting feel universal rather than particular. All the characters are enlightened urban sophisticates with universal appeal; one can easily imagine bumping into them at coffee shops, hip bars, at a poetry reading, an art gallery, the other side of the bed. Their desi ethnicities are unobtrusive. For example, when Uzma’s super-posh Muslim parents meet Aman, a Hindu, Basu tells us simply that they subject him, to a ‘thorough investigation on every detail of his life.’
On the subcontinent, that interaction would be a bit more complicated. In reality, there probably would be much screaming. In a Bollywood movie, the father, dressed either in a suit or a dressing gown, would pretend to be happy for his daughter, then take Aman to a vast room with mounted tiger skins and offer him wads of cash to leave his baby alone. This would then be followed by an extended fight scene with the father’s goons. Regrettably, Basu takes the high road and eschews this melodramatic option.
Jokes aside, Basu’s creative choices are not entirely free of the burdens of history. In a country where religious crackpots routinely fulminate about the dangers of miscegenation, the novel would have a much more complicated task were Uzma a Hindu girl and Aman a Muslim boy.
I understand Basu’s decision to avoid the muddy waters of Hindu-Muslim relations. Melvin Maddox in his reevaluation of Thurber remarked that the best way to murder a soufflé is to treat it with the seriousness due to a roast-beef dinner. Basu is not intending to make roast-beef. However, sometimes the novel’s refusal to take itself seriously goes too far. At several places, his characters cross the line of self-awareness into parody. For example, in the climactic scene, Jai reminds Aman and Vir about what generally happens in Superhero movies and suggests restraint. Parody is something of an all or nothing deal; in small doses, it can make the reader feel foolish for caring about what happens.
At the end of the novel, when all the fighting is done, what remains is irony. Truth is, superheroes have no real role in the modern world. They can’t fix world hunger or resolve the Mid-East crisis or cure cancer or stop domestic violence or end female infanticide. They are irrelevant. What is an intelligent superhero to do? In the end, Aman, whose power derives from his need for relevance, is faced with a choice that is not really a choice at all.
Turbulence delivers exactly what it intends: an entertaining, well-written read. In the genre’s history it will be seen as an important work, a reflection of the subcontinent’s growing self-confidence. Indians have had the pleasure of enjoying his work for about a decade now, and it is wonderful that Titan Books has decided to make it available outside the subcontinent.