Sami Ahmad Khan (SAK): India's speculative fiction is haunted by the undead. Mumbai, for example, is overrun by zombies in Jugal Mody’s Toke and in Ford Brothers' The Dead 2: India. Goa is in the throes of a zombie apocalypse in Raj and DK’s Go Goa Gone. Udhagamandalam, Tamil Nadu is plagued by the undead in Miruthan. Zombies are the metaphorical re-imaginings of our societies others since a “semiotic fecundity” (Lauro) enables them to bear a variety of cultural concerns across contexts. Which variation of the zombie do we have today?
Tonje Andersen (TA): There are monsters under the bed. There are monsters in outer space. And there are monsters at the gate. Welcome to the neoMONSTERS podcast on zombies in India. "The neoMONSTERS within: the others in India's science fiction" is a project at the University of Oslo, Norway. The neoMONSTERS project delves into how India's popular narratives negotiate epistemes of monstrousness and manifest contesting ideologies within the nation's popular imagination. In this episode, Sami Ahmad Khan speaks to Jugal Mody, an author from India.
SAK: Let me quickly introduce our guest today. Jugal Modi is an independent web, design and narrative consultant. His works are known for their satirical edge and humour. So Jugal, can you tell us about your mantra of storytelling?
Jugal Mody (JM): For me storytelling is all about entertaining people, that's always the prime focus in most of my work.
SAK: So how did this monster novel come about? And what drove you towards the monstrous?
JM: I just wanted to write a comedy. For me it was about writing a legit pop culture comedy. Having always been a fan of stoner movies, it was more like a stoner movie-inspired narrative than a zombie movie inspired narrative.
SAK: I can see what you're getting at. Can you tell us more about what/who is a monster for you and how your plot engages with these monstrosities?
JM: It became about as to what are these guys are afraid, what are my characters afraid of becoming, or happening in their lives. Monsters are basically your fears, your insecurities and other deep and other similar demons you know. That's what drives the monster for me. It's about finding that. Since the beginning of the novel, Danny and Aman are two idiots who are just like sitting around getting stoned, and you have Nikhil and Alok, and his colleague, they are trying to fit in into a job somewhere. So with all of them out there playing the field, what would be their biggest fears? Especially at that age, you know, when you've just like gotten out of college and you don't know what you're doing half the time. So yeah, it was finding out that that fear for them, what brought the monster in that way. I said one definition of monster for me would just be what are you afraid of, what are you ashamed of, what are your insecurities. Shame, fear, anger all incited, you know, strong negative emotions or other unpleasant emotions. So what really are these emotions and what drives them? I think that's what become important, and that's where monsters come from more than any other place.
SAK: This leads me to another question. Why did you write about zombies in specific?
JM: The entire thing was around these kids not wanting to lose their freewill in any way and zombies are the epitome of not really having freewill. Even in the different variations of zombies that you have read or seen somewhere, you lose your consciousness. Your consciousness is gone and you're just like brain-seeking monster. In other versions, you are controlled by a larger thing and even there you don't have any kind of a free will. So it's basically Undead. Somebody without a consciousness might be somebody who doesn't have that same consciousness as you, too. Also, obviously zombies were cool like you know there was a time when there was like a series of zombie things happening and they seemed really exciting. People were experimenting with the idea of zombies a lot starting from around 2005 onwards. The earlier versions of zombies were these terrifying things and then they started doing a lot more with the zombie…like Shaun of the Dead if you remember, towards the end Shaun befriends the zombie. Dealing with your negative emotions is all about befriending the demons inside your head right so that they don't cause further havoc outside.
SAK: Can you tell us about zombie narratives from across the world that you like?
JM: A few representations of zombies that I've liked over a period of time are Shaun of the Dead… Zombieland was another. And there is this particular anime called Helsing that has its own take on zombies as being controlled by a master who's a vampire in some way.
SAK: Talking of which, how likely is a zombie apocalypse? Any tips for surviving the zombie apocalypse?
JM: The actual zombies we see here, the brain loving brain hungry monsters walking around, yeah that's not really happening anytime soon. There are much more violent realities that already exist without the need of that thing.
SAK: Taking a cue from that Jugal, zombies are often seen as manifestations and thus even critiques of consumerist and conformist behaviors and ideologies. Where you think these ideologies and patterns of behavior emanate from?
JM: Most of it comes from inside us… in that way our fears, our insecurities, so if we are able to come talk about Toke…Anil George would represent the thing that Nikhil refuses to become. A middle ground could have been if he and George could have had ice cream together… then maybe the rest of the novel would not have happened.
SAK: This leads me to another very important question. What makes a zombie a zombie?
JM: I feel like becoming a monster requires free will to a certain extent …and for zombies that's the whole thing…the idea of Free Will doesn't exist for them. I wouldn’t categorize them as monsters… they are definitely something to fear but calling them monsters would not be right. The other reason why I wouldn't call them monsters is that one man's monster is another man's God.
SAK: So a lot of zombie narratives are propelled by a cause/cure dialectic. The cause is what turns the living into the undead and the cure is what can revert them to an earlier living state. What about Toke?
JM: What causes the zombies could be brain implants and what cures them is pot. So it's the ultimate stoner-fantasy, right, like somebody's hijacked my brain and I need to get high! I think they even deliver the secret lab where they are all being built or rather grown, yeah, so they discover the demons there too!
SAK: Talking of demons, what do you think is the future of the undead in Indian speculative fiction, especially when the mythic and the fantastic imaginaries contour India's cultural production?
JM: I think there is stuff happening. Every year there is at least one zombie project being announced but it's going to stay in the fringe. I don't think I see zombies taking off in mainstream for two reasons. Firstly, I think the idea of mainstream has dissolved at this point where there is just so much content being released every week. I think other reason is that zombies are not inherently in our mythology, right, like by our I mean the sub-continental stories. If I'm not wrong, in the popular sub-continental stories we don't have zombies… So by the way the maggot thing actually comes from an actual scientific research…that is how they controlled fire ants in the south America… there is this whole species of fire ants which destroy crops in many ways so what they ended up doing was they ended up zombiefying these fireants...they would infect them in some way and their brains would die but the bodies would keep moving and going around doing things!
SAK: Thank you, Jugal Mody. That was a wonderful conversation. A pleasure to have you with us.
TA: This podcast is part of the neoMONSTERS project. To learn more about the project log on to www.neomonsters.cofutures.org. In the next podcast, Sami will explore even more monsters from India. Monsters of the World, Unite!