by Anveshi Gupta
You dream of a power that could be life-changing; your wish is granted. What do you do? This is the premise on which Samit Basu’s novel, Turbulence, begins. The passengers onboard flight BA 142 from London to Delhi attain powers they only dreamt of—the power that made them more than humans, the power that made them superheroes now. So, Aman Sen, the protagonist becomes a communications manipulator; he gains the power to hack, access, change and delete all information online. And with this new-found ability and his heroic desires, Aman tries to assemble all the other passengers and use their unique powers to make the world a better place to live in. There is Uzma, a Bollywood aspiring British-Pakistani actress who can control everyone by her beauty and charm, and there is Jai Mathur who not only is a one man army and a force to reckon with, but also has the twisted mentality of a power hungry man with an ability to go to any extent to fulfill his dream of ruling this world.
One could easily attempt to write off the novel as a wannabe superhero novel, an aspired endeavor to write an Indian superhuman novel. But, if you care to scratch the surface and delve into the book, the ingenuity of the concept, the originality of the plot, the profundity beneath the seemingly innocuous observations and the sheer brilliance of wit combined with compelling insights, and of humor pitted against epiphanic realizations greet you. In creating a very contemporary, postmodern superhero novel with ample “pop-culture referencing” such as the Marvel comics and movies—X-Men, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, Star Trek and the manga styled kickass action scenes, Basu never losses the plot. His description of the 21st century Indian scenario—its political scandals, its attempt to grapple with terrorism, the Indian Air Force and the F-16s, the growing fundamentalism engulfing people and political parties, is impeccable. And despite the myriad of differently-abled characters, Basu admirably manages not only to personify and individuate each character but to maintain the pace of the novel and sustain the interest of the readers as well.
Consequently, as a reader, you are not only attracted to the glitz and glamour of the pop-cult, but you also dwell on really important questions. Does the desire to do good always produce good ends? Are just noble intentions enough, even when you don’t have the requisite skill and the necessary training to implement and execute them? When you have the power that could potentially destroy the world and make you rule it, albeit with some help from other superheroes, do you still choose to be a hero? And if you do, what are the consequences and damages (collateral or otherwise) that your choices cause? What makes one person a hero and the other a villain? Basu, constantly, questions this apparently clear division between heroism and villainy and suggests that it is actually a very blurry thin line that divides the two. In this Baudrillardian hyper-real world where truth is shaky, where “nothing’s real—not poverty, not the high life, not terrorists, nothing”, where tragedies last for a few seconds until one flicks the remote and changes the channel, what is it that should motivate our actions and to what end? And these are just a few of the many questions that Basu addresses. And it is here, in these little insights which people usually prefer to ignore that the novel truly excels and becomes more than just a simple story of a bunch of humans-turned-superhumans.
Wherein lies the beauty of this novel is its ability to seamlessly oscillate between the trivial and the consequential, to intersperse the enchantment and appeal of superheroes with the thought provoking problems of the real world, to seek to understand the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, without ever assuming the pedantic high-handedness of a third person narrator and to write a story that hits the heart as much as it stimulates the mind.