Dealing with Covid-19 and starting a letter of hope

Welcome! Dear Penpal is a fortnightly newsletter by me, Shweta Taneja, to support you in your creative journey with tips, opportunities, insights and inspirations. Subscribe or read the archives here.


Dear Penpal,

It’s been a tough month for all of us. For me too.

I heard the news that all my family, six of them, in Delhi were covid-19 positive. I wanted to go to them, help out with food, logistics, hugs, anything really. However, covid-19 is such a creature that it builds walls around all of us, closing us down in worrisome loneliness.

The same week, my spouse also tested positive. Now I was a caregiver, saving up millions of advice and emergency contacts from the online world. I was heartbroken, suffocating, panicked, and unwell too. I vented online, vented to friends, worried and perhaps added to the chaos.

Then I called up my mother

My mother, who was going through the infectious disease, dealing with breathlessness and extreme body pain. I called her instinctively as I always call her when I’m stressed and need assurance. You know what she said?

“So what?“ she said. Her voice was weak, but her spirit, oh her spirit vibrated with power. “Now that we have it, we will see how it goes,” she said. “Whatever will happen, will happen. You worrying for it won’t change a thing.”

She was suffering physically as she said it, and I knew she was suffering, but the sheer mental strength of her approach to her body’s suffering, brought me out of my piteous wallowing.

Why do we always think of the worse given a stress situation? And cloak this thinking, this panicking and worrying as being realistic? And this is not limited to reality. It’s a habit. It’s a habit that I’ve decided to consciously break out by starting this newsletter.

My mother gave me strength in that five-minute phone call. I decided not to ponder on the worse. I consciously, with a lot of effort, to take the most positive, most hopeful route in the logical turn of events in my head.

That all of us will come out of it in a few months.

That it would be all okay.

Letters of hope, support and writing by Shweta Taneja

A newsletter of hope when everything is dark?

I decided to channel my frustration, my sadness into writing these letters to you.

Use the medium I love – of writing – to tell you about what I’m going through. Use these letters, as a process of collective, creative healing, for you and me both.

This is about encouraging you to make the best of your life and ambitions, as a creative person, a writer or a reader or a prodigy whose time hasn’t come. We are all together, struggling, and I want to struggle and hope and cope with you.

These letters are about optimism and delight in living our lives. About not allowing our fears to become definitions of who we are. I’ll use all my emotions and skills to fill these letters with stories that make you and me feel good.

I’ll talk about the art of writing, things that inspire me, of living life to the fullest and capturing these moments through my art. And I hope to encourage you to do the same.
I’ll be there for you all, my dear readers, through your ups and downs. We will together become our best, most joyous creative selves.

For we all need that little optimism when we’re low. And we all need – more and more – those friends who can listen without scrolling us into a void.

I’ve committed to you, fortnightly on alternate Sundays, and I’m hoping to keep that up. If you don’t get a letter from me (for I’m known to break promises), you’re most welcome to write to me and demand one. I would try to not miss one, though!

Writes science and speculative fiction

Some of my latest releases in books, articles and stories

All of 2020, my publishing plans, as with all writers, went haywire. Even though our world continues to be up and down and all the rollercoaster in between, I’m happy to say that I have had five cool things in latest releases out with different publishers in the last few months.

What I love about the collection of my recent releases is that there is NOTHING in common between any of them (except for the plant in the pink pot). They’re writings about all kinds of things, released in all kinds of geographies and meant for all kinds of people. I love #diversity in writing and even though it’s hard (it’s so much better to put you in a nice, pretty box, if you’re a romance writer or a science writer or a science fiction writer or write for adults or kids or young people or animals!) and confusing to algorithms online, I’m gleed and proud and thrilled!

Latest releases from the desk of Shweta Taneja

Drumroll, my latest releases:

  • 1. and 4. They Made What / They Found What: A flipbook for kids on Indian science and scientists. Out with @hachette_india
  • 2: Non-fiction article on exciting debut voices of India in Locus magazine.
  • 3: A #solarpunk short story about dolphins taking over the world with a new technology. Out now in #MultispeciesCities by World Weaver Press. (Buy here)
  • 5: Les Chants que L’Humanité abandonna aux (French version of the dolpins taking over the world with a new technology) published in Galaxies No 66
  • 6: Spunky Salma takes over the 1920s cantonment, Bangalore in this short historical fiction for kids which is part of Eleven Stops to the Present: Stories of Bengaluru by Intach Bangalore


What kind of a writer are you?

A linear, single genre one, easily defined and categorized by bots or a vague, flipflop one who scribbles everything and anything? Tell me in comments below.

Release: New Solarpunk short story on evil dolphins

What happens when dolphins take over the world? Create a technology that humans have no understanding of? I’m thrilled to announce the release of my new solarpunk tale, The Songs That Humanity Lost Reluctantly To Dolphins.

It’s part of an upcoming anthology on imagining an optimistic future by World Weaver Press, an independent publisher based in the USA. The anthology is called Multispecies Cities and is a collection of richly imagined tales by storytellers from the Asia-Pacific and beyond. Head to the Multispecies Cities page on the publisher website to find your favourite retailer.

Each story is on how future cities will look like, taking the positive route rather than the dystopian one that we SF writers so prefer.

Hope and science fiction?

That’s solarpunk for you. It’s positive, it’s optimistic and it’s quite hard to write in current times. When Rajat and Sarena the editors of Multispecies Cities approached me to write a story for this anthology, I sat with nothing for weeks. For I had not thought positively about the future in my SF writings. How could you, in the midst of a pandemic and a cagey nationalism wave?

Then one day, I sat on my desk, reimagining not only future cities, but science fiction as a genre that imagines these cities, I remembered how I keep wondering why science fiction imaginations of our future are so metallic and materialistic. They’re about wars and spaceships and human desires. There’s not much about other organisms (unless they’re evil aliens), though it’s a sub-genre that is now being explored.

Solarpunk the future!

I decided to reimagine future technology itself, make it organic in nature, make it something that was not created by humans or even understood by them but by another species on the planet – not an alien. A technology that will completely disrupt our metallic, materialistic way of life and replace it with something organic, like fungus or a song of empathy.

In a gist, that’s what The Songs That Humanity Lost Reluctantly To Dolphins is about. It explores what happens to us when an alternate lifestyle, that puts empathy first, erupts in future cities. When the children take to it, adapt to it, but us, adults, just cannot adapt. First we rage, then we bomb but our hearts break as fungus becomes one with our children and all the other species of the planet become one. When the next generation does not remain ours, what happens? We determinedly try to connect to the empathy songs that the dolphins have created.

This story itself is a sad song of change that is forced upon us. I suffered with helpless parents, with governments that could do nothing as their economies crashed. But this dramatic change transforms into a beautiful, new, positive future.

Continue reading “Release: New Solarpunk short story on evil dolphins”

Global internet is dead, thanks to for-profit algorithms

In the 1980s, when the global internet emerged, it was a network of decentralised computers in different universities across countries. By the 1990s, with Tim Berner Lee’s World Wide Web, any node across this network, could access any information. As storage capacity and data access speeds increased, this was quickly taken over mostly US-based companies, offering free products to users.

When social networks first began more than 20 years ago, there was a sense of freedom. Everyone with global internet access and who could communicate in global Internet languages, anywhere in the world, could get online and share their stories on Facebook and Twitter, interact and voice their lived experiences. The Arab Spring protests in the 2010s was celebrated as the high point of this new online, seamless freedom.

(First published as a column in Mint Lounge, a business daily in India.)

Global Internet companies quickly advocated this idea of a global, frameless, free online space which had no visa requirement or restrictions, a truly democratic space to operate in. The idea that a company created to maximise profit for its shareholders can make a democratic system for interaction is in itself perhaps ludicrous. However, the soma of this dream was drunk by not only users but also by Silicon Valley investors and founders, who insisted they could change the world without ever leaving their little white echo chambers.

(Read part one of this column here.)

Continue reading “Global internet is dead, thanks to for-profit algorithms”

My book on science releases on National Science day

It’s National Science Day today. That’s 28th February peeps. A little more than ninety years ago, Sir CV Raman discovered what is called The Raman Effect. To refresh your memory on what exactly Raman Effect means, you can either read its Wikipedia page, or pick up my book on Indian scientists, They Made What? They Found What?

For the book I’ve been working hard and crazy towards, all of 2020, releases today! Oops, it just released.

Celebrate National Science Day with a book on science

They Made What? They Found What? are stories of contemporary Indian scientists, their struggles, their work lives and why they push the boundaries of science and of themselves to discover or invent something (Batty Cat who plays a pivotal role in the book, suspects the brainwave happens thanks to rats).

It comes loaded with activities, quizzes, experiments and a galaxy of knowledge. It’s written for kids and most adults.

Why National Science Day is important

Though Dr Raman won the Nobel Prize almost a century ago, only eight Indian scientists have won the award for science. We need inspiration on science, we need to bring out our scientists from laboratories and make them heroes that kids can aspire to.

There’s another thing I realised while talking about the book. Science is all about asking questions, constantly, being curious about the way the world around you works. Questioning the world has become especially important today, in the times of climate emergency. We need the new generation to find unique solutions, inventions and discover new things about our fast fading biodiversity.

Through these stories of science, I wanted to bring India’s science and scientists out of the limbo they have been in into our lives, into the lives of kids.

It’s the first book where I’ve combined all my skills as a journalist with the best skills I garnered as a creative writer. This book was written during the lockdown and onwards, and kept me sane (making my editor insane) through all of 2020. But most, most importantly, it’s a flipbook! There are two covers and they open on either side. I ALWAYS wanted to write a book like that.

I’m hoping this book on Indian scientists, who live and work here, in this country, is the first step towards this.


A science book for kids with stories of Indian scientists
Click to buy on Amazon.

They Made What?


A space scientist who sent a rocket to Mars

A physicist who insisted that plants could feel emotions

An engineer who solved a water problem with an ice stupa

Meet India’s brightest scientists and read all about their incredible, groundbreaking inventions in this first-of-its-kind book. Explore the most fascinating fields of science, from nanotechnology and astrophysics to tropical ecology and molecular physics, and find the answers to all the scientific questions you’ve ever thought about. Do all scientists wear lab coats? Where do they get their genius ideas from? And how do they transform these ideas into life-changing inventions?

Bursting with activities, quizzes, easy experiments, cool tips and a galaxy of knowledge, this informative, exciting and entertaining book is sure to awaken the intrepid innovator in you!

Click here to buy on Amazon


They Found What?

A biologist who smashed cancer cells

A physicist who revealed the secrets of light

An ecologist who stumbled on a rare species of frog

Meet India’s brightest scientists and read all about their incredible, groundbreaking discoveries in this first-of-its-kind book. Explore the most fascinating fields of science, from neuroscience and biochemistry to evolutionary biology and thermodynamics, and unearth the answers to all the scientific questions you’ve ever thought about. Do scientists ever fail at maths? What tools and technologies do they use to uncover something new? Do they really have robotic assistants?

Bursting with activities, quizzes, easy experiments, cool tips and a galaxy of knowledge, this informative, exciting and entertaining book is sure to awaken the intrepid innovator in you! Through these stories of science, I wanted to bring science and scientists out of the limbo they have been in, bring them out of the hero worship cult, into our lives, into the lives of kids. Delve into their hardworking, creative lives and find inspiration for myself and hopefully for the little readers this book finds.

Click here to buy on Amazon

Gift this book to your friends and family. If you would like copies for reviews, please write to me. Order the book from an indie bookstore near your home to encourage them. If you are in Bangalore, I will even meet you to sign a copy for the child you buy this for.

Cover Reveal: New book on science and Indian scientists for kids

From fiction, I’ve time-travelled to writing a science book for kids! I’m thrilled to announce my upcoming flipbook with Hachette India.

Since it’s a book on science and Indian scientists written by a, umm, science-fiction author, expect more than a few laughs, a lot of activities and quizzes, and a rollercoaster ride through the stories of modern India’s contemporary scientists working in physics, biology and chemistry.

More about the book on science

They Made What? They Found What is a fun flipbook that retells stories of contemporary Indian scientists, their struggles, their work lives and why they push the boundaries of science and of themselves to discover or invent something (I suspect the brainwave happens when you wear a shiny white lab-coat).

The book comes loaded with activities, quizzes, experiments and a galaxy of knowledge. It’s written for kids and most adults. And you get two books in one. Of yes, you heard that right. Ek ke saath ek muftmuftmuft.

The marvellous covers, let me show them to you again, are created by Sharanya Kunnath, who is also responsible for the artwork of two madcapped characters that converse with these scientists in the book.

So, taadaa, here are the covers! Aren’t they wonderful?

How to order this science book

TMW? TFW? launches on 28th February, India’s National Science Day which marks the discovery of the Raman effect by Indian physicist CV Raman on 28 February 1928. Cool, right? I’ll tell you more behind-the-scene story in another blog on the launch day.

Meanwhile, you can preorder a copy on Amazon if you’d like by clicking on the photo below, or better still, wait for me to announce it and buy it at your neighbourhood indie store. I’ll try to list down all the stores that have it!

Click to order my science book for kids on Amazon.

Why WhatsApp policy is different for EU than for India

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy popped on my screen a lazy morning a couple of weeks ago, spreading its black-on-white legalese. Unlike most people who groan at the idea of reading clauses when all they want to do is scroll through good morning messages, I was filled with a sense of joy and determined purpose.

(First published as a opinion piece in Mint Lounge, a business daily in India.)

The new WhatsApp policy was a perfect morning coffee read. Dry legal language tuned into a friendly voice made legalese accessible, and told you how WhatsApp had to, for your own good, “receive or collect some information to operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market” their services. The way corporate lawyers use the English language to confound, hide and protect their company’s interests is a lesson in the art of writing.

The policy’s friendly voice announced that WhatsApp would share your user information (name, email, phone number, IP address, device settings) with Facebook and its group of companies and reminded you that it was all so you could interact with businesses better. I shrugged. The company had to make its money. No one could offer you an encrypted chat platform for free for long.

Different Whatsapp policies for different countries

What struck me was that WhatsApp had come up with two policies—two different legal contracts for two regions of the world. One for European Union (EU) citizens and the other for non-EU ones. The two policies clearly pointed to the direction in which internet companies have been moving for the past few years, tailoring policies to reflect the boundaries of countries they operate in.

(Read: Is internet freedom dead?)

For citizens of the EU and Ireland, WhatsApp’s privacy policy gives them more control of their data. The contract that Indians and the rest of the world sign with WhatsApp LLC is legally based in the US, with special data control privileges for citizens of US and Canada. If you’re from the ‘rest of the world’—as India is with about 150 other countries—you have no legal jurisdiction over your data as a user of the service in your country.

Political affiliations and origin of the country also reflect in policy. For example, WhatsApp’s new policy states that the app will not be available to countries with US-sanctions. I checked with my Iranian friends and a lot of US services, including Apple’s iTunes, are not available to them.

(Continued in a second upcoming post, here)

Must read graphic novels by Indian authors

When my eyes are screen-lagged, I love to cuddle up on my couch and unfurl a good old graphic novel, especially a narrative non-fiction one. A few years ago, I would have always recommended fantasy (I hounded artist Appupen, till he agreed to draw the covers of my fantasy series Anantya Tantrist Mysteries and have two graphics novels to my name: the bestselling Krishna Defender of Dharma and The Skull Rosary.). However, I’ve recently found myself at the non-fiction shelf – both online and offline – my eyes scanning through graphic novels on personal history and biographies.

Perhaps, the reason is the new book I’m about to release – a non-fiction, my first, on contemporary Indian scientists – who I interviewed all of last year. Narrative non-fiction, or the creative retelling of people’s stories, is something that I have become quite interested in recently. 

Even bookstores find them a constant read for readers. Abhinav Bamhi at Faqir Chand and Sons at Delhi, feels that the graphic novels have been ever popular. “Thanks to the new ideas, and unconventional illustrators and writers, this genre continues strong.”

A list of Must-Read Graphic novels

In the year 2021, as life remains uncertain and most of us screen-lagged peeps are shutting down their Netflix and heading to books, here are my recommendations of the Indian non-fiction graphic novels you must pick up to curl up with.

Bhimayana, a graphic novel

An intriguing story, the one which remains relevant in all days; Bhimyana is a fantastic retelling of Ambedkar’s history, his caste struggles (which remain relevant today too) and his travel to become the man who developed India’s constitution. It’s a beautiful visual book, illustrated by well known Gond artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam and written by S.Anand and Srividya Natarajan. A must-add to any graphic novel collection. 

Continue reading “Must read graphic novels by Indian authors”

Happy New Year: I had a great 2020! Here’s to 2021

happy new year!

Yes, I had a great 2020 and I wish you a happy new year.

This post is about all the little thankful things that come into our brains, bodies and soul, while the world is churning viruses. It was while developing a talk for my alumni network at Lady Sriram College, that I realized I had a great year.

Since the past few years, I had been in a kind of a slump. Possibly self created. Everything was going well in my life. I was physically fit, I had just moved to a new country (my idea) and in 2018-2019 travelled like flights would freeze in 2020 (ahem).

However, all through these two years, through mostly ups and some downs, the slump, this feeling of being low niggled at my heart, dousing everything marvellous I did was a rancid aftertaste. I sold a movie option to Anantya Tantrist Mysteries to a big producer. Nada. I founded a Swiss startup with amazing colleagues, earned well, and travelled to Dublin to speak at the WorldCon. Nada. I even waved at JRR Martin. Nada. I wrote short stories – a few of which were translated and published in French and Romanian and Dutch. Nada.

When even meeting JRR Martin does not stay with you for long, you know something’s wrong.

I was in some sort of a constant rut – constantly feeling like something was amiss when everything was perfect. Maybe it was a midlife crisis. Maybe I had finally changed too much, too frequently.  I don’t know. And it’s not someone I am! I used to be the person who celebrated every little milestone – a piddly salary increase, finishing of draft 1 (followed by finishing of draft 2, 3…), on an invite to talk at a literary festival. I love being joyous! And here I was, with a perfect life, but chugging through it.

This new year, take risks

And then the virus-created pandemic and the government-created lockdown hit us. As the world went into a crazy spur, I for some reason jumped out of mine. Early in 2020, we had settled in our beautiful home, I had a study. I became happy (though not always. My country’s people who had to walk back homes because of government-induced mismanagement was horribly tragic). All through April, I was in a flurry, writing my new book – a non-fiction which comes out in January – something I had never attempted. I was so busy, I had no time to see the Covid tickers that were everyone’s favourites or read those endless Whatsapp analysis.

Since the past few years, I had been in a kind of a slump. In 2020, as the world went into a crazy spur, I jumped out of mine. Here's how
A new wonderful project can bring a constant smile on your face. I was lucky that way!

In May, I took up a new opportunity with Nature Conservation Foundation – doing what I slowly didn’t realize that I loved – working on partnerships between organisations. I found a work-knack that I had never explored before. I also became a finalist in a prestigious French literary award – for The Daughter That Bleeds – which I had written in 2018, distracted, just for fun.

Do things you’ve never tried before

As lockdown opened up, I took on new hobbies and new way of life. I tried my hand at planting. In June, I started playing squash and lawn tennis – both games were new to me. In August, I bought a cycle, started cycling  25-30 kilometers, make a girls group for cycling in my community. All through the year, I was also working on a new science fiction novel (finished draft 1, which I celebrated just before Diwali!).

Can’t get enough to riding my bike, everyday!

I don’t know what happened to flip it, to get me out of that mood I had been in for a few years. Maybe it’s the fact that when tragedy comes knocking, really knocking – for the world – you stop feeling sorry for yourself and live your life as you were meant to do.

As we tumble into 2021, I wish this happiness and realisation and newness to all you wonderful folks. Keep travelling, keep taking risks and don’t forget that whatever you do, it’s the small joys that stay with you. Happy new year, folks!

SF in India: Challenges, Debutants and More

SF in India

Who is writing SF in India, you ask? Umm, let me tell you a story. A few years ago, as a naïve young writer, I enthusiastically knocked on an ancient door in a busy street of London. I was there to meet a reputed literary agent – a meeting which had been set up by a Booker long-listed author and friend. During the meeting, I introduced my (then) upcoming urban fantasy series, Anantya Tantrist Mysteries – an occult detective who solves supernatural crime in Delhi with a world built on myths and folklores of the subconti­nent.

Much to my delight, the reputed gentleman seemed enthusiastic. It changed the moment I mentioned that the series had been published in India. He shook his head. It was impossible, he explained sympathetically, to find a pub­lisher for the series as I did not own “British Commonwealth Rights,” something that all UK-based publishers would demand.

Quick Explainer of ‘British Commonwealth Rights’

To me, as a citizen of an erstwhile colonized land still reeling under the aftereffects of 200 years of slavery, the term “Commonwealth” bordered on the offensive. This was the first time I had heard it used by liter­ary agents and publishers. “British Commonwealth Rights,” in a contract, implies literary rights in 54 English-speaking countries which were erstwhile colonies of the British Empire. Ironically, the forward-thinking, language-conscious publishers who tweet using #OwnVoice and #BlackLivesMat­ter have not considered removing this clause from their legal contracts that divided the world along colonial lines of the 19th century.

The clause encapsulates the expectation that decision makers in the publishing industry have for genre works that emerge from the East, including India. “Big international publishers reinforce the existence of colonial and orientalist expectations when it comes to Indian writing, particularly when the writer is residing within the subcontinent,” says Lavanya Lakshminarayan, whose debut work Analog/Virtual (2020) got rave reviews in the subcontinent but is still not published in the West.

When Lavanya was shopping her novel, she was asked to write a “sellable” novel which could be the next “Slumdog Millionaire meets American Gods.” She developed the idea into a story, but couldn’t write it. “Why must we prove our ‘Indian-ness’ in colonially acceptable terms first?” she laments. Perhaps that’s why colonial­ism remains one of the major themes in Indian SF other than exploring an increasingly fractured democracy, gender violence, religious divisiveness and climate emergency through futuristic dystopias.

SF in India has themes of colonialism and climate emergency

“The legacy of colonial­ism, social and religious cleavages and climate change are the three core themes we find occurring and recur­ring in contemporary South Asian SFF,” agrees Gautam Bhatia, an editor with Strange Horizons who also debuted a SF novel this year. There is a reason. Most editors and their sales teams in New York and London continue to look for an exotic version of India meant to entertain a colonial, mostly white gaze.

Tashan Mehta, Kumar L, Sukanya Venkatraghavan
Continue reading “SF in India: Challenges, Debutants and More”