How research into tantrism helped me find my mojo

“How much of the tantrism mentioned in this book is true?” a woman asked me at an event. She referred to my fantasy thriller series, Anantya Tantrist Mysteries, which has a tantric detective who fights supernatural crimes and is based in a world where tantric organisations run the supernatural world and liaison with the Indian government.

I opted for that cryptic babu reply: “It’s fiction but it reflects what’s real.”

Frankly, I was rather flattered. Here was a lady who had been in the spiritual business of things, attended congregations in ashrams across the country, was exposed to tantrics of all manners and she wondered aloud if the story, a book that calls itself fantasy fiction mind you, was based on true events or not. A whole year of in-depth research into the world of tantrism had paid off. Kaboom.

When Anantya Tantrist first came into my mind, as an urban fantasy series, I knew the 23-year-old was a tantric detective. After all, if you want to base a story in the Indian occult, the first image that comes to you is of a black choga-wearing villain who have an evil laugh, wears skulls while doing badly choreographed jigs and rituals that involve blood. Tantrics, in other words.

“Be careful,” advised my mother, upon hearing my new topic, “Tantrics can do jaadutona.” Continue reading “How research into tantrism helped me find my mojo”

7 reasons to add burpees to your exercise routine

Burpees are one of the hardest, most intense parts of a workout session. This sweat-inducing, explosive four-step movement involves squatting, thrusting, getting into a plank position and jumping. “It is a full-body exercise that helps develop muscle strength and burn calories,” says Kamal Chhikara, owner and head coach of the Reebok CrossFit Robust gym in Delhi. It engages all the major muscle groups like the arms, chest, quads, glutes, hamstrings and abs.

Our experts list some of the additional benefits. But do remember, if you’re new to exercise in general or 40-plus in age, don’t start it without a trainer—you could get injured.

Good for weight loss

The key to fat loss is keeping the heart rate high long enough to burn stored fat, says Vesna Pericevic Jacob, a fitness expert and founder of fitness centre Vesna’s Alta Celo in Delhi. “The burpee demands all your strength and power, utilizing the muscles from your feet to the neck and shoulders,” she says.

Continue reading “7 reasons to add burpees to your exercise routine”

Photos: Reading at a book crawl on a lazy Sunday

Love the idea of a book crawl, that is a pub crawl but you get drunk on books instead. You move from book store to book store to check out the novels, comics and other things on sale and to hopefully meet readers and people who are part of the love of reading. When Book and Brews approached me with their unique Book Crawl idea and asked me to participate, of course I said yes. This was the first reading I did from Cult of Chaos  and it was nice to see so many turn up on a lazy Sunday afternoon to hear out how I added in a tadka of tantrism into the book. Leaving you all with some photos.

(photos courtesy: Book and Brews, Darshan CG)

Shifting? Get help from a smartphone

Shifting to a new city comes with its own set of hassles. You have to find a place to stay, haggle with apartment owners, disclose personal information like whether you eat meat, stay out late, and how much you earn. Then there’s Wi-Fi, air conditioning, cable TV and other services to take care of. And that’s just the beginning. From getting furniture to figuring out food and modes of transport while handling work in a new city, the process can bog you down completely. We list a few apps that can help ease the transition.

Find a place to stay

Do you eat meat? Are you married? How long do you plan to stay? Save yourself these and other probing questions by simply renting an apartment from an online home rental company like Nestaway (Android, iOS; Nestaway.com). Search a place, visit it, pay a token amount to book it and move in. The house is furnished, with a ready kitchen, appliances and Wi-Fi, so you just need to carry your suitcases. Nestaway is available in Bengaluru, Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR), Hyderabad, Pune and Mumbai. Grabhouse (Android, iOS; Grabhouse.com), a Quickr company, provides services in these areas as well as Kolkata and Chennai. It offers what they call cocoons, aesthetically done apartments. Bengaluru also has the option of RentMyStay (Android; Rentmystay.com), which rents out furnished flats on a daily or weekly basis, for up to 11 months. Continue reading “Shifting? Get help from a smartphone”

The possibilities of the occult in fiction

How does one research into occult? In the climax of Cult of Chaos, the first novel of my tantric fantasy series ‘Anantya Tantrist Mystery’, the protagonist Anantya and her teacher, Dhuma, an aghori who lives in a cemetery, embark on a complex tantric ritual to call upon a charnel goddess, Shamshana Kalika, to the human plane.
The ritual called Shava Sadhana requires Anantya to sit on top of a corpse on a full moon night. I first came across this dramatic ritual in The Calcutta Review Volume XXIV written in 1855. In true Victorian Gothic style, the text explained that the sadhak, or the one who meditates, sits on top of a dead body, preferably a corpse of a chandala who has died a violent death, on a full moon’s night, so as to gain command over impure spirits like danavas, betalas, bhutas, pretas and other paranormal goblins.
While researching this scene, I sat on top of a corpse, all night, in suffocating darkness with Anantya. We touched the cold, clammy flesh of the swollen corpse and we felt blood pounding in our veins and hearts. Sitting on that corpse, waiting to connect with powers beyond the human consciousness, made me realise the ultimate truth of all human lives:
That the day shakti (alternatively meaning energy, prana, life, or soul) stops coursing through our bodies, we will cease to exist and maggots will consume the bodies we call our home. This relationship with death and life, expressed in such a dramatic, dreadfully mesmerising way, stays with me even three years after I wrote it.

Rituals like these are the reason perhaps why tantrism is misunderstood by outsiders.

According to Georg Feuerstein in Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, the verbal root in ‘tantra’, tan, means ‘to expand’, tantu means a thread or a cord. Tantra then is a web, a system, a ritual, a doctrine or compendium that expands jnana or knowledge and wisdom.

In early Vedic times, everything was called a tantra, be it actual sciences like agriculture, cattle-breeding, distillation, iron-smelting or experimental ones like alchemy, medicine, embryology, and physiology. Tantrism was an individual’s quest for science, spirituality and the supernatural. The aim was to attain siddhi, a spiritual quest for liberation, enlightenment, or, in a worldlier sense, a search for extraordinary powers or paranormal abilities.

The power of tantrism lay in its democratisation of knowledge. Anyone, be it lower caste, tribals or women, could become adept at it. This soon led to a conflict with the Vedic philosophy which preferred structure, the varna and patriarchal systems. So tantrism began to form around the other, the subaltern, the negation, the non-Vedic, the one outside social mores.

In a way, this push to the edges of the society freed tantrism as a science of its moral and ethical shackles.

Tantric practitioners, in their quest to understand and be one with prakriti, or nature, pushed the acceptable boundaries using methods that were considered sinful, immoral, shocking, or abnormal by conventional Vedic society. The idea was to shock the human consciousness out of imbibed social behaviours and morals and achieve a state of infancy.

Ritualised sexual intercourse, aphrodisiacs, alcohol and meat, as well as necromantic rituals, eating excreta and drinking urine and blood were included—all symbolising freedom from social habits.

This idea is perhaps best exemplified in the iconography of tantric goddess Chinnamasta, who holds her own severed head in one hand and a scimitar in the other, as she stands on top of a divine copulating couple. Jets of blood spurt from her bleeding neck and are drunk by her severed head and two attendants. In tantrism, blood is a symbol of life. The image, though shocking, implies the goddess nourishing her devotees with her shakti. 

Unable to understand this symbolic, outrageous aspect of tantrism, mainstream society further vilified tantrics, shunning their rites, looking at them with disgust.

Centuries of storytellers, imaginations and half-truths build upon this, till what remained in anyone’s mind when the word ‘tantric’ was whispered was jaadu-tona, black magic, or people who were power hungry, ruthless and inherently evil.

Like the Chinnamasta symbol, actor Amrish Puri exemplifies this modern image of a tantric in movies like Naagin and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. From a scientist or a philosopher, the tantric had turned into a black-choga, rudraksh-wearing black magician, an enemy of society, who hollered and danced in front of a larger-than-life sculpture of goddess Kali, did disgusting blood magic, sacrificed humans and animals and inhabited dark spaces like caves or burial grounds.

Both this occult image and the philosophy that preceded it inspired the ruthless fantasy world that Anantya Tantrist lives in. While the popular imaginations of tantrism provided me with the world of ambitious tantric clans, fighting each other for power, the tantric philosophy of shakti wove itself into the magic-principles of the world.

Everything runs on shakti and tantrism is the science of harvesting that shakti, as Anantya explains, be it through sacrifice, mantras, or through ritualised sex. Fantasy world-building would be empty without supernatural creatures, which I found in the epics, folklores and oral stories of our myth-rich lands. From rakshasas who have the power to turn invisible and move through planes, to dasyus, bat-like creatures who live in caves and yalis who are part lion, part elephant and part something else.

While building the world of my books, I consciously tried to make tantrics part of the mainstream.

Instead of living in secret cults and shadows, tantrics have been announced to the world. They run an efficient system controlling the supernatural population in tandem with the Indian Government and have their own council, police and justice systems.

Because tantrics have all the power, the supernaturals are the new tribals, the subalterns (who are ousted from forests and pushed into underground city ghettos, to live their lives in poverty, and are forced to buy expensive maya potions from tantrics) who hide themselves from humans. The Matsya Curse, the just-released second book of ‘Anantya Tantrist Mystery’, sees a supernatural tribe, the Nishadas, being used to provide immorality to the few rich socialites in Delhi. The supernaturals in the world are the new downtrodden. Them and the women.

The other day, someone messaged me on Facebook, wondering why the protagonist of a tantric fantasy series was a woman.

According to him, tantrics are all males; women can only be channels of shakti for the male. He wasn’t incorrect. Tantric texts, without exception, speak to men urging them to worship women, approach them with reverence, purity and devotion so they can raise themselves to the standard of the female. Some like Sahajiyas even believe that the man should transform himself into a woman. Becoming a woman or one with the supreme woman, Shakti herself, is the ultimate goal for a male tantric. But even though the shakti, the energy or magic, belonged to women, there is no mention of women themselves using it in any of the tantric texts.

In the History of the Tantric Religion, a seminal book written by scholar NN Bhattacharyya, I found an answer which was to tell me more about Anantya and the philosophy she symbolises. ‘Though in modern times, Tantra has become male-dominated, there is reason to believe that once it belonged to the females,’ writes Bhattacharyya. Quoting ancient texts, he redefined the ‘vama’ in ‘vamachara’ to mean not ‘left’, but ‘woman’. From there, much like my detective, I looked out for references and found that every text circumstantially mentioned yoginis, variously named tantra-yoginis, or sadhikas, female shamans or even witches. They stood in the shadows, as spectators to an elaborate tantric ritual, as goddesses being worshipped, as sex-aides to males in their quest for power.

Soon a parallel philosophy emerged, run by powerful educated women, who used tantrism and the shakti within them to aim for higher spiritual quests.

I had found my subaltern, the new tantric, considered an outcaste by even the original outcastes themselves. It was exactly here that my protagonist, Anantya emerged. She is born in Banaras in a conventional tantric ashram, trained in ritualised sex to aide male tantrics attain shakti. She suffers abuse, fights and leaves this limited life choosing to travel into the shadows, embracing the art of occult herself, tapping into the shakti troves within her female body.

In Anantya’s world, as in ours, she’s a threat, an illegal entity, an abnormality. It’s a new conflict, not between Vedic and Tantric philosophy, but an eternal one between prakriti and purush, female and male, yoginis and tantrics that is played out in the third book of the series which I’m currently working on.

A tantric image of Kali sits on my study table, as I write this. In it, Kali, prakriti or nature herself, stands fierce, naked, full breasted, full of life, astride the prostrate dead body of her eternal partner Shiva, the purusha , with ashen skin and an erect penis, infusing the half-dead body with her life or devouring its life, however you wish to see it. The image, which I bought in Kamakhya Devi Temple in Guwahati, reminds me every day of yoginis, female power, deified and suppressed, forgotten by a history written by men, though the dark echo of their presence remains like a smear on human memory.

Somewhat like the forgotten ruin of the Chausath Yogini Temple sitting on top of a hill in Madhya Pradesh which is shaped in the form of a yoni, or vagina. Not much is known about who were the women who worshipped there; the sculptures have been rooted out, replaced by Shivlings. But the temple is said to have inspired the unique circular architecture of the Indian Parliament, the seat of power of men.

 


This column was first published in Open magazine. 

Interview: Sudeshna Shome Ghosh on how to pitch to an editor

If you are a children books author and appreciate editors, you would have heard of Sudeshna Shome Ghosh. A Bangalore-based editor, Sudeshna has worked in the Indian publishing industry for twenty years now. She started her career at Penguin Books India and moved to Rupa Publications and Aleph Book Company thereafter. During this time, she has published authors such as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Ruskin Bond, Sudha Murty, Subroto Bagchi, Derek O’Brien among many others and was responsible for managing Penguin India’s children’s publishing list, Puffin for four years before she started Rupa Publication’s children’s list Red Turtle. Currently, she is a consultant with Speaking Tiger Books and is building a children’s list for them.

In other words, she’s a treasure trove of inside knowledge of the publishing industry and me being the Curious Cat that I always was, used our friendship by asking her the most delightful personal, almost rude questions over tea at Infinitea in Bangalore. An excerpt

Q) You’ve just completed 20 years in publishing and the thing you said on social media was that you wanted to do it for another 20 years. What about this job keeps you here?

Let me see, where do I start…

There are many things, but the biggest, for me, is the feeling that my work is meaningful, that I am contributing to the creation of a reading culture in children. That the books I commission or edit, are good books that some kid somewhere is going to pick up, enjoy and think about. That, for me, is what keeps me going through some clearly mindnumbing bits, like reading proofs!

Q) Why did you become an editor? Why choose this career?

Continue reading “Interview: Sudeshna Shome Ghosh on how to pitch to an editor”

Event: Occult quiz and book launch in Delhi with Samit Basu

Let me repeat that again. Samit Basu. Yes, the superking of speculative fiction in India has agreed to come to my book The Matsya Curse‘s launch and discuss all things fantasy, Indian occult and why a certain percentage of us are obsessed with dragons and spaceships.

Thrilled, absolutely dont-pinch-me-let-me-dream thrilled to tell you all about this event.

There will be book launch of the second of Anantya Tantrist series, an occult quiz with prizes to be won (believe me when I tell you, you’ll need all the brains you got), followed by a discussion on the Indian fantasy between Samit and me. In between somewhere there are snacks by HarperCollins and a few other freebies. So come off only.  There’s no reason you’ll want to miss this one! Connect with everyone else on its Facebook events page.

 

Get rid of stomach pain through natural ways

You party late into the night, fill yourself up on snacks and drink one cocktail after another. Before you know it, you are feeling bloated and your stomach is hurting. Don’t worry, says Deepshikha Agarwal, dietitian and sports nutritionist based in Mumbai. “Drink plenty of water with ginger or fennel every 2 hours or sip on green tea or tulsi water for a day to reduce the bloating,” she adds, cautioning against over-exercise. Instead, for a few days, improve your diet with complex carbs, fibre, protein and eat smaller portion sizes. And instead of tossing and turning all night or waiting till you have to go to a doctor, heed these tips from experts.

Chew on ginger

Add two pinches of dry ginger powder or a tablespoon of ginger juice to a glass of warm water and sip on it. “Ginger fires up your metabolism and eliminates distention and uneasiness and detoxifies your body,” says Suvarna Pathak, dietitian at the Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital in Mumbai. Or squeeze half a lemon in a glass of water. You can also make a decoction by boiling half an inch of ginger in two cups of water. “Boil on slow flame till it reduces to one cup and sip on this tea,” says Shikha Nehru Sharma, managing director, Dr Shikha’s NutriHealth, a nutrition clinic in Delhi.  Continue reading “Get rid of stomach pain through natural ways”

Bangalore history: A 1949 letter by a missionary on anglo-Indians

How were Anglo-Indians perceived just after the Indian independence? A friend on facebook recently shared two sides of an old postcard written by a missionary in 1949 by a missionary KE Munson to a friend of hers in the USA. I was fascinated by the postcard, her opinions and since it’s so difficult to read, transcripted it here for history geeks like me. Read, enjoy, feel free to share! 🙂


From: K.E.Munson, Baldwin Girl’s High School, Bangalore 7-10-1949

To: Miss Hatte Hughes, New York, USA.

Dear Miss Hughes,

How very good of you to send me such a lot of lovely cards. I had forgotten what lovely cards they have at home. I have been giving them out among our mission workers, a dozen or so to each person and they will send them to other friends when the time comes. The do appreciate them so much.

I have kept some for my scrap book, those by Grandma Moses, Currier and Ives, and a few others. Most of them are snow scenes, maybe because I do miss the snow and the cold weather. I really do not approve of the card habit among our Christians when postage costs so much and means that much less to eat. But of course most of the cards are delivered by hand, and in any case take the place of presents that would cost a great deal more. And they are so beautiful, and are treasured for years by those who receive them.

Today a lady is coming to look over the cards and choose her share.

She’s an Anglo-Indian, with some Indian and some European blood. In the early days the East India Company encouraged the men to make temporary unions with Indian women. When I first came to India 30 years ago I knew women who were still receiving pensions as the children of E.I.C officials. The British government paid them. Then of course each war always leaves a lot of children of mixed blood, especially in places like Bangalore that have been military centres. Then too there probably have always been some real marriages, though these have ben difficult among the Hindus because of the caste system.

Naturally the Anglo-Indians, A-I’s as we call them, resent – and justly so – any imputation that their origin has not been honourable.

I suppose that all of them, or at least almost all have quite lost track of their ancestry. That seemed to have been proved true when so many girls wanted to go to America as brides of the G.I. They had to prove that they were either 51 per cent white or 51 per cent Indian as Indians and English had a quota system then. Unless the mixture was in the last generation it was almost impossible to prove. Most of these A-I girls were fair and beautiful, but unless their father was a British soldier and their births registered in Somerset House, they could do nothing about it. You see in the old days, until World War I, passports were not required and birth certificates were rarely saved.

It was these A-I families, many of whom were on the railroad, that William Taylor hoped would evangelize India.

Continue reading “Bangalore history: A 1949 letter by a missionary on anglo-Indians”

Event: Occult quiz and book discussion in British Council, Chennai

I’m finally heading to Chennai with the occult quiz. It’s been a couple of years since friends, fans and quiz enthusiasts are asking me to bring the creepy occult quiz to them. So i’m so so excited to announce this.

It’s tomorrow, 5-6pm at the British Council, Chennai. You can RSVP to Susan: susan.chettri@britishcouncil.org or on the Facebook event page. Needless to say, come over peeps. It’s going to be super fun.

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