The furtive rise of Indian speculative fiction

in Fact & Opinion

Almost surreptitiously, Indian fantasy and science fiction have made their own niche in Indian English.

by Shweta Taneja

Four years ago when HarperCollins published my urban fantasy novel Cult of Chaos – An Anantya Tantrist Mystery (2015), I was at a premium educational institute, the Indian Institute of Technology (Kanpur), talking to students.

At the institute, in conversation with a writing club, when I asked them about science fiction, most of them came up with names of American SF authors.

My editor requested me to make a video for the upcoming HarperCollins sales conference to explain what the genre of this novel was. The series, Anantya Tantrist Mysteries, is about a female occult detective, who solves supernatural crime in Delhi. A very competitive sub-genre of fantasy – the urban occult.

I cycled through the breezy campus and found myself in a professor’s office at the Computer Science department trying to angle my MacBook to make sure the background was filled with academic books. “It’s like Sherlock Holmes solving supernatural crime,” I exclaimed into the camera, trying to make eye contact with booksellers through the little black dot on the silver body of my laptop.

My aim was to make them avoid the one thing that gives heebie-jeebies of nightmares to every fantasy author: A deep-seated fear that your novel will end up either in the Indian Writing or Mythology shelf in bookstores.

For those who don’t know, and most people don’t outside of the country, Indian Mythology is a vast genre of rewrites of Hindu mythology – part of the living culture that most Indians grow up with. Most of us have heard and read these stories as children and we continue to re-read the same tales, set in the mytho-religious fantasy worlds written in Hindu epics.

It’s tricky to differentiate any other fantasy from Indian mythology as mythology is a sub-set of the fantasy genre, defined as a world where supernatural creatures, be it monsters or gods, actively involve themselves in human affairs; a world that uses magic or other supernatural elements in its theme or setting; a world where dragons, fairies, rakshasas, pretas, ghosts, are all real.

Squeezed somewhere between the Religion and Spiritual shelves, the rewritten, re-interpreted mass of Indian Mythology had already exploded by early 2000s, and was giving serious competition to the other bestselling genre in the Indian English writing: Romance. Youngsters, traditionalists and booksellers alike could be seen totting novels like the Shiva Trilogy by Amish (2010-2013), Asura by Anand Neelkanthan (2012), the Ramayana series by Ashok Banker (2003-2006) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions (2008), among many, a lot many, others.

It didn’t help the poor booksellers that most of us fantasy writers, yours truly included, remain genre-switchers, smoothly interchanging between Hindu mythology and fantasy, thriller and horror, non-fiction and science fiction, with the maneuvering trick of writers who have grown up with manifold versions of the same tale.

The thought of seeing Anantya Tantrist Mysteries paired with Mythology retellings gave me palpitations through many nights, making me wake up in the middle of darkness, gasping as I tried to bite onto the real horror of a writer’s life: The Wrong Genre Shelf. Many a times, the green-eyed monster in me eyed the coveted Fantasy section in bookstores, be that Petrificus Totalus with reprints of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), Lord of The Rings (1954-1955), the Harry Potter series (1997-2007), A Song of Fire and Ice (1996-) and recently, international bestsellers like the Percy Jackson series (2005-) and The Hunger Games (2008-2010). I had to somehow make bookstore owners understand the subgenre I was writing in: the Occult Detective Fantasy. Hence the desperate video attempt of the Sherlock-supernatural variety.

Internationally, Occult Detective Fantasy wasn’t an uncharted subgenre. The whole plot structure of an occult detective dealing with the supernatural underworld of her city was thriving enough for some literary agents to actively look for it and for some to discard it as they’d been submitted too many of these “occult detective types”. Urban human-ish occult detectives with a problematic personal life had invaded sub-genres ranging from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. Notable examples included vampire hunter Anita Blake series by Laurell K Hamilton (1993-ongoing) and The Dresden Files (2000-ongoing) by Jim Butcher from the point of view of a private investigator and wizard based in Chicago. Indian author Mainik Dhar’s anti-hero zombie hunter Alice in Alice In Deadland series (2011-2012) also deserve mention.

Even fantasy and science fiction had been around, though the genres were not recognized in their own right, placed politely in the other category that gave me nightmares – Indian Writing – a generic mass of a bookshelf (now an Amazon sub-category as well) that means English writing by Indian writers. It had been more than a decade since the owner of a now defunct bookstore had introduced me to Samit Basu’s brilliant GameWorld Trilogy (2004-2007), a rollicking parody of the traditional fantasy hero with pop cultural references and a liberal use of both eastern and western myths. Others included short stories by Vandana Singh and Anil Menon; the surreal The Wildings series by Nilanjana Roy (2012-2013) and the fantastical genre-defying The Calcutta Chromosome (1995) by Amitav Ghosh which won the Arthur C Clarke award in 1997. Other than my novel, the year 2015 also saw Manjula Padmanabhan’s The Island of Lost Girls (2015) and Half of What I Say by Anil Menon (2015), dystopian visions swimming between fantasy, gender and science fiction.

All these writers of high, urban and literary fantasy however were completely overshadowed and overwhelmed by the big brother of fantasy, the epic variety, variously placed, according to one’s religious beliefs, exposure and the narrative style, in the literary, history, non-fiction, religion and fiction shelves: Mythology with a capital ‘M’.  

That however, my friends, was four years ago. Long in the annals of history as book trends go. A shelf, carrying the metaphor forward, needs more books, more variety to make it a concrete genre in any language. Just a few months before the third in Anantya Tantrist Mysteries, The Rakta Queen (2018) was released, I stood browsing at the newly opened, rather glistening Blossoms Book House in Bangalore and saw a section, a shelf if you will, dedicated to Indian fantasy and science fiction. Oh, yes. You heard that right.

We, the Indian fantasy and SF writers, have our own shelf now. All thanks to the explosion of debutants in the last couple of years. Sukanya Venkataraghavan released Dark Things (2016), a fantastical romance with a yakshi anti-heroine who faces her own goddess’s wrath over a mortal. Indra Das came up with his literary masterpiece and award-winning The Devourers (2016), a lyrical shape-shifter tale. Mythological writers turned to fantasy too: Krishna Udayasankar brought out Immortal (2016) turning the villainous mythological character Ashvathama into a historian professor while Anuja Chandramouli played with an urban fantasy by turning her world-saving human protagonist Agni in Yama’s Lieutenant (2016).

The year 2017 saw Tashan Mehta’s The Liar’s Weave, a play on magic realism with a protagonist who can change reality with lies; Krishna Trilok’s epic fantasy Sharikrida,a bloody fantasy set in India’s broken future; and the supernatural thriller The Demon Hunter of Chottanikara by SV Sujatha. Other than my book, Achala Upendran debuted her The Sultanpur Chronicles: Shadowed City about a empire set during the Human-Rakshasa wars. The year 2018 was also the year of anthologies with Vandana Singh’s short stories in Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories and The Best Asian Speculative Fiction with a collection of stories from the Indian subcontinent. The two books in 2019 I can’t wait to get my hands on include the upcoming anthology by Hachette, Magical Women, which a collection of fantasy written by female authors and Gun Island, a climate fiction novel by acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh. Oh yes, speculative fiction in India has been brought back to life, with its own shelf life. Excuse the pun.

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Bio

Shweta Taneja is a bestselling speculative fiction author from India. With seven published novels, she is a leading voice in feminist science fiction and fantasy, most known for her series, Anantya Tantrist Mysteries, which will be soon adapted to the big screen. Her short story, The Daughter That Bleeds has been awarded the Editor’s Choice Award and is published in the recently released anthology The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018. It has also been translated in Romanian, French and Dutch. She’s a Charles Wallace fellow and her graphic novel Krishna Defender of Dharma in a Must-Read for government schools in India. Shweta prolifically voices her passion for Indian, feminist and diverse science fiction and fantasy. She has given talks at Cartoon Museum London, Eurocon 2018 and will be talking about SFF in the upcoming FedCon in Germany. Find her most places online with her handle @shwetawrites

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