#3. Samit Basu's Anti-Dystopia + Spaces of Resistance

Repairing a faulty world

Dear Reader,

After more than seventy days of staying in and hiding from the invisible virus it would seem like the world could use a break. But instead of quietly rewatching Bridget Jones’s Diary, my brain latched on books that are everything but comforting. I don’t know what it says about me as a person if the stuff I’m reading now involve suicide (All The Bright Places by Jenifer Niven) or the prospect of a ten years from now Hindu Rashtra (Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu). In between these, there was some comfort in the non-fiction I read — essay collections by Durga Chew Bose (Too Much and Not in the Mood), Mary Oliver (Upstream) and Rebecca Solnit (Men Explain Things to Me).

But, as much as I would like to  indulge in all the non-fiction I read, I'm exhausted and stacking words together feels almost impossible at this point. I also have to admit that I don't have adequately interesting thoughts about each of them. Not that I claim to have too many fascinating thoughts in general. I’ve met myself, and I know that on most days I just write about longing for many moods and things. I'm hilariously pining all the time for some lost feelings and I’ll be disappointed if someday I’m not allowed to make a living out of this obscure-ness.

So, maintaining the accidental vibe, this is about one book from the entire lot that refreshed many memories of resistance and hope.

CHOSEN SPIRITS:

The most lazy way to describe Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits is to call it a dystopian novel. In reality it’s many themes rolled into one — dystopia, sci-fi, political satire and what not. It makes me wonder if genres were simply invented for organisational purposes by booksellers. Because writers, at least the ones I like, seem to never stick to one. They’re bending, twisting, crawling and time travelling to whatever space the story takes them. 

Set in the late 2020’s Chosen spirits mainly covers two characters, Bijoyini Roy — or Joey, as we come to know her and Rudra Gupta. The plot occurs in a futuristic Delhi. One that is gory, but given where we are now, it’s not too tough to believe. There’s instant rotoscoping of avatars, virtual conferencing and Smartatts tattooed on wrists — to control every emotion and sense felt. Reality is reshaped every minute by curated video content known as Flows, that are being shared by Flowstars. Along with this algorithmic mayhem, there is also the fully established and oppressively functioning Hindu Rashtra. 

Joey is a Reality Controller, working for Flowstars. She’s learnt the art of looking away from injustice, because the other option involves seeing things that are terrible. Rudra is a rich boy running away from his family and inheritance. There is a definitive political awakening brewing in his mind. A lot happens to both these people, from a sex scandal to riots.  

The book is set in a world that is instantly immersive. Samit Basu crafts a strikingly believable horror story that occurs in a future too near to us. The years we currently live in are referred to as The Years To Not Be Discussed. People casually store riot protection kits and tear gas protection make-up in their drawers. There is also a side mention of a Smartatt update that involves gauging two people’s attraction, degrees of interest and consent via non-verbal cues that really got me scared. If two people in a room need technological intervention to understand consent, the world is really doomed. Plus, as Joey explains, this update in the hands of Indians is just another caste and class filtering mechanism. In all of this disruption, easily the biggest fear generator was the changed landscape of Delhi, and the world around it.  

In passing we are told that the Delhi Police now has drones. There is a Ganesha Cosmos built over the ruins of Delhi’s most prestigious post-grad university that suffered many attacks over the decade. The University is not named, but it is easy to guess that the institute in concern is the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). There are mentions of Shaheen Bagh, attacks on students and much more — the buildup to this scary world is our present.

Descriptions of the future cityscape kept ringing in my head, forcing me to think of the Delhi we see today, and it's resilience.It took me back to spaces I didn’t really know that I missed — protest spaces, resistance spaces. From November last year to mid-March, I was thriving on the energy in these spaces. At the fag end of  January, I ended up in Delhi with my classmates, on a trip that can best be described as protest tourism.

Delhi, as we know is sprawling, large and easy to hate for most people. But at the risk of offending every Mumbai bred brat I know, I’d like to say it's more cosmopolitan. As Abhinandan Sekhri articulates in this Newslaundry podcast, what makes a city truly cosmopolitan is dissent. And Delhi's dissent is infectious.

Chosen Spirits took me back to it. I remembered snippets of trotting through JNU a little before midnight on that protest tourism trip. A place that doesn't survive in Samit Basu's future mapping. We had spent the day at Rashtrapati Bhavan walking through stretches of green, wide and long roads, to see how the rich and powerful live without any accountability. As the night faded in, we were in Munirka, shuffling through its tiny clustered lanes. It was freezing cold (in spite of four layers of clothing) as we entered the JNU campus, and walked around for a bit. We stopped at one of the campus dhabas at midnight. I don't know if the butter chicken I had there was the best one I've ever had, or if it was just burning hot and soothing on the tongue.

About halfway into Chosen Spirits, I opened my phone to check if I had taken any pictures that night at JNU. Instead, I came across all the photos taken at Shaheen Bagh. Women sloganeering with babies in their hands, men standing outside libraries of donated books reading about women's resistance. I specifically remember a young boy, barely 8 years old, leading the sloganeering. His father stood next to him. He repeated the famed chants of Azaadi as if it was all he has heard in his life. There was resistance art everywhere, from a child’s drawing of an apple, words of the Preamble written on dusty steps, sign boards spray painted over with dissent.

(In frame: My very brave friend at Freedom Park, Bangalore)

Deeper down in my camera roll were videos from protests in Bangalore and images of placard-making in my room. There was a parallel collective forming in my gallery — of selfies taken on bus rides to Townhall, a prominent protest location in Bangalore. I dug into memory banks of the many BMTC bus rides with my friends, of the hot cups of chai at Townhall canteen, the occasional snack we picked up at Majestic station. The staple pink shawl in my bag that my best friend would insist on borrowing every time we left the house for a protest. I would always deny, my excuse being, “You don’t borrow stuff, you just take things and forget to return them.” Our bags would always have water, even though I never drank it. I would find folded placards that I had forgotten about in my bag during college hours. A huge pile of these placards kept accumulating in my room. I never knew what to do with them, throwing them away didn’t feel right. 

After much scavenging, I didn’t end up finding any pictures from the night at JNU. I guess we were all too tired that day. I remember that once we were done eating the butter chicken, it took us some time to get a cab — no driver was willing to drive from Munirka to Gurgaon on a cold night. Once we managed to get a cab — two minutes into the ride, as the car neared the campus exit, our driver asked us, "Ab sab theek chal raha hai yaha?" I glanced at my friend. It was past midnight, we were tired from a long day, and in no mood to have a political chat. So we told him we're from Bangalore and didn't know much, which wasn't really a lie. I sat back, admired the night and slowly dozed off. I felt a wavering safety, presenting itself almost as a guilt.

It has become a common feeling. It would appear ever time I entered my silent room, after spending the evening at a protest. Wrapped up in my comforter, a cup of tea by my side, listening to a detoxing mix of Britney and Vampire Weekend. On some other days I would just flop on the bed and stare the quotes and pictures on my wall. 

A lot of us are like Joey and Rudra. We are pushed into a political awakening, but we are always armed with the privilege of looking away if things get too bad. We're stuck with wondering how long our courage will last, or worse, how long it will take for us to finally raise a voice openly. 

It’s worth examining how courage can be built, or must be built. I know that for me and many others around me, this pluck came from spaces of resistance. They offered comfort, solidarity and nurtured the courage that was needed. Resistance is an adrenaline rush, a force of positivity. When you’re part of it, nothing else matters. I’ve lost track of the number of times the police would come prepared with lathis and tear gas — fear was always part of the game. But after a point, it ceased to exist. These are important moments and inescapable fights. 

Chosen Spirits, as Basu himself says, is not a dystopia. It's anti-dystopia, what he calls a "best case scenario." I had a lump in my throat at that thought, but it's true. If we keep going the way we are, we're bound to land an algorithmic nightmare filled Hindu Rashtra. Maybe we could all use Samit Basu's brilliant words as an antidote, a reminder of why we erupted into a full spring revolution. He paints a deadly picture in great detail, and the scariest part is that it is recognisable. 

I enjoyed reading it immensely. For what it’s worth, it made me scroll through my gallery for hours. There was some collateral damage in the process — I found many embarrassing pictures/videos of my friends that I am never letting go off. I publicly apologise to them, they’ve suffered.

Thank you for reading.