Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Beast with Nine Billion Feet

,The Beast with Nine Billion Feet
Author: Anil Menon
Publisher: Young Zubaan

'The Beast With Nine Billion Feet' is that rare creature - science fiction based in, and convincingly portraying , India. It also addresses some issues currently at the heart of public debate - farmers' rights to traditional knowledge , threatened by multinational seed companies claiming intellectual property rights over genetically modified seeds.

It is Pune in the year 2040 and thirteen year old Tara battles the usual teen maladies – a losing battle with her weight, a complexion that has earned her the nickname ‘kauva’ (crow) at school, Sanskrit class, chronic friendlessness – and parental abandonment. For Sivan, her charismatic dad, a brilliant genetic scientist turned activist has been in hiding from the law ever since his campaign against the genetically modified seeds he once helped create, has caused him to be labeled a terrorist. Yet she remains positive, finding comfort in books and her own sharp wit, and forging a strong bond with Aunt Sita, her aging guardian and her troubled older sibling. For seventeen year old Adi is chalk to her cheese – a surly and introverted teenager with a gift for genetic design , despite his dyslexia. Adi chooses the solitary joys of parkour over more conventional social contact, and uses a minimum wage job in an entertainment centre as a front to communicate with his virtual ‘posse’ – a team of skilled scientists, of which he is a valuable member, seeking to push back the frontiers of genetic engineering. Adi longs to escape the narrow confines of Pune for the icebound freedom of faraway Nurth, an island near the North Pole where cutting edge genetic engineering is being fostered, and where he could rise to his true potential.

Adi is also in thrall to his shadowy mentor Vispala/ Mandira, an enigmatic older woman and veteran genetic scientist who offers him the promise of a better life if he can only finish high school and stay out of trouble until he turns eighteen. Mandira seeks to transform the world with unrestricted use of genetic engineering but finds herself fettered by Sivan’s Dharma Protocols, a set of laws designed to check misuse of genetic modification, possible contamination of natural stock and abuse of ‘tweaked’ birds and animals. She is, in essence the anti-Sivan, aggressively voicing the interests of multinationals seeking to dominate the Indian market for profit, even as Sivan campaigns for open licensing and farmers’ rights to seed stock and intellectual property.

Things change with the abrupt return of Sivan, restored to his status as folk hero by a turn in the political tide. Tara now finds herself torn between Sivan and Adi, as the father and son fail to bridge the gap in their relationship. When Sivan is instrumental in confiscating a genetically ‘tweaked’ bird that Adi has been caring for, he sets in motion a series of events that will reveal unpleasant facts about her beloved father’s past and force Adi to confront the truth about his own origins, and his resentment for his father. Meanwhile, Mandira and Sivan face off, as much over their opposing ideological views as for control of Adi. It is left to Tara, steadfast in her loyalty and unwavering in her ethical stand, to engineer a rescue.

The book has a great pace, and finely crafted characters – everyone, including the demigod Sivan , is etched in shades of grey. Much like another Mahatma from history, he manages to make a connection with everyone except his own son. Mandira’s stand is as compelling as Sivan’s argument for free life; why, after all, should humanity not tamper with nature if they have the chance to transcend disease, hunger and even death itself, even if this comes at a humongous cost, both monetary and social? Set in Pune, as opposed to a huge metro like Mumbai or Delhi, the book successfully captures everyday details - the noise, the traffic, prominent landmarks, the people.

Menon’s vision of a future India brims with tantalizing visions . Technology dominates every aspect of life - houses talk to their inhabitants; cars fly , sulk and 'munch' on corn derivatives,; reality reinvents the mundane history lesson . Yet some things - and some people, like Aunt Sita, stay stubbornly old school. Salon makeovers can quite literally transform you, while gay marriages are legal. Idlis and Madras coffee – and Sanskrit rap! - will be as popular as ever, as will the ubiquitous auto rickshaw , in a new hi-tech avatar. But the great divide between rich and poor , he suggests, will remain, and religion – and the narrow mindedness that goes with it - be as contentious an issue in politics as ever. In fact, Siva’s return is made possible only because a right wing Hindu party sweeps the Lok Sabha polls and, even as the new powers champion his cause and fight off multinational seed companies, they also begin spreading their brand of hate for minorities, like Tara’s gay teacher.

‘The Beast..’ is a great book for anyone interested in speculative fiction and, if the ending is any indication, an even better sequel just might be waiting in the wings.



sathish said...

wow. I did not realise it was such an interesting book so far.

Vibha said...

Very interesting and a great review WJ.

utbtkids said...

WJ, you not only captivate us through your art, but also through your words. Read the 1st para. Placed an order through Flipkart. EOD.

wordjunkie said...

Thanks Vibha and utbt.
it's definitely a book I'll return to.

sandhya said...

Wow! Seems like quite a book, WJ!

Related Posts with Thumbnails