Sami Ahmad Khan: In Discussion with Atreya Sarma
Sami Ahmad Khan holds a PhD in Science Fiction and has authored two well-acclaimed novels – Red Jihad (Rupa & Co, 2012), and Aliens in Delhi (Niyogi Books, 2017). Red Jihad won NBT’s National Debut Youth Fiction Award and was runner-up in the Muse India Young Writer Award. His time travel/alternate history piece ‘Operation Mi’raj’ won the third prize in the US-based Islamicate Science Fiction Short Story Contest. His short fiction, research papers and articles have appeared in leading magazines and journals across the globe. He also guest-edited a Feature on Indian Science Fiction in the May-June 2015 issue of Muse India. Sami is engaged in conversation by U Atreya Sarma, Chief Editor, Muse India to afford the readers a peep into the sci-fi writer’s work and personality.
Atreya Sarma (Atreya): Please accept my own, and Muse India’s, hearty congratulations on having come out with your second novel Aliens in Delhi. You have mentioned in your Author’s Note that you have marched a few characters from your first novel Red Jihad into Aliens in Delhi. So is there a real continuity of the story across the two novels, or is the continuation of the selected characters just a nominal coincidence? This I am asking you specifically since the Wikipedia on Red Jihad says that Aliens in Delhi is a sequel to Red Jihad.
Sami Ahmad Khan (Sami): Thank you for your kind words, I really appreciate them. I’d like to see Aliens in Delhi as a ‘quasi-sequel’ to Red Jihad. While Aliens in Delhi can easily stand alone as a full-fledged narrative on its own without the help of its predecessor (and it does), however, knowledge about the events, characters and narrative of Red Jihad might make the twists and turns of Aliens in Delhi even more enjoyable! Perhaps that’s why placing a few characters from Red Jihad into Aliens in Delhi and then observing their character mutation was such fun!
Atreya: Your Red Jihad is a novel which was so boldly written on a theme that is realistic. Most writers would have shied away from making such an attempt though they wouldn’t disagree with the views and deny the situation underlying the theme of your novel. Is Red Jihad the first of its kind in India? Or are there some writers who did attempt such themes? If so, can you name a few?
Sami: As far as I know, yes, Red Jihad is one of the very first novels to fictionalise the Maoist-Mujahideen nexus in India’s Red Corridor. I’m not aware of others who have written about the exact same issue. The matters I dealt with were inflammable (they still are) but I wanted to fictionalise the happenings in the Red Corridor to draw attention to how machtpolitik and hunger for power was an enemy of peaceful existence and mutual harmony. Someone had to say it. I just thought it’d make a good thriller, and at the same time, have some social relevance too – in its criticism of violent, conflicts and war.
Atreya: How was the public reception to your Red Jihad? Did it reap a success at the level you expected?
Sami: I regard the response as overwhelming, especially in terms of the varied opinions it elicited, and the quarters they came from. I didn’t expect an anti-violence novel critiquing religious fundamentalism, machtpolitik, and political extremism – that too written by a 25-year-old non-specialist, someone who never had any formal training in international relations, military affairs, and defence studies, areas at the cusp of which the novel operated – would be appreciated not only by a generic readership but also policy think-tanks, by the aam-reader and the armed-forces reader alike. It was a humbling experience, the appreciative feedback it garnered felt really good, not to mention that some of my extrapolations made from contemporary political setup actually came true.
Atreya: It’s really significant to know about that. Can you show a few instances where your extrapolations came true?
Sami: When I began writing Red Jihad, I was operating on very sketchy assumptions, and the first draft was written in 2010. I researched, read, and connected dots that (at that time, at least) didn’t exist. I tried to envisage a scenario where power hungry individuals across the globe dictated and directed the lives of the aam-aadmi. Soon after the novel came out in 2012, even mainstream newspapers started carrying reports of say, how foreign manufactured ammunition was found in the Red Corridor, and violence and politics, irrespective of national boundaries, were poisoning the lives of people who just wanted to live and let live. So yes, the biggest hypothesis was how and why South Asian countries were interfering in the domestic affairs of each other to engineer situations to destabilise the region for their own petty goals, and I felt this had to be stopped as this would be much akin to mutually assured destruction.
Atreya: In the Author’s Note you have added: “The first novel I wrote might have had a certain political nucleus in an effort to foreground my belief that extremism/ fundamentalism/ violence of any sort is utterly detrimental to human progress. This novel, however, has no such desire for social betterment behind it…” Why this going off the tangent? Do you believe that the threat of extremism/ fundamentalism/ violence has ceased to exist? Or do you believe that it is becoming more and more chronic, simply to remain unresolved?
Sami: On the contrary, the threat is all the more present and powerful in our times. While one has to be conscious of the paradigms of violence that define the current world order, one must also, sometimes, try to rise above them, and focus on other things that make life worth living in the first place. If we start perceiving everything from the perspective of threats and violence, then perhaps those who seek to sow seeds of terror in our hearts succeed. This is exactly what they want – the rule of violence, terror, and parochialism, sans the milk of human kindness that sets our species apart. I would not like to see them succeed, of course, and contribute, in whatever little, insignificant way I can, to ensure that those who seek to divide us always face resistance from those who seek to unite us. That being said, Aliens in Delhi does talk about the threat from the ‘others’ – this time aliens. How people unite to combat such an eventuality might say something about terror and violence.
Atreya: That’s a good approach indeed and it is full of conceptual clarity. Again, the Author’s Note says that you completed the first draft of Aliens in Delhi in December 2012. How long it took you to prepare the draft? And during that time were you employed or a student? If so how could you manage your time? And do you think it was a reasonably brisk job, or do you feel you took more time than you thought of?
Sami: The first draft was written in October-December 2012 when I was researching for my PhD, and totalled around 1,00,000 words. Apart from this, the first draft also fused the idea of time travel and alternate history. I then let the novel stew in my head for almost a year, since I thought it was a good effort, but something, somewhere was getting too complicated, I realised. If I were writing for an American or European audience, one which was already familiar with the basic foundations of Sci-fi – and its tropes – this earlier draft featuring not only genetic mutation but also time manipulation might still have worked. However, since my primary target was popularising Sci-fi even further in an Indian English readership, I tried to make the novel just a tad less Science Fictional than what it was earlier (as it was getting too complex), and a little bit more of a thriller. This was done to ensure that an (Indian) audience which was already used to thrillers might use this vehicle to enter into the discourse of Sci-fi without getting their brains fried! As for time, well, when ideas come, they just have to be penned down, or they might cause my head to explode, quite literally! So I didn’t really have a choice.
Atreya: You have dedicated your book to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for its “untiring, exemplary endeavours” which you have said would “give wings to countless dreams.” What are the exact accomplishments of the ISRO that inspired you? And could you please enumerate some of these countless dreams? And dreams on whose part? Do any of your family members or close friends happen to be associated with ISRO or working in it?
Sami:The stars call. With Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan missions, the tricolour is being hoisted in various parts of our solar system. Personally I know no one who works for ISRO, but as a child who grew up staring at the stars, I was (and still am) immensely fascinated when a PSLV/GSLV lifts off bearing GoI’s Ashoka emblem. This is all a result of a department staffed by dedicated people working long hours, combating budgetary constraints, administrative intervention, relatively low salaries (they could earn ten times working for NASA or the ESA), but still not giving up in their quest ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’. I believe I owe them, as an Indian citizen, and above all, as a human being, for their incessant exploration of the beyond – on our behalf. Hence, my dedication to ISRO.
Atreya: That’s a laudable attitude on your part and it’s certainly worthy of emulation. Now it would be of interest to the readers to know how you came to amble into writing science fiction. Your educational background, as given in the book, shows that after Plus Two you joined literature courses. Was the knowledge of the basic sciences up to Plus Two enough for you to handle science fiction? Or did you undergo any parallel courses in sciences? And which branches or aspects of science appeal to you? And which of them do you draw on for your Sci-fi?
Sami:Like any other middle-class boy from a service-class family growing up in the 2000s, I was expected to study science till class XII – which I did. I then joined a B Tech programme after clearing the Engineering CET of a university in Delhi. Parental pressure, what else. I was a young, impressionable boy. However, a few months into the course, I realised I was more interested in literature rather than lathe machines, and my career choice had to be my individual decision, not of the samaaj or even of my family. It was my life, and I had to do what I wanted to do, not what I was told to do by convention. I switched streams and opted for literature. It made me extremely happy, and made me see life for what it was, and what I wanted it to be. Years later, I faced a similar predicament. After clearing CAT interviews and receiving admission letters, samaaj again raised its head and commanded – “join MBA: It’s more secure, financially rewarding, and will get you everything in life.” I made another (dubious?) call and opted for a research programme in literature instead. Perhaps another good decision! Happiness, satisfaction and peace of mind is always more important than one’s CTC, I believe. I’m happy I took that decision. And yes, due to the rigorous Indian school system, the science we were taught till class XII was more than enough to give one the proper foundation for writing Sci-fi, though I did read more of science, and also realised that Sci-fi was more about fiction and less about science.
Atreya: You did your PhD in Science Fiction. Which is the university you did it at? Who was your guide?
Sami: I worked on Indian Science Fiction in English, an area usually ignored, whether consciously or not, by many academic institutions, which consider such pulp/popular literatures as not worthy as Shakespeare or Milton – the classics, the canon, you know. Thankfully, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, has always encouraged its students and scholars to follow their hearts, and pursue their passions, and provided them with the required institutional support, especially in exploring ‘new’ areas. I had the honour of being supervised by Prof GJV Prasad and Prof Saugata Bhaduri, both of whom were tremendously supportive, and always encouraged me to explore uncharted frontiers, especially in areas which hadn’t been explored before.
Atreya: You are a member of the Indian Science Fiction Writers’ Association (ISFWA) and the Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies (IASFS). When were these organisations started? Who were the key initiators? How many members are there? What are their essential objectives? How far they have been fulfilled? Do they have any mega common objective? Do the ISFWA and the IASFS liaise with the Indian scientific community? Are there any interfaces?
Sami: As far as I know, the ISFWA was established in 1995, and IASFS in 1998. The key initiators behind ISFWA are Dr Arvind Mishra and Dr Rajiv Ranjan Upadhyay, both are scientists who met at a conference in Allahabad. IASFS, as far as I know, owes its existence to Dr Purushothaman, and currently Dr MH Srinarahari is its general secretary.
The aim of both these organisations, in words of Arvind Mishra, is to “popularise SF [Sci-fi] and also enrich the genre in India as it was neglected by literati for long. These organisations also take Indian SF to global level. Also, IASFS and ISFWA both share common dais and members of both participate in each other’s activities.” Mishra also states, “An SF writer or association need not liaise with scientists necessarily as it is expected from him /her to have basic science info needed to build up the story. He is not a journalist who has to take version of a scientist to give credibility to his ‘story’, ISFWA members mostly belong to people having studied science to at least graduation level.”
I believe Dr Arvind Mishra and Dr MH Srinarahari are in a much better position to furnish more information about the ISFWA and IASFS, respectively. I would just like to thank these two organisations for doing so much for the Sci-fi community in India.
Atreya: Sci-fi is written in all the Indian languages besides Indian English. In which language segment is Sci-fi more vibrant?
Sami: While my primary research interests and personal focus lie around Indian Sci-fi written in English, Sci-fi in Indian regional languages has been extremely popular, and a significant part of the popular imagination. While I am not an expert on Indian Sci-fi in languages other than English (I can’t read these languages and have to depend on English/Hindi translations), even I know that Marathi has Jayant Narlikar, Bengali has Satyajit Ray, Tamil has Sujatha, Assamese has DC Goswami, Hindi has Arvind Mishra, and many more such champions in various languages. More power to them!
Atreya: Have the works of any Indian Sci-fi writer been turned into a movie, or at least into a telly serial, so far? If so, details…
Sami: I don’t think so, as far as I know, but my knowledge is limited to popular Indian English/Hindi narratives of the new millennium.
Atreya: You must have seen a number of Sci-fi movies? Which of them you like most? And why?
Sami: I am a huge fan of Star Wars, Doctor Who, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I love how Sci-fi films, while full of space battles and lasers and experiments gone wrong etc., somehow also end up commenting on the world we live in, thereby indirectly telling us to take better care of the world around us, and thus create a better tomorrow for our children.
Atreya: What are the major Sci-fi works – Indian and overseas – you have read and which of them have inspired you? And who are your favourite Sci-fi writers?
Sami: I really love reading the Star Trek novelizations, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Shovon Chowdhury, and many, many more.
Atreya: How did you come to win a Fulbright grant? What exactly you did at the University of Iowa with it?
Sami:Well, representatives from the USIEF came to my university for a presentation on research and exchange opportunities in the US. I applied for an FLTA award, and secured it. I was at the University of Iowa, where I credited courses in the history and theory of Science Fiction, teaching English, and global Sci-fi film, while simultaneously being a cultural ambassador from India attached to UIowa’s South Asian Studies programme.
Atreya: Did you take any training programme in Creative Writing and/or Sci-fi? If so, details, please.
Sami: I was lucky enough to do a 6 month course in creative writing at the University of Iowa, which was a great learning experience. As I mentioned earlier, I was simultaneously researching on Sci-fi, and getting acquainted with global critical research on this mode/genre through graduate courses offered by the University of Iowa, which the Fulbright grant enabled me to attend. It was a turning point in my writing and research career.
Atreya: You also write short stories. Are they too sci-fi in nature? Or of general nature?
Sami: I write whatever comes to my mind, though the medium I consider closest to my heart is the short story. I even see the novel as an interconnected web of short stories. The question that interests me the most is ‘what if’: this speculative fiction speaks to me the most, and this is what I write. I think about their nature much later, usually. Aliens in Delhi was an exception, for I wanted to write an Sci-fi story, and I was conscious of this desire within me.
Atreya: Do you have any close friends or relatives who are scientists? Do you interact with them on matters scientific that you input into your fiction?
Sami: Engineers, yes; scientists, no. However, our understanding of Sci-fi shouldn’t be that Sci-fi is merely science writing or writing that popularises science. Such a kind of writing can be a branch of Sci-fi, but not the whole of Sci-fi. For me, Sci-fi is what Hugo Gernsback said was: 25% science, and 75% literature. So, even if the science wasn’t concrete at few places, it would still be Sci-fi.
Atreya: Let’s have a look at your background to see how far it has facilitated your interests and skills. What about your parents and elder siblings, if any, vis-à-vis their education and professions?
Sami:Well, my mother is homemaker, she’s a double masters in Political Science and History. My father’s a retired government officer who meddled with botany, information sciences and mass communication. My younger brother is an IT engineer. So yes, my family is just another middle-class family, and my interest in Sci-fi is just a coincidence.
Atreya: At what point of time exactly you got interested in science and sci-fi?
Sami: I remember staring at the stars as a kid – for hours. The earliest memory I have is reading a Hindi comic about a space battle when I was in Class III, and since then, Sci-fi has spoken to me like no other genre or mode has.
Atreya: How was your academic life? Your equation with your teachers, with classmates, with seniors?
Sami: Whatever accha is there in me today, it is because of my teachers and the academic institutions that shaped me. I am indebted to Bal Bharati Public School, Rajdhani College and Hindu College (University of Delhi), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and the University of Iowa. I was always blessed with great teachers, friends, seniors, juniors and classmates. I count myself very lucky! And yes, whatever bad is in me, that is solely my own fault ?
Atreya: What were your extra-curricular interests when you were a student?
Sami: I always loved to write! I was writing stories, plays, scripts etc. as early as middle-school, and this intrigued me more than anything else.
Atreya: Have any scientists read and appreciated your Sci-fi works? Have any suggestions come forth from them?
Sami: Well, I do receive mails from readers, appreciating the works I’ve created, but rarely do they disclose their professional background immediately. Though yes, if a scientist reads my Sci-fi, I am sure he or she will find lots of scientific loopholes! To that, I will humbly fold my hands, and accede: I’m writing Science Fiction!
Atreya: Without giving away the suspense, can you present the story of Aliens in Delhi, in a nutshell?
Sami: This novel revolves around three questions: what would India do if the seemingly harmless EM radiation emitted by mobile-phones caused spontaneous genetic mutation in humans? What if this was a result of cellular technology being corrupted by hostile Extra-Terrestrials to invade New Delhi, and what if Osama Bin Laden was (literally) an alien inserted on Earth to pave the way for World War III? It features unexplained genetic mutations in Noida, marauding aliens over Raisina Hill, and a UFO lurking around Punjabi Bagh; it intends to familiarize – and defamiliarize – the Delhi we’re used to, using pulp thriller/Sci-fi as a mode of narration.
Atreya: Your bio in the book says you currently discuss “life, language and literature” at GGS Indraprastha University, Delhi. Can you expatiate on what aspects of “life” you teach/discuss?
Sami: I’m presently an Assistant Professor at GGS Indraprastha University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I teach literature courses to MA English students at the university.
Atreya: When and where were you born? Have you set any specific long-term goals for you in life? If so, can you talk of them? Are you already working on them?
Sami: was born in Delhi in July, 1985. As for goals, I have just one: be at peace with yourself. For that, I do four things: I think, read, write, and follow my heart. I believe that is exactly what I have been trying to do all my life. I believe in dabbling with whichever form of creative expression I’m comfortable with at that time. Perhaps that is why creating – be it stories, scripts, features, documentaries, programmes – is so important to me, and above all, all these aren’t always done for a target audience but mostly for my own self, since this process of creating makes me understand myself better, and gives me a happiness I’ve never felt before.
Atreya: In Aliens in Delhi, you seem to have covered a wide canvas – application of higher physics, biotechnology, intelligence machinery, governmental and constitutional hierarchies, diplomatic protocols, et al. How could you get all this info, and how long it took you to gather all this nitty-gritty?
Sami: Two words: extensive research. I had to read, read, and read, talk to people, think, then think some more, read some more, and then create a framework where the plot and such information supplemented each other. My biggest challenge was to make the novel sound plausible, while at the same time ensuring too much information or data didn’t affect the organic flow and narrative pace of the novel.
Atreya: What is your advice to the wannabe short fiction writers? How can they hone their skills – both in terms of language, plot construction and thematic treatment?
Sami: We all carry at least one story within ourselves. My advice is to think, feel, and reflect; locate, identify and narrate the story one really wants to convey. The genre, mode or format of such a literary expression has to come from within, and not be dictated by the market forces, which, sadly, solely operate on what’s profitable. So, I’d ask such budding writers to not think about what sells, what everyone else is doing, but instead, write what gives them happiness, since writing is an intensely therapeutic process.
Atreya: Thank you, Sami, for your valuable time. Your answers and observations would certainly afford the readers a stimulating peep into your personality and work. And Muse India wishes your Aliens in Delhi a great success.
Sami: Thank you, Atreya ji. Muse India has been a terrific platform for writers, aspiring or established, and I’m happy to be a part of the MI community.