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Suna Dasi

Posted: 19 December, 2015 at 3:54 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Multicultural Steampunk was a late bloomer to the genre. By default, Steampunk seems to be tailored to appeal to white Westerners who have a hankering after a time when good etiquette was a matter of pride, combined with the exquisite fashion that bedecked the middle and upper classes and the sense of wonder and discovery in the natural and scientific world of Victorian times– not to mention the rise of Industrialism. The rest of the world was merely décor for the Empire’s endeavour and ambition.

This being true of the actual Victorian Age, Neo-Victorianism does take historical reality into account and paints with a more varied palette. Not quite varied enough ,yet, though new multi-cultural Steampunk fiction and costuming by people of non-Western cultures is on the rise.

Steampunk fiction, if it uses a non-Western cultural setting, is most often the narrative of British Ladies and Gentlemen who cavort around the globe having rip-roaring adventures, pulp-fiction novel style à la Edgar Rice Burroughs. The narrative point of view is almost always theirs.

The non-Western characters who do feature are most likely to be comic relief, a villainous type or a subordinate, presented as an overblown stereotype of their nation’s characteristics.

S.M. Sterling’sThe Peshawar Lancers is a fantastic case in point. It is set in a future India, but a previous global catastrophe means technology has reverted to steam. In his book, Sterling colonises India all over again, not only having the British leave their home isles to settle permanently in the Dark Continent: the whites adopt the native dress, culture and language and take up the positions of the higher castes.

Not even high caste Indians are complete equals; the main Indian character, a Sikh warrior, hero-worships his white overlord, much in the way Umslopogaas did Allan Quatermain in Rider Haggard’s 1886 adventure novel, She. (A book I love ,incidentally, problematic as that may seem in our politically correct world of today.)

Alan Moore and Kev O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen came out in 1999. Captain Nemo, devised by Jules Verne as an Indian prince taken to the deep seas, was recreated by them and his Indian heritage is made very prominent. We see him worship a statue of Kali, he speaks Hindi with his Indian crewmen, the Nautilus is topped by a huge yoni-linga on the upper deck and his car headlamps are adorned with statues of the elephant god Ganesh. I found this very inspiring and hoped it meant an emerging trend of India-based fictional characters and narratives. However, when I looked into the actual fictional genre of Steampunk quite a few years later, it turned out there weren’t many other Indian characters to be found. Eventually, after a ten year gap, a female character appeared in the form of Nemo’s daughter Janni Dakkar in LOEG:1910.

Kev O'Neill's artwork for the LOEG comics, from left to right: Prince Dakkar aka Captain Nemo, The Nautilus, and Janni Dakkar

Kev O’Neill’s artwork for the LOEG comics, from left to right: Prince Dakkar aka Captain Nemo, The Nautilus, and Janni Dakkar

I have been an aficionado of the Victorian Era for many years. It’s hard not to be captured by the exciting moment in history that was the Industrial Revolution, or by the Victorian writers, poets, art movements and architecture. The thrilling promise of more advanced scientific understanding sung to my imagination; I was always exploring 19th century fiction and non-fiction, the cultural phenomena, fashions and fads that occurred in Victorian times. The umbrella term Steampunk was unfamiliar to me until much later.

It can perhaps be understood why I felt underrepresented within the genre once I started reading the fiction on offer. India during the British occupation is a prominent and influential chapter in history, a chapter that has a deep political and cultural resonance to this day. It is really quite odd to completely ignore it as a part of the Steampunk genre. What makes engaging in Steampunk so wonderful is the recreation of an era in history in a different mould – an era that has the Empire running roughshod over other cultures. Why not make alternate history truly alternative, instead of rolling in post-modernist angst of what is correct, which seems to be the going trend. It is fiction: the creativity that builds alternate history must be allowed to run unimpeded or the trap of self-censoring is a very real and dangerous one. That always makes for trite, non-heroic art in any discipline.

When writing I think I present norm-challenging ideas in an interesting setting, but never to the detriment of telling the story. (Garth Nix is a wonderful example of this, his passion for telling the story that needs to be told always outweighs any overbearing political or psychological elements, but wow, are they there – and his sexual politics rock!)

Whatever the kind of books we read; we read to escape reality and simultaneously, view reality through the prism of the ‘other’. When we read we engage in recognition. We apply the way we think to the wish-fulfilment, sorrows, trials and joys of the characters we invest in. Even when there is no one sympathetic in a pantheon of fictional characters, we apply self-referential comparison in our disgust, disbelief and disillusionment when appalling characters make terrible choices or say reprehensible things.

Reading Steampunk fiction, I continually found myself wishing for more Indian characters, or at least mixed race and mixed culture characters whose background informed their personality and choices. To go a step further, Indian women are mostly lacking. Frustrating, as the possibilities seem endless.

There are two female Steampunk fiction characters that instantly do spring to mind, the aforementioned daughter of Nemo, Janni Dakkar, crated by Alan Moore and Miss Celestial Temple, from Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. She is a an affluent, mixed race colonial fending for herself in an alternate London. This is of course purely personal, but these women affected me powerfully. While I hugely enjoyed Susan Kaye Quinn’s Dharian Affairs, I was less wholeheartedly immersed in the trials and tribulations of the Princesses, for their situations were more outlandish to me.

Focus-09-02In this context, I am looking forward to see what I will make of Eric Brown’s Jani and the Greater Game, a Steampunk novel that features a female, half British, half Indian protagonist. I have yet to read it but this Geek Native review gives a good impression:

Neither was I the only one with this conundrum: people from all kinds of different cultures who were into Steampunk were asking: Where am I? Where is my story? Where are the characters I can have an affinity with?

More importantly, in the tradition Steampunk has of weaving actual historical characters into the narrative tapestry, there are so many women and men of note to choose from when diving into India’s rich and vibrant history. The Maharani of Jhansi, Lakshmibai could be the inspiration for a powerful Steampunk character.

She is a legendary Indian heroine for being one of the first royal leaders to lead her troops against the British during the Indian uprising of 1857, an event now commonly described as the First Indian War of Independence. She was often seen on horseback in the male attire of her court with her hair loose, and was apparently a great shot, a renowned archer and an accomplished martial artist.

Maharani of Jhansi

Maharani of Jhansi

If the Rani’s life story and personality aren’t eminently Steampunkable, I don’t know what is!

Steampunk’s other defining characteristic is the love for invention, innovation and the physical fusion of ideas. With the Indian flair for style and inventiveness – and lacking the cutting edge facilities and basic modern apparatus that were the privilege of the British Isles – the Indians were left to use their hands and their cunning. They wrought their own fanciful versions of machinery from exotic and local materials. Jagadis Chandra Bose (after whom Bose sound-systems were named!) played a vital role in helping to invent the radio. In 1896 Bose became one of the first people to demonstrate that radio waves could be transmitted over long distances. Some scholars argue that he was the first person to achieve this feat. Bose also played a key role in developing the crystals used to detect radio waves.

In short: examples galore.

In 2012, I launched the Steampunk India website, with the aim to give India its rightful place, as I see it, within the Steampunk universe. I want to create strong Indian characters, preferably female, but either way stepping out of the traditional mould of Steampunk costume and fiction.

Furthermore they should rise above – and go against – traditional morals and values of both Britain and India during the time of the Raj. As shown here: these two women, Itra and Mandu, are DevaDasi – temple dancers and pleasure-givers who are seen as exploited prostitutes, much the way Westerners saw Japanese Geisha.

DevaDasi temple dancers

DevaDasi temple dancers

The DevaDasi of old have more in common with Geisha than most people know (or like to ignore, to further their own agenda). They were absolutely giving themselves to temple visitors for sex. They were also educated in music, poetry, literature, and martial arts.

So the Steampunk characters portrayed here are all of these things. They are also deep cover spies. They are lovers. One of my gripes with Western forms of Steampunk is that the excessive love and imitation of Victorian social etiquette stymies more immediate and visceral ways of expressing the alternate world, in both costumed events and fiction. I’d like to play with this a bit more. I’m convinced you can have both. The gift of Steampunk is its ability to present an exciting and challenging parallel universe. A Raj that might have been and a modern India that could be: for, certainly, the current India is still no place for outspoken and brave women trying to break the stranglehold of caste and tradition, even though slow change is being wrought by many women who are exactly that – some unnamed and unknowable, some more publicly, visibly outspoken, all tirelessly working for change, even as we speak.

It is all very close to my heart, and with good reason.

In 1861, one of my own ancestors was transported from South India to the Caribbean on a British East India Company ship, to work as an indentured servant on a Scottish-owned sugar and coconut plantation. He retained his Hindu beliefs throughout. My grandfather was born on the plantation but gained his freedom later in life; he moved to the Dutch Caribbean and married a local girl from the ABC Islands. My mother moved to the Netherlands in her mid-teens (where there is a large Indonesian and Indian community). I was born thousands of miles away from my origins. Like so many products of colonial times, I was brought up with one foot in the East, one foot in the West, seeking approval from both, yet feeling like an intruder who is going to be found out at any moment.

Shweta Narayan – who wrote the beautiful The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar – puts it most eloquently on her own website when she mentions fretting about “…the fragile line between syncretism and appropriation.”

Writing helps. It helps me piece together the timeline of my scattered genes. It helps me give the legacy of ancient Indian culture a place among post-modern, post-religious values of the West. It helps me embrace my place in the world.

One of my Steampunk stories, Unmade, a lesbian love story set on a Caribbean plantation, will hopefully find a place in a multicultural Steampunk anthology which is in the early stages of development in Europe. The story is important to me as I chose the location very deliberately: the plantation is the one on which my great-grandfather was an indentured worker.

The anthology itself is a great example of a multicultural project. Everyone involved knows one another because of Steampunk, and largely met through an online project called Steampunk Hands Around the World. The initiative came from Kevin D. Steil (also known as the Airship Ambassador).

Steampunk Hands Around the World is an annual, month-long event showing that the Steampunk genre is a global one. There are new friendships to be found in every conversation and event. Hands is presented in multiple formats from blogs to videos to live events. Each person is responsible for organising their own content and format, but the central theme is that of global connection and friendship.

Some of the writers who contribute articles and content every year were contacted by two fellow participants who wished to boost the presence of Steampunk fiction against a non-Western backdrop. A crowdfunding campaign will become active in due course to publish the book.

There is a growing wave of such books: one of my latest stories, Internal Devices, will feature in Steampunk Universe in 2016, an anthology edited by Sarah Hans.

The SEA is Ours, another short story anthology that focuses specifically on South-east Asian tales, has just rocketed into the aether, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng.

Arjun Raj Gaind’s Empire of Blood comic (with bold, strong artwork from Enrique Alacatena), explores an alternate India in which the British never left and in which the division of power has remained unaltered.

Of course, some writers are inspired by India’s history without such an intense personal investment: aforementioned American Sci-Fi writer Susan Kaye Quinn’s Dharian Affairs is a rip-roaring adventure series featuring stubbornly independent noblewomen, airships, spies, marvellous contraptions and sweeping romance. Pure, unapologetic escapism with strong female protagonists!

Artwork from Empire of Blood

Artwork from Empire of Blood

As far as Steampunk music is concerned, the only example of Steampunk-esque bands that I know of who incorporate both East and West in their work, is Sunday Driver. Singer Chandy Nath adds her classical Indian vocals to some of the songs and the music is a happy fusion of Indian and Western instruments.

I would love to see more of this, so if any readers know of further examples I shall be very happy to hear about it!

One thing needs addressing, the Indian elephant in the room: the question of Steampunk in India itself. Part of the reason I started the Steampunk India project was that there was no Steampunk movement in that country. In the same way in which geek culture, cons and events are continuously on the rise in India, so Steampunk is slowly becoming something Indian people can enjoy.

I think there can be no doubt that it was desis like myself who had a growing interest and enthusiasm for the genre to begin with. The reason is simple but profound: it’s the dual perspective. I live in the West but I have my roots in the East. For Indians in India, what was truly the point of engaging in a subculture that seemed to consist predominantly of white folk emulating the Imperial morals and values of the Victorian colonial age and all the dubious history that came with it? This is changing, at last.

India has always had an enormous mainstream and underground comic movement: it is a major consumer of all things nerdy. But only in recent years is India enjoying a big mainstream geek culture. Comic Cons, Cosplay events and other geekdom gatherings are gaining momentum and are attracting more and more people. The quality of life for certain cultural groups in India has reached a level where they can reasonably spend time and rupees enjoying geek culture, including Steampunk. People are costuming, reading the fiction, getting together, crafting things and reimagining a Victorian Era where India occupies a different place than it does in history.

And I very much wished to be part of that perspective shift, especially from a Steampunk angle. What better arena than India to fuse fiction, the Age of Steam and alternate history?

I would love to see Steampunk fiction from India itself, as India has a very healthy and beautifully diverse SFF and Spec Fic book culture. Imagine the same art and imagination currently being applied to the traditional comics for epic mythology like the Mahabaratha and the Ramayana, being applied to Indian Steampunk comics?

In general, if someone were to ask me what motivates or inspires my own writing, I could sum it up as: imbalance, subversion, insolence and being a woman! I tend to put women in unusual settings or places and try to think through, in as much detail as possible, how these situations would pan out. What happens when only parts of India are emancipated? What happens when a Maharani loses her husband and adjacent conservative regions and other traditionalist countries refuse to trade with her because she is female?

In the grand tradition of fiction and workshop tinkering, I am warping, bending and altering things, but in my Steampunk India you will still find nasty British ruling classes and nasty patriarchal Indian morés alongside some morally liberated characters.

Focus-09-06I am not on a crusade to excuse, elevate or exonerate either the British or the Indian nation for anything. That said, there is still plenty of room left for general socio-political observation, satire and gender politics without becoming an apple-crate preacher. I can make better points regarding the historical “then” and the pertinent “now” by creating this alternate history. There needs to be enjoyment in the process and this can be achieved without losing either integrity or amusement. I need to have fun!

For those interested in reading Steampunk India writings and explore other multicultural fiction and people, here is a – by no means complete – list of links:

* Goodreads list of multicultural, diverse and LGBT inclusive Steampunk fiction.

* Those Dark Satanic Mills is a short story podcast I wrote and narrated last year for the ever lovely Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris, the creators of The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series.

* The Ghost Rebellion, Book Five in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences book series by above mentioned Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, will take place in India, setting the series protagonists on the trail of Dr. Henry Jekyll. The Ghost Rebellion will be made available in ebook, print and audio.

* Recently I contributed to Jeff VanderMeer and Desirina Boskovich’s The Steampunk User’s Manual, with photos and quotes based on intensive questioning on their part, about my multicultural interpretation of Steampunk. The book is available on Amazon and in all major bookshops.

* The Tinku Diaries is an original piece of fiction written especially for Yomi Ayeni of The Clockwork Watch Transmedia Project. The diary is kept by an Indian scientist’s wife, who records her experiences in London. The Tinku Diaries are available to read at the Steampunk India website.Focus-09-07

* Diana Pho of Beyond Victoriana is one of the pioneers of advocating the incorporation of all cultures in Steampunk, especially non-Western ones. Her website and blog are a terrific resource of links, articles and individuals.

* Hopeless, Maine by Tom and Nimue Brown is a stunning comic that packs many Steampunk elements and has the added joy of a mysterious, mixed race female protagonist.

* Ariel Dixon, aka Makeup Siren, is an example of a cosplayer for whom the fashion is what matters. The fact that some of her creations are inspired by non-Western cultures is what I might call a positive side-effect!

 

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