publishing trends

Indian fantasy writers are creating worlds beyond the epics, but readers must know where to look

A rejoinder to the argument that fantasy writing in the country is over-dependent on the religious epics.

Why haven’t Indian “fantasy” authors latched on to the Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter models, asks this article. The writer then goes on to quote a number of people in support of her hypothesis that “Indian fantasy fiction” is stuck to the epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and that “no one” has broken “new ground” in this field. Instead, the market is sagging under the weight of “METOO” books – an admittedly witty anagram for “Mythological Epics Told Over and Over”.

Only, it’s simply not true. Or, not entirely true. Even a cursory search will show you that Indian fantasy has not been limited to the ethereal realm of METOOs. More than a decade ago, Samit Basu wrote the high-selling The Simoqin Prophecies, simultaneously “epic fantasy” in the tried and tested tradition of Tolkien and irreverent spoof of the genre a la Terry Pratchett. He followed it up with the equally successful The Manticore’s Secret and The Unwaba Revelations, both of which received critical and commercial success.

Nor is Basu alone in his genre. Recent entrants include Shweta Taneja, whose Anantya Tantrist mysteries blend detective fiction with horror and the supernatural. Granted, they do feature mythological beings, but hey, whatcha gonna do? It’s the burden of our heritage.

Indra Das’s The Devourers, more “literary” than many of his fellow fantasy writer’s offerings, tells the generation-spanning tale of werewolves and shapeshifters in Mughal India, following their path of destruction right to the dhabas of modern Calcutta. Sadly, this too features rakshasas, and even an allusion to the shapeshifters’ place in the Hindu pantheon, but, like I said, burden of heritage.

I haven’t even begun to speak of fantasy written in languages other than English, but if you’re very interested, Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, a saga that involves claimants to the Chola throne, war, intrigue and sorcery, is a good contender for post of the Tamil Game of Thrones, never mind the fact that it predates the latter by a couple of decades.

Nation-building

It is true that retailers – more often than publishers – position METOOs under the banner that the West has taught us rightfully belongs to people like Tolkien and his bevy of followers. But to do so is not entirely wrong.

Tolkien’s own project, the first of its kind to achieve any sort of mainstream success in the Western book market and position “fantasy” as a genre, began as a quest to write a national epic for England, in the vein of The Aeneid for Rome or The Faerie Queene for the Elizabethans. The Lord of the Rings, though it is read as a sword and sorcery fantasy today, was born of a desire to create a grand mythological history, something that would edge into the space occupied by King Arthur and his knights. Middle Earth’s geography and cultures have European roots, and even its languages draw on Tolkien’s knowledge of how scripts and tongues had moved into Britain’s borders.

A certain kind of nation-building project has, as a result, existed for a long time in epic fantasy (here I’m excluding the second world fantasies of Harry Potter and the like). Western authors have copied Papa Tolkien for decades (can we call them METOOs – Middle Earth Told Over and Over – as well?). It’s only recently that they’ve moved out of his shadow in any sort of large-scale fashion. As a result, you have the George R R Martins and the Patrick Rothfusses, who seem to make it a personal mission to turn Tolkien’s legacy upside down.

Catching up

Granted, the marketing of the fantasy genre in India is considerably different from its counterpart in the West. It is true that channels abroad are tried and tested, including a multitude of geeky fan websites that exclusively review and discuss developments in the genre. There are imprints and even entire publishing houses dedicated to Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF), and agents and editors who specialise in it as well. On top of which, video and board games, films and TV shows have vastly enlarged the reach of the genre, encouraging more authors to take a stab at building new fictional realms.

But maybe it’s changing in India too, even if slowly. Juggernaut, publisher Chiki Sarkar’s mobile app venture, recently appointed the aforementioned Indra Das consulting SFF editor, and has been putting out short fictions and serialised novels in the genre by Indian talents, writing that notably does not fall into the METOO category. Young writers who grew up reading Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl along with stories from the epics are muscling into the fray, helped by the growing number of websites that devote themselves to publishing SFF stories. The “diverse books” movement in the West is only going to help these authors, with readers both at home and abroad clamouring for fresh content, from a mythos different from Ye Olde Englande under another name.

So, to cry that we may have to wait forever for something other than retellings of epics is not only disrespecting the rich writing that already exists, but also evidence of narrow thinking about where this new writing will be found and what form it will take. After all, Amazon classifications can hardly define literature, and the growth of the fantasy genre, even in the West, has been helped by a multimedia approach.

So, rather than just pick at books, we need to push for more games, more web comics, for movies that will divest rakshasas and naagins of their religious overtones. If there’s one thing that fantasy books teach, its that strength really does lie in pulling together.

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