Of Choices and Chosen Spirits
A chat with Samit Basu on writing the future and responding to the present
It's time for a first. Instead of me doing all the yammering, in this edition of the newsletter, someone else is going to be doing the talking — once I'm done introducing him, that is.
Coming up is an interview with novelist Samit Basu, whose new novel Chosen Spirits is out as an e-book. He also happens to be one of the few people in the world of Indian literature whom I can validly call a good friend, which is why I'm not reviewing Chosen Spirits. When it comes to friends’ work, the critic in me is off duty.
Unlike most of Samit's previous works, Chosen Spirits is not interested in being a flight of fantasy. The novel talks about issues that are critically important to us in present-day India and keeps reminding the reader that the past can’t be buried, no matter how much anyone tries. I think all of us who write and read fiction will have to figure out for ourselves how we want the madness of the present to inform our creative choices, both as authors and readers. There are good and bad ways of doing this in terms of writing style, but there’s no right or wrong. If someone wants to keep this toxicity out of their imaginary world or make only oblique references to it, there are excellent justifications for this. You just need to know why you’re taking the call to be escapist, realist, political, apolitical, something-in-between. This is especially relevant for an author (or creator of any kind). In times like ours, intent and intentionality are important because it’s so easy for a work to be appropriated, misrepresented or misunderstood. In Chosen Spirits, Samit chose to be as unambiguous and direct as he could be, deliberately using his characters to establish his stand on a wide range of issues and you’ll see why he opted for that approach if you read on.
Chosen Spirits is set about 10 years in the future, in a Delhi that is a capitalist technocrat's wet dream. Everything from your car ride to your pulse rate is monitored and monetised. Resistance lurks in kolams that contain secret messages, like QR codes. Police brutality is an everyday affair. The privileged live in air-conditioned fortresses as part of their efforts to avoid both the unbreatheable air and the urban poor. The next big social media thing is Flow — an artificial, curated version of everyday life which is the love child of reality television and Instagram Live.
Our guides through the world of Chosen Spirits are Joey and Rudra. Joey is a reality controller, which means she manages the feed of a Flowstar. Everything goes to hell when Joey tries to help Rudra (they're family friends) by giving him a job. Rudra has been doing his best to get off the grid. Now, not only is he in the belly of a beast, he’s also a fly on the wall (how’s that for mixed metaphors?) who finds out that ...
And now, over to Samit.
ME: You've been an author for 15-odd years now. (My maths is horrible. How many years is it since Simoqin?) Do you remember how it felt to write the Gameworld books? How was that different from writing Chosen Spirits?
SAMIT: I wrote Simoqin in 2002, and it was published in Dec 2003/Jan 2004 so since then. As Bachchan would say, if I add the number of years I've been writing to that year I'll get the present year.
I dimly remember how it felt to write the Gameworld books, but very dimly — that was my twenties, and I've just turned 40. Well, not just, it was around the time the Jamia library attack happened, which is either around half a year ago or 20 years ago because time has lost all meaning.
I digress. Yes, it felt completely different, but mostly because I was young and knew far, far less about the world than the very little I know now, and was convinced it was only a matter of time until we were all these completely global citizens riding an endless wave of cultural interestingness, but also living life like a ’90s sitcom.
Chosen Spirits is probably the angriest book of yours that I've read. You set it in a Delhi of the near future. Why did you pick this time period instead of zooming further into the future?
Two reasons. First, this book started from wanting to engage very deeply with the multiple-choice apocalypses that the world in general (and this part of the world in particular) are presently buried under. But after spending three whole years in research and observing in horror the world’s capacity to generate whole new impending apocalypses on a yearly basis, it became clearer that the further we went into the future, the easier it would be to dismiss the connections between any story I wrote and the world we currently live in, because the future is simply too strange to calculate. We live in a choose-your-own-reality present, and even the past seems to have become a matter of opinion. And I wanted the world of the story to feel not just real (which I do in every book) but also identifiable and relatable (which is not always a concern), so Chosen Spirits needed to be only slightly different from the present. Imagining a far future is a lot easier, and more fun — I intend to do that as well, but it wasn’t for this book.
The second reason was personal — I wanted to write a completely different book from anything I’d ever written before, because, like you said, I was very angry, and I wanted to bring that into the fiction in a much more central way than I have before. It’s all very well to go to protests or speak up more on social media, but books are what I really do. I didn’t want to think, later, that our world collapsed and I said absolutely nothing about it at the time except buried in reference in an alternate world. So this is a book about people who I might have known if they’d really existed, set in a world that’s pretty much identical to ours right now, and will be wholly so very soon. Which is why what the protagonists want is a normal, everyday life; peace, happiness, clarity — not adventure, not escape, not any form of saved or improved world; just the ability to cope with a regular day.
There's a point when, while thinking of a story, you know that this is an idea that you're going to commit to, that you're not going to abandon it. Do you remember what moment/ episode/ character in Chosen Spirits made you feel that way?
I think this one came from the news — not a specific single story but a few hundred of them stacked up, one on top of the other. That made me start reading first essays and then books about so many of the multiple-choice apocalypses that we are currently staring at — climate change, automation, social and political conflict from mass unemployment, mass migration, late-stage democracy, cyber-warfare ... the list is long and now of course you also have sporadic pandemics on top of this cake, like those sweetened cherries from childhood. It's like 10 different episodes of Black Mirror happening around you, but simultaneously, not conveniently focussing on a single tech-related problem. Then I paused reading for a moment and realised three years had passed, and I needed to start writing.
I'd initially planned three novellas stacked up together: one at the end of the 20s; one in the late 30s; and the third in the late 40s. So the moment of commitment came when I saw the first part of this was growing in the telling, and looked like it was becoming a whole book in itself. I think it was at around the point where I met Rudra, and realised he was not a supporting character but needed point-of-view chapters of his own.
Both Joey and Rudra seem to be itching for change, particularly in their professional lives. You belong to that rare tribe of writers who has successfully been a full-time writer for all of your adult life. Have you ever wished that you could be .... *scratches head to come up with a boring, non-creative profession* ... an accountant instead? And what made you stick with writing?
Accountancy is where the most creative work is happening in New India. Unfortunately we were not raised to understand that this would be the case when we were making all our life decisions. Accountancy is a particularly bad miss because I was reasonably good at both math and making shit up.
What makes me stick to writing is a number of things. Actually there isn't a number of things, there's just one, I really like doing it. I've always just really liked writing and so I'm very lucky to be in a line of work where the basic activity unit of work is something I enjoy.
Also, like all writers, I think, I absolutely hate writing and wish I could be doing anything else when I am writing, which I rarely am, because my REAL skill is procrastination, which I cannot get paid for since I do not have a high-end government/corporate job. So I often try to do other things, but when I do them I really miss writing. Those things are also very. nice, I am extremely privileged to get to do any of these things, but... they're not writing.
Another nice thing about writing (or filmmaking, for that matter) is that you can imagine being in any other line of work and have that life without having to actually go through the cumbersome process of acquiring any skill. So I think I'm just going to keep writing, while trying new things in other fields and grumbling constantly about it all.
Cover art by Pia Alizé Hazarika.
Tell me about Joey. How did the character come to you and how much did she change in the process of writing the novel?
Joey came from a group of real people I know, of various ages between the early 20s and the early 50s, all of whom do or did similar jobs in the trending media of their micro-generations; all of whom had certain similarities: immensely capable, under-appreciated, over-worked, over-committed, non-narcissistic, often under-rewarded, empathetic, reluctantly authority-exerting, under-radar system-changing, somehow guilty, often gaslit, often permanently found cleaning up after emotionally underdeveloped charismatic sociopaths. Journalists, editors, producers, social media people. She’s a woman because all these people I know were women. She could have been a man I suppose, but the other protagonist, Rudra, was definitely someone who could only have as much privilege and space to make the mistakes as he does, coming from the sort of family he comes from, if he were male.
Since this book also deals a lot with privilege, inner circles, class and power, I had to spend a lot of time thinking about my point-of-view characters’ backgrounds, and I ended up using primary characters who would have been socially more real-world privileged than I am, but also came from worlds I was very familiar with, because this is the sort of world where it is very easy to be exploitative/appropriative of characters in order to enhance the conflict/drama/inequality of the entire plot, but also the sort of story where that would both stand out and feel wrong.
So Joey is very real to me, and a lot of her is me — I knew her well going in. She does change in the process of writing the novel, but that’s in reaction to the events of the novel, not in the way I see her. That’s also been a different experience from any of my previous work.
I have to confess, half of the time that I was reading about Joey, I was wishing I'd had someone like her to promote me. Except that would mean I'd have to be like Indi [a Flowstar], which is a terrifying idea. A lot of the Joey-and-Indi-at-work scenes feel like they’ve been inspired by your experience in Bollywood. Are they?
Absolutely, but not just Bollywood. There's no shortage of such characters in the media, or in comics, or in publishing — you know the same ones I do, by and large. It's just that Bollywood has the most money and visibility. But Bollywood will be much the same a decade from now, which is why this book deals with a new wave that is outside it. And it's not just work, I've spent far too much time observing people on social media, both famous and deservedly wholly unknown celebrities.
But yeah, working in books and comics and large media and film and streaming has led to a certain amount of backstage awareness of not just the Indis in these fields, but the Joeys who make their stardom possible. And I've also been at it for almost two decades now, so I've already seen three whole generations of Next Big Things, and so am in a good place to guess the next one.
There are references to real places, like Nehru Place, and real incidents, like the Shaheen Bagh protests and the recent riots in north Delhi. Is this the first time that you've grounded your fantasy in reality?
Not the first time in terms of location. One of the most interesting experiences of writing Turbulence and Resistance was setting scenes in very specific real-world locations to add as much real-world flavour as possible to the world-distortion of characters having superpowers. Not just places I’d been to and seen, but places in very distant parts of the world where I’d never been but happily set scenes in using Google Maps and Google Street View.
Chosen Spirits makes more references to real-world events than any other previous book, but those are all a decade in the past now, important because they were events that led to major decisions in the characters’ lives. And the treatment of places like Nehru Place was interesting for me because they were reimagining these very Delhi places as their decade-from-now selves, given all the changes that would happen in this imagined timeline. There’s no central sci-fi or fantasy plotline or regular-physics-distortion in Chosen Spirits, so physical and digital objects, places, and character transformations based on both real (and imaginary near-future) historical events are where the dislocation from here and now comes from.
Interesting that you see the Delhi of Chosen Spirits as only slightly different from the present because I found it starkly different from the present. The people and their attitudes felt familiar, but the cityscape felt like a new city. Especially with those monkeys, that have those packs strapped to them. I've been scared of monkeys ever since childhood (it's all Varanasi's fault), but I'm properly terrified of the monkeys in Chosen Spirits.
Totally with you on the monkeys — as someone who's had them visit his house uninvited five times, and tried once in vain to wrest a coffee packet from a large specimen in the middle of the street while the whole neighbourhood cheered (not sure whether for me or the monkey, but they cheered) I can relate.
You're right, a decade from now is not going to be slightly different, the world will be unrecognisable. But the thing is, if you look back to 2010, now, it's pretty unrecognisable as well, because everything is changing so fast. Especially on the skin, on the surface, on the way we live our day-to-day lives. There are really so many apps on the home screen of my smart phone that have completely transformed my life. Remember 1990? Different universe.
But at the same time, there are so many mistakes we all seem to be making on an individual and social and global scale that we should have learned not to make a hundred years ago. If anything, the last decade has really reduced my faith in humanity to make rational decisions on a large scale even if confronted with absolute proof that these decisions need to be made. It's become so much harder to believe that progress is inevitable because ... I mean, just look at the news. So in some ways, we just seem unable to evolve, at least fast enough to cope with the pace of change of everything in the world around us. And I don't see that changing over the next decade. Hence slightly different, in the sense it'll be mostly external change — though of course running out of water, for example, never feels slight at all.
Also please bear in mind that my last novel for adults began with a giant lobster and a mecha-robot fighting in Tokyo, so everything in Chosen Spirits is a huge, huge act of restraint. And optimism as well, because the world in it is really a best case scenario.
Not exactly the mecha from Resistance, but well. I tried.
Social media is very different in the world of Chosen Spirits. No Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Instead, there are Flowstars. Where did that idea come from?
I think a combination of distraction saturation, late-stage capitalism, rising totalitarianism/oligarchy, the data-ownership wars/trades and unstoppable global mega-corps will lead to more centralisation of entertainment and social media, like any other delivery vehicle of information/advertising/propaganda.
Okay, I may have done too much near-future research.
We’re seeing it happen already in every medium, and a decade from now I think there will be fewer illusions of options/competition in what we consume, but more customisation of the experience of exactly how. Of course one can’t set an exact date on any future prediction, but in the reality of this book it happens in the mid-20s. Flowstars are the influencers of tomorrow and the studio-owned movie stars of day before yesterday, and they’ll have to be every different kind of famous person at once, and they’ll have teams that help them pretend to be all these people at once.
Did writing Chosen Spirits feel cathartic?
I wish! Not at all. It was a very intense process actually, because this is very experimental for me, and I had decided to not do all the things that I enjoy most in storytelling — branching off into a very dramatic plot, or saving the world in the end, or really imagining bizarre things, all of which allow me to escape for a bit, and the reader as well. But I wanted this book to feel real and slice-of-life (I warn the reader about this right in the beginning) and this is a huge constraint because I kept wanting to take the story off into some sort of vast adventure-thriller ride, because the elements are all there and stopping myself because the core of the story is not about that. I even killed the family robot I had in an earlier draft of the first chapter.
Which book of yours has been the most fun to write?
The Simoqin Prophecies. I knew nothing about publishing or the culture circuit or anything really, and I was just writing the book I wanted to write with absolutely no idea whether I could write at all, and whether anyone would want to read it after I was done. Also I'd dropped out of a very predictable and conformist life to write it so I had Things To Prove, which is great motivation. So it was really an adventure and I was making so many discoveries every day. Of course it's not an experience I could or would want to have again, but it did lead to a constant desire to try new things writing-wise, which makes branching out in different directions fun, even if it's not the most pragmatic choice career-wise.
I'm going to succumb to asking the most obvious question. What's it like to have your book released during a pandemic?
It was good! As in, the pandemic isn't good, of course, but I'm glad that we decided to bring the ebook out first. It hit no. 1 in various categories on the first day, which I was thrilled about — it's been a long time since that last happened (with Turbulence, which was published in the era where you only got to see such things once a week in the papers). And it's nice to see 'bestselling' — I genuinely did not think that would happen again in the current publishing environment because I've never felt out more out of touch with anything popular. I guess I'll only know whether that was a pandemic-specific experience or just things working out well after the print edition is out and things have 'stabilised'.
So there is a hardback coming out after the lockdown ends, which again is a pandemic special feature. Genuinely not knowing when your book will be available and it being nobody's fault, is an interesting experience. Not new, because anyway in publishing you are never sure when your book will be available. But interesting.
Thank you for reading.
Dear Reader will be back very soon because I need to tell you about Marie Brennan's fabulous Lady Trent series, which I've almost finished reading. Take care and stay well.