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A realistic dystopia

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A realistic dystopia

NOSTALGIA

Author- MG Vassanji

Publisher- Penguin, Rs 399

Nostalgia is a vision of the future that we would never want to wake up to, but must acknowledge the strong possibility of, says ANUBHAV PRADHAN

With the chasm between dystopia and reality no longer as wide and deep as it once was, the immediacy of fiction as portend appears irrevocably heightened. Decidedly, ours is a strange world where many of the certainties most of us were born with do not hold. Liberty, freedom, democracy, rights, these are no longer what they were. Gone, too, is the rootedness of identity, the localised contours of belonging, the specificities of what it meant to be social. Man himself, the species, the organism, is not what he was. With technology, with medicine and science, what it meant to be human has now changed forever.

In this world, in this context, fragmented as much by violence as by prosperity, MG Vassanji’s Nostalgia is a provokingly disturbing read. Located in an undefined but not unrecognisable future where the world is divided into enclaves of extreme privilege and extreme poverty, where the boundaries of mortality have been breached, and where near-totalitarian governments seek to control not just citizens’ bodies but also their hearts and minds, Nostalgia is the stuff nightmares are made of. It is a future which, measure by measure, our children may well be born into.

Curiously, what makes Nostalgia believable is its measured avoidance of nostalgia, of the intense, monochromatic sentimentality which is a tiring staple of much science fiction, literary and cinematic. Vassanji’s dystopia is not too dissimilar from our own divided world, his characters torn by urges not entirely unrelatable. Frank Sina, noted neurophysiologist at the Sunflower Centre for Human Rejuvenation in Toronto, cannot but help indulge his pathetic desire for Joanie, a young and wholesome ‘Baby Gen’. Joanie, apparently in love with Frank, is still opposed to GN-new generation-persons cheating death and holding on to privilege and power by remaining young. Holly Chu, well-heeled reporter with XBN News, cannot help visit the depressed parts of Maskinia to narrate the sufferings of its people. Presley Smith, the patient whose case changes Frank’s life, is guided by some unknown, unutterable instinct to hide himself from the government, from the gaze of the pervasive and powerful Department of Internal Security.

In all of this, it is to Vassanji’s credit that he steers clear of extremities. His world may be divided and shrill, but it still has semblance of democratic dialogue and civil opinion. The so-called Long Border divides the enclaves of privilege from the sick and decaying parts and populations of the earth, but refugees still attempt to cross the barriers. Society’s elite can choose to escape memory and death, but fringe religious groups still have enough freedom to publicly protest against this subversion of god and nature. Within Toronto, within the Long Border itself, there are pockets of deprivation, neighbourhoods as deprived as Maskinia and Bimaru — the sick countries on the other side. Sprayed generously with these many shades of grey, Vassanji’s world is a pastiche of the real and unreal, a quietly heady canvas of what may well come to be.

Of course, what lends a distinctly uncanny hue to this narrative is the central trope of memory. For a species which is often stuck in the womb of time and which spends as much time looking back into the past as towards the future, Vassanji conjures an epoch where history itself-lived and shared-may cease to hold. With psychosomatic rejuvenation, the privileged few can be born again as their own healthier, happier fantasies. The mind can be worked upon, all trace of memory erased so that a psychic tabula rasa can be achieved. Nostalgia, the irrational yearning for what once was, is suppressed as Leaked Memory Syndrome, an aberration to be dealt with swiftly and surely. Frank Sina, the novel’s protagonist, is an expert in precisely this process, in ensuring the hydra head of memory does not rear up to threaten the lives and fictions of new generation persons.

It is the interplay of memory, identity, and longing-nostalgia-amongst Frank, Presley, and Holly which makes the narrative thrillingly engaging. The larger question emergent from these events and the embedded network of kinship from which they emerge, however, is not as much if such a divided world can come into being as whether the human mind has something irrepressible, something untouchable which will resurface despite all attempts to cull and cut it. While Vassanji’s answer here seems to be indicative of humanity’s inherent resilience and strength, his closure-calm, quiet, reflexive-is perhaps the most ominous of his imaginings. Humanity may resist, the human heart may yearn, but it will always be watched and worked upon.

The reviewer is a Doctoral Candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. The views expressed are his own

 
 
 
 
 

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