‘River of Gods’ is a recent and much talked about science fiction novel by Ian McDonald which envisions India of 2047 –India in its centenary year of independence with a main focus on holy and profane city of Varanasi. ‘River of Gods‘s is set in 2047 i.e. not in a far distant future so that the reader can easily perceive some extremely possible developments of today's Indian society not just in technology but in politics, social structure and sexual relations as well.
McDonald’s skill is evident in the manner he describes the old Benarasi culture and the predicted one of the novel set in future in 2047. There is every thing identifiable with science fiction novels-wonderment, strange gadgetry, intelligent machines, computer hacking and the cumulative effects of technological and environmental changes within a society.
The city of our pride i.e. Varanasi-2047 in the novel is described in very amazing, intricate and unbelievable details - a novelist’s vision of Varanasi after 100 years of independence. It gives lucid details the way technology progresses, the way people adapt to an entirely new way of living in spite of some of their certain old habits and mind set of a typical Benarasi of yore.
The characters in the novel span all levels of society, most of them being fresh and original. Like a character Nandha who is a glorified Hindu policeman of projected 2047 and is depicted always so much engrossed in doing his job that he does away with his conscience of even as basic thing as what is right and what is wrong. This Hindu policeman’s job is to track down possibly self-aware ‘aeis’ [artificial intelligent software devices] and for this he uses a counter strategy carrying the name of a Hindu god. Najia is another character -a reporter who suddenly discovers her suppressed conscience and her humanity, or a Khan, a politician who is always eager to do the right things but finds himself unable owing to social constraints.
Some other characters are less involving - Nandha's wife Parvati is an under-appreciated, bored housewife entangled in a love triangle in between her husband and the gardener while American scientist Lisa Durnau has nothing more to do in the novel than looking constantly amazed. India is shown no longer a single nation but has been divided into smaller states similar to those that existed before the independence. Some humans have learned techniques to change themselves biologically in order to avoid the problems of being either male or female. However many elements of this society remains recognizable and unchanged like the undercurrent of hatred between Hindus and Muslims on the subcontinent.
Now some of the darker sides of the novel. It is horribly a slow start and full of Hindi words including many Benarasi slangs and expletives though a glossary of Hindi word is appended but is incomplete. . I wonder how an audience other than those familiar with today’s Varanasi could enjoy the content of the novel. Nevertheless I must appreciate the effort and dedication through which the author has reached a level of commendable understanding of the pathos and culture of a foreign place. Author understands of Indian philosophy and Hindu gods is also amazing. Varanasi of 2047 still retains some of its classical aroma in the novel. But assigning unnecessarily certain characters the names of Hindu Gods like Parvati, and Shiva and depicting the latter in a criminal role may genuinely hurt feelings of many. This appears to be a mischievous act of the author who thoughtlessly ridicules the most abhorred and worshipped Gods in Varanasi- Shiva and Parvati. This should have been avoided without altering the tone of this masterpiece and world acclaimed novel.
Being a Benarasi I could not resist my temptation to order a copy of the book directly from the USA and see myself what a contemporary science fictional world view has in its store about an ancient but lively city of India that is our beloved Varanasi.