“Acts of God” by Kanan Gill

Kanan Gill Kanan Gill

Apocalypse narratives from the West tend to relate to the end of the whole world, rather than just a region or a country. Aliens, climate change, zombies, nuclear wars—the scale of these narratives is global. When Indian voices do come to these themes, they more often than not come across as very rooted in Indian geography and history. Therefore, Indian comedian Kanan Gill’s Acts of God will surprise those who hold Indian sci-fi as relevant to Indian history or its postcolonial context alone, for Gill’s debut novel comes with a sensibility with potential appeal to global readers of science fiction.

As the novel opens, supercomputing institutes all around the world—Japan, Denmark, and India—are being reduced to ruins. Dr K (Krishna, a reference to the Hindu God, who is the Preserver of the Universe in the Hindu Trinity), a species of Genius Category 3, plays God. His objective: to create and meddle with the affairs of the Lower Realities or simulations of the world. Detective P Manjunath and his assistant, Heng, always spot that something is off in every simulation and intervene. How this cycle gets stopped once and for all (if it does) is for the readers to find out with a lot of hard work.

 

Acts of God, Kanan Gill ( ‎ HarperCollins India, January 2024)
Acts of God, Kanan Gill (HarperCollins India, January 2024)

That’s right: Gill keeps readers on their toes with a quiz and other forms of Q&A, promising them answers at the end of the book, asking them not to look at them in advance, and yet fooling them at the end of the story. A snippet from “Exercise 10.1”:

 

People fundamental to the functioning of a Lower Reality are called ____.
Do you think you are attractive? _______ (Yes/No/Sometimes)
Can a simulation be fast-forwarded until a certain time (before halting of course)? ______ (Yes/No/Duh).
The Chief of the Authority is called the Chief. (This one comes pre-solved).

 

The hard work required from the reader also involves adapting to different moods and flavors of writing. Chapters are logs, logging programs created by Dr K:

 

-b: Brief
-v: Verbose
-d: Dramatic
-ld: Less dramatic
-c: Comedic (broken)
– e: Experimental (broken, but this could be intentional)
-o: List options

 

and come with iteration identifiers:

 

~Log –ld
LESS DRAMATICALLY:
ITERATION ZECY889

 

The simulation and the “real” time and space of the story alone are not what the readers will have to juggle as they put different pieces of the story together. The novel is peppered with a series of self-reflexive moments echoing one of the times in which postmodern writing that drew attention to the act of writing was quite a thing:

 

‘Did you hear our whole conversation?’ asked Heng.
      ‘Just the last paragraph,’ said the backpacker.
      ‘Good evening.’ Manjunath smiled, his knitted brow coming undone at the welcome change of conversation texture.
      ‘You think of conversations in terms of paragraphs?’ asked Heng.
      She grinned chipped piano keys at them. ‘I’m a writer, baby. Paragraphs are everywhere. Everything is paragraphs. Don’t you think it’s the smallest unit of meaning? Every thought a paragraph, every expression of love, every chunk of derision, every act of graffiti a paragraph. A word by itself just means what the word means, but a single word paragraph? Oof.’
      Heng looked from one to another rapidly, like a windsock in a whirlpool.
      Manjunath and the writer grinned at each other. ‘You wake up with a lot of lucidity,’ he said. ‘Waking up and stating one of your core principles right away, I can’t do that. I mostly just yawn.’
‘Hazards of the job,’ said the writer sadly. ‘If you have principles, you don’t need a story.’

 

Perhaps such episodes constitute individual moments of sanity in the novel. The book cannot be consumed as a whole. There is no plot, as the “allergen warning” to the novel declares. The medley that the book is – with the logs, the simulations, the events that turn Dr K into a destructive maniac, the aliens, the spiritual wisdom about life and suffering thrown together in one novel – requires the novel to be punctuated with such moments. These moments are also organic to Gill’s vision of producing a work that has a sense of play rather than a core meaning.

Acts of God is very likely to be overshadowed by Gill’s reputation as a comedian, with readers expecting the book to be as sane, as clean, and as entertaining as his humor, and instead finding something so messed up in terms of structure and meaning in the sense of resisting easy consumption of his stand-up act. But it ought to be seen as an independent act in itself, clever and erudite.


Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.