Bijoyini (everyone calls her Joey) wants to go to a protest, but is relieved when she is forbidden. It is a guilt-ridden relief: domestic help Laxmi has deigned that anyone from a privileged, upper middle class background isn’t tough enough for a street protest in Delhi, and she turns out to be right.
For, the Delhi of Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits (Simon & Schuster) is the Delhi of a disturbingly, realistically murkier near-future. Here, the Shaheen Bagh protests are the stuff of distant memory and urban legend. Here Detention Camp Designer is a legitimate job title, and revocation of citizenship is an everyday punishment reserved for the poor and minorities.
All this, in a futuristic setting, where advertisements are seen on bots flying past balconies, live video streams are activated on T-shirts, and personalised “tattart” is tattooed on wrists to check heart rate and give medical advice on the go. Sprinkled amid it all, is Basu’s typical wry humour, expressed through endearingly spirited yet beleaguered characters.
“Near-future books are very inconvenient to write, and vastly different from science fiction. Every day, something would happen in the news and I would think, ‘this is a spoiler’,” chuckles Basu over a phone interview from Delhi. This difference between near-future and science fiction made him scrap a larger version of the book — “Instead of three separate years spaced out between decades [each with more progressively outlandish tech than the last], I chose to stick to just this one. The latter two had far more fiction.”
That was one of reason for Basu to stick to the first among his eras. The other, ironically, was the sheer amount of time that has passed. His laugh still has a tinge of guilt as he recalls it: “I just looked up from my research and two years had passed!” He continued to write till 2019 end, and in that time much had happened in the country to influence his writing. Amid news of protests, arrests and everything else, Basu was always aware of his own privilege.
So are his characters, to an extent, and they handle it with as much spirit as they can muster, silent in their judgement and vocal in their comfort-level ‘wokeness’, in telling situations that often draw out chuckles.
“Joey is the one I relate to the most, she is from more or less the same strata and privilege as me. I have seen my friends struggle the way she does, the way they react when faced with someone much more powerful, the way they struggle to feel comfortable with those less privileged — with the poor or even with the lower middle class. There is a discomfort which always causes guilt,” says the author.
This is the upper middle class that takes invasion of privacy as a given, and uses old sitcoms to shield its ageing parents from the legacy news media on TV.
This is neither utopia nor dystopia — “there is no one incident that changed the world and united everyone. We are as we were.”
In essence, what Basu shows unerringly is a future that we have clearly advanced to, but into which we have dragged our prejudices, divisions and inequalities, with us.
How the world is built, is intriguing to say the least. There are times when the plot itself takes a backseat to it, but that could also be because Basu is not trying to drive any singular point home.
The “system” is murky with flaws everywhere. There is no singular, overarching villain; no Boss to be defeated at the final level. Which is why there are no heroes either: “none of my characters are heroes,” says Basu, “They cannot just fly down and stop a pogrom from happening.”
Instead, it is the little things that the characters manage to address from time to time that leave an impact. There are a few small solutions, but for that, you will have to read the book.
Chosen Spirits is available as hardcover deliverable only to certain areas, and as a Kindle version for download.