Monday, October 05, 2020

PASHUBALA by K. Shivarama Karanth

Kota Shivarama Karanth. Writer, novelist, environmentalist, folklorist, performer, science communicator, essayist, activist, polymath, legend, renaissance man. The third Kannada writer to be awarded the Jnanpith Award (after Kuvempu and Bendre) for his novel, Mookajjiya Kanasugalu. He breathed new life into Yakshagana. To write about him would take many a page, but you get the idea. Do check out the wikipedia page on Karanth. One little-known fact about is that he also wrote science fiction stories. Two among these being ಮಂಗಳ ಗ್ರಹಕ್ಕೆ ಓಟ (Mangala Grahakke Ota; Race to Mars) and ಪಶುಬಲ (Pashubala; 'Brute Force', lit. Animal Strength), a story first published in 1928 in Vasantha magazine. For context, this is a whole decade, ten years before 1938, the year usually attributed to the beginning of the 'Golden age of science fiction'. As things stand, this is the first 'ವೈಜ್ಞಾನಿಕ ಕಥೆ' (Vaigyanika Kathe; the term used for 'science fiction' in Kannada) which makes it the first science fiction story in Kannada. Pashubala then represents not just a landmark in Kannada and Indian literature but also in world SF. A first-contact story, Pashubala tells the story of a group of scientists, inventors and explorers who come together to mount an interplanetary expedition to Mercury in search of aliens, and explores the reactions and ramifications when humans make contact with an alien society. Pashubala is not just an example of the versatility of Karanth as a writer (because this story is clearly by someone who understood the genre and what it was capable of) but also his always-curious mind, his philosophical bent and his scientific temperament. 

Pashubala is currently available in its original Kannada version in two books: In the anthology ನಾಳೆಯ ಕಥೆಗಳು (Naleya Kathegalu) edited by Savitha Srinivas & first published in 2008 by Sahitya Akademi, and in the collection, ರಂಗಪ್ಪನ ಗೊಂಬೆ ಹಾಗೂ ಇತರ ಕಥೆಗಳು (Rangappana Gombe Hagoo Ithara Kathegalu) published by Geethanjali Pustaka Prakashana. To the best of my knowledge, this story has never been translated into English, which is a terrible thing to happen to a landmark story such as this. So, for my own personal enjoyment and while at it, to do my bit so that non-Kannada readers and SF fans everywhere can read this story I started to translate it. Purely for non-commercial reasons and all copyright rests with the owners of it thereof. Now on with the story which i hope i have done justice to with my translation, this being the first non-advertising work I've translated, stumbling a bit upon the prose of that age and Karanth's vocabulary which includes neologisms he came up with to describe/explain things for which there was no Kannada word. I will be putting up the translation of Pashubala as and when i finish each chapter. I hope you stay with me through the story. Everything you love about it is all due to the late great Shivarama Karanth. Any mistakes and whatever you don't like is my doing. Anyways, here goes.


— K. Shivarama Karanth  

Chapter 1


Prof. Du Bois: Friends, our work for today is done. All arrangements needed for our newest invention to work are also finished. Isn’t it high time we set a date for our first expedition? There is no point in delaying it further. Remember, our base may not stay secret from the outside world for longer. All of you must have surely noticed the monoplane that flew above this new home of ours a few days ago. We may have avoided being detected thus far, but in this age of airplanes it may not be possible to keep our base secret for much longer. If its location is revealed and made public before our project reaches fruition, people will surely make their way here. If that does indeed happen, what then is the use of all these years of secrecy?

Dr. Kline: Prof. Du Bois, the location of this island is not known to anyone except those of us working on this project. If as you fear, some people do find out about this base, what can they do? Will they arrive by ship to this island? In anticipation of this very problem I have placed underwater explosives all around the island. Will any ship be able to make its way through them all?

Edmund Wilson: It is true that no one can approach this island through the sea. But what stops them from taking the aerial route?

Dr. Kline: Even if they come in airplanes, perhaps one or two may attempt to land. If that does actually come to be, we will be able to see them landing and to deter them. We have enough arms and ammunition on the island to discourage them don’t we?

Prof. Du Bois: Be that as may, we must not delay our launch any further. It has been six years since we came to live on this island to work on this great adventure of ours. It has taken us this long to get everything ready and make all the arrangements. Even if we launch now, we do not know how many years more it will be before we know the full results of our project. Kline, you are a young man. But my friend, Wilson and I are not. Our hair has already turned white. We are most curious as also impatient to know about the harvest we shall reap from our efforts.

Dr. Kline: If that is the matter, I have no further objections.

John Dennis: What is the date today?

Dr. Kline: January 21.

Dennis: Hmmm…then in the next few days let us run all the final checks on our solar space-plane and examine it thoroughly and set the 1st of February as the date on which we bring our project to fruition and launch our craft.

Dr. Kline: No! That is impossible. We cannot do anything of that sort until Loben returns. If you want, we can launch the very next day after he returns but not before that. Don’t forget that he is making arrangements for a second space-plane. He is also procuring all the parts as per our specifications for the dictation machine, speaker, recorder and other components which we need to wait for to create the Light-o-Phone (ತೇಜೋಭಾಷಕ). Without it, what is the use of going on a voyage? Apart from all this, what if he gets angry that we didn’t wait for him to return before going ahead with the launch? Let us not entertain any thoughts in this direction.

Wilson: So what do you think is a suitable time?

Dr. Kline: As soon as Loben returns. It has been a week since he left. He should have reached Germany by now. It will take him a fortnight to procure everything and make all the arrangements we need. So I think he will be able to return only in the middle of next month. Don’t forget that he cannot leave when he wishes. He needs to leave Germany in our submarine without arousing any suspicion and away from prying eyes. If you consider this delay, I can hazard a guess that he will reach here only by the twentieth of next month. Given this, I suggest the first of March as the launch date. I am sure my English and American friends will not approach the end of their old age by then.

Wilson: Kline, if you want to put it like that, let me tell you that I am confident I will not die before I’m a hundred years old! But let us not dwell on such matters. What is important is that the first voyage has been postponed to the first of March. Dennis, I hope you are in agreement.

Dennis: Wilson, we may be older and grey-haired, but when it comes to subjects in which Kline is an expert, with more experience in such matters, I think it is advisable to listen to him regardless of his age.

Prof. Du Bois: It is settled then. Now about the second matter. Who will be the fortunate travellers in the first voyage of our space-plane? I think it should be one among the four of us. Five if you include Loben. For a voyage as important as this, I don’t think we should consider the workers and complicate matters.

Dr. Kline: That is correct. They are not qualified enough. It is also futile to consider Loben for this task. He is the only one amongst us who can keep the base supplied with all essentials covertly. Wilson and Dennis are very old. That leaves Prof. Du Bois and myself. Furthermore, both of us are willing to take the life-threatening risk.

Prof. Du Bois: This is an excellent suggestion!

Wilson: No! This will surely not do. When people like me are around, who have lived their life, it is not right to put the life of a talented young man like you at risk.

Dennis: There is merit in what Wilson is saying. At the end of the day, only two people get to go. Instead of nominating people, selecting candidates from amongst us and debating them, why not leave it to each one’s luck?

Dr. Kline: Leave it to chance? What you mean by that?

Dennis: What if we draw lots?

Dr. Kline: Looks like our dear friend here hasn’t forgotten his horse-racing and gambling days. But fine, let us do as he suggests and draw lots.

(Once this was decided, each person’s name was written on a separate piece of paper and two such chits drawn).

Wilson: John Dennis and Dr. Kline!

The place broke into a happy uproar. Dr. Kline and Dennis were wholeheartedly cheered. The reason? Fate had chosen them to be the lucky ones to undertake a journey like no other. One was a youngster, the other an old man. Everyone on the island base came and congratulated them. But of the two, it was Dr. Kline who people had faith in and trusted more. He was an extraordinary person. “He will bring glory to the inhabitants of Earth”, they said.

But who is this person who will bring glory to the inhabitants of Earth? Such a question will naturally arise in the minds of the readers. What adventure is he embarking on? What new exploits await him? Surely they are curious to know the answer to these questions.

Dr. Kline and Loben are two young men from Germany. Being of the same age, they were in the same class since childhood and were thick as thieves, the best of friends. After finishing his education, Dr. Kline started a research centre in Berlin city. His friend, Loben also joined him there. From the beginning, they were both driven to make new discoveries and invent things. They did not have any one direction or a particular field in which they wanted to conduct research or a singular point from which to begin their research. All they knew was that they will dedicate their life to science and discovering new things. The bonds of their friendship were strong. Neither Dr. Kline’s extreme wealth not Loben’s lack of money got in the way. Dr. Kline never let his wealth go to his head. He is now nearing thirty years of age. After all these years, there is no fear that he will let his financial position change him. Whatever is mine is Loben’s too and whatever we get belongs to both of us. This was what he believed, making their friendship firmer.

One or two years after establishing the research centre, both Dr. Kline and Loben found themselves curious to know more about the planet Mercury. It was fortunate that Dr. Kline had spent the latter part of his higher education studying astronomy. At the same time, people were also getting interested in Mercury. Some had even decided that a similar earth-like society existed there. One day when they were together, Loben asked Dr. Kline, “What do you think of studying about and researching into Mercury?”

“What do we stand to gain by just doing research? What do we care what Mercury is like? If you are interested in going there, then let me know. Let us go to Mercury together!” replied Dr. Kline in jest.

The joke took root in Loben’s mind and soon became a personal mission. Loben started researching widely and deeply about Mercury; collecting any and all information and experiences about the planet from all the sources he could find. 

One fine day he went to Dr. Kline. “Look at all this. The result of my extensive research. My part of the job is done. The rest is up to you. To come up with a way of getting to Mercury is your responsibility. You know much more about electricity and other things than I do. Why not put it to good use?” said Loben. “I concur”, Dr. Kline replied with a nod. But who would assist him in this project, where would he find such people he wondered. The thought of a secret location far from any human habitation where they could start and finish this project as desired also crossed his mind.

A few months later, there was an international scientific conference held in Germany. Scientists, research students and inventors from across the world were expected to attend this prestigious event. I should make good use of this opportunity thought Kline. And so he did. Among the people who had come to attend the conference were the aforementioned Prof. Du Bois, an aviation expert from Paris city, and Edmund Wilson from the United States of America.

After the conference was over, Kline invited both of them to his research centre. He spoke to them about the project and asked them many questions and once he was convinced that they would be ideal members for the team he decided that he should join hands with them to complete the project. Of the two, Du Bois was not just an expert in aviation systems but also adept in avionics. But like Loben, he was a man of limited means. On the other hand, Wilson – while not a scientist – was the son of the richest man in America. This meeting ended with all of them forming a secret group.

The next matter at hand was about finding a suitable location for their base of operations. In a time of economic and political turmoil, it was not feasible for the base to be set up in any of their own countries, be it Germany, France or America. At this juncture, an Englishman called John Dennis came to their aid. 

Dennis was an explorer. He was also the brother of Wilson’s wife and it was natural that they would be on good terms with one another. As soon as the meeting was over, Wilson contacted Dennis at his residence in Glasgow city and asked him to come to Berlin city. Dennis arrived soon after and it can be stated that the place that they were looking for came about as a result of his explorations. Due to some reasons, Dennis had not disclosed its location to any person or any periodical. A big island in the middle of the ocean which had not yet caught the eye of any country or other explorers. Dennis laid down a condition that he should be made a part of the secret group if he was to disclose the island’s co-ordinates, and so he was accepted into their circle.

It was thus that this group of inventors and adventurers came to be. The conversation that we were privy to at the beginning of this story took place six years after the secret island base was established. Since then, everyone in the group had lived on the island itself, readying for a great new adventure. The story was circulated that they were all deceased – except for Loben – as the result of an airplane crash. Only Loben now lived in Germany, making sure he kept the island base supplied with everything that its inhabitants needed, and then too in secret using a submarine. The only person from the outside world who was aware of this group and the goings-on in the island was Loben.

A few words on what this group achieved in the past six years are in order.

Their greatest accomplishment since they embarked on their project was the construction of a vessel capable of travelling to Mercury, a modern space-plane. It was completely new in all aspects, a model unlike anything that existed. It was an inter-planetary craft that could generate its own electricity in the vacuum of outer space and use that to power itself. It could however only seat two occupants. There was just enough room to accommodate the occupants and a month’s supply of all the things they would need during their journey.

The other object that they created was the Light-o-Phone mentioned earlier. This little device had three main parts: a ‘composer’, a ‘writer’ and a ‘speaker’. The ‘speaker’ component had a powerful light source through which messages could be transmitted. The light from this lamp is capable of travelling up to a million miles across space. However, this light is on a spectrum invisible to the human eye. If you are within a few miles of this transmitted message with another Light-o-Phone in your possession, then the ‘writer’ of your device – which contains a strange new type of mirror – will reflect the message for you to read. No matter how distant, using the Light-o-Phone it is possible to carry out a conversation using light itself, almost instantaneously. Until Loben returns to the island, along with the components required to complete this device, journeying to Mercury is out of the question for a simple reason: If the space travellers do reach Mercury, should there not be a way for them to communicate with the group back on Earth?

What an impossible, astounding adventure this is! But hasn’t the desire for name, fame and glory made people embark on equally impossible voyages?


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