In India, an ever-growing group of writers is in perpetual search of the bestselling template. And yet, when it comes to fantasy, none of them appears to have latched on to the Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, or even the Harry Potter models.
Instead, there is the METOO model. Mythological Epics Told Over and Over.
Same old, same older
How to explain this? Is it a love of mythology and its retellings? Do writers with one eye on the book box-office and the other on middle India feel that the post-Amish wave is far from waning, and that therefore they should ride it as long as they possibly can? Just scan the books shelved under Indian fantasy fiction!
Nor is this just a trend with books. It’s repeated on television, in films and in comics. Says Samit Basu, writer of the non-mythological fantasy series, the Game World trilogy, “We’re paying the price in every medium for giving audiences dumbed-down repetition to the point where anything else terrifies them and the best example of this is Indian television.”
After all, who needs orcs or white walkers or dragons – derivative in their own way, of course –when a heavily made-up Icchadhari Naagin (a shape-shifting serpent) and her ilk can do a better job! “You could do a lot of exciting work in this space (non-mythology based fantasy fiction), but there’s every incentive to be as self-censoring, bland and safe as possible,” adds Basu.
The inside story: Indian writers are told by publishers to base their stories around the time of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, or, at least, have some references to these epics by way of plot, characters and names. Why? One answer is that bookshops prefer to display titles that have a perennial cache – and anything relating to the Indian epics fits into that category. Which in turn is because such novels often make readers out of non-readers.
My uncle, who has never read a novel in his entire life, came to me the other day brandishing a copy of Amish’s Scion of Ikshvaku. “Your first novel, uncle, will you be able to get through this?” I asked him. “Of course,” he answered, cheerfully, “aren’t these the stories I grew up with?”
What readers (don’t) want
Admittedly, there have been innovations and experiments even within the limiting framework of retelling the epics. The feminist point of view has been captured through the eyes of Draupadi (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions) or Lakshman’s wife Urmila (Kavita Kane’s Sita’s Sister), and the political, through narratives about Krishna (Krishna Udayasankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles). The stories have been told in graphic novel format (Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva), tweets (Chindu Sreedharan’s Epic Retold) | Twitter) and modern-day contextualisation (Sandipan Deb’s The Last War). There have also been efforts to meld the fantasy genre of the West to the epics, as Ashok Banker did in his versions of both the major epics.
But the fact is that it is the racy retelling in straightforward form and mostly pedestrian language that keeps hitting the shelves as publishers scramble to build their healthy religious epic portfolios. “Mythologies help people understand who they are and explore their past. What could be better than that?” says Amish.
This probably explains why neither readers nor, by extension, writers are looking beyond the epics. Perhaps our question, framed in terms of fantasy literature, is wrong. For, both reader and writer in this case look upon mythological fiction as some form of a history they believe in, whether or not the events actually took place in the real world.
Deconstructing the market, Amish explains that many Indians have grown up listening to tales and folklores. So, these aren’t mere stories for them. Nor are the characters meant purely to provide entertainment. “Most Indians believe in the god Shiva, and pray to him, perhaps look at him to give them power when they need it, which is quite unlike how it is in the West. People might love listening to stories about Thor and Odin and yet not pray to them!”
So, the publishing logic is that readerships in the West and in India are distinct. Do readers agree? Answers Aditi Saha, who is an avid reader, blogger and a fantasy aficionado, “In the West, the fantasy genre is really evolved, and publishers work very hard to market and promote these books so as to generate readers’ interest.” But why can’t that be the case for India too? Saha’s hypothesis: even if Indian writers came up with non-mythology based fantasy fiction, it wouldn’t seem authentic and thus might not be accepted by readers here.
When will “epic” mean fabulous and not the Ramayana and Mahabharata?
Does this mean Indian fantasy writing will largely stick to mythology? Writer Ravi Subramanian thinks not. “Just like Amish made waves with his Shiva trilogy, someone will come along and break new ground in this territory,” he says. Basu agrees, but warns that it’s not imminent. Something like Game of Thrones is the result of continuous evolution and mutual reinforcement between audience and creator over decades, he argues. “We’re going to see the scene change in India as well, but it will be many decades before we produce something of that quality.”
That’s the view from the publisher’s side of the table too. Says Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO, Westland, “In the West there is a lot of crossover with science fiction, a genre almost absent here, resulting in a wide variety of themes and stories. As the genre evolves in India we will see the emergence of stories that don’t seem totally inspired by myth or history.”
Of course, all this takes the classic historicist’s view, which says that every process has to go through a certain journey. But as we know, the most exciting things in literature come out of outrageous personal creativity that busts trends rather than follow them. Or else, we may have to wait forever.