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'Desi' X-Men — a tale of superheroes

Last updated: 05 February, 2011
Tarun Cherian 17:42 IST

You take a British Airways Flight 142 from London to Delhi. And all hell breaks loose. You either end up dead, conscripted by an evil genius, or find yourself struggling with weird superpowers.

Turbulence
Samit Basu
Hachette India,
2010, pp 344,
Rs. 250


Some like Vir can fly, others like Jai are unkillable, some like Tia can multiply themselves, Aman can become the internet, Sundar invents impossible machines, Sher is obviously clawed… Neither wishing to die or be co-opted into an insane tyrant’s army, a band of superheroes begins to group together. The goodies and baddies clash. Across the world.

Samit Basu, his author’s note informs us, has co-written a book with Mike Carey of X-Men fame. And such comparison is inevitable. Turbulence, like X-Men, the serial heroes, or films like Next or Jumpers explore the dramatic possibilities of gaining a stunning superpower; the temptations it brings, the responsibility it imposes, the negativity it attracts, and the genuine freedoms and true blessings it grants.

What makes the book piquant to me is that, as a meditative guide, many of our students do develop siddhas or psychic powers. Notably, in Turbulence, the superpowers that each hero receives is what each already has, only magnified. This makes the book’s subtext exquisitely revealing. For example, Uzma, who is seductiction personified, had filmi aspirations… And this gives gravity to the surreal. For, in a sense, in a globally open India, many find themselves raised up to heroic status with untold power, wealth and influence.

Now, many believe that if they were granted superpowers, they would —A) Be invulnerable; B) Automatically make the world a better place. Turbulence echoes what Indian sages have proclaimed — siddhas are two-edged swords, for powers can be stolen and exercised without understanding, love and restraint superpowers are dangerous. For example, when Aman uses his internet skills to equalise wealth, it doesn’t bring world peace, but riots and economic turbulence.

Underwritten into superheroism is a discussion of the superclass’ etiquette of chivalry — how do ‘we’ behave with aam janata? Outwardly, Turbulence is moral. Disturbingly, in Turbulence, all those without superpowers are irrelevant. Vir protects them, Jai treats them as fodder. But to both, they are powerless, not even pawns. Contrast this attitude with the Heroes serial or Jumpers flick, where the normal are to be taken seriously. Hey, you may argue this only happens in Samit’s mind. True. But, look around at India, the medieval India of established castes, or the economically arrogant global India, and you’d find this attitude has many takers.

The next lead we need to follow is — Indianness. The subtext, of the flight coming in from London, suggests an import; we derive superpowers from western thought. All Turbulence’s superheroes, barring a Jap teen, are Indian — ‘Goodbye Captain America, Hello Commander India.’ Now, consider this: the action moves from an Indian superhero trying to ‘thulp’ a Pak nuke reactor to London where two Indian superhero gangs end up battling for the world. Step back and you see how beautifully this dovetails with the westernised Indian elite’s global aspirations.

Turbulence is an exciting read. Pacy, clever, well-scripted and never boring. It has no less than three climactic points, rising up with rollercoaster crescendo. The only awkward sentence is unfortunately the first, where the sentence construction stumbles over grammatical puritanism.

A mundane, but serious obstacle to the book’s success, lies in its presentation. It sports a fighter plane with the title Turbulence. It doesn’t place the book on the right mind-shelf. To the superhero genre aficionado, Turbulence is a trifle too close to X-Men. But it is different in two significant ways — A) Western superheroics appeal to the teenager marginalised by big brother. Turbulence’s Indian audience sees itself as belonging to that superclass; B) Western superheroes are freaks while Turbulence superheroes are ‘us’, only amplified. As these vital thematic differences penetrate deeper, a new pantheon, a new code of power, may be born.

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