How a hair oil brand inspired an Indian science fiction tale in 1896

While reading about early examples of Indian science fiction, I came across a wonderful scholarly tale of how Jagadish Chandra Bose, a physicist and science fiction writer in India in late 19th century, wrote a bilingual science-fiction inspired by a hair oil brand. The article, written by scholars Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, who also write speculative fiction (here and here), has names of  various other writers who wrote science fiction in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Using it on my website with due permission from Anil and with a lot of glee.


We have chosen two stories—one by Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937), the other by Naiyer Masud (1936—)—not as representatives of Indian speculative fiction but as interesting instances of the genre. Bose’s story is indicative of a special period in the subcontinent’s history and we finally had an excellent translation to work with. We chose Masud’s story because it is a wonderful story.

Of course when the range includes seventeen-odd languages over some hundred and fifty years of scribbling (two thousand plus, if mythic fiction is included), these two choices are more or less equivalent to two hands raised in surrender. We were tempted by the first south-Asian short story in English, Kylas Chunder Dutt’s “A Journal of 48 Hours In The Year 1945” (1835), Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s “Republic of Orissa: Annals From The Pages Of The Twentieth Century” (1845), V. K. Nayanar’s “Dwaraka” (1892), Sarath Kumar Ghosh’s Prince of Destiny (1909), Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s much-reprinted “Sultana’s Dream” (1905), Rajshekar Bose’s Ulat Puran (1925), the satirical Hindi SF of Harishankar Parsai, the Tamil pulp SF of ‘Sujatha’ Rangarajan, Premendra Mitra’s whimsical Bangla tales, and the eerily postmodern folktales recorded in A. K. Ramanujan’s anthologies. We could just as easily have picked Manoj Das’s “Sharma and the Wonderful Lump” (1973), Bibas Sen’s “Zero-Sum Game” (1994), Manek Mistry’s “Stories of the Alien Invasion” (2007), or one of Kuzhali Manickavel’s short stories. We had to sidestep one of the most talked-about works this year, Shovon Chowdhury’s alternate history The Competent Authority (2013). Ultimately, we chose Bose and Masud.

Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose—the “Acharya” means teacher—pioneered research in electromagnetic waves and biophysics, and invented and built instruments of astonishing precision and delicacy to measure plant development. He probably would have been a brilliant polymath in any age, but the colonial time in which he lived and his courageous response to its constraints made him once-in-a-generation scientist. In 1896, Bose wrote a bilingual science-fiction story, “Nirrudeshar Kahini” (The Story of the Missing). The main narrative is in Bangla, but the embedded scientific material is in English. The story is about a man who calms a storm at sea by pouring a bottle of hair oil on the troubled waters.

Hair oil?

Yes. In 1896, Hemendramohan Bose, an entrepreneur, created the Kuntalini Puruskar Short-Story Competition. Open to all, there was only one condition: the stories had to refer to his Kuntalini hair oil in some essential way. Jagdish Chandra Bose submitted “Nirrudeshar Kahini” and won the prize, the first of an illustrious pantheon of winners including Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Mankumari Bose, and Probhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay. That hair oil discovered a lot of talent.

Hair-raising or not the oil may have been, but Bose’s tongue-in-cheek story made the most of it. It quoted snippets from Scientific American. It anticipated chaos theory’s famed “butterfly effect”, the phenomenon where tiny changes in initial conditions can have profound global effects. This isn’t surprising given his research interests but it was an idea that had barely started to circulate. SF history credits Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” (1952) for the first literary use of the effect, but Bose’s story had been written some fifty-six years earlier.

Bose was justly proud of his story, and included a rewritten version in his collection Abyukta (1921). Unfortunately, this second version, now called “Palatak Toofan” (Runaway Cyclone), undid most of the original’s achievements. The second version is solely in Bangla. The descriptions are more filled out, the pace more leisurely. The name Kuntalini hair oil was changed to Kuntal Keshori. Worse, Bose gave the hair oil a supernatural origin. He added a backstory, involving a balding lion, an English circus manager, and a sanyasin who conjures up the formula in a dream. The reason why the hair oil calms the storm has little to do with science and much to do with magic. Perhaps Bose had been gripped by nationalistic fervor. In the original 1896 story, Bose had a Reuters agent reporting to the Times that “The capital of our Indian Empire is in danger.” This line is removed in the 1921 version. Bodhi’s translation is an adaptation of both the 1896 and 1921 version. This version allows a comparison of the two version, and reveals something of the colonial psyche and its conflicts. That legacy continues to be a factor in modern Indian SF, though the authors themselves may be quite unaware of any such influence.

In sharp contrast, Naiyer Masud’s fiction has zero interest in nationalist or didactic concerns. Furthermore, he often denies his fiction has anything to do with the fantastic. He is telling the truth. The speculative element in his stories is an artifact of the reading, not the writing; Masud “merely” provides the silences and spaces to effect such readings. Masud’s effects are his own but his Urdu stories do not hold court in a vacuum. Urdu got its start as a scrappy mongrel language before it became the perfumed plaything of court poets. Muhammad Umar Memon traces the origins of the jadid afsana, modern Urdu short fiction, represented by Balraj Manra, Surendra Prakash, Qurratulain Hyder, Surendra Prakash, and many others, to the 1960s. Like the other moderns, Masud’s style has no use for ornament or melodrama. Unlike the moderns however, Masud isn’t particularly interested in making things anew.

Sheesha Ghat“, first published in the journal Saughat (Bangalore, Vykat Prints; 1996), is a good illustration of his approach. Naiyer Masud’s story, just as much in the original Urdu as in translation, uses language that is spare and yet perfectly adequate. Here we find no ornate descriptions of character and place, yet with a few minimalist brushstrokes, the essence of each is made apparent. The story has the lightness, inevitability and flow of the boat journey described in the first part; yet it is as unpredictable as real life. Like real life, it does not have to explain itself, or to make sense. It has the urgent persuasiveness of dream, and yet there is something so vividly tangible about the narrator, the people, and the setting that it seems more like something real and remembered than the product of the human imagination. Although it is an intensely Indian story, beyond the obvious it is hard to say why; only that it evokes a feeling or ethos that is unmistakably recognizable. Yet there is a universality to the possibility that the mundane world is, under the surface, impossibly odd—where by chance one might bear witness to the strangeness in the interstices of our constructed reality.

Naiyer Masud has been translated into English, French, Spanish, and Finnish. A translation of his first collection Seemiya—something of a novel in five inter-textured stories, of which “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire” is the first—will be published as The Occult (Penguin Books, November 2013). Earlier collections of his stories include Essence of Camphor (New Press, 1999) and Snake Catcher (Penguin Books, 2006).

First published on website Strange Horizons. Am still trying to locate the stories Anil talks about. As soon as I find them, you’ll see them in this space.