Ten years ago, I was working full time in Femina. Ten years later, someone from Femina did an interview about me. It’s a moment of a kind. Femina has shaped the earlier me. I worked three years there, three years full of travel and meeting the most fabulous people I could imagine. So, I’m a bit stumped. And wowed. Here’s a okay photo that someone sent me of the interview.
Isn’t this simply the most jiggle-worthy thing? Here’s the original interview, in case you’re the reading type.
How was it like shifting away from writing for children to writing a full-fledged novel for adults?
I tell stories that fascinate me. When a story strikes me, I don’t think of it as writing for a particular age group, in a particular style or even a medium. The story decides that. When the idea of a tween shifting from Mumbai to Kurseong came into my head, The Ghost Hunters of Kurseong happened. When Anantya Tantrist came into my head, I knew she inhabits a violent, cruel, adult world. That of tantrism and black magic. So I wrote her story the way she wanted me to, without any hindering templates or tags on me as an author or on my writing style.
I was true to the story. I didn’t figure out who it was for, how it would be sold, what age group and what type of readers would read it. While writing, I was just going with what she was telling me, the adventures she was swaggering through, the world she saw and inhabited. It was after it had finished and I started to pitch the novel that the publishers and the editors told me it was for ‘adults’. Who are these adults? Are all grown up adults? Are all adults mature? These tags and boxes are more for marketing and sales benefit, what I call the business of writing. I would rather keep the creating part away from these considerations.
In the same line, not only age groups, I also love experimenting with mediums when it comes to storytelling. I’ve worked with various mediums: be it graphic novels, comics, short stories, novels, collaborative stories, or even games. Being creative is to keep experimenting.
Why a book on tantriks?
When Anantya came into my head, and I decided to write a fantasy around her, I didn’t want the usual vampires and witches stuff, which is quite European in its origins. Instead, the fantasy I wanted to explore needed to come from the roots of our country, its belief systems and its core. Not from Indian mythology either as there’s so much of that around already. So I decided to jump into the folklores, the occult and oral histories seeped in our villages. After I’d taken that decision, writing on tantriks was an obvious choice. I am amazed at how everyone you talk to, in cities or villages, anywhere in the country have a tantrik story with them or know a person who has employed a tantrik for a problem. They’re not talked about in the mainstream but at the edges, in hushed conversations, one to one.
Still, many people are scared for me or surprised when I tell them I’m interested in tantrik and occult stories, made up and rumours and the oral. My mother for example, warned me to stay away from them. ‘They’re not good people,’ she said, ‘they hypnotise you.’ This fear as well as knowledge that occult, tantrism, and witchery exists in the country, is quite fascinating for me to explore as a storyteller and researcher.
My high interest in this is also the reason I’ve started two columns: One in Swarajyamag.com and one in Discover India on folklore and tales from villages.
How was it like researching about tantriks? How much time did you spend writing/researching for this book?
I spend a year researching on this book and then about a year writing and editing it. I am a stickler when it comes to my editing and won’t even show the book to my husband till I’m satisfied with it to an extent. So I had to shape the book and do four different edit levels on it, before I even pitched it to HarperCollins. Then there were series of editing at the publisher level, so I would say about two and a half years in total on this book. (Now that I write about this, it sounds quite long!).
Even though this book is fantasy and fiction, and I could’ve made everything up, I wanted to stay as close to the real as possible. So I ended up doing extensive research on the edges of Indian mythology. Tantrism traditions, the occult, shamanism, and Shakta traditions in the countrysides. The folklores, folktales and the rituals of sorcery in villages. I did scholarly research by reading about forty odd books and more scholarly papers on the goddess tradition, folktales and folklores and tantrism, most of them coming from scholars in Indology departments of various universities across the country. Then I did primary research by tapping into the collective stories of people, like you and me, old people, young kids, those in cities and villages. I spoke to so many of them, hearing their retellings, their experiences, the stories they’ve heard about tantrism in their families, practicing tantriks and witches. Another source was those sensational tantrik books which are sold on the streets, which claim that they can teach you how to control someone, how to make someone fall in love and how to even kill someone. I won’t say I’ve explored everything as everytime I meet someone or visit an ancient temple or a library, I find a new folktale, which I want to use in my book somehow, somewhere. I continue to be fascinated by these stories, the reason I write two separate columns on them, one for Swarajyamag.com and one for Discover India magazine.
The research was fascinating. Tantriks are in many ways inverted in their styles. They’re ambitious, secretive and sometimes go opposite the puritan, vedic or brahmanical ways of Hindu philosophy. They invert social values, do exactly what morally we would find disgusting and walk their spiritual path from there. In tribal tales for example, the Mahabharata Draupadi is so sexually attractive that Yamraj himself is attracted to her and comes to her room.
These tales invert all things of the middle class society, doing everything considered taboo. Using the left hand, their rituals involve excreta, drinking alcohol, sexual inversions, playing with bones and corpses, everything that the mainstream finds unacceptable or immoral or disgusting. There’s a sense of freedom to do everything disgusting. To have no social or moral code to hinder you. For example, a baby can eat her own excreta. That’s disgusting for us as adults in our society, but it’s quite okay for the baby who doesn’t know these codes.
As a researcher and a writer, I am fascinated with the philosophy of inversion and how it shapes me in writing about it and shapes or changes you as a reader in reading about it. Anantya, for example, is an inversion of the social tag of an Indian woman—she smokes beedi, drinks hard liquor, has one night stands with all kinds of creatures, hangs out on the streets, at night and does exactly the opposite of what is expected of her. How does reading about her affect you? How has writing about her affected me? Those are the questions I would love to explore more.
What inspired you to base the book in New Delhi? Tell us about the time you grew up in the city, your experiences and memories.
Delhi has layers of history, politics, power and migrated communities. It’s an old city, weaving itself from mythology where she was Indraprastha to history to what it’s today: the capital city of one of the biggest democracies in the world. For the Kaula tantriks of Banaras who decided to come out in the open and start helping the government, what better place for them to start from? For the supernatural creatures, who are forced to migrate for jobs, because their homes in jungles are being destroyed by development, Delhi is a city with wonders, opportunities and dangers. For Anantya, who grew up in a sheltered ashram, Delhi is freedom. She can be anonymous here, help out when she wants to, hide in a corner without being missed. She can be whatever she wants to be, at her own pace, without caring two hoots about anyone around. So the decision to base the story in Delhi came from the story itself. Delhi is the converging point of the supernatural population, Anantya as a tantrik detective and the power games that tantrik sects play with each other.
I’ve lived in Delhi most of my life. As I child, it’s protected and pampered me. As a teenager, I’ve fought for my freedom here. As a young woman, I’ve snatched independence from Delhi. I’ve hung out in its cafes, travelled through its slums, its fashion shows, its colleges, and its institutions. I’ve seen its exclusively rich population and its slum poor and shared the city with them. (By the way, my first job in the city, as a journalist was with Femina, which is where I started to explore Delhi’s alleyways for stories.)
Constantly, I’ve struggled and fought and clawed with Delhi, its people and its spaces to live life the way I wanted to, independent and free, on the streets and not in closed spaces like cars or homes or offices. I won’t say I’ve succeeded a hundred percent, but I’ve not failed completely in it too. I’m somewhere in between. I’m like a slum cat Delhi adopted and then forgot about. Sometimes she feeds me cookies and milk but mostly, she just lets me be, roam about its house and streets, figuring out my own life, dealing with the lurking dangers in my own way. And I am okay with that.
There have been repeated incidents of atrocities against women in the country which has ironically led people to believe that bold women are the culprits. Is Anantya’s feisty character a deliberate attempt to counter the regressive perspective that people harbour?
Authorities seem to blame anything from taxis, short skirts, saris, mannequins, rising prices of tomatoes, dupattas, broken bulbs, the full moon, or an unpaved road for any incident that involves women, so why not this rather vague idea of ‘boldness’? Boldness is in direct contrast to the ‘feminine’ attributes a woman should have in a patriarchal society. She should speak softly, she should behave herself in public, she should be conscious of her body, the way she sits, the way she eats, she should respect the elders, not drink hard liquor, not smoke, keep her hair tidy and body hygienic, she should know her ‘place’.
There are so many restrictions that our patriarchal society puts on women, and so I thought go gung-ho and break all of them together, invert them all, and see how it feels like. Which is how Anantya happened. She’s completely opposite to the demure doll that most Indian patriarchal families want sitting pretty in their drawing rooms. 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 give two hoots to what anyone thinks of the way she lives. She’s aggressive and forceful. For how else does a woman who’s grown up in a staunch patriarchal society and just doesn’t fit, express herself? (I’m talking about Anantya here. Her society is much more regressive than ours is currently.)
During writing her character, I had to constantly rewrite scenes because I was trying a perspective which is so different from how ‘women’ are supposed to think. It has been a constant struggle to take the coded gender point of view in me as a writer, out of the book. I’ve used humour to discuss this within the book. There are two really funny scenes in which one client can’t believe that she’s a tantrik, as she’s a girl and ‘has a hole’ and in another, one wonders how she can be a tantrik since she’s a girl. And you should see the answers she gives to them.
Hanging out with her for four years has affected me too. I try to copy her now, trying to claim my place on the streets, in public spaces in our cities, walk fearlessly, look eye-to-eye at a person who is looking at my breasts, sneer, show wrath and not always sweetness or shame. I am freer, more confident today, because I wrote her. And I am hoping reading her, has the same effect on other women and girls too. Sort of what Superman or Spiderman or Salman Khan has on boys. We need that for the women too.
Cult of Chaos is the first in the series of a trilogy. Why a trilogy? Since how long have you worked on the idea of three books?
I wouldn’t call it a trilogy, since every book in the series is a complete story in itself. I’ve signed a three-book contract on Anantya Tantrist and her mysteries with HarperCollins India, which means that they will publish atleast three different adventures of Anantya. But my feeling right now, as I explore more and more of Anantya and the supernatural world she inhabits, is that there would be atleast five-six books of hers before I’m done with the world. Also, there might be a shorter adventure series in comic format (since I love writing comics too). But then, these are all farfetched dreams and directions and things might change in a year or two. Who knows where Anantya will want to go, for example? It’s not like I or anyone else has any control on her.
To answer your second question, I’ve worked on Anantya since about four years now. Ever since I knew her name (which comes from an unfinished novel based in a different fantasy world, which died on me in my first year of writing fiction). Ever since I knew that she would be an occult detective, a tantrik and will be based in Delhi. Three books wasn’t a decision, still isn’t. What I knew was that Anantya wouldn’t have just one adventure through me. So when I started to talk to HarperCollins, I pitched them the two other adventures I had in my head. That’s how the multiple books thing happened. The number of books and the contract for it is the business side of writing, that of publishers and agents. When you’re writing, you’re just writing stories, going with the flow, going where your character takes you. And who knows how many stories, long and short Anantya wants to retell through me?