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Across the Continents: A Talk with Dip Ghosh on Indian and Bengali Science Fiction

Image credits: KALPABIGYAN: From internal monologues to external adventures, Bengali science fiction is here to stay thanks to Dip Ghosh and co.[Image of Dip Ghosh provided by author]

A special thanks to Sudeep Chatterjee and Wole Talabi for making this interview possible. An honour indeed to connect with Dip Ghosh in the Global South.

By Emad El-Din Aysha

“As a software engineer and machine learning researcher, I have a keen interest in the field of science fiction naturally. For the past seven years, I have been involved in editing and publishing India's only vernacular SFF magazine, Kalpabiswa, alongside four others. Additionally, we have established a publishing wing since 2018, where we have printed approximately 80 books, with 60 belonging to the SFF genre. We also host periodic SF conferences and seminars and digitise historical Bengali SF magazines and stories. Recently, I published the first non-fiction book on Bengali science fiction, Kalpabigyan.

Growing up in Bengal, I was introduced to the genre through Satyajit Ray's famous character, Prof Sanku (Adventures of a Genius Inventor), and translations of Jules Verne by the legendary Bengali editor and translator Adrish Bardhan. In seventh grade, someone gifted me some short stories by Asimov, and I have been hooked on science fiction ever since. SF is one of the essential types of literature as it can offer glimpses into potential futures and alert us to incoming hazards.”

How is science fiction defined in the Bengali language and literary community? How is it distinguished from fantasy, surrealism and magic realism? How much Bengali SF is ‘borderline’?

“The history of Bengali science fiction dates back quite far. Bengali authors wrote the first proto-science fiction works in English during the early 19th century. However, the genre truly flourished with the emergence of Adrish Bardhan and his magazine ‘Aschorjyo!/আশ্চর্য!’ during the 1960s. At the outset, the works were heavily influenced, translated, and adapted by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Under the guidance of Adrish Bardhan, Premendra Mitra, Dilip Roy Chowdhury, Satyajit Ray, and others, Bengali SF evolved. Adrish coined the term ‘Kalpabigyan/কল্পবিজ্ঞান’ as the Bengali equivalent of the genre ‘science fiction,’ but over time, it took on a meaning of its own. Typically, Bengali "Kalpabigyan" encompasses not only science fiction but also science fiction, science fantasy, scientific adventures, and more. Its defining feature is its roots in Bengali and (more broadly) Indian origin and philosophy. Thus, instead of interplanetary adventures and futuristic societies, Bengali SF authors are more eager to contemplate the meaning of life and death. New-age authors are breaking stereotypes with experimental stories that include alternative history, magic realism, steampunk, feminist, and even queer-themed stories.

Similarly, Bengali literature was predominantly centred around the cosmopolitan city of Kolkata, leaving no room for marginalised or borderline people in Kolpobigyan. Writers like Soham Guha are doing an excellent job of portraying and incorporating marginalised characters into kalpabigyan stories. We will have more coming-of-age stories.”

Now tell us about your work with the Joydhak Prakashan publishing house and their project to translate a volume of African speculative fiction into Bengali. This is the first book of its kind, and I’m overjoyed to be involved.

“Joydhak Prakashan has made impressive strides in the realm of Kalpabigyan over the past few years. I have worked closely with them as a translator and editor on three translated science fiction anthologies in Bengali. So, when Sudeep Chatterjee approached me to participate in this project, I was thrilled to see such a complex and significant initiative taking shape in Bengali. This book is not simply a translation of science fiction; it is a window that allows us to touch each other's lives, minds, and cultural histories across continents. We held extensive group discussions about the translations and corresponded with the authors via email. Kalpabiswa released a translation anthology of Spanish and Latin American science fiction this year, and I hope to see more collaborative efforts like this in the future.”

What do you hope to accomplish with this project on behalf of Bengali and Afrofuturist speculative fiction? Could such networking between authors and publishers in the Global South help put our brand of SF on the literary map once and for all?

“In my opinion, initiatives like this are crucial in the path towards the development of global speculative fiction. For far too long, the world of speculative fiction has been dominated by English-speaking writers and editors. It is high time that voices from every culture are given a global platform.
However, this collaboration between Bengali and African speculative fiction is just the beginning. I would love to see African editors and publishers interested in translating Bengali SF anthologies and publishing them locally. Additionally, we need more cultural and literary exchanges, such as webinars, online discussions, or interviews like this one. Translations into English and other languages are crucial to presenting non-English SF globally. The more we collaborate and translate, the more we learn about what writers from different parts of the world are creating. Few Bengali readers knew about Afrofuturism and its notable authors, but now they can understand comprehensively by reading this book.”

How aware are Bengali authors and publishers of science fiction in Egypt, for instance? Have you all heard of Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and his famous pocketbook series Future File with Nabil Farouk? Do you have a pocketbook (pulp sci-fi) series yourself in India?

“I haven't had the opportunity to read any books by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik or Nabil Farouk, and I'm uncertain if any Bengali literary enthusiasts are familiar with their works. Nonetheless, I intend to explore their writings on Amazon. This is why it's crucial to collaborate and translate literature from other cultures. Just as Bengali SF authors like Adrish Bardhan or Anish Deb are well-known among Bengali readers, probably, Arab publishers and writers aren't familiar with their works.”

You have edited sci-fi and fantasy magazines in the Bengali language. We’re struggling with that here in the Arab world. Are there bureaucratic and financial hurdles to publication? Is it critical to creating generations of sci-fi fans? Does anybody read things in print anymore, to begin with?

“In 2016, we launched Kalpabiswa, India's first online vernacular SFF (science fiction and fantasy) magazine. Before Kalpabiswa, there were three printed magazines, namely Aschorjyo (1963-70), Bismoy science fiction (1970-74), and Fantastic (1975-early 2000) in the Bengali language. Still, all of them had to shut down due to printing overhead costs and a lack of interest in science fiction in Bengal. Knowing that interest in science fiction was at an all-time low, we started an online magazine as it was not practical to return to printed magazines.
For the first few issues, we wrote and translated stories ourselves. The magazine is available for free and quickly gained a substantial readership. People from all over India began sending their 'Kalpabigyan' stories, but we have stringent editorial policies for selecting stories, and rejection is common. We encourage new voices and ideas by selecting stories. We also conduct interviews with veteran writers, reprint lost stories from old sf magazines, and arrange discussion sessions in both online and offline formats.

In 2018, our readers began pressuring us for printed issues. Consequently, we established Kalpabiswa Publication and began publishing science fiction and fantasy books in Bengali. Our team comprises engineers and academicians, so the entire magazine and publication aspect is easily handled digitally. SF can only thrive with fandom, and with no mainstream magazines publishing science fiction, many authors were yearning to publish their stories. Kalpabiswa filled the void and grew the fanbase and writers from the ground up. Although we receive more viewership on our online magazine than we do for the printed books, the printed publication section now supports all the expenses of our magazine section.”

Finally, what advice would you give your counterparts in the Arab world? How can we pool resources organizationally and pitch ourselves better to the international translation market?

“The next step is to promote collaboration and translation efforts in both directions, exposing local writers and readers to global ideas and cultures while sharing local authors’ works worldwide. This process takes time and patience and connecting with potential readers who will form the community is often the most challenging part. Therefore, organising regular seminars, conferences, local SF-cons, story writing competitions, and SF writing workshops can be instrumental in building a solid community.
In India, we have multiple SF organisations that collaborate on various occasions. Attending international book fairs and pitching anthologies to global publishers can also help to raise awareness. As a magazine and publication, we are steadily growing in Bengal. Although my exposure to the Egyptian/Arabic science fiction community is limited, I hope these suggestions will be helpful in your situation. I wish you and the Egyptian SF community all the best for the future and look forward to working on more projects together in the coming days.”

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Emad Aysha
Academic researcher, journalist, translator and sci-fi author. The man with the mission to bring Arab and Muslim literature to an international audience, respectably.
 
Emad Aysha
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