J. C. Bose and other Indian SF

Vandana Singh is an author (Distances) and also a PhD Physicist.

I would like to see an English translation of a story that is among the first science fiction stories from India. It is called Niruddesher Kahini and it was published in Bengali in 1896 by the scientist and polymath Jagadish Chandra Bose. I can only read in Hindi and English, and discovered Bengali science fiction’s rich history through translation (Premendra Mitra’s brilliant Mosquito and Other Stories from Penguin India) some years ago. I’ve been hearing about J. C. Bose’s science fiction story about a cyclone for the longest time, but have been unable to find a translation. It would be significant not only historically, as one of the early SF works from India, but also because J. C. Bose was a truly remarkable man. His contributions to the science of radio waves predate Marconi, and he also pioneered research in biophysics through his study of electrical impulses in plants. He invented the most beautiful, precise and delicate instruments, such as the almost fantastical crescograph. All his work was done under a fair amount of hardship, thanks to the racist policies of the British rulers, and it is only recently that he has been given credit for his ideas and discoveries. Reading his words (in translation) I am struck by his sensitivity, strong ethical sense, and a certain quality of mind — a synthesis mind — that could ignore artificial boundaries such as those between disciplines. He had reverence for what he was studying. To read a science fiction story by a person like him would be, I imagine, quite an experience. Perhaps a translation exists but I have not been able to find it.

There is a lot of early science fiction in various Indian languages that I would like to see in translation. According to the website of Dr. Arvind Mishra Hindi science fiction has quite a history, starting with writers from the late 1800s like Ambika Dutt Vyas and Keshav Prasad Singh and continuing on today. What I’d like to see is an entire tome of historical Indian Science Fiction translated from various languages into English. Because of the power of English in the world today, a side-effect of a long global colonial history, writers in English from any culture are given precedence over writers in other languages. I owe part of my interest in science fiction to the fantastical stories published by Hind Pocket Books that I read as a kid, but I wish I had read more historical Indian SF. I didn’t even know it existed. When I discovered Premendra Mitra it was mind-blowing — among other things it allowed me to converse, through my writing, with my own literary history. If we want to avoid a narrow tunnel vision, a monoculture of the mind, this cross-pollination between SF in different languages is absolutely vital.

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  1. 42 mos ago

    I fully agree that cross-pollination is necessary to keep SF fresh and in-tune with the rest of the world! What you’re proposing sounds like the stuff Kickstarters are made of. It reminds me of a similar (albeit English-oriented) project, designed to rescue old/out-of-print SF books. (www.savethescifi.com) They in fact just put out their second release, an ebook reprint of an SF story from 1920. Pretty cool that they’re able to scrounge up such old material, and it sounds similar to what you’re envisioning–although your project has the additional hurdle of translating. Still, there have been a lot of reasonably priced SF projects on Kickstarter of late that have made their goals. I realize tracking down the texts is the harder part, but the funds from Kickstarter would perhaps give you the fuel to do so.

  2. Vandana
    42 mos ago

    Thanks for the suggestion, Sam X! I hadn’t thought of Kickstarter. Cool idea.

  3. 41 mos, 2 wks ago

    Very true Vandana, translation of such great works on sf in English is a long awaited and wee need a concerted effort to achieve this. Thanks for mentioning my blog.

  4. Ayan
    3 hrs, 55 mins ago

    Hi Vandana,

    If you haven’t found a translation of J. C. Bose’s story “Polatok Toofan” or the Runaway Cyclone, here (https://jyotirjagat.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/jagadish-chandra-bose-palatak-tufan.pdf) is a page with the story in both Bengali and English (translated by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay).


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