Talking Indian Superheroes with Samit Basu, Author of ‘Turbulence’

 

Samit Basu is the author of Turbulence:

Aman Sen is smart, young, ambitious and going nowhere. He thinks this is because he doesn’t have the right connections—but then he gets off a plane from London to Delhi and discovers that he has turned into a communications demigod. Indeed, everyone on Aman’s flight now has extraordinary abilities corresponding to their innermost desires.

Vir, an Indian Air Force pilot, can now fly.

Uzma, a British- Pakistani aspiring Bollywood actress, now possesses infinite charisma.

And then there’s Jai, an indestructible one-man army with a good old-fashioned goal — to rule the world!

Aman wants to ensure that their new powers aren’t wasted on costumed crime-fighting, celebrity endorsements, or reality television. He wants to heal the planet but with each step he takes, he finds helping some means harming others. Will it all end, as 80 years of superhero fiction suggest, in a meaningless, explosive slugfest?

Turbulence features the 21st-century Indian subcontinent in all its insane glory—F-16s, Bollywood, radical religious parties, nuclear plants, cricket, terrorists, luxury resorts, crazy TV shows — but it is essentially about two very human questions. How would you feel if you actually got what you wanted? And what would you do if you could really change the world?

Turbulence takes place in a world where people are aware of comic books and superheroes, and the characters each react in different ways to that and what it might mean. Were you ever tempted to not do that? Do you think it would have been easier or harder to do otherwise?

Turbulence started out being a world where the characters weren’t specifically superheroes – just people who got extraordinary physical abilities related to their innermost desires after travelling on a British Airways flight from London to Delhi. But it’s essentially a book about here and now, and if you suddenly found yourself invulnerable, heat-staring everything around you into flames and able to fly, you wouldn’t be able to avoid comparing yourself to Superman. If this had happened in ancient Sumeria, you’d have thought you were Gilgamesh. This is the point where Turbulence became a superhero novel – a few of the characters, essentially Aman, were superhero-culture-literate enough to already have an interesting array of context for what their powers might mean, how the world might react to them, and what arcs their lives might follow.

I think SF/fantasy stories work best when they’re as true as possible to the world they’re set in, and in the world we live in now it’s quite difficult to know nothing about superheroes, and use this knowledge in any way you can if you suddenly find you have superpowers. That said, India’s a country where superheroes aren’t big at all, and so many of our protagonists are forced to use their powers from first principles, so to speak – relating them to their own lives, their own problems and desires. But I liked the idea of an Augmented-Reality world instead of an alternate-reality world; Google glasses, let’s say, instead of a VR helmet.

I was never really tempted to pretend I was writing this story in a world where superhero comics and films didn’t exist, a world where you couldn’t even quickly Google what was happening to you and see if there was any material on the subject that could help you deal with it. On the contrary, it helped in many ways – superhero awareness helps Aman steer clear of several standard super-mistakes, and it helped me, as a writer, build a world that I could believe in. When I watched The Avengers last year, I was delighted to see the moments where they referred to other giant pop-culture franchises; it’s only natural that Hawkeye’s powers, for instance, would make Iron Man call him Legolas. That kind of meta-fiction is always something I’ve hugely enjoyed.

I think this story would have been much harder to tell otherwise. I’d have had to reinvent several wheels.

I find it fascinating that travel – especially travel between the Western world and the East – serves as a catalyst for the development of super powers. Can I assume that there’s a metaphor at work here?

Not specifically in eastwards travel, but I’m fascinated by the kind of limbo state we’re all in on long flights – you’re trapped in a space with a group of people you essentially have nothing in common with, but you’re having this shared experience that habit has rendered commonplace but is in itself quite miraculous. You’re flying from one continent to another, from one state to another, from one world to another. So it seems like an interesting incubation process, an isolated state where unexpected changes are possible.

The decision to set the power-gaining incident on a flight was partly because of this, and partly because I wanted it to happen on an imaginary line that connected the places where most of the action was going to be set, and it fitted well with the title – I liked Turbulence because it talks about the change these characters bring about in the world, the turmoil their own lives go through, and, of course, literal turbulence on the flight.

While I’ve not had much experience with comic books from India, I understand that they’re quite popular and that many of them are used for religious or cultural education. Is this true? Are Western titles just as popular there? What does the typical Indian comic book fan’s collection look like?

It’s really tough to answer with any degree of authority on things Indian, fundamentally because there are so many of us, but let me give it my best shot. Indian comics have interesting histories in several languages, in several states – there are quite a few organically-grown comics traditions in each region, most of which are interesting, most of which are either humour based at children, detective/crime stories or mythological/historical stories. I don’t think they’re used a lot for religious or cultural education, because they’ve never been taken seriously at all – though it’s definitely true they’re used as both religious and cultural instruction tools by Indians who move abroad and then have to try to explain their cultures to their kids. In India, though, you have many kinds of comics coming at you from many angles today – there are more literary graphic novels, superhero comics, and comics in pretty much every genre that’s popular in the West, as well as Indian attempts at manga. Western titles and Japanese titles in English are both very popular, and while I don’t think the stereotypical Indian comics fan is as well-defined as say, the idea of the comic-con uber-geek, I’d guess there’s quite an overlap. Most of the comics fans I know in India are very passionate about their comics, and nowadays most popular titles, Western and Eastern, are available in chain bookstores. Add visiting friends, and Internet piracy and you’ve got a small but very dedicated bunch of very comics-literate people, and a mainstream sense of comics being silly things for children.

The back of the book mentions the Indian subcontinent in “…all of its insane glory”. What makes it a great place to set a story like that?

For me it’s the complete chaos and utter lunacy of everyday existence in India. The book tries to capture at least some aspects of it – whether it succeeds or not, whatever’s there is not exaggerated at all, except for the superheroes in it of course. Part of the initial decision to set Turbulence in India was the ‘India is a rising superpower’ myth, which for an Indian not in PR is hilarious, because we’re nowhere close, and unlikely to ever be unless we fix a great many fundamental things in the country. But it’s a great place to write about; so many worlds, so many people, all overlapping in so many ways. It’s colourful, scary, vast and incredible diverse, and it took me several years of writing before I could even attempt to set a story in it.

This question begs to be asked: If you had a superpower what would it be? How would you use it?

If I could choose one I’d choose Tia’s ability – to multiply bodies, to never make a choice again and live any number of lives, go everywhere, see and do everything. I’d use it in every possible way I could think of, instead of living those lives in my head. Having said that, I’d certainly not say no to a bit of immortality. Or mind control, but that’s really creepy and I wouldn’t be good at it – it takes all my efforts to even make characters I’ve created behave the way I want them to.

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