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.”

Anticipating a kitsch scoop of the century for my series, I set about peddling local bookstores buying books by the dozen with delectable names like Encyclopedia of Indian Erotics, Kiss of the Yogini: Tantric Sex in its South Asian Context, Tantra Vidya: The Essence of Tantric Sexuality, and even an Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences of the World.

I headed to bookstores attached to tantric ashrams, to Kali temples, to popular shrines looking for clues on tantrism. (Photo: Pinterest)

Ravishing though these cover names sounded, they were all academic and rather dry. Reading them made me realise that tantrism wasn’t what I and a majority of Indians think it is: a black magic art or voodoo in which a bad boy tantric can make people do their biddings, harm them with a mere hair or bring a series of catastrophes into an enemy’s life.

(Something that all of us, even you, yes I’m looking at you, have heard about tantrics.)

These books talked spirituality, nirvana found through controlling the body and its fluidic desires, they talked meditative techniques to achieve higher state of beings.

What? I said to these books. Wasn’t tantrism like about badass power, occult sex and all those taboos that parents warn their kids against when they reach the hormonal-raging age?

For that’s what interested me the most about tantrics as a fantasy author: the masala.

The blood-drinking, storm-whipping cult that gobbles people for a living, can interact with ghostly beings and let demons loose, while having taboo sex (the latter a firmly rooted concept in the Western landscape of tantrism).

Here they are, for sale

Suspicious that I was missing the pop culture in these rather dry books, I left them in a heap, deciding to travel. I headed to bookstores attached to tantric ashrams, to Kali temples, to popular shrines looking for clues on tantrism.

Slowly a new library emerged in my home, a mixed lot of books, less academic, more self-help like: Yantra Mantra Rahasya (Secrets of Yantras and Mantras), Asli Pracheen Kali Kitaab (Real Ancient Book of Kali), Aghora: At the Left Hand of God, and others.

I also consumed a lot of B-grade movies, stalked Babas who advertised in classifieds, visited self-proclaimed tantric ashrams and charnel grounds, asked people for personal close shaves with tantrism in book launches, cafes and parties (mostly after getting them drunk).

It was in these places that the modern, twisted, psychedelic version of tantrism emerged, the one that I could use in the world of my book.

I learnt about daily superstitions, how pumpkin and kumkum in reality represent animal sacrifice, what are yantras and how they help in bending the universe to your desires.

Then there were totkas (tricks) that could help you find love, money or a foreign trip and powerful black tantrics could control a human being (vashikarna), a tantric idea that I used as a plot in Anantya’s just released adventure The Matsya Curse. Shavasadhana, or meditating on a dead body another ritual I came about, brought me the climax of my first novel, Cult of Chaos.

All these revelations were propped with appropriate artistic license and inserted gleefully into the plots I created for my tantric mysteries.

However, rakshasas and giant nagas attacking our tantric detective, not withstanding, a lot of tantric mentions were based on reality. What I am saying is, there is a shitty, dark side to the idea of tantrism.

For example, in the Cult of Chaos, Anantya solves a case in which little girls are butchered by power-hungry tantrics.

When I was looking for a publisher, a lot of editors, though they liked the idea of an tantric series, turned down the novel because of the gruesome first scene in which the villain is shown sacrificing a girl. Publisher HarperCollins took it after I had edited the scene a bit.

But this idea you see, it wasn’t mine. Well not completely. It came from a news report of children who were sacrificed, pieces of their bodies recovered near a baba’s ashram.

Tantrism is a powerful spiritual philosophy, a way to achieve nirvana by controlling your body. (Photo: Independent blog)

It was concretised on another real incident where a tantric sacrificed a woman in a betel leaf grove, and then another where a grandmother sacrificed her own grandchildren to ward off evil spirits.

Even though I’ve been reading about tantrism in real life for three years now, I shudder at how much of the stories that I would have put with a #fakenews or #goodfictionhashtag, are actually real.

As I begin to finish the blog, as if by some technological deity’s intervention (hello there, Google), a Google Alerts email pops into by mailbox.

It’s the weekly web-dose of the word “tantric” that I’ve subscribed to ever since I started to creating Anantya’s tantric world.

Headlines from prominent newspapers and forums like Craiglist prop into my screen:

  1. Tantric killed upon failure to dig out hidden wealth in Indore.
  2. Is Tantric sex safe during the first trimester? You may have to make modifications.
  3. Suspecting illicit relation with wife, tantric murders disciple.
  4. Student achieves tantric orgasm while closing internet tabs after completing assignment.

There you go. Tantrism is a powerful spiritual philosophy, a way to achieve nirvana by controlling your body. But being writers (and humans) with a penchant for drama and thrill, our takeaway is either sex or murder.

Real life is so like a potboiler.

This column was published in DailyO.