By Ryan Arron D’Souza
“In life, dharam is of utmost importance,” asserts Nikunj-ji to his anthropomorphic robot, Anukul. The robot having just read the Gita is confused by Lord Krishna’s decision to fight his own brothers. Nikunj-ji places his hand on his heart, and explains that it is Lord Krishna’s conscience that convinced him to fight. The robot, whose internal structure is plastic and wires, places his hand on his chest, and seems pacified.
This scene is from, Anukul, a filmic adaptation of Satyajit Ray’s short story. Ray died in 1992, and his story about a robot who develops an understanding of Hindu philosophy was novel for his time. In fact, humans’ relationship with technology – will we fuse with robots, will robots take over – is still not a mainstream conversation, and is often relegated to science fiction. But there is something layered in Ray’s storytelling and Nikunj-ji’s interaction with the robot. The film is pictured in present-day Kolkata, and there is nothing futuristic about their surroundings. Howrah Bridge is surprisingly still standing, and yellow Ambassador taxis fill the roads. Yet there is a robot worrying about Lord Krishna’s actions. If this is a desi imagination of the future, the future is blending into the present.
Black Panther popularized Afrofuturism, and the value of ethnic/racial imaginations. According to Ytasha Womack, Afrofuturism is a political imagination that fuses fictions, folklores, and oral traditions with technology to speculate on the “past-future” and “present-future” of being and belonging. Afrofuturism is about having the audacity to imagine a future when you are not even afforded a present. Though it is often mistaken to be Black-centered, Afrofuturism has always been about all people of color. Afrofuturism influenced Latinx-futurism, and now informs a burgeoning academic topic in desi-futurism that speculates on the future of desis around the world. Afro-, Latinx-, and desi-futurism together contribute to the global conversation on Black and Brown futures. But these various ethnic/racial imaginations should not be reduced to fantasies and escapism. Our imagination creates conditions and possibilities to be ourselves in different ways.
Returning to the robot’s dilemma about Lord Krishna, it is a collision of oral tradition and technology. We see a robot trying to understand conscience and dharam, and eventually make decisions that benefit his owner. But I want to reiterate that Kolkata is not re-imagined as a futuristic city; that future is happening in the now. The collision of the past, present, and future in the desi imagination is somewhat of a tradition. Although I’m ignoring desi linguistic diversity, desis collide time-frames into one another with the use of kal for yesterday and tomorrow. The formula of fusing spirituality and technology is too a tradition. Sami Khan analyzed Bollywood science fiction from 1960 to 2013, and concluded that desi scientific endeavors will always be tinged with spirituality simply because it is an important part of our lives. Given the way we think of time, and engage our oral traditions whether of folklore, religion, or spirituality, there is a sense that desi-futurism has always already been happening.
Perhaps the best example of desi-futurism as always already been happening is our identification with the word desi. Desi comes from des which means country but does not specify any country. In our articulation of desi, we imagine a homeland that does not exist anymore because South Asia is divided into several countries, and not all of us trace our homeland to a location in South Asia. The diaspora is not dislocated or displaced; they are home wherever they are located. Nevertheless, we actively imagine this homeland through association with one another. The word desi imagines a homeland with people regardless of borders and waters, but, most importantly, a brutal history – the effects of which we still experience.
In addition to the abstract ways in which we imagine ourselves, desi-futurism is about our daily lives as well. If we approach desi-futurism as speculation about the relationship between bodies and technologies, it is important to understand the complexity and mundaneness of technologies. A technology is not always a digital product; it is almost anything that betters our lives. I’m reminded of The Gods Must Be Crazy wherein the tribe put an ordinary Coca-Cola bottle to extra-ordinary use. A glass bottle is not a digital product, but it can be appropriated as a technology. However, at a complex level, our bodies are technologies too. The Rawalpindi Experiments during colonialism exposed desi bodies to mustard gas to study the effects of chemical weapons on humans. Our bodies were technologized to manufacture death. Colonial history is rife with such “scientific” experiments, and through all the examples we see how our bodies were technologized to mediate science.
The past, present, and future collides in many ways in desi-futurism. The past is not something to romanticize a return to. The past serves as a reminder – a sort of recovery project – of our achievements in the present, and it is from the present that the future is imagined. We could take it as our collective dharam, which is of utmost importance in life, to ensure all desis have a future to look forward to.
Ryan D’Souza is a Ph.D. Candidate at University of South Florida. His research on desi pop culture pretentiously theorizes everything the community holds dear. Connect with him on Instagram: @rayanarron.