Clone by Priya Sarukkai Chabria reviewed by Suneetha Balakrishnan

Mutation of an Artist

A book review of Clone by Priya Sarukkai Chabria published by Zubaan Publishers, 2019

Erudite Priya Sarukkai Chabria works on a vast creative canvas; she writes delicate poetry, scholarly essays, translates world and classic Tamil poetry, and writes fiction too.

Priya has brought out three novels so far, the last two of them quite strongly in the speculative genre. Her repertoire perhaps deserves to be evaluated as one whole and not different individual units; because her women protagonists do evolve as they survive through the narratives and exhibit a sense of freedom which has sustained through their mutations.

Priya has had an unconscious artistic plan in place right from the first novel, The Other Garden. This is continued in the second novel Generation 14. And in the third novel, Clone (which is a finely edited version of the second), the writer has a continued and frenzied engagement with an extraordinary narrative that defies definition. It would be worthwhile to take a peep at the plots.

The Other Garden is a highly stylized story of the unconventional Anasuya, a protagonist unsure of her identity, yet fiercely protective of her independence. Her resistance to conforming to anything conventional, progresses into a narrative which plays with form and tone. Anasuya, as she negotiates with the world around her in her celebration of doubts, goes on to earn a space which hangs precariously at the edge of normalcy. ‘She’s strange, she’s white and old, she talks to clouds and trees’ says one of her later narrators. Her anxiety (the artist’s anxiety actually) with the world that has chosen to forget is reflected in her metamorphosis as a character, which is illustrated through various chapters narrated by various raconteurs. But she survives with plenty of energy intact. The unrelenting Indian philosophical quest of the self is an evident thread throughout the book. This novel may not be classified as pure SF, but the mutation of a lone character is merely not physical here, it happens at an atman level.

In the second novel Generation 14, Priya takes an obvious deviation from mainstream fiction while continuing her experiments with language. This is the story of Clone 14/54/G, a fourteenth generation clone, living in the twenty-fourth century. The writer merges fantasy and history and also accommodates the ‘today’ that is blurred by the conscious efforts of a society by repressing and suppressing individual choices. A globalised world that turns its back on plurality or otherness and falsifies history is showcased in a manuscript which bends forms and structure once again to sketch a bizarre political satire. For example, the novel is not written with a beginning, middle and end, in that order. The shorter form is used to support the framework of the main story and emotions are the pegs on which each of the stories hang. As the writer says, the stories are set in the past while the experiences of the protagonist happen in the future.

The third novel, Clone, is a reworked, updated edition of Generation 14. She, (yes, it’s not a gender-fluid world yet) is unique because she remembers; and this is a world where memory is taboo. Plus she has her sexuality in place, another taboo. It’s about a ‘species-depleted world’ and struggles against the imposed bans, and it has the Originals who are the gene pool, the Superior Zombies who are the militia, the Firehearts who are the poets, the Torturers and of course the Worker Clones. The main protagonist is at the lowest rung in hierarchy and imminent fault lines of the centuries ahead are used to mirror the dystopias that threaten to inhabit our worlds. Both the books are about the making and building of a world to reflect an intensified version of the current conflicts in the contemporary world. But Clone comes clearer in its intentions.

It’s a terrifyingly orderly world which suffuses the perfect system of a bee or ant colony with one lone human element, viz. hunger for power, that too in its universal version. The primary question the novelist raises here is what is that which makes us human. She also asks how we can resist violence. Can we use art for that, or should it be responded to with violence alone? How can we stop seeing the next person as an ‘other’? Sounds quite contemporary? Indeed!

Opting for the genre of SF allows the writer the advantage of using fantasy as a tapestry while dealing with perfectly human attributes like love, loss and anger. There is freedom but with limited choices, like choosing your method of torture. Priya establishes the world order in the ‘Global Community’ right in the opening pages.

I am a fourteenth generation clone and something has gone wrong with me. Not that my DNA is altered, not that I am a mutant. Not that any function need be eliminated. It's nothing obvious. It's terminal, and secret. Let me put it this way: I remember.

The consciousness of the protagonist then morphs ‘in an unplanned way’ and she starts feeling lonely. It’s not pleasant to have a memory and no one to share it with. I don’t dare. Which is why I have decided to keep a diary hidden as a cellchip in my system.

Memory manifests in ‘Visitations’ of happenings across millennia. The Indian subcontinent emerges in these visitations – one geography at a time, one era at a time. And we start understanding those lessons in history that the 24th century should but doesn’t know. This essential commentary on the strength of memories that entire governments spend their resources on suppressing and erasing is crucial to the purpose of this novel - only the storyteller’s words tell the truth, such as Aa’s memories and pillow book, a truth that only the Clone is privy to. The reader senses the inevitability of violent censorship that would ensue, but doesn’t know how, in this new world defined by unknown rules.

As the story progresses she goes ahead to do more than remember. She starts desiring too, and is shown writing on the walls with lipstick. Animal and post-human narratives run in parallel with human voices as Priya folds these into allusive prose. But is ‘Clone’ only about saving memories and talking about falsifying histories? Will Artificial Intelligence ever take over humans completely? As a race, will we ever surrender the burden of our emotions and opt for the power of the machines? Running as an underlying thread, there also seems to be an inadvertent discussion of Chathurvarnya in the hierarchy of the ‘Global Community’.

Clone is not a fast-paced read, and not a ‘single story’. Most times, it is a difficult read and one senses the writer has consciously made it so; every read but opens up more possibilities of its layers. And even then one senses the book has more to say, yet. The very fact that the author did not write a sequel to Generation 14, but went on to work on an already published book and re-release it, says volumes about the writer’s inner angst about a character she has created and let out into the world already. And that each book from her has a decade plus between them indicates the silent churning in the mind of this indefatigable artist.

Priya is one of those indomitable flag bearers who continue to shine the light for those who follow her. The path she treads is not one that’s marked, she has chosen ‘the road not taken’ and it’s purely by intuition that she leads and marches on. Priya Sarukkai Chabria is continuing to do to Indian English fiction what Shashi Deshpande did before her, make feel the presence of a genre which has no name yet, which few are prepared to acknowledge for fear of its annihilating what was there before it. I would not call it genre-bending, I would go with the word genre-creating.

Clone now stands as a unique work, a collage of the thoughts that emerge from a responsive mind that’s well versed in art and philosophy and exposed to the best of Indian writing. It cannot fit into the defined genres, it can only defy them.

Elsewhere in this issue excerpt from the Clone by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

Suneetha Balakrishnan is a writer, translator and journalist working in English and Malayalam. She lives in Thiruvananthapuram, her hometown.