The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet

Vandana Singh argues that speculative fiction has revolutionary potential. Jess McCabe reviews her latest collection of short stories

, 4 January 2009

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“I have said earlier that speculative fiction is about what cannot ever be, or what cannot be as yet. But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven’t we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation?”

So says Vandana Singh, in ‘A speculative manifesto’, an essay included at the end of her latest collection of science fiction short stories, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet.

Feminist authors have always embraced the potential in the genres of science fiction and fantasy to write out the problems they see in the world, and to construct imaginary alternatives.

And yet, notwithstanding writers such as Octavia Butler or Ursula Le Guin, it’s astonishing how many authors in these genres can imagine their characters thousands of years into the future, on alternative worlds, travelling through time and space – but writing a story which revolves around anyone but a white man is too much of a leap. Mainstream sci-fi writers are all too often engaged, as Singh puts it, in writing “Westerns and the White Man’s Burden in Outer Space”.

In this collection, Singh doesn’t go in for constructing grand, feminist utopias or patriarchal dystopias, nor does she labouriously spell out a political commentary. But she does put women – specifically the experience of Indian women – at the centre of most of her stories. And, interestingly, she is unafraid to use the most abstract mathematical fantasies to reflect on, say, a young girl who feels pressured into getting married.

‘Tetrahedron’ is about what happens to university student Maya, after she witnesses the appearance of an inexplicable tetrahedron in the streets of Dehli. It’s about the potential for an object extending into alternate dimensions, and the mysteries of the universe, sure. But it’s also about how Maya is engaged to a parent-pleasing man she’s far from in love with, and how she feels trapped into making decisions she really doesn’t want to make. The encounter with the tetrahedron throws a spotlight on her situation:

But what Maya relived most often in her mind was the feeling when she had touched the Tetrahedron – the feeling of how useless and insignificant her life was against the unending mystery of the universe. Now, with Samir talking eloquently about aliens traversing the distances between stars, she had felt it again, the pointlessness of a life lived small. In a few years she would be like her sisters, plump and resigned, children running at her feet while Kartik gazed benignly at her from the sofa over the evening paper. “Maya, you know that sari doesn’t suit you….” Maya this and Maya that. Could she take a lifetime of it?

The titular story in The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet is told from the perspective of recently-retired Ramnath Mishra, whose wife one day “set down her cup of tea with a crash and announced: ‘I know at last what I am. I am a planet.'”

Telling this story, which is about a woman, from the perplexed perspective of her husband, is an interesting decision. It allows the story to be funny. Kamala is reluctant to wear any clothes – planets don’t need them. Ramnath’s embarrassment and panic over this, even when the two are at home, alone, is amusingly described, as is the moment when he finally persuades her to put on a gray sari, because “even planets have atmospheres”.

Then it can be bitingly satirical: the thought that his wife may be mentally ill means that “Ramnath’s day was completely ruined.”

Nothing is spelt out too boldly, but the story plays with interesting ideas: a woman who is seen by her husband as domestic and ordinary, has a whole world inside of her.

As jabberwock’s review points out over at the blog Ultrabrown, the stories in this collection are as much about the interior lives of the characters as they are about how Singh deals with such traditional speculative fiction fare as parallel universes, space-travel, time travel and magic.

That’s absolutely true. Singh says of speculative fiction in her essay, “At its bedrock, despite the strangeness of the setting, we recognise familiar things: love, rage, wonder – ourselves, disguised, but there.” However, those sketches of the inner lives of her protagonists also form a biting social commentary in their own right.

Several of the stories in the collection hinge on the theme of women escaping domestic, married life. But they are about how ‘ordinary’ people living everyday lives, may not be not so ordinary afterall.

For instance, ‘The Wife’ is about Padma’s life as an expatriate in the US, recently separated from a husband who viewed her as hopelessly conventional. She explains how “at university functions she stood self-consciously in her silk sari, feeling overdressed and out of place, while talk and champagne flowed around her in torrents. Faculty wives send her glances full of curiosity and pity professors talked around her as though she were a museum exhibit, the exotic bride.” When Singh sketches out Padma’s inner life, and her encounters with the possibly supernatural, she illuminates just how much the character has been underestimated by those around her.

My favourite is the last in the collection, ‘The room on the roof’, which centres on what happens when sculptor Aparna Bhuvan enters the world of 13-year-old Urmila and her younger brother. Urmila is on the cusp of adolescence. She no longer wants to run out and play in the streets when the monsoon begins, but she’s still young enough to listen, rapt, to stories told by the neighbourhood’s grandmothers.

When Aparna moves into the family’s spare room “on the roof”, Urmila is convinced there’s something magical about her. But, it turns out, the lodger’s sorcery doesn’t take the form of the magic tricks she was expecting (turning the TV on and off, say, without touching it). Without giving too much away, rather like a painting based on negative spaces, the reader only manages to catch glimpses of the full story, which takes place in an adult world which Urmila isn’t able to fully understand. And it’s a world which is full of the untapped potential of women’s lives.

Singh says that speculative fiction has a unique “revolutionary potential”. If so, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet is as enjoyable a revolutionary text as you’re likely to find.

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