Tell me about the inception of this story. Is this familiar territory or were you exploring something new?
India is like an alternate reality where religiosity and liberalism live side by side, often uneasily. You walk down a row of shining skyscrapers that wouldn’t be out of place in New York or London, turn a corner, and suddenly come upon an overhanging tree with a shrine embedded into its trunk, or a cross marking the spot where a martyr fell centuries ago, or a saffron coloured Lingam (a phallic stone object representing Shiva), and it wouldn’t be unusual to see a person in a $2,000 suit get out of a chauffeur-driven Bentley and offer prayers on that spot, even at the cost of obstructing traffic. The more India develops economically, the more backward it seems to regress religiously. Right now, the country is at a crossroads where the privileged majority community (Hindu, upper caste, upper class) openly links its faith with its political and business ambitions. It’s a truck careering out of control at full speed into a jam-packed marketplace. I’m trying to capture some aspects of this essential contradiction and conflict through speculative fiction. I guess you could say that this is one such attempt. I’ve known people like the protagonist who will visit India for the first time in their lives and suddenly be transformed by such a “darshan” (an encounter with the deity). As a person without a religious bone in my body, this dichotomy fascinates me. As a fantasy writer, all I can do is attempt to take a fictional snapshot of this mindset, with my own imaginative devices.
I loved the way the language shifted as Harry became Hari. Did this story reference any religious or cultural elements that informed the nuances of this story? Something readers would have to know in order to really “get” it?
Thank you! You can know everything about India and still be boggled every day by new discoveries. The deity is completely fictional, a creation of my own imagination based on the sheer variety and diversity of gods in India. Did you know there are over 33,000 gods, most of them avatars, amsas, or different forms of a handful of gods? It’s the only country I know of where you can invent your own personal version of a deity, or even make one up from whole cloth, and start worshipping that deity, build temples to it, and gather a following. One famous example is the Indian film Jai Santoshi Maa, which portrayed a fictional goddess that audiences began to worship after the film’s success. People build shrines to movie stars, to celebrities, to anything and anyone that moves them powerfully. My Devi is an amalgam of several variations of the 1,001 forms of the Goddess as described in the Sanskrit scripture named Devi Sahasranama. But let me stress again, she is completely fictional!
You have your hand in so many styles of writing—journalism, screenplays, and several genres in fiction. Do you prefer one kind of project over another? Has writing in one mode changed the way you approach stories in another (for example, the way you’d approach a short story compared to the way you’d approach a screenplay)?
I love writing long immersive stories that run over several volumes and even cross over into other series, which I credit to having discovered Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse novels at a young age. His Corum is also the Erekose, the Eternal Champion, is also Elric the wielder of Stormbringer, is also Count Brass, is also Jerry Cornelius . . . I love stories like that which dovetail one into the other and lead the reader on an endless quest. The journey of reading or writing such long stories is truly the reward! But from time to time, a story pops into my mind, or simply a character and a situation—like the Indian American in this story who returns to his native country for a brief visit and encounters the supernatural unexpectedly—and then I have to tell it. In every case, the story decides its own length, style, and voice. The same goes for genres, medium, and even journalism, which after all, is another kind of storytelling, albeit true stories. I’m happy to serve the stories whenever they call on me, in whatever form! Though in recent years, I’ve begun to focus almost exclusively on long series.
You’re the pioneer of genre fiction in India, and gave rise to the “Mytho” genre. How is that genre changing the landscape of literature in India and abroad? Who are some other authors in that sphere you’d recommend?
Mystery and crime fiction is growing in India, as are a few other genres in fits and starts. But the Mytho or speculative fiction genre is sadly made up entirely of religious fiction. I don’t mean the invocations of mythology in the way that, say, Neil Gaiman or Rick Riordan or even J.K. Rowling write. Indian Mythological fiction is purely retellings of Hindu mythology, retold by a very specific kind of writer (upper caste, upper class Hindus) speaking to their own community, caste and class. In a sense, this kind of literature has always been around in India, since literacy was restricted only to male Brahmins.
Did you know that as recently as a few decades ago—and even today in some parts of India—a non-Hindu like myself would have been severely punished for even daring to recite verses or stories from the Hindu scriptures? The punishment is quite clearly prescribed and followed: boiling oil is to be poured down the mouth of the non-Brahmin male person who dares to commit such a transgression. Even listening to a Brahmin recite the scriptures is punishable by having boiling oil poured into the person’s ears.
Today, India is in the grip of right-wing Hindu Supremacist mania, exemplified by a spate of lynchings and public slaughter of Muslims, Christians, and other minorities. This is the group of people that regards such English-language retellings of the Hindu epics as their own prerogative. When I broke the barrier and became the first person in history to dare to attempt retelling the Hindu scripture Ramayana in English, I hoped my success would embolden other diverse writers to also follow suit. Unfortunately, Indian publishing is dominated by the same religious right wing upper caste/class Hindus, and they weren’t having any of that. If anything, in the past few years, Indian publishing has actually seen a tightening of norms, with many books by non-Hindus like Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty being withdrawn by major publishers (Penguin Random House India in that case) or even unofficially “banned” by the right-wing regime currently in power.
Writers who dared to transgress have been publicly tarred and feathered and made to ride a donkey naked in public (seriously!) or threatened with rape and lynching. Many have been silenced, their families attacked, their property vandalised, books burned. There’s little hope of vibrant, free thinking speculative fiction flourishing in such an environment. The only Indians who seem to be writing or editing speculative fiction even in the US and UK are, predictably, upper caste/class Hindus. We talk about the lack of diversity in publishing in the US, but India is homogenous to the point of inbreeding. All diverse and marginalised voices are either stifled, suppressed or, as in my case, feel compelled to leave the country to seek a more accepting literary environment. I moved to the US with my family in 2015 and have no intention of going back.
The Rise Trilogy is coming soon! What’s going on with that? What’s next for you?
Plenty! Rise As One is with the publisher and I’m thrilled to be with Delacorte and Krista Marino, who are doing such an awesome job with the book. It’s hard to believe it’s releasing a year from now because they seem to have everything in place already! (In India, by contrast, it’s not uncommon for an author to see a finished copy of their book weeks or even months after the official “publication date” and then only in a bookstore, followed by a marketing plan of which even a tenth is rarely implemented. And since the Indian media looks down on promoting books or reviews, it’s common to see book launches written about from the angle of celebrity gossip without mentioning the author or the book itself!) The Rise Trilogy is a fantasy series that I’m very proud of and consider the first book of my US career. My wonderful agent John Cusick and his team at Folio are busy selling foreign rights and negotiating a movie deal, so there’s always something happening on that front.
Then there’s Upon a Burning Throne and The Blind King’s Wrath, the first two books in my Burning Throne epic fantasy series which also starts in late 2018. That comes out under the John Joseph Adams imprint from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Again, I’m incredibly lucky to have been discovered by John, who’s a wonderful person and a great editor. He has a great team too, and they’re very enthusiastic about Burning Throne breaking out as a major new epic fantasy. Fingers crossed!
I also have a middle grade fantasy series in the works, a very ambitious ten-part epic fantasy, and a thriller. All of these five stories I’ve mentioned here push the boundaries on inclusivity, race, and diversity. You could even say that diversity is the fuel that drives the engines of these stories. The Rise Trilogy features and all-female team of lesbian, bisexual, asexual, disabled and transsexual protagonists in an action-packed fantasy adventure that also takes on right wing libertarianism, racism, bigotry and other contemporary issues in a wholly fictional fantasy world inspired by Indian history and politics. Burning Throne features a blind king, his albino brother, the bias and political rejection faced by their transsexual, bisexual, gay, and mixed race children and a despot who is willing to destroy his own nation to pursue the agenda of a foreign power. Sound familiar? Nope, it’s not an allegory of the Trump era! It’s inspired by a famous Indian epic poem, but the differences, not the similarities, are what make it epic fantasy! The middle grade series, my other epic fantasy and thriller, are likewise straddling the razor sharp issues of race, gender, bias, and political Manichaeism.
I’m not here to just write more of the same old. I’m here to write new stories in new ways that deliver every bit of the excitement, action, and thrills of old school epic fantasy, SF, horror, and crime by subverting tropes and genres in ways that haven’t been attempted yet. If I do my job right, all you’ll see is one heckuva good read. The political subversion is the secret sauce that makes it fresh and taste so good, you’ll want to keep coming back for more! Lol.
Thank you for reading!
Spread the word!