Reading Manjula Padmanabhan’s ‘The Living Planet’ in Pandemic Times
By Nabanita Sengupta
It requires no reiteration that the times that we are living in are unusual and has changed the world in many unforeseen ways. The global lockdown and its subsequent extensions have very subtly altered the ways in which we have been living our lives. It might be too early to comment on these changes but there is no denying that irrevocable alterations have occurred in the ways we perceive life. Never again probably we shall be completely uninhibited as we step out in the open. Job markets have gone through a sea change and those industries that had once been booming have taken a backseat, giving way to many newer kinds. Human lives have acquired a new meaning. Death and disease are no more a distant reality, as we are learning to live with it. Even now, after almost a year of the pandemic, uncertainty looms. But on the other hand, we also hear of the earth rejuvenating, various species of animals returning to their habitats slowly, clearer skies, healthier lifestyles, etc.
In such a situation, pandemic fiction has gained an immense popularity, as if to try to gain a foothold in this changing world, people are trying to read as much about global disease and disaster – imagined or historical – as possible. Pandemic fiction has become one of the poplar genres of the period. The story that I am talking about here, Manjula Padmanabhan’s “The Living Planet,” is in the form of children’s literature, narrating the aftermath of an imaginary pandemic that seems uncannily similar to the present one. Children’s fiction universally has been dealing with epidemics, just as it has dealt with other forms of crisis and complications. In Louisa Alcott’s Little Women, there is the presence of Scarlet Fever, while in Burnet’s Secret Garden, the author talks about cholera. The same is true for science fiction for children. As Perry Nodleman remarks, “they (science fiction for children) form a distinguishable sub-genre only because their main characters are almost always youngsters themselves, and because, in comparison with other SF, they tend to describe less complicated situations in a simpler way.” In Padmanabhan’s story, these two genres come together.
In “The Living Planet”, Padmanabhan narrates a fairly uncomplicated story where a child’s curiosity about the past is satiated by the grandpa’s storytelling. It is a usual trope of narration and maintains all the dynamics of the relationship of the contemporary world. As the child’s parents are out working as alpaca herders, she enjoys with her grandpa who educates her through stories. Till here the tropes are common and similar to the world in which we live in. But the setting of the story and the embedded tale about the dark times make all the difference.
“Tell me again, Granpa,” says Bella, “about the Dark Time. How many people were there in the world? How did the few become clever and kind? What happened to the many who remained cruel and stupid?”
This is an excerpt from Padmanabhan’s short speculative fiction “The Living Planet,” published on 1 January, 2017 in the Indian Express newspaper. These are words of a little girl Bella who requests her grandfather to once again narrate the story of the “Dark Times.” The story that Padmanabhan wrote in 2017 bears strong similarities with the situation today. The little girl and her grandfather live in isolation in an idyllic landscape as do most of the survivors, spaced out as they are from each other. The story is set in an open space, near the Andes. As the story proceeds, we come to know of how the viruses had decided to teach human beings a lesson, a decision taken in a kind of a meeting between all living creatures.
At a meeting in the animal kingdom, attended by all forms of organisms except humans, the virus makes a sinister remark of making humans suffer. All they need are packed human settlements. There is an outbreak of the virus in which humans suffer largescale death and disease. Only a few of the race survive in distant parts of the world. They start living in distant settlements, connected by technology. They continue to exist with the help of shared knowledge in vibrant, creative, and varied habitats.
This essay attempts to read this short speculative fiction as offering a panacea of integrated lifestyle as a key to the survival of the human race. As we are living through the onslaught of COVID-19 attack, the story resonates deeply. When I came across the story for the first time, what struck me most was the time of its publication – a couple of years before COVID-19. But then came the realization that the fear of such epidemics/pandemics lay deep-seated within our psyche. Human history is full of such instances: the Black Death or bubonic plague, Spanish flu, influenza, malaria, polio, and the list is long. World literature is full of such references. A large part of nineteenth century Bengali fiction makes references to epidemics and the concept of quarantine, bringing to our mind that the situation has not changed much when it comes to fighting viruses. Even now, with all the advancements in medical sciences, improvement in our living conditions, the best bet against the virus is social isolation. Even the early years of twenty-first century was full of references to threatened epidemic outbreaks: 2001-03 had seen the SARS outbreak, in 2016-17 were sporadic outbreaks of diseases like avian flu or zika virus, and so on. None of them had proved as contagious as the current one; nevertheless, the threat of an epidemic had remained.
Padmanabhan’s viruses too are of a similar type in their claim at the all-animals meeting that they could wipe out humanity; the only thing they needed was a space where human beings stayed close together. The story is probably the author’s response to the lurking threat of a viral infection spreading beyond control. However, she does not present a grim, dystopic world that threatens to unhinge the readers from their conception of normalcy; instead, it is lighthearted, cheerful, and affirmative in its tone. It begins where the grim reality of death and disease is a thing of the past. There is an air of cheerfulness and positivity in the story but the threat of the bad and ugly still lurks. The large-scale devastation wrought by the viruses still exists in the living memory of grandpa. Though the child has not experienced it, it does require an alternative lifestyle to continue to remain free from such threats. The few humans that have survived, the ‘clever and kind’ type as opposed to the ‘cruel and stupid’ ones, have had to isolate themselves, spread through various parts of the world in order to save themselves from the contamination by virus. The story that grandpa narrates has a deep sense of loss within it. Life as he had known it had altered and he was fortunate enough to have survived. The story has a lot of positivity and talks of a universal need for a more inclusive lifestyle that would be in harmony with nature.
The self-centered existence of humans clashes with the actual natural world where the survival of human beings is not even a remote concern for nature. In Padmanabhan’s story, humans learn to live in harmony, to be a part of nature, not tame nature to serve its greed. In the black and white world of a child, therefore, the human beings exist in two categories: the ‘clever and kind’ and ‘the cruel and stupid’. The clever and kind would be saved, perhaps because of their empathy or their willingness to live in nature, not to rule over it. The cruel and stupid would perish because of their desire to rule, to grab what does not belong to them. It is like a fairytale world where the good is always good and the evil is evil and is ultimately vanquished by the good. The two kinds of people mentioned are, of course, metaphorical representations of the people that populate our earth even now and do not require any further explanation.
Another interesting aspect of the story is the way it weaves technology with natural living. The child and grandpa enjoy the breeze. Like any other child, Bella, enjoys running in the wind. Full of energy, she runs ahead of the old man as she exhorts him to catch up with her. Her parents, like many parents of contemporary society, go out for work:
They are alone, these two, living in the valley in their terra-pod: a cosy, multi-level dwelling created below the ground. The little girl’s parents are alpaca herders. They travel from one valley to the next, often spending weeks away from their child. Yet, she does not miss them nor they her. Around her wrists, the little girl wears twin bracelets of electronic beads, which function as a communicating device. Whenever she needs to, she can speak to her parents and conjure up live images of them as tiny holograms that twinkle and sparkle in the air between her cupped palms.
Grandfather’s thoughts refer to the aftermath of the virus attack. He thinks back to the time,
Of the scattered communities left to manage in the aftermath. Of the great strides made in electronics, communications and automation that permitted tiny settlements to live in dignity and to maintain contact across vast distances. Of the networks of cooperation and shared knowledge that permitted the communities to enjoy vibrant, creative lives in varied environments.
He goes on to add that the animals, nature, and even human beings were happier in the way things remained as humans understood their goals:
. . .to be stewards of the abundance of nature. To nurture and celebrate the creatures of the Earth. We have understood how to live in harmony with this living planet and the continuum of renewal, maintenance and death that gives meaning to all reality.
Is this not goal that we too should be aiming for? Isn’t there enough evidence of the earth suffering due to extreme human interventions? Isn’t the coronavirus today doing exactly the same thing as the viruses in the story threatened to do and ultimately did?
This story also brings to mind another short story by E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops.” In many ways I feel Padmanabhan’s story begins where Forster’s ends. Forster speaks of an altered world where everything is governed by the Machine; religion has been replaced by Machine though no one is willing to accept that. It is a world where there is complete human disconnect. Vasthy, the protagonist, abhors touch and is irritated to respond to her son’s call to her for a physical meeting. Everything is governed by buttons and wires and indicators. Everything is virtual. The humans are so removed from the natural environment that they cannot even breathe normal air. Inside the machine, everything is regulated. And a few who dare to go out, find a way for themselves to the earth above and are threatened with ‘homelessness,’ a form of banishment. The story ends with the machine crumbling down and killing all those inside but a hope for the human race remains in the form of those rebel ‘homeless’ ones who had managed to make a world outside the machine, in the real world.
While both the stories reveal human survival by means of technology, they pan out differently: it is supportive in one and complimentary to nature; in the other, it is degenerative and self-destructive. It is almost as if the world recreated by the homeless, the ones who had understood the pitfalls of such alienating machines, is the world which Padmanabhan’s child and her grandpa live in, the harmonious one. The story presents us with a world which is restorative and the mantra to survival is holistic living in harmony with nature through shared knowledge and not beyond it. However, at the same time, the story, like most children’s fiction, is homogenous in its conception of the world. It speaks of a world where everyone has a similar lifestyle, shared through knowledge and technology. It is very much like a sanitized classless society but not in the Marxian sense of the term, where all is well with the world, a utopia conceived in the author’s mind, a perfect world that has been crafted after a lot of death and devastation. At the end of the story, questions arise: who are the ones that died? In the race to exist, were the ones with more access to technology who came out as ‘clever and kind’? Were those with access to technology the wise and kind ones and the have-nots cruel and stupid?
The story does not answer these questions. The panacea too remains embedded in the utopian conception of a child’s world of perfect endings. Still the story remains both important and topical particularly in today’s context, in bringing to the fore the need for a more corrective way of life. A more nature-friendly lifestyle is perhaps the only hope for the human race to survive longer.
Photo: Nishi Pulugurtha
Forster, E.M, & Mengham R. The Machine Stops and other Stories. London: Andre Deutsch, 1997.
Nodelman, Perry. “Out There in Children’s Science Fiction: Forward into the Past (Là-Bas, La Science Fiction Pour Enfants: En Avant Dans Le Passé).” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 12, no. 3, 1985, pp. 285–296.
Padmanabhan, Manjula. https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/life-style/the-living-planet/
Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is presently working as assistant professor of English at Sarsuna College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. She is also associated with two literary societies – Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library and Kolkata Translators’ Forum. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been published in SETU, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com, Kitaab.org and Different Truths. She has a number of critical writings to her name and has presented papers at various national and international seminars and webinars. Her latest publication is A Bengali Lady in England: Annotated Translation with a Critical Introduction to Krishnabhabini Das’ Englandey Bangamahila.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.