Tamil science fiction from 1906.

Nowhere. Nowhere was created by J. R. Rankaraju and appeared in “Parppavar” (“The Visitor,” Indian Ladies’ Magazine, Sept 1906; as a novel, 1909). Jegadhabi Aregupathy  Rankaraju (1875-1959) is one of the pioneers of modern Tamil fiction and was known in his lifetime for his detective novels. Less well-known is that he wrote a science fiction novel, one of the earliest in Tamil and Indian fiction.

In “The Visitor” a group of Indian women in Madras are looking at the stars through telescopes when they see a light moving away from “Lowell’s Planet” (Pluto). The light draws nearer and nearer to Earth and eventually lands in the garden the women are in. The source of the light is a handsome young woman with glowing eyes, wearing a sari-like robe. The woman approaches Mridula Lakshmi, the leader of the Indian women, and probes her “like a phrenologist,” placing her fingers on specific parts of Lakshmi’s head. This allows the visitor to speak Tamil like a native, and she introduces herself as “Natcattiram” (Star) of “Enkumillai” (Nowhere).

Natcattiram tells her story: Enkumillai is a technologically-advanced society whose members have established a utopia on their own planet, Saturn, and Jupiter. The natives of Enkumillai have a variety of steam-powered machinery, from water purifiers to flying machines (described as powered balloons) to what are essentially machine guns. Further, the natives of Enkumillai are mistresses of prana, or life force, which gives them a variety of superhuman abilities, including intelligence, strength, and endurance. Through their heightened abilities and advanced technology the Amazonian women of Enkumillai have established a utopian feminist government on all three planets. The women of Enkumillai do the work and the men of Enkumillai stay home and tend the children and concentrate on making themselves pleasing to their wives. After a brief tour of India, in which Natcattiram is appalled at the (to her) backwards society, she leaves, promising to return with more of the Enkumillai to “fix” things in India.

Rankaraju was a professional writer who made his career in the 1900s and 1910s with his “Kovintan” and “Anantcin” detective novels–the former about a Tamil private detective, the latter about a Tamil Sherlock Holmes. It’s an interesting what-if game to play to imagine what his career (and Tamil popular fiction) might have been like if he’d continued writing science fiction. He didn’t, of course, and for a very good reason: “The Visitor” is heavily influenced by previous, recent works of Indian science fiction, thematically if not on a word-to-word level. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream,” which had appeared in 1905 in Indian Ladies’ Magazine, is also about a feminist techno-utopia, albeit one set on Earth, in the future, and featuring no aliens. And Tekumalla Raja Gopala Rao’s novel Vihanga Yanam (Birds’ Flight, 1906) is about an Indian woman travels to the bottom of the sea in an technologically-advanced submarine, gathers an enormous amount of wealth from shipwrecks, and uses it to transform India into feminist techno-utopia. The lackluster reaction to “The Visitor,” especially considering the enthusiastic reception that “Sultana’s Dream” and Birds’ Flight received, no doubt influenced Rankaraju into venturing into detective fiction as a profession. Which is not to say that detective fiction was any easier of a field for Rankaraju–detective fiction was a very popular genre with Indian and especially Tamil audiences in the early 1900s, and Rankaraju faced stiff competition from other professional writers. It’s just that he clearly was better suited to be a detective fiction writer than a science fiction writer.

The average Western reader is undoubtedly surprised when informed about the presence of Indian science fiction at the turn of the century. Like Indian detective fiction, Indian science fiction is a genre whose output and history is little known to white readers. Urdu science fantasy dates to the 1890s. Translations of Verne and Wells in the 1890s and 1900s inspired Kannada and Marathi writers. Tekumalla Raja Gopala Rao, author of Birds’ Flight, was a Telugu, and far from the only Telugu writer of sf. And most common of all were Bangla kalpabigyan, which range from future histories written as early as 1835 (Kylas Chunder Dutt’s “A Journal of Forty Eight Hours of the Year 1945”) to planetary romance in 1892 (Jagadananda Ray’s “Travels in Venus”). By 1906 science fiction was not a major genre in India, but it was a genre with fans and active authors.

“The Visitor” is working a now-obscure genre of science fiction: the alien who visits Earth and tells us about his or her world, thereby showing humans how backwards we are. Charles Rowcroft’s The Triumphs of Woman (1848), the Rev. Lach-Szyrma’s stories about “Aleriel” (1860s through 1893), Marie Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), and the Stewarts’ The Professor’s Last Experiment (1888) were all novels in this mode. It wasn’t until H.P. Lovecraft that the concept of the alien-as-invader, rather than alien-as-redeemer, became predominant in science fiction. (And of course the idea of the alien, or visitor, or Stranger, as a dangerous Being, goes back much farther still–Nathaniel Hawthorne was working in this mode in “Young Goodman Brown” (1835). But to limn that I’d need much more space than I have now.

expect more entries like this in my forthcoming book

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