‘I feel fantasy lit is growing rapidly in India’

Dibyajyoti Sarma
Saturday, 7 October 2017

As her second novel featuring the tantric detective Anantya Tantrist, The Matsya Curse, hits the market, Shweta Taneja talks about writing fantasy fiction in India and turning them into detective stories

Is Shweta Taneja India’s answer to JK Rowling? She may well be on her way, though her target readers are more mature, her storytelling more complex and her outlook more feminist. More about the author and her views on fantasy literature...

Like any other child in India, I grew up on a healthy dose of the supernatural, through stories from mythology about divinely apsaras, evil rakshasas, forest-dwelling yakshas and beasts like yalis. As a reader, I began exploring speculative fiction pretty early, reading authors like JRR Tolkien, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, along with many others. However, though all these authors were geniuses of their genres, there was something missing. 

Most of the fantasy fiction I read was inspired by European myths with vampires, fairies, werewolves and zombies at the heart of them. Where were the Indian supernaturals? The rakshasas and the apsaras that I’d grown up with? It was the desire to read a fantasy which had Indo-Asian myths, village folklores at its soul, which felt like it was rooted in our country and culture that led me to write fantasy fiction.

Unlike a traditional fantasy series, which focuses on the protagonist’s journey, the book reads more like a self-contained detective story than a traditional fantasy.  

You’re right. Anantya Tantrist is a 23-year-old tantric detective living an independent, single life in Delhi. She takes on supernatural crime cases and solve them using mantras, potions, sass and magic. She’s a colourful, adventurous, reckless, expletive-spewing, beedi-smoking character who roams the streets of Delhi at night. 

The series has been written in more of detective mysteries style rather than high fantasy. So each adventure sees her facing a case and solving it by the end of the novel. In The Cult of Chaos, she was chasing a black tantric who was killing innocent girls to bring in the God of Chaos. In The Matsya Curse, she fights yet another tantric, who is killing off people in his quest for immortality. 

In the third one I’m currently working on, we see her facing a black magic cult from Banaras, which plays havoc with the tantrics in their quest to destroy the status quo and bring in a ruthless, tantric-powered Indian government.

A large section of the novel is about world building and introducing mythical creatures. What kind of research did you do?

Since it was a fantasy series, I could have made up everything but I wanted my fiction to be a step away from the real. Real enough for tantrics themselves to wonder if Anantya Tantrist lives in Delhi and look her up online. 

I hogged on more than 50 books, travelled, interviewed tantrics, heard real life stories, read up articles on tantric deaths, talked to babas, walked in cemeteries and charnel grounds and understood the dark side of the world that Anantya inhabits. 

Then it was back in my study to develop a plot for the novels and an over-arch for the series. I feel the world and the mythical characters feel much more real in the reader’s minds because of this research I did.

When The Cult of Chaos, the first of Anantya Tantrist mysteries was released in 2014, I had to sit down in front of my laptop and make a video to explain the genre. Instead of using the term ‘fantasy’, I called it a ‘Sherlock Holmes solves supernatural crime’.  

In 2017, I can use the word ‘fantasy’ to both the booksellers and the media and they understand and know the genre. There’s even a dedicated shelf for it in a few bookstores. I feel the genre is growing rapidly in India and being fast populated by both — a dedicated group of writers and a collective of readers who are enjoying these tales.

India has a vast repository of mythical/fantasy tropes. Do you think it may sometimes create a hindrance for an author to build a completely new fantasy world?

I won’t call it a hindrance since speculative fiction gives you complete freedom to step away from tropes (if you so wish) and enter and explore the unknown. In the new science fiction that I’m currently working on for example, I talk about contemporary caste, gender and religion issues through a female character who is a battery for an AI goddess. I’ve built  the whole novel around devadasi myths set in faraway land sometime in future. 

In the case of Anantya Tantrist mysteries, I have woven the vast and rich Indian mythology with our contemporary world to tell the tales. What would apsaras be doing if they were still alive and living in Delhi? What would rakshasas be eating? It was enjoyable to build a world around these questions. So you can see, as a writer, I’ve been enriched by the already rich tradition of mythology and fantasy that swims in our country’s culture.

- Dibyajyoti Sarma

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