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Indian fantasy

Relative Perception

by Brishti Guha

I was discussing philosophy with my teacher over a cup of tea. She had just been telling me that the universe is an illusion. I knew my teacher was wise, but I couldn’t let this pass unchallenged. “Well, professor,” I said, “All my senses attest to this universe being real. What’s more, if we were to poll the smartest of your students, I’m willing to bet that most of them would say the same.”

My teacher sighed. “The trouble with you lot is that you don’t understand the duality between your bodies and your souls. Sure, if you feel your body to be your essence, you will just believe in a single universe. If you ever really internalize the distinction between your body and your soul, you’ll find that the universe is a relative concept. Someone’s universe is exactly what he perceives it to be. Well, it’s difficult for anyone except yogis to really get this.”

“This is getting too abstract for me,” I complained, “since I’m not a yogi. Do what you do best – tell me a story to help me understand.” My teacher was a walking encyclopedia of obscure ancient stories. She agreed to my request, and began relating a tale conjured up from passages of the Tripura Rahasya.

“Long ago, a king named Susen ruled over Bengal. His reign was peaceful and prosperous. Soon, the king became interested in establishing power over  neighboring kingdoms. The accepted way of doing this without a lot of bloodshed was to let a horse loose in the neighboring kingdoms, after proclaiming that if no one caught the horse, the neighboring kings would agree to pay tribute to the king who’d let the horse loose. Susen sent some of his sons, a large army, and a special horse, to accomplish this mission. Everything was going well until the group reached the banks of the Irrawaddy river, where a famous sage, Tangana, had his hermitage. The army passed by without paying their respects to the sage. This angered Tangana’s son, who promptly seized the horse.

The army generals were outraged that an unarmed young hermit should be the first person to challenge them, and soon, Tangana’s son was surrounded by soldiers on all sides except one, where a large hill blocked his path. The next moment, he’d vanished into the hill, taking the horse with him. No one could believe what they’d seen. They kept looking for a secret door into the hill, but no matter how much they pounded on its surface or looked for irregularities, their search was fruitless. They were still puzzling over it when Tangana’s son emerged from the other side of the hill – along with lots of soldiers whom no one had seen before. It didn’t take long for the new army to vanquish Susen’s bemused soldiers, and the skirmish ended with Tangana’s son taking several of Susen’s sons captive. He again vanished into the hill taking his prisoners and the horse with him. Meanwhile, a few survivors managed to make their way to Susen’s kingdom. They gave him a detailed account of what they’d seen.

Worried and mystified, the king deputed his brother Mahasen to visit Tangana’s hermitage, rescue the king’s sons, and retrieve the horse.

When Mahasen reached the hermitage, he found sage Tangana locked deep in a meditative trance. Not wishing to disturb the sage, he stayed there for three days, silently doing homage to him. Tangana’s son noticed this and was happy that the king’s brother was treating his father with such respect. “Please let me know what you would like me to do. If I can help you , I will. And don’t underestimate me – I may be young, but I am a powerful yogi.”

Mahasen said, “If you really want to help me, find a way to wake your father up. I need to speak with him urgently.”

“Five years ago, my father announced that he was going into a trance for the next twelve years. So, he’s not due to wake up for seven more years. But since you’ve asked me for help, I’ll find a yogic way to wake him up.” With that, Tangana’s son closed his eyes and performed a few breath control techniques. His soul left his body and temporarily entered his father’s mind, which it agitated. It then returned to its original body, just as the father started waking up from his trance.

By virtue of his yogic powers, once the father opened his eyes and saw Mahasen, he immediately knew all that had happened with his son and Susen’s army. He gently spoke to his son about the evils of anger, which he called an obstacle to self-realization. “We shouldn’t impede the good work of the king,” he said. “Mahasen has come for his nephews and for the horse. Return them to him.”

Tangana’s son, calmed down by his father’s words, obeyed. He vanished into the hill once more and emerged, bringing Mahasen’s nephews, the horse, and the remaining prisoners of war. Mahasen sent the rest of the party back to the kingdom of Bengal. However, he stayed on in the sage’s hermitage, resolved not to leave until he unraveled the puzzle of the mysterious hill. “Please do me another favor,” he requested the sage. “I would like to know how my nephews and the horse stayed inside that hill for all this time. Our soldiers couldn’t find a way in. And how did your son come out of there with an army of his own?”

Tangana said, “I used to be a king before I got tired of the worldly life and opted for a life of contemplation in this hermitage. I raised my boy alone after my wife, who’d accompanied me, died shortly after giving birth to him. When my son realized I’d been a king, he started hankering after kingship himself. I taught him enough yoga and mind control so that he could create a parallel universe of his own within that hill. It’s got worlds within it, seas stretching to the horizons, lots of lands of different kinds. And my son rules over it. That’s where he kept your nephews and the horse, and that’s also where he got his own soldiers from.”

Mahasen begged Tangana to be allowed to visit this parallel universe. Tangana asked his son to show Mahasen around the worlds he’d created. With that, he retreated into his trance again.

Tangana’s son and Mahasen reached the hill, and Tangana’s son vanished into it. He called to Mahasen to do the same, but Mahasen couldn’t. “This hill doesn’t let ordinary folk in,” said Tangana’s son. “I’ve already promised my father I’ll take you in here, so we need to find a way. You will need to leave your physical body behind, in a hole covered by grass that you’ll find right outside the hill.”

Mahasen didn’t like the idea of casting aside his physical body. It seemed an awful lot like death. Besides, he didn’t know how it was done. Tangana’s son said he’d help him. Asking Mahasen to close his eyes, Tangana’s son transported his own soul into Mahasen’s body. Tangana’s son’s soul separated Mahasen’s dreaming subconscious mind from his physical body, and then re-entered his own body. Casting Mahasen’s sleeping frame into the grass-covered hole he’d mentioned, the sage’s son went into the hill, accompanied by Mahasen’s dreaming mind – an astral projection of sorts.

Astral Mahasen found himself floating about in a dark sky. To his surprise, he didn’t fall. He was reassured by Tangana’s son, who promised to stay by his side. After he’d gathered up his courage, astral Mahasen began to explore this new universe. He noticed that though the sky was dark, it was lit up in places by bizarre constellations. This universe had its own sun and moon. The two of them made a trip to the moon, which astral Mahasen found extremely cold. His teeth began to chatter, and he decided to travel to the sun instead. When he did so, the sun’s rays scorched him completely, and Tangana’s son had to perform a number of exercises on him to cool down the temperature of his astral body. Once he was able to move again, astral Mahasen climbed a mountain and perched on the ledge, with Tangana’s son for company, looking down on the rest of this parallel universe. The sage’s son gave his eyes telescopic powers so that Mahasen was able to see the whole universe in intricate detail. He saw whole worlds before him – island planets separated by churning oceans, planets where the ground was made of gold, some inhabited by demons and elves, others by humans or giants, and some which had a mix of all of these.

He had yet to get his fill of these wondrous sights, when Tangana’s son said they must return to their own universe. “A day in my universe is equivalent to twelve thousand years in the universe we came from,” he said. “We have already been in here a day. It’s high time we returned.” With that, he jumped into the sky, carrying Mahasen’s astral projection, and both emerged from the hill. Tangana’s son recovered Mahasen’s decrepit body from the hole where he’d hidden it, inserted Mahasen’s dreaming soul into it, and woke him up.

When Mahasen opened his eyes, he was shocked to find a very different world from the one he’d lived in all his life. The lands, the trees, the waterways – nothing was the same. Unlike the temples and palaces he was used to, he saw immensely tall buildings of steel and concrete. There were machines flying in the sky. He couldn’t hear any birds.

“Is this a third universe?” he asked Tangana’s son. “This is the same place from which we entered the hill. But twelve thousand years have passed. Your brother’s family and his heirs died out long ago. There are no kings in this land anymore, and the place where your brother had his capital is now in ruins.”

Mahasen spent a long time alternating between shock and sorrow at the passing of all the relatives he knew. He realized he’d never see his own wife or children again. Tangana’s son said to him after some time, “Look, you are in grief because the people you formed bonds with in your own universe have passed. Have you ever thought why you don’t feel sad about the passing of people you’ve seen in your dream universe? Just like your dream world disappears when you wake up, your waking world disappears when you dream. And when you’re in deep sleep, both cease to exist.” With that, he took Mahasen by the hand and led him around the circumference of the hill. “This hill here spans just two and a half miles in circumference, but you saw a whole universe in here. Who’s to say which is illusion and which is reality? As far as you knew, a day had passed, but in the world out here, it’s been twelve thousand years. How do we know which of these is real?”

“Reality and illusion are relative. And so are universes, and time.”

~

Bio:

Brishti Guha has a PhD from Princeton and is an associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. She is an economist in love with weird stories, ancient literature, science fiction, and philosophy. She enjoys translating and her translations from Sanskrit poetry are forthcoming in Ezra and Empty Mirror.

The furtive rise of Indian speculative fiction

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.

~

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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