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On Stage

By Anil Dharker

16th October 2017

A word one hears more and more often nowadays is ‘dystopian’. You come across it in book or film reviews: ’the writer`s/director`s dystopian vision of the world’ or ‘the book/film is set in a dystopian future’. Margaret Atwood`s hugely successful A Handmaid’s Tale (quickly made into an award-winning television series) is set in a future where a fundamentalist regime has taken over the US to establish a totalitarian state. Women are state property, environmental disasters strike often and the birth rate plummets to dangerously low levels.

‘Dystopia’ (bad place), an invented word, is just right here. The word is supposed to denote the opposite of ‘Utopia’, which was again an invented word, the title of a novel written by Sir Thomas More in 1516 in Latin. More`s Utopia is a fictional place, an idealised state with the best possible government, where excellent education is extended to everyone, and all religions are accepted. In popular usage, Utopia, means a perfect place, but that`s because it was assumed that the word was formed by combining eu (good) and topos (place), thus making it a ‘good place’. But in fact, More formed the word combining the Greek word Ou (not) and topos. Thus Thomas More`s Utopia was a ‘nowhere place’. That, then, is how writers see the world, either as a bad place, or a good place which doesn’t exist. Does writing thrive by taking a negative view of the world? Or is our world indeed a bad place, and the writer is only reflecting reality?

The two greatest dystopian literary works pre-date the invention of the word: Aldous Huxley`s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. The former was published in 1932 and was about a society whose stability was based on a scientific caste system. In Brave New World Revisited, written in 1958, Huxley said his fears were coming true much sooner than he had expected.

Nineteen Eighty-four, published in 1949, is also a nightmare story set in a totalitarian state. The only thing dated about the book is its title: it has given us the memorable phrases ‘Newspeak’, ‘Doublethink’ and ‘Big Brother is watching you’. Orwell didn`t mean his book to be prophetic, but how closely its fiction resembles today`s reality!

As you know – or at least I hope you do, November is the month when Mumbai`s international literary festival comes to NCPA (This year`s dates are 16 to 19). That`s the one question I want to explore with the participating writers: for a novel to be successful, does it have to be dark and depressing? Does a bright, sunny book immediately get categorized as a comic novel, and therefore not one to be taken seriously? So was Shelley right in saying ‘Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought’?

A good literary festival also reminds us that the old model of learning is no longer valid: You went to school, then college, did a degree, added a post-graduate qualification, and that was that. You then embarked on a career, changing jobs to advance it, and then, sometime in your sixties, you retired, perhaps to potter around the house.

That`s the model that has stood the test of time, but no longer. The advent of technology, and the rapid changes it brings, now makes our education obsolete in no time. This is particularly so if you are in the fields of science and technology.

The new phrase is ‘Lifelong learning’, and how apt it is! If a doctor became a cardiologist twenty years ago, would he recognise his field now? Without lifelong learning, he would be obsolete. Or think of a computer engineer, and how he has to cope with machines that get smaller and faster in quantum jumps.

Luckily – luckily both for practioners and consumers – the creative fields hold on to traditions far longer. The novel hasn`t changed much over the years : some have experimented with form, styles of writing have changed and everyone tries to be a bit different in content, but basically a novel of the last century will be like the novel of this century. Dame Margaret Drabble, one of the stars of this year`s litfest, will talk about how her view of the world has changed now that she is in her seventies, and how that affects her writing. The form may not change, but it’s the writer`s perspective that undergoes very many transformations.

Historians alter our perspectives too. Peter Frankopan, who will be in Mumbai on the 16th, wrote The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by changing the centre of historical gravity, which was always Europe, to Persia. As The Guardian noted, “He wants to recalibrate our view of history, to challenge assumptions about where we come from and what has shaped us.”

There are other questions that will be raised at the festival: just to mention two, the philosopher A C Grayling will talk about The God Argument, his reasons for being an atheist, and Marcus du Sautoy, another professor, who will speak on What We Cannot Know. The two titles complement each other rather nicely, don`t you think?