As someone who has to describe her own writing as magic realism, or "um, postcolonial Indian fiction...with monsters!", I always find it heartening when someone writes a piece about fantasy fiction from India. But I was less than thrilled last month when I came across the article Will Indian fantasy writers ever look beyond religious epics?
I disagree this is the question we need to ask, or find answers to. Indian fantasy writers are writing a bunch of different things. Some of them have mythological elements, some don't, and only a few of them are just “Mythological Epics Told Over and Over.”
The writer says she would like more orcs, white walkers and dragons in her fantasy books, and less of icchadhari nagins. She would also like less of Ramayana and Mahabharata retellings. I empathise with the sentiment of being tired of clichés, especially when those clichés make it harder for anything non-clichéd to emerge, but it's hardly a factor unique to the Indian readership.
YA fantasy commentators in the West are tired of sexy vampires. Pretty much everyone is tired of elves, or pseudo-medieval-Europe high fantasy. But there are thousands of books that come out every year which do very little innovation on these clichés, and they sell thousands of copies, because the readers who don’t mind reading about established clichés again and again always outnumber the readers who actively seek variety. It’s not a fact unique to India.
It’s also not true that the themes that lead to those clichés are bad in themselves, and that no innovation is possible in them any more. The pseudo-medieval-Europe high-fantasy setting is as overused in Western fantasy as the epics are in India, but George RR Martin still managed to bring fresh depth and perspective into it.
Yes, there are many retellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but why is all of Indian mythology avoidable? Why is even all of Indian mythology just the Ramayana and the Mahabharata? (I think the icchadhari nagin is a totally cool idea, and I haven’t seen it appear much in books. Give me a minute as I make a note to steal this for a future story. Thank you.)
The thing with fantasy themes is that, usually, they are derived from the folk memory of the culture in which they’re written. It would be very difficult to make a vampire seem at home in a country which does not bury most of its dead. A white walker would be hard to preserve in a climate where corpses rot faster than they freeze.
Even Western fantasy largely follows this logic. Zombies usually enter the US from the south, where Caribbean voodoo practices originally led to their creation. The kaiju always emerges from the Pacific Ocean, where Far East and Japanese folklore originally placed it, and attacks the US from the west coast to be featured in Hollywood movies. Even Count Dracula, the first famous vampire in English literature, was a Transylvanian nobleman, because that’s where that myth comes from.
An instance of pseudo-medieval Indian high fantasy would look like Chandrakanta, just as an instance of pseudo-medieval Arabic high fantasy would obviously be Alif Laila. (You may not like the stories of these TV serials themselves, but that’s what the genre would look like, more or less.) It’s that folk memory that made Chandrakanta and Alif Laila so hugely popular with viewers in the 1990s.
Most of these viewers weren’t familiar with the tropes or traditions of Western fantasy. They didn’t need to be. Indian folk memory is pretty wide, and hardly confined to the major gods or the two major epics. Our grandparents, maids, the paanwallahs down the street all watched these serials, just as we English-medium schoolchildren did, and none of us needed any explanation about what was going on, because those were the tropes we had grown up with. These serials weren’t retellings of myth; they had original storylines that worked within familiar cultural tropes. Game of Thrones has much higher production values (and a comparably higher budget) than Chandrakanta, but in what other ways is it different?
If anything, the usage of South Asian religion, mythology and folk memory in literature is in a unique and complex position, since Hinduism is still a practised religion and philosophy. Are all depictions of the religious themes fantasy? Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva, a visually resplendent graphic novel which explores the philosophical tenets of a section of the Mahabharata, is a work of mythological revisionism – strictly speaking, it should not even be read as fiction. On the other hand, is everything with vaguely old-Indian-sounding words religious? The Aryavarta Chronicles by Krishna Udayasankar is not about the god Krishna, even though the protagonist is called Govinda. The Wordkeepers trilogy by Jash Sen and Vimana by Mainak Dhar are clearly works of fantasy, even though they feature gods and other familiar Indian tropes, because their actions in these stories are new and fictitious, not re-interpretations of their actions in the epics. The Anantya Tantrist series by Shweta Taneja is themed on rival tantrik cultures, and has a well-researched, gritty depiction of misogyny and corruption within them.
And then, there are fantasy books that don’t use mythology at all, like Samit Basu’s novels Turbulence and Resistance, Indra Das’s historical fantasy The Devourers, or the eccentric weird fiction of Kuzhali Manickavel, which mostly depicts contemporary life in the cities and villages of Tamil Nadu. There are probably other writers and books that I don’t know, published on small budgets and never displayed on the bestseller shelves of bookstores.
So, what’s disappointing is that an article that sounds like a commentary on all of Indian fantasy, very quickly becomes an article about bestsellers, and books that are visible on bookstore shelves. The writer isn’t asking why fantasy writers who write about subjects other than mythology don’t sell as well as the ones who do; she’s saying these writers don’t exist. She expresses hope for “outrageous personal creativity that busts trends rather than follow them”, while not acknowledging the writers who have already been doing that, some of them for decades.
Monidipa Mondal, writing fiction as Mimi Mondal, is being published serially by Juggernaut Books for her first fantasy collection, Other People.