The best horror stories are known for their strong openings, tendrils of fright that slither into the cracks of the mind. The opening paragraphs to “Blood Mangoes” are filled with a dark, terrible power, a stark example of innocence daring the shadows and what lies beyond. As a writer, what do you feel makes the best opening for a horror story? What elements are needed to set the mood?
Thank you for those kind words. We’re creatures of flesh and blood, sinew and bone. Bundles of fear and longing, constantly assaulted by anxieties, never more so than in these dark days after the recent election. To be human is to be afraid constantly, if not for yourself at that moment, then for someone you care about deeply. Anyone who’s been a parent, or even a pet owner, or a caregiver, knows constant anxiety. Only the very naive, young and lavishly entitled—or hardcore addicts—live without fear. The most effective horror story captures this sense of constant dread, the anxieties of everyday living, the fear of being victimized by a changing political situation, of being run over while crossing the street, losing a loved one to a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Start with dread. With something real and scary. Put the reader into a specific character or situation, someone facing threat, and if you do it convincingly, you will tap into the reader’s own fears as easily as a dentist taps into the living nerve in that cavity.
This is a chilling, gut-wrenching tale. What inspired you to set these visions into words?
Mumbai is a city of contrasts: most of the city’s twelve million live in filthy slums where, until a decade ago, children sat outdoors, often in the streets, squatting to defecate, while the middle class commuted past their upturned faces to work, and the wealthy looked down from their skyscraper apartments and averted their eyes in disgust. I grew up in a city where we knew which streets to avoid because they were covered with piles of shit. You learned to avoid looking at the children, some even teenagers, squatting right there with their asses hanging in the wind, while traffic breezed by, and middle class kids the same age walked or bused to school. Rain or shine, hot or cold, they would be out there in the streets, shitting, because they had nowhere else to go. Even now, having a toilet inside one’s home is a luxury hundreds of millions of Indians can’t afford.
To me, that’s real-life horror. To be forced to live like that, without even the most basic dignity of defecating or urinating in private, is terrifying. A film like Slumdog Millionaire is a pleasant western fantasy, but the reality is cruel and inescapable. I knew those kids, some of them personally, others more generally. They were the same people who came to clean our toilets, work as maids or servants or cooks in our houses, washed our cars, sold us vegetables, operated the machinery of industry. They were our neighbours in every sense of the word. I began writing horror fiction to capture the terror of everyday life for so many people. Not to capture some cliché “poor India,” but to portray the reality of such people and to show that they were more than just a statistic, they were real human beings, with wants, ambitions, desires, hopes and dreams.
Your “Devi” stories have appeared in a number of genre magazines, each focusing on a different avatar/face of the Devi herself. I was captured by the way you explore Shanti’s relationship with the dark goddess, the devi whose name should never be spoken aloud. Many western readers may not be as familiar with Indian speculative fiction. How would you encourage them to read beyond their borders, to explore the wonders and horrors of diverse voices?
When I began writing speculative fiction around forty years ago—in the 1970s, which is how old a dinosaur I am—the concept of speculative fiction didn’t exist in India. Indian fiction itself didn’t exist. There was no concept of Indian writers writing in English, apart from a tiny OxBridge educated (a local term for Oxford-Cambridge/western-educated Indians) elite. This tiny incestuous group had access to international publishers, agents, grants, nominations, journals. I was never one of those elite, so had no chance of ever being read, heard of, or noticed by anyone who mattered.
I began writing speculative fiction at the age of twelve, finished my first novel at fifteen, and spent years learning that someone like me wasn’t supposed to exist; that I had no place in the country’s literary heritage. The reason gatekeepers existed was precisely to keep people like me out, while only letting in that select elite who came through the right channels, went to the right schools, knew the right people, had the right agents or patrons. Luckily, I didn’t know this, so I used to visit my local USIS Library and British Council Library in downtown Mumbai, read everything I could get my hands on, and ferret out the names of editors and addresses of journals and publishing houses that best matched what I was writing. I would then carefully type up the stories and poems on onionskin paper in professional format (even at the age of twelve, I knew the importance of proper presentation), include the right number of International Reply Coupons and an SASE, and send them off as often as I could afford, which was never as often as I wanted.
I never mentioned my age, which was the smartest thing I did. From the age of fourteen onwards, I began getting responses from American and British editors. Most were form rejections, but there were a surprising number of hand-written notes even then, praising either my writing, or characters, or something about the story or poem. I remember when the literary journal of the University of Texas at Dallas accepted my speculative fiction poems, I was over the moon.
In those days, I was a better poet than short story writer, and my first publications were all poems, all with a dark or horrific bent, published in literary journals in the US and India. In time, I graduated to short fiction and novels, but working full time in advertising, and later television and journalism, made it hard to find the time to write and to keep submitting. Somehow, over the years, a few Devi stories were published in professional and semi-pro magazines.
My first fiction publications were, strangely, in a Hebrew anthology of speculative fiction published from Haifa, Israel, and a German anthology! It was only this year, 2016, at the age of fifty-three, after moving permanently to the US, that I’ve been able to seriously work toward writing and submitting speculative fiction to US markets. So in a sense, I still feel like I’m starting out.
In 2003, when my first epic fantasy series based on Indian mythology was published in India, the publishers and media and critics all said it was the “first” in every way—first speculative fiction in English, first trilogy, first series, first epic fantasy. (Earlier in 1992, I authored what they called “the First Indian crime novels” in English, so I was a repeat offender.) It was only several years after the success of my Ramayana series that Indian publishers began to recognize that Indian writers could write speculative fiction.
This may surprise American readers, but the fact is that Indian publishing lacks diversity. For instance, almost all “fantasy” published in India is based on Hindu mythology, and is written by male, upper caste (Brahmin usually), upper class Indians. Which is ironic, because I thought that by being the first non-Hindu irreligious non-caste writer to write Indian fantasy, I would open the doors for other diverse writers like myself. Boy, was I wrong! Traditionally, the acts of reading and writing in India were reserved only for the priestly class, Brahmins. Until quite recently, any non-Brahmin (like myself) caught writing, reading or even listening to the Hindu scriptures would be punished by having boiling oil poured into our ears, eyes, or on our hands, depending on the offending organ. Several of my first reviews either asked why I was being “permitted” to write work based on Hindu myths, or expressed deep distaste for the mere act of writing such work, or simply ignored my existence altogether.
Even when my books spawned a genre which is now the country’s biggest publishing category, selling millions of copies each year, the major news magazines and dailies continue to ignore my existence, while focusing only on the male, Brahmin writers, which is in keeping with millennia of Hindu casteism. Even the “Indian” writers and editors you hear of in the US all tend to be of the same Brahmanical castes, reflecting the same lack of diversity as in Indian publishing. It’s sad, because there is a wealth of great stories out there waiting to be told, but because of this blind prejudice of casteism, so many of these voices are completely ignored.
For women writers, things are changing in a very tiny way. There is a growing number of women speculative fiction writers, many of whom I’ve blurbed, reviewed, or recommended, who are writing interesting work. It’s a tiny number, but at least the glass ceiling that has successfully kept non-Hindu non-Brahmin speculative fiction writers invisible is being cracked by women writers. To create the best literature, one needs a culture, not just a space. And the more Indian writers of marginalised communities who are published, the richer speculative literature will become. But it’s a struggle, like trying to climb a mountain of glass, and sadly, some of India’s best writers (not just in speculative fiction) remain invisible and unheard only for reasons of religion, class and caste. I’m lucky in that I managed to break out and find success, but I’m the exception that proves the rule, and even now, many major publications in India will never review me, no matter how many millions of copies I sell or how influential I become. That’s the sad reality of casteism in India.
And in case you’re wondering how an editor or journalist would know my caste (or lack of it), it’s simple. All Indian Hindu names are caste-based. The family name of a person clearly marks their caste, or tells you whether they’re upper or lower caste. My surname “Banker” was adopted by my grandfather’s family who married inter-caste and rejected the system, assuming non-caste surnames like “Justice” and “Banker.” Even my first name, Ashok, is a sly allusion by my mother to the ancient Emperor Ashoka, who, though born a Hindu, later converted to Buddhism and was largely responsible for the spread of Buddhism across Asia. I’ve yet to even hear of a lower caste Hindu working in Indian publishing, and almost no individuals from minority or marginalised communities. Old prejudices and bigotry die hard.
You make excellent use of sensory impressions throughout the story: one juicy, ripe, big Alphonso mango; a rhythmic thump-thump chatter-chatter; television antennae that “bristled like the feelers,” the description of the “bowel movement.” How do you think such vivid descriptions affect a reader’s experience of a story?
Thank you! We’re all bags of blood, flesh, shit and piss, easily punctured, constantly leaking. Visceral beings, always aware of our own waste products, bodily fluids, and intakes—In-n-Out pretty much sums up most of our daily existence! I write immersive fiction, putting the reader into the character’s body, and to do that, it’s essential to feel the way they feel, the food they eat, their waste disposal, their physical urges and purges. Eating a ripe, juicy, Alphonso mango is something that in the U.S., you’d do standing over the sink.
In India, it’s a physical, sensual act, and no matter who the person eating the mango, for those moments, they’re just an animal satisfying their physical need. “Blood Mangoes” is a story about fulfilling needs, about people like Shanti and hundreds of millions of other disenfranchised, marginalised people (like myself) who are never given the chance to share the juicy flesh of the Great Indian Dream of wealth, prosperity, and inclusion. It’s as close as she, and most of us, ever come to achieving satisfaction, if only for a few moments.
You are a novelist, a short story writer, a journalist, a poet, and screenwriter. What’s next for Ashok Banker? What new works can eager readers look forward to in 2017?
I’m writing and submitting original speculative fiction, and hopefully more will be published soon. You can expect to see some in Lightspeed—I have three stories coming up! I’m also about to submit a major new epic fantasy series that I hope will be signed up by a major publisher. And also a YA fantasy series with a kick-ass ensemble of ladybro adventurers that I am very excited about and hope will find a home.
Everything I write is dark and diverse and features marginalised characters with high-concept speculative concepts and fast-paced action and adventure, but at its heart, it’s really just about the daily terror of being someone who is invisible to most people in their own homeland. Someone considered less than human, and yet, still, here. Still alive and writing.
Spread the word!