Hyperrhiz 16: Essays

“No Country for E-Lit?” – India and Electronic Literature

Souvik Mukherjee

Presidency University, Kolkata


The current Indian government’s dream of a ‘Digital India’ does not include digital culture or the digital humanities. The country now has its digital library of digitised analog works (mainly printed texts) but it does not have a significant electronic literature. It does have a growing videogames industry that is becoming keener on sophisticated means of non-linear storytelling and also deeper investment in digital storytelling through platforms such as wevideo etc. mainly for the purposes of raising social awareness. Recent videogames such as the indie RPG, Unrest as well as adaptations of Bollywood films such as Ghajini attempt non-linear storytelling. Digital stories, such as ‘We are Angry’, a story about the recent brutalities against women in India, are becoming a popular medium of spreading awareness.

Together with this, the popularity of using the web as a medium for publishing poetry is on the rise. Some of this poetry, often not acceptable to print journals, tends to go viral on the web and on social media. Indeed, songs such as ‘Kolaveri di’ (sung in Tanglish, a mix of Tamil and English) and ‘Hok Kolorob’ became overnight hits on Youtube and other social media sites. While the former gained cult status in the country, the latter inspired a political movement against a corrupt education system. Another example is the digital recording and dissemination of the late-poet Vidrohi who lived by himself in a university campus in Delhi and composed poems in the oral tradition.

Non-linear traditions of storytelling and poetry have existed in India since ancient times and in a variety of forms ranging from the stories in the Katha traditions to the Urdu dastangoi plays. Strangely, though, despite its recent digital commitment, the government has not considered digital counterparts of such nonlinear literature worthy of its attention. Electronic literature, as it is understood in Europe and the U.S.A, does not have a presence in Indian literary and cultural traditions yet. The few Digital Humanities programmes that have developed in the country might be engaging with electronic literature in their curriculum. If so, the beginnings of e-lit are already evident in older cultural traditions and the process of remediation is certainly This article aims to explore the (non)beginnings of electronic literature in India and to think through larger implications of electronic literature in the digital culture and Humanities teaching at large.

Introducing the Problem of “Digital India”

The Digital India programme launched by the Indian government in July 2015 claims to rest on nine pillars that are to determine the future of the country using cutting-edge technology. According to the official website, these are ‘Broadband Highways, Universal Access to Mobile Connectivity, Public Internet Access Programme, e-Governance: Reforming Government through Technology, e-Kranti or Electronic Delivery of Services, Information for All, Electronics Manufacturing, IT for Jobs and Early Harvest Programmes’ (Digital India 2015). Notably, digital culture does not feature in this otherwise exhaustive list. Digital storytelling and interactive fiction (IF hereonwards) is even more distant on the list of priorities for the new-look ‘digital’ avatar of the India. For a country rich in literary and narrative traditions, one of the largest film industries globally and the current surge in its digital media industries, one wonders what the IF scenario in the country is like: not surprisingly, however, IF, as a genre, is virtually unknown in India.

India’s neighbor, China, has a fairly large community of ‘network literature’ (Guo 2014: 2) but its other neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka do not yet have a recognized community in IF or even Electronic Literature although there have been some initial research on digital literature and the transcultural (Anwar 2013). In India, too, despite the lack of genres such as IF, broader categories of electronic literature are fast becoming popular: stories and poetry published in exclusively online magazines, blogs, fan fiction and also award-winning works such as We are Angry (Prickett 2015) form the rather eclectic collection of electronic literature in India. One the one hand, therefore, there is a lack of an established tradition of electronic literature and even the recognition of it in the formulation of official policy towards the digital and its use; on the other, there is a parallel growth of various genres that connect and correspond, in rhizomatic fashion, to developments in electronic literature elsewhere in the world. This article is an attempt to think through why this is so and to analyse the lack, as it were, of a literary medium that is now well established the world over. It is also about exploring the nascent, albeit rather ‘messy’, developments of the field in India.

Non-linear Beginnings

Ancient Indian narrative traditions were largely oral. In Sanskrit as well as folk traditions, the sutradhar, literally “one who holds the threads”, is the “central figure who combines various generic elements to create a coherent narrative by acting as a producer, narrator, director, and even a manipulator of performance” (Kumar, 2015: 317). The sutradhar’s rendition of the text determines its form and content each time it is narrated. The sutradhar is often assisted by a sidekick, the vidushak (a role akin to the clown or jester), who takes liberties with narrative themes, generic conventions and other issues. Formal dramatic performances were already quite nonlinear and even ludic. Some other ancient oral storytelling traditions have survived into modernity although they are marginalized by modern technologies. One of these is the Rajasthani oral storytelling tradition of Kavad bachana where the storyteller is accompanied by a wooden box with painted panels that open up to reveal sections of the story. Pappu Ram, a Kavad storyteller describes his craft as follows:

We are nomadic and the entire family moves into a village where we stay for two to three weeks, sometimes a month, giving performances at nearby villages. We are a troupe of four Kaawadiyas. We narrate the story of Pandavas, Ramayana, the story of mother goddess, story of Thakurji (Krishna), our local deity Bhomiyaji Maharaj and so on. It is mandatory that our opening statement reveal our genealogy and then we launch into the narration which takes hours. Each door of the Kaawad is opened to the audience and the story told as per the scenes on that door. The narration is continued by my teammate just in case I get exhausted. We go from door to door and since we are expected, donation in kind or cash flows as a matter of fact. We don’t beg; we showcase our ancestral art form. (Kumar 2013)

Pappu Ram’s account reveals how the narration is a fluid affair and how it is carried on by multiple persons based on the paintings on the panels as they fold out and fold back in Kavad survives in the villages of Rajasthan. Another similar form, the Hari Katha from Karnataka consists of oral storytelling to the accompaniment of “song, philosophy, scripture, and humor, creating a world of story around the audience” (Sriram, 2015). Similarly, the recently revived art of dastangoi , or Urdu oral storytelling that has Persian roots, has been used in formulating protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in the “Dastan-e-Sedition” performed on 19 February 2016 and has been able “to adapt historical events like the Partition or recent incidents like the […] the ‘anti-nationalism’ row at JNU into the performance” (Informer JNU 2016). The revival of the dastangoi is heartening and it also points toward the inherent nonlinearity in the narrative traditions of India. Especially with the Kavad, the meld of technology and storytelling in Indian narrative traditions is also quite obvious. Eleanor Rachel Dare, in her PhD dissertation, writes of “valid models for moving electronic literature and artist’s books into a position of cultural and technological relevance” and uses the Kavad as her mobile-methodology-box (Dare, 2010: 21). The early forms of oral storytelling in India could possibly, therefore, be seen as predecessors of the electronic literature. The question now arises as to how these or the principle behind these could possibly link to the digital storytelling scenario in India today.

The Scenario Today

Recently, at a panel called “Studying Internet in India” at the Centre for Internet & Society, Anita Gurumurthy, Nandini Chami, and Deepti Bharthur (2016) see the Internet “not as a grand, open, phenomenon for the network to access the multitude, but as the inane, local, Sutradhar (alchemist who produces the narrative), who allows truths to be told.” This is intriguing because the Internet here is seen as the producers of narratives and the teller of ‘truths’. As the producer of narratives, it is probably more a teller of stories. In their session at the Internet Researcher’s Conference, P.P. Sneha and Arup Chatterjee have addressed the “slow but steady emergence of online literary spaces in India, marked by the ubiquitous nature of the internet and digital technologies, growing mobile phone penetration and increased access to devices such as tablets and e-readers” (Sneha and Chatterjee, 2015). Some of the electronic literature that they survey are online journals, blogs, magazines and reading groups such as The Little Magazine, Muse India, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, Kindle, Almost Island and The Indian Quarterly. Some of these, like Kindle and The Little Magazine, have print editions as well and there are other examples, especially of newspapers, such as Scroll.in and Mint, which are published exclusively for the web. There are also other platforms such as Kafila.org that describes itself as “[a] team blog [that] is a collaborative practice of radical political and media critique” (Kafila, n.d.). The national media is also not entirely unaware of genres like IF. In 2015, The Times of India published an article introducing the genre, albeit with a rather superficial description:

Interactive fiction is a continuously evolving genre thanks to advances in digital graphics and technology. It also comes in a wide variety of styles — mysteries, thrillers, romances, science fiction and comics that include superheroes like Spider Man, Iron Man, Batman and the like. While on the one hand, there are gamebooks where you are an international spy, in another you could be fighting dragons or searching an abandoned mill for hidden loot. So, you double up as the hero as well as the master of puppets! (Times of India 2015)

Despite the initial interest, not much has been done in the way of IF but then again, it is early days given the newness of the genre that the almost starry-eyed description seems to reveal. As for the other examples, they show a common resistance to corporate media and to newspapers and magazines. The Little Magazine, first published in 2000 and probably the oldest among these, states as the reason for its formation that “[n]ewspapers and magazines, once independent witnesses, are now mere conduits for the single, approved and flawlessly inflected voice booming from the apex of the pyramid of power” (The Little Magazine, n.d.). The magazine features prominent thinkers such as Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and Ashish Nandy among its editors. Another example, Kafila, takes its name from the Arabic (and Hindi) word for ‘caravan’ : “it could be a kafila of a nomadic group, a pack, a procession, a parade or simply the most pervasive yet unacknowledged figure of the modern world – the refugee/s in all its forms” (Kafila.org, n.d.). The editors of this magazine also feel that “the space of critical public discourse has been […] completely colonized by the corporate media” (Ibid.). The concept is of a caravan that keeps growing as more people join it. One could be tempted to read a Deleuzian bent into their claim that all future media is “becoming-media” and into their desire for a nomadic existence. Moving on to more literary websites, Almost Island also sees itself as a space of protest that is marked out as separate and in opposition to corporate media: “a space for literature that threatens, confronts, or bypasses the marketplace” (Almost Island, n.d.). Coldnoon is a travel literature journal that views travel as something that “can be inwardly, or spiritually decolonizing”. It also frames its rationale in terms of what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari termed “becoming animal” and an “an ideal deterritorialisation from the shackles of time, space, identity, et cetera.” (Coldnoon, n.d.). No wonder, then, that the introduction hinted at the messiness and rhizomatic nature of the electronic literature scenario in India.

Is It E-Lit?

The Electronic Literature Organization has defined e-Lit as “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer” (ELO, n.d.) and included hypertext fiction and poetry, kinetic poetry, computer art installations, IF, stories generated by computers among other things. The examples mentioned in the previous section do not correspond to these categories. In fact, they are in most cases not “born digital” but are “digital versions” of texts that could have existed in any earlier media. Most of the questions that Sneha and Chatterjee (2015) raised in their paper make direct comparisons to print. They ask whether online literature is less literary than print and whether online magazines can be linked with print culture and the rise of the novel. The questions are regarding the value of online literature and they deal with the issues of ‘merit’ and the ‘universal’ and whether the same categories of judging print culture can be applied online. While extremely important in themselves, these questions nevertheless do not take into account hypertextual narratives, IF or indeed, any form that highlights the ways in which the digital actually informs literary practices. In certain cases, such as in blogs and fan fiction, the hyperlinks and the discussion boards that allow for collaborative co-creation and reading of texts is evident but in India, prominent examples of these are few and far between.

The ELO definition notwithstanding, the examples of digital writing mentioned above are literature in the broad sense of the term and with their being mediated via the digital medium, the question arises as to what their status is. In one sense, they do avail the distinctive advantages of being able to reach millions across the world via the worldwide web and very often, also including commenting facilities whereby a dialogue is exchanged with readers. One could also argue that their claim to the messiness and the difference from standardized corporate media (although incidentally, Mint is owned by the mainstream newspaper The Hindustan Times) also reflects the similar affordances that electronic literature provides. Their exact status as electronic literature still remains a moot question. The point, however, is that they form the majority of the digital literature in the country.

No Country for E-Lit?

While negotiating the messiness and resistance to standardizing voices of control in the digital literature, one cannot help reflecting that despite the coming of popular interactive nonlinear media such as computer games and the ancient traditions of nonlinearity, the form and content of the literature on digital media is still not characterized by plurality. The absence of hypertext novels and the like is clearly not because of a lack of plural and nonlinear thinking. That existed in and still survives in local narrative traditions today. The lack, however, prompts further speculation.

Looking at the early history of IF, for example, the Colossal Cave Adventure game was created by Will Crowther and Don Woods in 1976. Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle invented MUD in the late 1970s and the game ran on the University of Essex servers until 1987 (Nelson 1981). Consider now the parallel developments in the Indian computing industry. The Department of Electronics was set up in 1963 by the Government of India. In 1978, the ruling party lowered equity for IBM, which was refurbishing the 1401 obsolete computers that the country possessed. IBM refused to continue and closed its Indian operations. It was only in 1986, under Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership that computers came to India. As Rajaraman (2012: 3) states, “In 1984 and 1986 the government removed numerous controls on the industry and on imports when Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister.” Some state governments such as the Communist-ruled government of West Bengal were still resistant to computers. Note that by this time, the first MUD had stopped running. The Internet came to India in the late 1980s as part of the ERNET project run by the National Council for Software Technology, India. It was only in the 1990s, however, that the Internet was more commonly seen to connect Indian homes and offices. No wonder then that there would have been little awareness of the ELO and electronic literature in India when the organization was founded in 1999. The trAce online archives, which housed electronic literature from 1995 to 2005 on the Nottingham Trent University’s servers would also have been largely unknown. It was only in 2012 that Sue Thomas, the founder of trAce, would keynote at a conference at Presidency University, Kolkata, via Skype.

One more reason for the lack of popularity of e-lit in its early days was the difficulty in accessing and the price. Stories such as Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1994) or Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) were distributed on Eastgate Systems’s Storyspace software and their prices would have made them less accessible in India.

Also, as the Indian computing initiatives were mainly based out of places such as TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research), DoE (Department of Electronics), CDAC (Centre for Advanced Computing) and other similar organisations, the Humanities faculty, the writers and creative artists were latecomers to the technological possibilities available in the digital medium. The university system still seems largely unaware of electronic literature and their syllabi do not feature any e-lit texts. The reader published in 2003 by the research group, Sarai, called Shaping Technologies, It covers a diverse range of topics from rural water management and computing to software as art but surprisingly does not mention electronic literature anywhere. The Centre for Internet Studies, mentioned above, is also comparatively new to discussions of digital literature but has not organized events around electronic literature forms such as hypertext poetry. Some universities, such as Jadavpur University and Presidency University in Kolkata or art colleges such as Srishti in Bangalore have started Digital Humanities courses. Some of these courses, such as Presidency University’s gen-ed course for undergraduates, provide a sense of electronic literature through hypertext fiction. Sandy Baldwin, vice-president of ELO, visited Kolkata and introduced the students to e-lit and the course has retained lectures on the topic ever since. Students when asked often find parallels with choose-your-own-adventures stories, which they are familiar with. That, however, is where the exposure ends.

Thinking through E-Lit in Indian Education

A Times of India article cites a study conducted by the HSBC stating that Indian parents have the highest career expectations from their children. The study further states that

Indian parents aspirations also differ substantially from that of other nations in terms of choice of subjects, university education, postgraduate qualifications and additional tutoring.  What is rather strange is that while Indian parents have the highest preference for engineering as the preferred subject of their wards despite the nation’s frail industrial sector. (Raghavan 2015)

One would immediately realize then that education processes and parental aspirations (education is almost entirely funded or controlled by the parents) contribute hugely to shaping the awareness that students in India have of technology and its role. Also important is the government’s message on digital India quoted above. The digital is related with the most practical functions of governance such as taxation or voting and with careers such as engineering and the STEM disciplines. The technocrat-turned-politician, Nandan Nilekani (2016), writes in his book Rebooting India about advanced voting systems and micro-ATMs to bring banking to the villages but there is no comment on how the digital can influence culture; as such discussions of electronic literature are still miles away.

Coming back to the Indian education system, the recent film The Three Idiots makes fun of the fixation on engineering degrees that Indian parents have and the resultant competitiveness among students to get high scores in the sciences. The problem, however, goes beyond the attitudes of parents and teachers. B.K. Passi writing about the introduction of computers in Indian schools states that although loans and better import facilities “opened a floodgate for computer education in India […], the general school system has yet to wait for computers” (Passi, 1997: 56). The system has improved significantly but IT resources still remain scarce. As such, there is consistent pressure on students to use their computer time for school-based activities, which, so far, do not involve electronic literature. Also looking at the demographic of India, access to the computer means very different things across the spectrum. As Joyojeet Pal observes, “parents wanted their children out of agriculture, and when they verbalized means out of a future dependent solely on farming, they saw two potential saviors — computers and the English language” (Pal, 2012) and “children’s computer sharing behavior was often determined by status, rather than by equity and spirit of learning.” Clearly, a very different set of concerns influence the computer usage and education in the country when one views the digital scenario from different perspectives – whether that of a bureaucrat advocating digital solutions or a farmer thinking about the future prospects of his children. When students did get access to computers and trained in computer languages, their coding skills were almost exclusively devoted to designing systems for governance or commerce rather than storytelling.

The Humanities education system is also one that as yet does not support the easy introduction of the digital because of the watertight categories it has built around itself. Also, especially in connection with electronic literature, it might be noted that only a handful of higher education institutions offer creative writing courses. The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) offers creative writing courses in both English and Hindi; the Ambedkar University offers a Masters course and a few other organizations conduct shorter courses. None of these courses, however, feature electronic literature and the very paucity of such courses obviously makes it difficult to introduce education in electronic literature at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In his TED talk, educationist Sugata Mitra says

The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a system that was so robust that it's still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists. The empire is gone, so what are we doing with that design that produces these identical people, and what are we going to do next if we ever are going to do anything else with it? (Mitra 2013)

Mitra also highlights the problems of access and poverty in India while advocating that the obsolete colonial education system be done away with. What is necessary, according to him, is a rethinking of the system.

Hyperlinking beyond the Present

Going back to the playful and nonlinear narrative traditions that are kept alive through Pappu Ram’s Kavade boxes, one way of making the Indian digital experience more fun would be to bring the same traditions to the digital realm. Electronic literature, as we know it, relates better to the craft of Pappu Ram than to the technocratic grand visions of control and order. In fact, although not the same and not “born digital”, the extant digital literature is in a way an attempt to introduce a messy playfulness that aims to challenge the authoritative discourses. Also, the lag in computer education is easier to make up now with better access and just as graphic novels have now entered Indian literary discourses in a big way, it is probable that electronic literature is also a likely entrant sooner rather than later. Storytelling is already an accepted part of popular digital media such as videogames and as Pramod Nayar comments, “games are the newest, and ‘coolest’ form of social and cultural practice” (Nayar, 2012: 26). E-lit, when it makes its entry into the Indian literary scene, will therefore not be an entirely unfamiliar phenomenon.

As far as the education system is concerned, the problems of access, relevance and awareness remain. With the gradual entry of Digital Humanities courses into university curricula, e-lit could potentially figure in literature courses and also influence the formation of more creative writing courses. Especially with recent open-access technology such as Twine, it has become much easier for people without the knowledge of coding to create e-lit. As such, Humanities students can acquire these skills with ease and classroom activities can include nonlinear storytelling. Recently, the British Council Library, Kolkata organized a session on Twine and other institutions across the country might join in the venture. Some of the videogame design in India also involves nonlinear storytelling. Studio Oleomingus’s postcolonial game Somewhere involves hypertextual storytelling using a point-and-click mechanism. The game is still under development but has received glowing tributes from gaming websites such as Kill Screen: “The concept capitalizes on the language of fracture particular to games. A language that speaks so readily to the occupation of identities, and fragmentation of narrative” (Joho, 2014).

As far as the question of access goes, Mitra’s comment about how he dealt with class and economic background differences in his hole-in-the-wall project is important:

So I suddenly figured that, how come all the rich people are having these extraordinarily gifted children? (Laughter) What did the poor do wrong? I made a hole in the boundary wall of the slum next to my office, and stuck a computer inside it just to see what would happen if I gave a computer to children who never would have one, didn't know any English, didn't know what the Internet was. (Mitra 2013)

Mitra has since achieved what would have been considered almost impossible results before he completed his project. He talks about how when given access to computers, the slum children were able to learn how to use the computers by figuring things out for themselves. Mitra’s solution for starting off computer education among the underprivileged in India may serve as a model for similar projects of introducing e-lit among the different communities and in different Indian languages. In turn, they could shape their own e-lit forms and content.

Despite the setbacks and the virtual lack of an established form, the potential of electronic literature in India is significant. To communities already used to receiving social messages through oral storytelling, the non-linearity of the electronic story might be a familiar medium. Given the rich legacy of literature and the availability of talent for both coding and writing, it can only be expected that electronic literature will come of age in India at a later point, especially when larger issues of digital culture get more attention in the programme of “digital India”.

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  1. To my knowledge, no Indian version of choose-your-own-adventure stories exists.