Isn’t this quite cool? I didn’t know that business dailies would show interest in picking up this story for their magazine sections. So the same interview, conducted by this really sweet lady from PTI, was carried over at two of the major financial dailies: Economic Times and Business Standard.
Here’s the interview in its full glory. Won’t say I am not itching to tweak a byte or two, but I guess editing can always change the meaning a bit. As a journalist, I understand that more than anyone else.
Shweta Taneja’s new book ‘Cult of Chaos’ delves into Delhi’s underbelly
NEW DELHI: The terrible, scary and horrific side of society is explored in a new book, billed as the country’s first tantrik detective novel, which also talks about the key issue of women’s safety.
Author-graphic novelist Shweta Taneja’s ” Cult of Chaos” is based in the supernatural underworld of Delhi.
Even though this is a fantasy fiction, and I could’ve made everything up, I wanted to stay a layer away from the real. That’s the reason that I set up the world of ‘Cult of Chaos’ in contemporary Delhi, a real city, weaving supernatural elements and creatures within its bowels,” she says.
“The species in the book’s world, as well as the tantrik magic that Anantya (the protagonist) wields, has been created after extensive research on tantrism, the occult and Shakta traditions in the country. I’ve delved deep into the folklores, folktales and the rituals of sorcery in villages,” Taneja told PTI.
Anantya Tantrist, a 23-year-old, is a completely inverted model of an ideal woman.
“She smokes beedis, walks in Delhi at night, alone, has sex with all kinds of creatures, is fearless, has chosen a profession which is violent and bloody, and she doesn’t care about what anyone thinks of her. So the book is also about her reaction to the regressive tantrik society she belongs to and the abuse she has faced in her past,” the Bangalore-based author says.
“Even though the species and the creatures I’ve mentioned in the book are make-believe, the violence, the power-play, the abuse, the unfairness they suffer, is not. The feelings, the emotions, the reactions the book reflects are all real,” she says.
Anantya emerged from Taneja’s first attempt of a novel, a revenge fantasy saga where a young girl is abused and seeks vengeance from those who’ve wronged her. That book never materialised but Anantya stayed as the author explored the possibility of combining two of her favourite genres – fantasy and detective.
According to Taneja, some of the scenes in the book, published by HarperCollins India, were inspired by incidents in real life.
“There were so many scenes in the book I wrote, where I wove incidents I’d just read in the newspaper, something a crass politician had said when yet another woman got raped; someone who had been demonised because of the way they looked or their surname.”
Taneja also touches the issue of women’s safety in her book saying women have to struggle for their safety in every corner of this country.
“But no walls, no government, no men, no police, no institution or clothes can protect us from violence. What can make a difference is if all of us, women and girls, go outdoors, claim public spaces, again and again, fearlessly, in spite of the violence,” she says.
“We need to own the spaces, only then can we be safe. Be fearless and walk alone at night as a woman. Something that I’ve tried in fiction with Anantya, who chooses a profession that takes her out at night, alone,” she claims.
Taneja has earlier written a novel “The Ghost Hunters of Kurseong” and graphic novels “Krishna: Defender of Dharma” and “The Skull Rosary”.
“I deliberately experiment with different stories and storytelling devices. Not only age groups, or styles, I also love experimenting with mediums. I’ve worked with various mediums in my short history as a fiction writer: be it graphic novels, comics, short stories, novels, collaborative stories, or even games,” she says.
Oh this is fabulous! DNA carried this excerpt from Cult of Chaos on their online worlds this weekend. This is from the first chapter on the book in which Anantya has gone on a blind date. Of course, it ends bloody. 😀
This is why I rarely accepted cases from my own species and preferred to work with what humans call ‘supernatural’ creatures. Sups of any kind, be it mayansor pashus, don’t judge tantriks by their appearance. They determine your worth by the shakti you wield. Most of my cases over the last few years had involved sups. Ever since word had spread in the city that a pro-sup tantrik was ready to take on their cases, which was a rarity since most tantriks wanted to either kill them or enslave them, I had got all kinds of assignments. I had arbitrated between best friend asuras who become arch nemeses and, in their attempt to finish each other off, almost destroyed a chunk of Lodhi Garden between them; saved a yakshi from a spirit; a chandaali from a greedy tantrik and a tantrik from a vengeful bhuta. I rarely refused a case. The only exceptions were the ones that involved daevas, elite heavenly spirits, who were as my teacher Dhuma put it concisely, treacherous trolls. A couple of days ago, I had turned down just such an offer. However, I was now beginning to regret it. Even dealing with a shifty daeva was better than sitting around a candle eating ducks and explaining myself to Mr SUV Headlights here. I took out my kapala, a skullcup that I used for my rituals, and placed it on the table.
‘Perhaps this will convince you?’ I said, smiling sweetly. The skull gleamed in the candlelight, throwing long dark shadows into the mirrors behind Nikhil.
‘Wow, a skullcup! Is it a real human skull?’ Nikhil inserted his hand inside its jaw and picked it up for a closer look. ‘Where did you find this one? I saw one on eBay the other day. Nothing less than one lakh rupees. Only the imitations are cheaper. How much did you pay for it?’
Was nothing sacred anymore? I stared at him, shocked, and wondered how many seconds it would take for Lala to attack him. Lala was the old man whose skull Nikhil was molesting at the moment. Lala had begged me to ensure he didn’t descend into naraka after his death. He wanted to stay on in this world even if it meant that I used his skull as a sacrificial cup. So, after his funeral, I stole his head from his grave on a full-moon night. Ever since, Lala’s skull had been my kapala. And he hated anyone else touching it. How would you like it if someone poked inside your head? I dug out my boneblade, ready with a freezing mantra in case Lala fired up and became too hot for Nikhil to handle. (Although, frankly, a part of me was hoping Lala fired up.)
‘Are you Anantya Tantrist?’ asked a reedy voice behind me. I turned to see the headwaiter who had discussed wines with Nikhil a little while ago.
‘Yeah,’ I answered curtly. Nikhil plonked Lala back on the table.
‘You have an urgent call, madam,’ the waiter said. My old Nokia phone lay on the table. I switched on its screen. It seemed to be working. ‘Who is it?’ I asked, wondering if it was Dakini. No one else knew I had come to this restaurant. The waiter paused and looked to his right, as if he was listening to someone.
‘Mister Qubera, madam. He wants to talk to you urgently, madam.’ For someone who stood in an air-conditioned space, the waiter’s face was very, very sweaty. Drops of perspiration rolled down his forehead and a droplet glistened at the tip of his chin.
‘I don’t know anyone …’ I stopped, suddenly realizing how quiet it had gone. So quiet that I could not hear the singer anymore or the tinkle of laughter. The singer was on the stage, but she had become mysteriously mute. The feeling that someone was watching us returned, and intensified painfully. I could kick myself for allowing Nikhil’s stupidities to distract me. I ought to have sorted this out before now. The waiter stared at me, his eyes vacant and glassy. He pinched and pulled the skin on his neck, like a shirt collar. Stupid, stupid rakshasa. Someday he will get into big trouble and get himself killed. Probably by me.
‘You have to come,’ he urged, bending down and grabbing my right arm with his clammy palm, his hand cold and hard as stone. ‘It’s urgent!’
‘What is the meaning of this?’ Nikhil hollered, his face pink with anger. ‘How dare you touch her? Where’s your manager? I want to speak to him!’
‘Sit down, Nikhil,’ I said quietly, my hand reaching for the boneblade in my satchel. I was glad I had brought it along, although I had left my belted scabbard at home. Fashion can be lethal for a tantrik.
Nikhil pushed the table away with a loud screech and rose to his intimidating six feet. Not that that would save him from a disgruntled rakshasa. He lunged, grabbed the waiter roughly by the shoulder and bellowed, ‘Let go of her!’
‘Urgent,’ the waiter whispered, sinking to his knees, his face still blank, his eyes empty, his left hand still frozen on my right arm. Poor guy. He didn’t have a choice really. I turned in one swift movement and slashed the waiter’s torso from his throat at the right collarbone to the solar plexus with the boneblade. Blood erupted and splattered my face and hair. A loud screech echoed somewhere behind me.
Excerpted with permission from Harper Collins India.
Book: Cult of Chaos
Author: Shweta Taneja
Price: Rs 350
Recently, a kind guy who loves icecream, called Vishav, contacted me for my point of view on the rise of detective and crime thrillers in the English language space. The result was a really good article collating thoughts of authors like Kishwar Desai who is spearheading the first Crime Writers Festival in Delhi later this month and Juggi Bhasin. While giving the interview, I pondered on many things and had two surprises.
One was a rather straight one, the fact that the paper used a photograph of mine, on the same page as author Anita Nair and Mukul Deva. (Proof of arrival on scene, below. Oo.)
The second was a more insidious surprise. While giving the interview, I realised that not many Indian English authors had given this masalafied fiction to their readers before. Crime fiction, thrillers, mysteries and murders have always been popular with readers. What can compare to reading a cozy murder mystery with a cup of tea in one hand? So why hadn’t Indian authors explored the genre much before? Mind you, this is true only for Indian English and not for other Indian languages which have so much of what I call the pop-masala genre.
I feel in the last decade, there’s a new level of comfort that the Indian author has in her own style of writing, like wearing chappals and walking on pothole-filled streets in crime fiction. That of being comfortable in their own identity, their own experience, in their own chaotic cities, confused traditions and in their own unique style of crimes as well as crime solving. And this being comfortable and exploring Indianness in novels seems to be happening not only in crime fiction but also across genres in the country – be it high literary, historical fiction or romances.
On the other hand, readers want to read books about things that they experience, in the English that they speak or write, stories that they hear from their grannies and friends. Desi crime fiction, written in desi style with desi detectives as main protagonists.
About a few years ago, because there weren’t any really established thriller writers in Indian English (the other Indian languages have always been doing racy thrillers), readers had to look abroad for their thrill fixes. But now thankfully for both readers and authors, that is fast changing. I love the current range of thrillers, murders and mysteries that I can find as a reader in the market. I think this is bound to increase. No more can booksellers tag all authors under the vague ‘Indian author’ category. Nowadays readers are demanding all sub-genres in Indian english writing and authors are more than happy to provide it.
What do you feel? Comment below!
I just came back from a lovely holiday in Orissa and knocked on my neighbour’s door with glee. Reason was a package of books they’d received for me when I was holidaying. Nothing unusual, except, these books were the ones I had been working on since the last two years. I am so thrilled, so bummed with emotion. It’s been like this ever since I held the first copy of Cult of Chaos in my hands. It’s there now, next to the owls. So it excites me to tell you all, dear readers that if you would like to, you can preorder the copy on Amazon // Flipkart // Infibeam // URead. The copy will reach you by mid-January 2015.
The book’s main character, Anantya Tantrist, has become a friend through whose eyes I have the most marvellous of adventures. Here’s hoping you can have a few too.
Many a times, when you write, you don’t really know why you’re writing this particular story and what it is that you want to say or experience through it. It’s instinctive, this desire to write a story. Which is why I was quite surprised to get to know something about me recently.
I’ve been talking to the media and the industry about the upcoming launch of Anantya Tantrist’s first book, Cult of Chaos. So when Tehelka‘s associate editor Sabin, wrote to me to make Anantya part of their cover story on women’s safety in Delhi, I said yes.
Little did I know what I would figure out from that interview. While answering questions, I realised how much I have lived in fear of being molested/raped/kidnapped while growing up in Delhi. I’ve carried this fear on my back, like a corpse, it has slowed me down, stressed me but also given me strength and aggression to live and survive. Which is why I wrote a character like Anantya Tantrist. She’s fearless, she’s aggressive and she can take on anything that comes her way. She chooses to live alone in Delhi and own its nights. In my head, she’s everything I couldn’t be, but would like to be, like Superman is to little boys (and a few big ones).
I wrote Anantya for myself and others like me, to give other women hope and determination. That survival instinct. That you can survive and live #fearless. Thanks Sabin, for helping me realise this.
A few excerpts from the interview:
In the wake of repeated incidents of rape and violence against women, how do you look at women’s safety issues in New Delhi?
I feel two things: a mad sense of anger and a helpless feeling of frustration. Anger because I can’t do anything about the senseless violence I see being perpetrated on women everywhere in the country and not just in New Delhi. On the streets, in offices, in bedrooms, in restaurants, in cars, on public and private transport and at homes — everywhere. Forget Delhi, women don’t feel safe anywhere in this country.
My frustration comes from the fact that every time an incident happens, a molestation or rape, usually of a woman, we try and build walls to protect ourselves or if we are men, protect our women. We ask the police to be more vigilant, to patrol, to install cctvs, to put fences, to add more guards, more grills, to track with gps, to have checks and policing in place so that women can feel safe. But the sad truth is that building walls will only make the outdoors wilder, segregating gender will only alienate each gender from the other and increase violence. No government, no men, no police, no institution can make it all go away. What can perhaps make a difference is that if you, me, all of us, in spite of the violence, go outdoors, at all times, at all places, fearlessly own the night. Be there, not in groups, not with men, but alone — until it becomes the norm. We need to own the spaces, only then can we be safe.
What is your experience of growing up in the city? Any lingering memories?
Much to the chagrin of my parents, growing up, I loved to be out on the roads of Delhi rather than stay at home. A love I share with Anantya. There’s a sense of freedom to be able to walk (not ride in closed spaces like cars), take a deep breath, smell the city. But I have always felt a sense of insecurity, a sense of alertness when I walk on the streets. I have grown aggressive because of collated bad experiences for years — creepy touches, bottom pinches, side leers, breast stares and squeezes. I have experienced it all because I refused to get off the road or the public spaces. I refused to huddle within groups. But yes, Delhi has converted me into a hedgehog. When I am walking, I don’t smile at a stranger, I am wary and vigilant. That’s a bit unfortunate.
Why do you write? And why Cult of Chaos?
I write because I itch to tell stories. When I am not writing, I am making up stories and orally telling them to my friends. I want to explore the idea of otherness, of strangeness, of non-humans, paranormals and supernaturals through these stories, which is why I am writing in the fantasy genre. I want to explore ‘us’ versus ‘them’ in all their manifestations.
I wrote Cult of Chaos because I was itching to write a work of detective fiction that mixes Indian folklore and supernatural creatures into a mystery. Anantya Tantrist happened because I was so bored of all the action taken up by male superheroes and superstars while women sat on the side, as pretty eye-candy. I wanted a story in which a woman gets her hands dirty, has all the adventures, kicks the villains and goes to a bar later to celebrate. And Cult of Chaos is all that and more!
Can you take us through the experience of writing this book?
Anantya’s story has been an emotional journey for me. I was creating a female character who is fearless, independent, who just doesn’t give two hoots about what the society thinks, who isn’t dependent on a man. I had to change so many scenes constantly because they were written keeping in mind the ‘limitations’ a woman would have in our society. But Anantya doesn’t adhere to those limitations. I wanted to create a character who will step out of all the gender ideas we have as a society, which is why I rewrote and rewrote, overcoming my limitations as a writer and as a product of our society. And I am amazed at who she has turned out to be. I respect her, am in awe of her, and even have a crush on her.
I sit in my study all day and write while she is out on the streets, taking on powerful people, protecting the helpless, solving violent crimes, also having supernatural adventures of all kinds. She is exposed, while I live a protected life. She is all action while I am all thinking. But just the fact that I have been lucky enough to write her story has changed me too, given me wings. I want to be more like her. I want to own the streets too, fearlessly.
This was just sent by Harper Collins team. It’s the cover of Anantya Tantrist’s first adventure in book format and I feel butterflies the size of dinosaurs in somewhere in the deep dark pits of my being. So I wanted to distract myself by telling you all a story. (For that’s what stories are for, no?) This one is the story of an incredible artist and his various kindnesses.
On a lazy Sunday a year ago, I headed to Leaping Windows (now unfortunately closed) with a twinkle in my eye. Two weeks before that, I had just finished reading one of the most amazing graphic novels in recent times, Moonward. I had stolen it from Jerry, who runs The Jam Hut in Hennur. My husband’s a drummer and I accompany him with a book sometimes. Much to my delight, that sunny day, I found a signed Moonward in Jerry’s little library. In it, I discovered the wise dragonfly I had first seen in the old Mojo’s pub off Residency Road.
Mojo’s was the pub I headed to in my first weekend in Bangalore. The only thing I remember of old Mojo’s with fondness (an otherwise seedy bar where you have to rub your eyes to see, get soggy popcorns and the loos always smelled of pee) were the frescoes done by Appupen aka George Mathen. His lovely frescoes, especially the artwork above, were the first thing that had made me feel part of the city I call my own now, Bangalore. ‘It’s the same artist,’ I exclaimed, touching the old, wise dragonfly guy.
Moonward turned out to be a similar journey of a creature in a fantasy world called Halahala, both marvellously witty and socially sharp. I hogged it in a day, delighted, thrilled and left with an unfinished feeling. So I went online looking for its creator and a copy for myself. After I hounded him over Facebook, George agreed to meet me to sign a copy of his works.
So the Sunday mentioned above happened. As I marvelled the frescoes George had created at the little café in Indianagar, he walked in, a kind fellow with a sparkle in his eye and a self-deprecating smile. He signed two copies of his Moonward and Legends Of Halahala (one for me, one as a wedding gift for pals Thej and Anju) and then spend a whole hour with me, telling me tales of literary festivals, how he draws the spectacular graphic novels (by getting a bit high on mutton and other stuff) and how much he loves playing the drums (he was part of the popular Bangalore-based band Lounge Piranha). I heard his tales, full of wisdom and wit and laughed and giggled. A cup of coffee later, I realized it was more than an hour that we’d been chatting, that I had poured onto him ALL my hopes and fears about publishing Anantya Tantrist‘s first book. Secretly, I so wanted him to draw her out but how does one ask such a favour from such a big artist? So I didn’t. I left instead because I had stranded a dear pregnant friend, forgotten all about her, while I was there, chatting with George. But being evil is worth it sometimes.
A few months happened and Harper Collins after a long haul said yes to publishing Anantya’s series. I was superbly happy. When my editor asked me who should do the cover, I knew, I knew I had to ask George then. So I did and crossed my fingers, because HC couldn’t pay that much to an artist like him!
But George, though he might say a vigourous no to being labeled with the the term, is super-kind. So he agreed to draw Anantya’s face, to recreate her as a goddess, as Kali. The result was completely different from what I had imagined and the brief I had doled out (and I am so thankful for that!). When I was writing Anantya Tantrist‘s book, I imagined her face and body and expressions in many, many ways. But it was never, ever like this. I was surprised, gutted, shocked when I saw Anantya drawn like this. And that’s the magic of George’s pen. His paintbrush slashed perceptions and prejudices and went to the very core, cutting Anantya to the bone. She would like that.
My heart is still beating, because I love it so much and can’t wait for reactions to Cult of Chaos, Anantya’s upcoming book in December. I am lucky to have found such kind people in the city I belong to now. Thanks, George, for your kindness to a stranger.
Connect with Appupen online on Facebook. George’s older art can be found on his personal Facebook page, here, here and even here. I highly recommend his latest graphic novel, Aspyrus (Amazon // Flipkart) which is a fascinating exploration of silent comic.
Earlier this year, I signed on a piece of paper with a trembling hand and suddenly, I was an author with a series contract with Harper Collins India. My transformation left me with nothing but a sense of giddiness and sweaty palms. As the elation vanished, I realised that I had only written one of the three books promised to the sweet gals at HC so I went back to work, keeping the contract carefully plasticated somewhere in a forgotten drawer.
Which is why I completely forgot to tell you all, my readers, friends and those who’ve rooted for me (or would like to now) about how it happened. So here’s the tall tale.
For my first book, The Ghost Hunters of Kurseong, finding a publisher had been quite a breeze from what I had been expecting (1. Get rejections from all major publishers 2. Put it up online as an ebook and then figure). When the wonderful editor at Hachette India showed interest on a direct submission to their website (without an agent, something that they do for one or two titles a year. Pitch to them, peeps!), I looked at the email, reread it, rubbed my eyes and did a jiggle. From the first interest to the contract was a long marathon of three months full of butterflies in the stomach. But the contract happened and I thought, wow, this was quite okay. Not as bad as the horror stories of 100 rejection emails and all that.
Then Anantya Tantrist happened. My first novel for adults with a tantric heroine who is such a badass that my cheeks flame up sometimes when I am writing her story. Her world is brutal and so is her attitude. But I was more confident with her. Hachette India had already said yes to one of my books, so selling the second should be better? Yes?
I realised that with a kick in the butt. She and her world were (and still are) a series character in my head. I already wanted to write book 2 of her story and then book 3 and then you know how it goes. But already, rejections were piling up like bad advice from astrologers. They are still piling up by the way, only they come from other countries now. There were so many reasons that The Cult of Chaos, the book one in Anantya Tantrist’s series, got rejected. Most of them were polite and polished and told me nothing. I had already given the book to an editor at HC (Let’s call her ED) who I knew would loved SFF titles (having already stalked her online). She was sweet and Anantya liked her too. I was quite keen on her. But there was no yes till now.
Meanwhile, I fished out a list of agents and sent my book to them, panic building up in me. It had been months. I had moved on to launching my other books, but it had been months! WritersSide was the fastest to respond back and take my book on. They did that in a day (I am still surprised about that one). WS helped me by communicating with HC again and sending it to a lot of other publishers who didn’t have any general submission email ids. But I was most keen on ED, because Anantya kept on telling me that she liked her and if you know Anantya, you will realise, she seldom likes people. Since Anantya wasn’t letting me be, I accosted ED at Bangalore Lit Fest last year and told her what Anantya was insisting I tell her. That she’s the editor for Anantya‘s story. Kudos to ED, she took it with a straight face, even though it was quite sunny. I guess she’s used to writers of all crazy kinds. HC had some doubts about the violence in the books, which we figured, discussed and finally, that trembling moment came for me when I signed the three-book contract. It took eight months from when I finished The Cult of Chaos. The book will be released in November 2014.
What this has taught me
– You need to find the right editor for the book. ED was right for the book, even though she had initial doubts. She loved the idea of Anantya and her world. If the editor connects with the book, she will fight the battle for your book from the beginning (getting you a contract) to the end (speaking about it at panels with sparkles in her eyes). So right editor, peeps, very very important. And that begins with focusing on people and not on the publisher. ED, thanks btw!
– I always wanted to write more than one books about Anantya, but when I started to find a publisher for her, I didn’t think of pitching the first book as a series. I know, kinda dumb, but I don’t think future too much. There WS helped me refocus. They insisted on me writing briefs of possible stories for Books 2 and 3 (which I surprisingly managed on a holiday). That way, I am sure that I get three of Anantya’s titles published even if Book 1 fails to make a mark (which I hope doesn’t happen). But it gives me insurance of some kind about the three books. Even though I had to take lesser advances for book 2 and 3 (because the publisher’s risk increases). WS also helped me streamline the contract and make is bare minimum so that I retain most of my rights and can sell them somewhere else.
– All of this: the pitching, the marketing, workshops, conferences, panels, the selling, the media, internet, social media, all of it distracts you from the one thing you started with: Love of writing. It’s important to switch off after you’ve got a contract or after the book is out. Switch off and keep writing (goes under notes to self). Again and again.