She put on her septifocals and whispered the Drishti mantra. Whenever she does this, the reader knows that there is action round the bend – entertaining action, where the seen and the unseen, the visible and the invisible, collide with scintillating fireworks. In The Rakta Queen, Shweta Taneja weaves the supernatural quite effortlessly, slipping deftly from the gritty real to the magical. Here is how it all begins:
“The streetlight cast a murky gloom on the litter-filled street. A cold wind sighed through the mist, singing ominously. Boneblade in hand, I crouched, back to solid wall, eyes darting, every bit of my drunken body now alert. The gash on my shoulder, which the hound from hell had just chomped on, was already festering, secreting rancid pus.
‘Where be you, Bhairava’s bastard,’ I cried. Meeting an akuli hell-bent on feeding you its hate-venom was a fucking shitty way to end a rather drunken broil at the local pub. But that’s how it had been ever since I’d made a new bestie. Bhairava.”
Anantya, or Anantyavidya, as we find out later, is a 23-year-old occult detective who fights the powers of darkness as she investigates the gory murder of her Kaula tantrik father, Maharishi Amritananda. But this is not the only mystery which she has to unravel. There is much else happening in the visible and invisible worlds, which, as this book seems to be telling us through symbolism, allusions, plotlines, satire and other devices, are really a reflection of each other.
For one, the young of Delhi have been indulging in unstoppable public sex orgies, driven by a power beyond their control. Anantya is employed by the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate this and the trail leads to a secret printing press in Feroz Shah Kotla run by supernatural rat-like creatures called mlechhas.
Who’s persecuting the tantrics?
Much like an intricately structured hardboiled plot, The Rakta Queen weaves many stories which connect with each other as we progress and the mystery at the heart of it all gets thicker and darker still. There are whispers of the rise of the “raktas”, who are out for revenge against tantriks.
As Taneja’s busy plot unfolds before our eyes we come to know that tantriks belong to six clans: the Kaulas, the Vamas, the Panthis, the Aghoris, the Mayaais and the Kapalikas. Some of them use blood or rakta of animals to muster shakti. The aghoris employ skulls while others use the blood and juices of their chandaali slaves to gather the coveted shakti which only females possess.
While Anantya chases the leads in the murder of the Kaula tantrik, a major tantrik convention begins in Delhi where the clans will display their powers to humans and supernaturals (sups) alike at the Tantrik Premier League. Humans of course will be given a mindwipe afterwards to make them forget much of what they see. The venue of this Tantri-Con is the Yamuna flood plains of Delhi.
It’s hard to miss the tongue-in-cheek humour of this book, which often borders on satire. There is gritty dialogue, there is bloodshed and there are good doses of black magic in this powerfully imagined world that is just a bend away from the familiar.
So who are the chandalis?
Things begin to spin out of control when Anantya’s own past comes hovering back as she slips into the innards of a Kaula ashram in Benares where long ago she had been tortured and held captive. Meanwhile we come to know that the senior tantrik was murdered by a chandaali – the most powerful of shakti-holders. But they are supposed to be the gentlest of creatures. Then why did she kill so violently, drinking up the blood and devouring the organs of Maharishi Amritananda? Something is very wrong somewhere and our supernatural sleuth is determined to get at the bottom of all this darkness.
The chandaalis, as the bearer of the coveted shakti, are at the heart of the plot of The Rakta Queen. A twelfth century tantrik Buddhist work, Abhayakara Gupta’s Nispannayogavali, describes an embodied chandaali as being blue in colour and holding a fire-pot in her right hand. Elsewhere in tantrik texts a chandaali is often described as “female energy having the force of fire”.
In Taneja’s novel they are imagined as white skinned with white hair and the receptacle of shakti for which they are farmed and enslaved by tantriks. The underlying narrative of dominance and exploitation of women for personal aggrandisement and power, runs like a subterranean stream in this work, surfacing in scenes like this where a powerful yogini speaks:
“‘You don’t think the Black tantrik and his clan learnt all those tricks on their own?’ she scoffed, twisting her waist so she could pull out the shadows from the far corner of the room, her hands back to weaving. Tantriks don’t know the power women hold. For centuries they’ve butchered us, made us slaves, burnt our temples, forced us to become their consorts, stealing our shakti for their own petty magic. Yet they don’t understand how to wield shakti themselves.’
She glowed again, her fingers continuously weaving now, pulling shadows like bubblegum and then adding to the fabric she had made.”
What about the sups?
It is important to note here that the word chandaali also refers to Dalits or the downtrodden former “untouchables”, just as “mlechha” has connotations of being barbarians, aliens and less civilised. The fictional use of chandaalis as important characters would point to the political engagement of the book.
The quest for “shakti”, which easily translates to power in English, and which drives much of the stories in this novel is obviously what the real world is about, and any serious reader will realise how characters, scenes and the flow of events in this novel are reflections of reality, albeit translated into a magical frame.
The Rakta Queen is based on serious research. Occult enthusiasts will not only find this delightful, but the observations and information presented through this novel could drive them to reading original texts and navigating further into the esoteric practices, rituals and belief systems of what some describe as a subaltern religious tradition, which is, however, not unconnected with mainstream Hinduism.
The effortless dovetailing of the supernatural with the real is what lifts this novel beyond the a-book-a-day fantasies being churned out by commercial presses which seem to be running on autopilot. Comparisons with Harry Potter are hard to avoid. We find an imagination as vivid, and an effortless ability to dig into the occult lore and myths of thousands of years to reinvent characters that come to life as if they were the next person at the bar counter or the burning-ghat.
However, my only grouse with this book is with the population density of the supernatural, daeva and other invisible worlds. We could perhaps do with fewer characters to help us focus even better on the intrigues of the tantriks.
Tantriks in fact hang out at bars of their own, like Bedardi, or elite clubs like Cups and Sorcerers, where the first murder happens. Greed and vice are never in short supply in this supernatural world as it is in the real. We find powerful djinns running a betting syndicate, just as we see dark powers vying for the control of the maya potion which allows supernaturals to change their forms.
And of these supernaturals (or sups) there is no short supply. Dasyus, rakshasas, daityas, nishaads, betaals, thlens and gruhis (dehydrated ghosts sipping on everything from tea to human blood) appear on these pages with unfailing regularity and Anantya has to deal with them using her own magic and shakti.
Where does it all go from here?
The young beedi-smoking sleuth is brilliantly portrayed in this and the previous two books. She moves around in Delhi and Benares, sometimes accompanied by her companions Barby – a pint-sized yakshi – her black cat Angi, and Shukra, who is half asura. She herself is “a human with shakti flowing in her blood”. Mouthing expletives like “shakti’s shit”, which gets more funny and imaginative as we progress through the pages, and with a puff of purple smoke that her scooter Chhotu leaves in its wake, Anantya carries the reader through a busy, many-tentacled, and entertaining plot where, in the end, a revelation and possible death awaits this boneblade-wielding braveheart.
Will she get to the bottom of the mysteries that seem to add up over the pages as she comes face to face with the secret of the Rakta Queen? What awaits our tantrist private eye and will it change her perception about herself? Once hooked, you will definitely seek out the whole series about the exploits of Ms Anantya Tantrist.
The Rakta Queen is a sharp, powerfully imagined, and well-researched fantasy which casts a strong spell. It hypnotises us into believing that the world of sups is right here, throbbing with its own secret life in our midst. Having finished this novel you will look at your surroundings differently – for a few days at least! And for those few days you will always hope that, like Anantya, you could put on your septifocals, and, deploying the power of the Drishti mantra, slip across the border from the visible to the invisible.
The Rakta Queen, Shweta Taneja, HarperCollins.
Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace, Korean Arts Council-InKo (Toji) and Hawthornden Castle Fellow, and the author of four works of fiction. He recently edited The Best Asian Speculative Fiction.