The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 | Interview with stand-up comic Kanan Gill on his debut novel ‘Acts of God’

The novel tackles big ideas with Gill’s trademark wit and gentle existentialism

Updated - January 18, 2024 01:03 pm IST

Published - January 12, 2024 12:57 pm IST

Kanan Gill is a speaker at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 in Chennai on January 26-27.

Kanan Gill is a speaker at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 in Chennai on January 26-27. | Photo Credit: Natasha Gill

Kanan Gill’s debut novel, Acts of God, is a cool, convivial work of comic sci-fi. Best savoured as a meta-discourse on storytelling — or comedic language (‘A word by itself just means what the word means, but a single word paragraph? Oof’) — the book unfolds in an unspecified future where humanity has blighted itself in nuclear warfare. In this post-apocalyptic post-land, Dr. Krishna, a brilliant but bereaved scientist, is running simulations of the entire universe. His attempts at emulating god were initially noble and exploratory in nature. Of late, though, he’s been checking out of Hotel Sense. The novel tackles big philosophical ideas (and some standard science fiction ones) with the wittiness and gentle existentialism Gill brings to his stand-up routines. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Q: You open the book with quotes from Noam Chomsky and Paul Erdos. What made you pick them?

A: I studied both Chomsky and Erdos in computer science in different contexts and it’s been rattling around in my head for some time. The Chomsky quote — ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ — speaks to the idea of a sentence being grammatically sound yet completely nonsensical, and to me it signals the freedom to use language in any way I wish. A big part of the joy of writing the book was constructing sometimes preposterous sentences. Erdos points to the spooky arbitrariness present in many aspects of physics and mathematics. Some constants hide in our understanding of the universe, almost as if someone put them there. Other than that, I enjoy moments of humour from otherwise ostensibly serious figures.

Q: You grew up in Dehradun in a house garrisoned with books. Could you tell us more about your literary upbringing?

A: As soon as I could read, my sister and I made quick work of The Secret Seven and The Famous Five and Nancy Drew and Perry Mason. All the children in my family have tried to write our own version of The Secret Seven at some point but got no further than describing what food they ate in the club house. I think it was when I first read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that I realised a book could be funny. When I read Catch-22, I realised a book could be insane. I initially gravitated towards comedy and horror as genres. As lasting literary influences, I can count P.G. Wodehouse, Kurt Vonnegut, Edgar Allan Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, Tom Robbins and Douglas Adams.

Q: ‘Acts of God’ has drawn comparison with Douglas Adams. At what age did you first read the ‘Hitchhiker’s’ novels and how did they influence you?

A: It’s an incredibly flattering comparison. I’m not sure it’s entirely deserved. I first read the trilogy in four parts in college and it made my head spin. To me, TheHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the hardest kind of novel to write. Each situation the characters find themselves in is so compelling and bizarre and unique and hilarious that their inner worlds don’t call to be explored. In fact, I always start out desperate to write out-and-out farce, but then it becomes what it has to become.

Q: The simulation theory is rich terrain for sci-fi writers and futurists even if it lacks scientific credence. What’s your take? Is god a computer scientist?

A: It’s a fascinating idea, if somewhat of an untestable hypothesis. I think if we are to hypothesise about what could lie outside our understanding, then simulation theory is an exciting prospect. Personally, I have some doubts that god is a true computer scientist because he hasn’t published the source anywhere. Even though the subject of simulation theory is well-known, I think the more exciting notion than whether everything is a simulation is, why would it be? To what end?

Q: “You can make a shiv out of any ideology.” Can you expand on this line from the novel?

A: The world is full of impossibly cruel people who allegedly subscribe to theologies of peace. The most gentle and kind ways of being are easily co-opted by malicious people for evil ends. So ideas, whatever they may be, burn up on entry into selfish atmospheres. So in the world, as in the book, someone takes a message of gentleness and carves it until they can hurt other people with it.

Q: There’s a beautiful lull halfway through the book, where it becomes a candid meditation on anxiety and fear. You have tackled mental health in your stand-up routines as well.

A: My personal philosophies barge into anything I want to make, stand-up or fiction. It’s almost never the plan, and yet it’s what it ends up becoming. There were many years when I was sinking within myself and searching for some way out, and I think I am now subconsciously compelled to share ideas that have brought me peace. Maybe I write what I need to hear, or maybe I want to make my sales pitch: freedom from suffering is truly possible — now for an attractive price of ₹399!

Q: You and fellow comic Biswa Kalyan Rath went viral with the ‘Pretentious Movie Reviews’ videos back in the day. In Acts of God, there’s a minor character, Dr. Root, who reviews films and works of art under false pretences...

Comedians Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath doing one of their ‘Pretentious Movie Reviews’ routines.

Comedians Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath doing one of their ‘Pretentious Movie Reviews’ routines.

A: Looking back on the book after writing it, I realise every character is an expression of some part of me. Dr. Root, I’ll say, is a more serious and capable film reviewer than we were.

Q: Do you have an idea for a second novel? 

A: I’ve written a novel before Acts of God and another one after. In fact, there are small Easter eggs hinting at both these novels within Acts of God. One is called High Tea and it’s a book about whimsical and mysterious occurrences that take place in a tea estate. The other is an epic fantasy that has ballooned to being impossibly large. I’m rewriting both of these whenever I get free time from everything else.

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