He loves Indian trains, big trains like a nation on the move. He is content with the contradiction that they are at once hierarchical and democratic, a temporary community brought together for a time; vital while it lasts, burning away like early mist when the terminus is reached. All journey is pilgrimage and India is a pilgrim nation. Rivers, grand trunk roads, trains; these are sacred things across all India's many nations. For thousands of years people have been flowing over this vast diamond of land. All is riverrun, meeting, a brief journey together, then dissolution.
Western thought rebels against this. Western thought is car thought. Freedom of movement. Self-direction. Individual choice and expression and sex on the back seat. The great car society. Throughout literature and music, trains have been engines of fate, drawing the individual blindly, inexorably towards death. [...] India has no such understanding of trains. It is not where the unseen engine is taking you; it is what you see from the window, what you say to your fellow travellers for you all go together. Death is vast, [a] crowded terminus of half-heard announcements and onward connections on new lines, new journeys. Changing trains.
The last of my From the Stacks books - which I finished (belatedly) just under a month ago - also turned up to be the pick of my fiction choices: River of Gods, by Ian McDonald, a novel of India on the first centenary of Independence - and, not unrelated, of Partition, a traumatic event echoed here in a vision of a subcontinent that has divided still further, into a number of fiercely rivalrous states, during the first half of the twenty-first century. This India of 2047 is a fractured but vibrant world, filled with contradictions and colour, with irrepressible spirit and entrenched injustice; utterly modern and very, very ancient:
It is three years since the monsoon. Now the blasphemous Awadh dam at Kunda Khadar turns the last blood in the veins of Ganga Mata to dust. Even the irreligious and agnostic now throw their rose petals on the river.
On that other river, the river of tyres that knows no drought, Yogendra steers the big Merc through the wall of sound and motion that is Varanasi's eternal chakra of traffic. His hand is never off the horn as he pulls out behind phatphats, steers around cycle rickshaws, pulls down the wrong side of the road to avoid a cow chewing an aged vest. Shiv is immune to all traffic regulations except killing a cow. Street and sidewalk blur: stalls, hot-food booths, temples, street shrines hung with garlands of marigolds.
The story woven through all this is, appropriately, teeming with life: a kaleidoscope of ideas, incident, and - above all - character. In fact, it's difficult to think of much that McDonald doesn't attempt to encompass here. River of Gods showcases a whole host of the concerns of SF. There is future tech (AI, genetic engineering, zero-point energy) and cool stuff in space (the mysterious Tabernacle). But there is also, emphatically, the human side of things: future society (caste, the position of women, religious divisions), future crises (climate change), and future identity (the 'third gender', the question of artificial intelligence). Nor are these discrete categories: McDonald examines how the technological capacity to alter babies before birth, for example, impacts upon, and feeds, caste and class prejudice; or how drought caused by climate change provokes political rifts and war, and stimulates technological research.
This richness, this attention to the interconnectedness of things, applies very much to McDonald's treatment of the large cast of viewpoint characters. For above all, River of Gods is a story about people - about personalities, whatever form (male or female or nute; Muslim or Hindu or atheist; Indian or Westerner or both; human or AI) they take. It's about how they get by in the world they find themselves in, about the untraceable (to them) matrix of impact that their thoughts and words and deeds have upon those around them. Everything and everyone is linked. Each is a part of the larger tale - often unwittingly so; no single person ever knows the whole story - but each also has his or her or yts own drama, which is generally of much greater concern to them, and (as a rule) highly compelling in its own right.
Take Shaheen Badoor Khan, for example. He is that still-rare thing, a Muslim cabinet minister in an overwhelmingly Hindu state (Bharat, where most of the book takes place) - an intelligent and thoughtful man who is highly valued by his formidable Prime Minister, Sajida Rana, but has long been held back from fulfilling his potential by the hostility of public opinion. As Bharat lingers on the verge of war - over access to water during a period of severely-extended drought - with neighbouring Bengal, Khan is politically central in more ways than he would wish, however. The exposure of his personal peccadillo - a lifelong, helpless (and, to most of the Bharati people, entirely reprehensible) sexual fascination with the third-gender 'nutes' - threatens not only his own career and marriage, but also to set alight the simmering sectarian unrest on the streets of Bharat (as another character notes, in India, "the mob is only a shout away"), and possible even to topple his government. (The manner of its exposure, moreover, is the result of a masterly intertwining of several characters' plot threads). Even before this, however, Khan gives us a window upon the trajectory of McDonald's Indian society as he recalls the frantic efforts of he and his wife to conceive a son:
He was remembering a young married couple, their careers dazzling, their path luminous, the parents so proud, so delighted for their children. Everything you have, save this one thing, a son. A son and a spare. Then the appointments with the doctors they had not asked to see, and the families poring over the results. Then the bitter little pills, and the bloody times. Shaheen Badoor Khan cannot count how many daughters he flushed away. His hands have twisted the limbs of Bharati society.
Female infanticide has been so pervasive that it has created a massive gender imbalance, making women an unspeakably rare and precious breeding commodity, whose chances of having careers have
vanished behind a veil of social functions and restrictions. No law, no imam, no caste tradition took them out of the workplace. Why work, when five men claw for every job and any educated, socially adept women can marry into money and prestige? Welcome to the glass zenana.
Or there is Mr Nandha and his new young wife Parvati. Prissy, control-freak Nandha is a "Krishna cop", a chap whose job it is to hunt down and "excommunicate" AIs (or aeais, as they are termed here) gone rogue in computer networks - a practise strongly encouraged, we later learn, by the US, a powerful ally of the Indian states, in a would-be global struggle that mirrors the present-day 'War on Terror'. Nandha is one side of one of the novel's central debates - what it means to be human, framed as an escalating tension between humanity and the artificial intelligence they have created. Nandha sees his role as an upholder of order, a barrier against the alien, chaotic possibilities of a future in which aeais are not penned in by their masters. But this is an extension of his whole life: his precise Ayurvedic diet, his perfect wife (right caste, right demeanour), his carefully-tended home with its roof-top garden for country-bred Parvati. His fastidiousness finds its way into everything:
It's dead. Excommunicated. Mr Nandha stands up, dusts himself down. He tucks his gun away. Messy one. Unsatisfactory. Questions left hanging. Many will be answered when the Fifteenth Floor Gang open up the server, but a man does not become a Krishna Cop without sensitivities and Mr Nandha's are telling him that this tangle of metal and plastic is the opening letter of a new and long story. He will say that story, he will unravel its intricacies and characters and events and bring it to its right conclusion, but at this moment, his most pressing problem is how to get the stink of burned tikka-paste out of his suit.
As the crisis of the main plot builds, so does that within Nandha's life; his choices and priorities are shaped as much by increasingly strained relationship with his wife (and the inevitable mother-in-law) as they are by any sense of a wider picture. Parvati, for her part, is the archetypal neglected, stifled and unhappy young wife of so much Indian fiction. Through her, we see the heavily-stratified nature of the society - this time, not just the gender but the class divide:
Mr Nandha often questions what he has done, bringing his lovely wife into Varanasi's rip-throat society, a country girl among cobras. The games among the Cantonment set - his colleagues, his social peers - appal him. Whispers and looks and rumours, always so sweet and well mannered, but watching, weighing, measuring. [...] That wife of Nandha's. Would you listen to the accent? Would you look at those hands? Those colours she wears, and the styles. She can't speak, you know. Not a word. Nothing to say. Opens her mouth and flies buzz out. Town and country, I say. Town and country.
Indeed, I found her story the most compelling and sad of the whole novel; Parvati truly comes to life, whether in her conflict with Nandha over her desire for a genetically-engineered Brahmin baby (Nandha, of course, won't countenance anything so artificial), her tentative romance with the gardener Krishnan, or simply in her displays of fragile spirit, as when she goes for the first time to watch the cricket, from within the snooty Ladies' circle:
Keep your eye on the ball, Krishan had told Parvati when it was spades and apricots on the roof garden. Parvati Nandha keeps her eye on the ball as it reaches the top of its arc and gravity overcomes velocity and it falls to earth, toward the crowd, a red bindi, a red eye, a red sun. An aerial assault. A missile from Krishan, seeking out the heart. The ball falls and the spectators rise but none before Parvati. She surges up and the ball drops into her upheld right hand. She cries out at the sting, then yells "Jai Bharat!", mad on the moment. The crowd cheers. [...] She turns to show off her pride and achievement to her Ladies and finds their faces rigid with contempt.
Another vivid creation is the prodigal son Vishram Ray, a resident of Glasgow and budding stand-up comedian, who reluctantly returns to India and the call of family responsibilities when his father decides to step down from the leadership of the family business, Ray Power, an energy company with both R&D and distribution arms. Vishram is one of our most direct (and personable) links into the 'big' story of the novel: the search for zero-point energy and the attendant discovery of other universes (although he has no conception of the way this discovery will affect other currents at work in the world):
"Quantum radiation; the virtual particles of this universe - we call it Universe two-eight-eight - running into the laws of our universe and annihilating themselves into photons."
No it's not, Vishram thinks, looking into the light of another time and space. And you know it's not, Sonia Yadav. It is the light of Brahma.
As the essentially well-meaning young chancer of the book, out of his depth but finding reserves of ambition and ability within himself that he never knew he possessed, Vishram is immensely engaging, all performance anxiety and libido, half-outsider and half-insider. He's also funny, in a nicely understated way:
"What are they for?" Vishram asks.
"In case of attack by tigers," the Rajput answers.
"I'd imagine anything that could eat us is kilometres away by now, the noise we made coming in."
"Oh, not at all, sir. They have learned to associate the sound of aeroplane engines."
With what? Vishram feels he should ask, but can't quite bring himself to. He's a city boy. City. Boy. Hear that you man-eaters? Full of nasty additives.
The book's sense of boundaries - between individuals, between states of being, between storylines - being crossed, blurred and subverted is most obviously expressed in the form of the "nutes", the people who choose to undergo the procedure for adopting the third gender. River of Gods has one nute viewpoint character, Tal, and several others are encountered in the course of the novel. All seem to conceive of their transformation in terms very appropriate for the environment: as the leaving behind of an old identity and their birth - rebirth - into a new one:
"In 2019 when you were born, what..."
Tal laid a finger to his lips.
"Never," yt whispered. "Never ask, never tell. Before I Stepped Away, I was another incarnation. I am only alive now, you understand. Before was another life, and I am dead and reborn."
This quality of moving forward, of adopted identity as transformation and transgression, is expressed in the other name often applied to the nutes - hijra, (which I take to come from) an Arabic word meaning 'departure' or 'emigration' (the most famous hijra being the Prophet Muhammad's move from Mecca to Medina, where his fledgling community of believers found a new life and group identity in a more welcoming environment, the event that marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar). It is also present, in a more complicated way, in the aeais that we see - and, at times, hear the words of - in the novel. Aeais have become almost omnipresent in mid-21st-century Indian society, from the rogue agents hunted down by Nandha, to the myriad created-celebrities - complete with created-memories of fictional childhoods - that star in the all-aeai virtual soap operas ("soapis") that captivate viewers across the continent (including Parvati). The question that arises, naturally, is where the boundary between 'real' and artificial human lies: do memory, volition, personality make a person, or not? What does 'intelligence' actually mean, and how much does it depend upon the environment producing and viewing it? Or, as one of these soapi stars, Lal Darfan - in an interview with the Afghan-born, Swedish-raised thrillseeker Najia - flippantly puts it:
"And, with respect, I am a real celebrity, in that my celebrity is indeed very real. In fact these days, I think it's only celebrity that makes anything real, don't you agree?"
The enigmatic Aj, a young woman apparently searching for her parents, who is encountered and adopted by one of our viewpoint characters, has a broader view on this - and her perspective keys the future-tech right into the Indian milieu (something that the novel's ending also does, really quite brilliantly, but which I couldn't possibly spoil):
She is an orphan is the city of gods and therefore never alone. Gods beat behind her like wings, gods flock around her head, gods roll and tumble at her feet, gods peel apart before her like a million opening doors. She lifts her hand and ten thousand gods flow apart and fuse together again. Every building, every vehicle, every lamp and neon, every street shrine and traffic light, trembles with gods.
No man (or woman, or nute) is an island, then - and the subcontinent is bigger than any one of them, or even all of them together: it is an ancient entity, veteran of centuries of invaders and adventurers and would-be world-changing mystics, a place that absorbs (placidly or violently) whatever fate throws its way. The names may change but the underlying soil remains, and eventually India always re-emerges, not unaffected by, but forever stronger than, any ephemeral historical moment - a fact wonderfully illustrated by this little aside:
Warren Hastings' Pavilion, according to Anand's Rough Guide. Warren Hastings. Sounds like a name they'd make up for you in a call centre.
So much for the heroes of the Raj! (Or, okay, the East India Company, I suppose ;-)). Appropriately, the novel is suffused with the sights, sounds, and smells of India, whether seen through the eyes of a native son returning:
The few seconds of heat between airport and air-conditioned car stun Vishram. He's been too long in a cold climate. And he had forgotten the scent, like ashes of roses. The car pulls into the wall of colour and sound. Vishram feels the heat, the warmth of the bodies, the greasy hydrocarbon soot against the glass. The people. The never failing river of faces.
Or of an ageing Western would-be drop-out like Thomas Lull:
Kerala's contradictions held him a week longer than planned; its perfume of dust, musk and sun-seared coconut matting, its sense of ancient superiority to the caste-ridden north, its dark, fetid chaotic gods and their bloody rituals.
And now this post has become quite unfeasibly long. So there isn't space to talk about Lisa Durnau and her "morning sickness of original thought" (whose story takes a while to get going in comparison to others', but is very striking when it does), or Shiv the petty criminal (less successful; feels like an escapee from a minor cyberpunk novel), the break-neck multi-viewpoint climax, or numerous other things. The flood of information and incident can be bewildering at times - and, naturally, certain elements get lost in the mix - but this really is a wonderful novel.