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. As her second novel featuring the tantric detective Anantya Tantrist, The Matsya Curse, hits the market, Taneja talks about writing fantasy fiction in India and turning them into detective stories
How did you get into fantasy?
Fantastical worlds and creatures have always fascinated me. 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 many others, that swim in the otherworldly. 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 myself.
Unlike a traditional fantasy series, which focuses on the protagonist’s journey, your heroine, Anantya Tantrist, is matured. 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, each novel 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 immortals 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. So hard research into both tantrism and mythology was necessary. It took me more than a year of reading up on tantriks, creatures in the Indian mythology and developing my plot and characters. I hogged on more than 50 books, travelled, interviewed tantrics, heard real life stories, read up on 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.
In fantasy fiction, the key is how to explain the world the author has created. In Anantya’s case, how easy or difficult it was to tell a story with a protagonist who is almost invulnerable?
In the Anantya mysteries, you go along with Anantya to solve a mystery. There are times when you don’t know everything about a character or a species, since you depend of Anantya’s explanations (and she’s moody. She might or might not explain), but the scene itself is so gripping that you don’t mind not knowing. As a writer, I feel it’s okay to leave your adult readers salivating for more information that fall into the trap of over-explaining. It’s a constant decision between the research and the writer in me and the editor in me on how much explanation to add, and what not to say.
In the book, you introduced so many different creatures/ characters, but we do not learn much about them.
That’s the beauty of writing detective fiction. You get to meet so many new characters as your detective heads from one clue to another. As I writer, I never know who or what you’ll meet at the end of a writing day. With Anantya you meet so many colourful characters from the underworld, from the supernatural and you wonder what happens to them when she’s not around. You seem to have favourites in Siyara, the Kroor tribal who guards the Non-Tantrik department’s offices in Connaught Place and Madhu, the detective with the CBI, who prefers men, and doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s half-rakshasa. Madhu’s character will be explored in the third of the Anantya Tantrist mysteries. However for others, including Siyara, there are no plans yet. But believe me, in the third installment, you will meet so many other new and interesting characters from the rich supernatural world that you’ll be left gasping for more.
In India, fantasy fiction is still struggling. What is your experience?
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 build the whole novel around devadasi myths set in far away 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 it 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. I love how the speculative fiction genre gives you the freedom to embrace the older myths, create new ones of your own, all in the quest to find that elusive truth and show a mirror to ourselves and the society we live in.
Also, how important it is for an Indian fantasy fiction writer to avoid the influences of western high fantasy tropes?
Since every writer is a reader first and understands how to write through the works of other writers, I don’t think a complete avoidance of influences is possible. Any writer however can choose to embrace or reject and rebuild tropes that limit storytelling in a certain genre. That’s the fun of it, really.
Shweta Taneja is a fantasy author, comic writer and journalist based in India. She's written seven books and two hundred articles in a career spanning fourteen years. She's a Charles Wallace India Writing Fellow and was shortlisted for Best Writer Award in ComicCon India for The Skull Rosary. Her graphic novel Krishna Defender of Dharma is part of CBSE and Kendriya Vidyalaya Recommended Lists. Her novels include Ghost Hunters of Kurseong, the bestselling Cult of Chaos an Anantya Tantrist Mystery, and How to Steal a Ghost @ Manipal. You can find her at www.shwetawrites.com.
(A version of the story first appeared in Sakal Times, 7 October 2017.)