All of last week, my “feeds” were filled with people reporting their experiences with ChatGPT, Google’s upgraded AI chatbot. The excitement over ChatGPT’s alleged conversational skills suggests we human set a rather low standard for what constitutes a good conversation. The late Joseph Weizenbaum, who wrote ELIZA, one of the earliest conversation-faker programs from the 1960s, liked to recount how his secretary asked him to leave the room the first time she tried out the program.

For me, ChatGPT’s answers gave off that rather sad vibe of a life-lived-by-the-book. It’s the feeling you get when you listen to, say, a free market fanatic or a religious fanatic talk about, well, anything. I asked ChatGPT for the “essence of a story”, and it pretended to type out an answer:

“The essence of a story is its plot, which is the sequence of events that make up the story. These events should be linked together in a logical way and should work to build up to a climax, which is the most exciting or dramatic part of the story. The characters in a story, as well as the setting and the themes, all play a role in the development of the plot and the overall essence of the story. Ultimately, a story is a way for the author to convey a message or idea to the reader, and the plot is the means by which that message is delivered.”

This is indeed the essence, probably, of an average story for an average person. Of course, this isn’t the average metafictional story or the average noveau realism story or the average Oulipo story. But an average story, sure. And that’s the thing really. If I had asked it for a definition of love or heartbreak or a walk on the beach, no doubt ChatGPT would have given me the arithmetic average of these experiences.

To be human however, is to be a little deviant. Your love story or my love story is simply not the average love story. My heartbreak could very well be your comic highlight of the month. On average, we are all pretty weird. “Normal” is just a person you don’t know well enough. ChatGPT doesn’t have a clue.

The stories and poems in this magazine are anything but average. We had to sift through over 800 submissions to pick the final set of twenty. Perhaps one day, very soon, we will be fooled by a story or a poem that has been auto-generated. Would that be so remarkable? Humans are willing to grant humanity to almost anything. Clouds, lightning, floods, animals, shadows moving on a wall. Why not a software program? Consider something far more remarkable. We have authors from all over the world– Russia, the USA, Nigeria, the UK, Botswana, Pakistan and of course, India. As you read their stories and poems, a strange and subtle fire lights up in your mind. Words come to life. Worlds come to light. Surrendering yourself, you are freed of all confinements. You can do far more than chat with the information counter. You can partake in a life itself. There is nothing in the least bit average about any of it. This marvellous technology, this tool of tools, this soul-making engineering, we call it literature.

Welcome to Issue 53 of The Bombay Literary Magazine.

FICTION

POETRY

PHOTO ESSAYS

GRAPHIC FICTION

The perfect tree