SOMEWHERE IN A UNIVERSE FAR, far away, a wall starts to crumble, and death begins to creep southwards into a land riven by strife and pride.
Somewhere in Britain, a dark wizard has gathered his forces, mustering an army that will hold a magical world in thrall.
And somewhere in the future, fertile women are enslaved, their bodies turned to the service of a god-fearing state for whom children are the most precious resource.
To those who are avid fans of fantasy and science fiction, these are familiar stories, conveyed in the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire—the book series on which the television show A Game of Thrones is based—the Harry Potter books, and the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, respectively. To those who know little of these books, the premises may sound like ridiculous, alarmist scenarios that are disconnected from our lived reality.
Books of this kind have long been slotted into one of two genres: dystopian fiction, often set in the future and showing a world warped by technological advancement or climate change; or fantasy, where otherworldly creatures roam magical and unfamiliar landscapes. Fantasy writers create worlds that cannot exist in our reality because they defy our current understandings of the laws of nature, while dystopian fiction posits realities that could conceivably come to be and should serve as warnings.
The catch-all term for such stories, which posit a “what if” scenario—including those from other allied genres, like science fiction—is “speculative fiction.” Speculative fiction can use its more extraordinary elements to exaggerate or highlight aspects of contemporary society, holding a mirror to its flaws. Fantasy, in particular, often does this by dramatising issues and debates in a starker manner than they appear in the real world.
In recent years, these genres have enjoyed considerable commercial success, due to adaptations and an ever-expanding market for film and television. The Potter books transformed JK Rowling, their author, into one of the few literary billionaires on the planet. The books have also led to a series of blockbuster films. HBO’s Game of Thrones has won critical acclaim and a worldwide audience; it also has one of the biggest budgets among television shows of all time. This year, Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale was adapted into a critically acclaimed Hulu series.
Given the global appeal of speculative fiction, it is no wonder that publishers in India have been on a quest to bottle the formula of these books and replicate them in the domestic market. Apart from a few exceptions, however, the books that have achieved major commercial success in the genre of Indian fantasy tend to retell stories from Hindu mythology, such as Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy. Rather than create entirely new stories, Tripathi’s books seek to shed new light on older ones, providing different viewpoints that might make them more relevant to India today. For instance, in Sita: Warrior of Mithila, the latest instalment in Tripathi’s new trilogy, based on the Ramayana, the demure wife from the conventional retellings of the epic is recast as a warrior princess with martial skills and a political agenda of her own. However, Sita still fits within the larger world of the Ramayana, with Tripathi merely interpreting the story instead of attempting to create new characters and a new plotline.
The religious overtones of mythological fiction in India make it different from its Western counterpart, and fundamentally change the way that novels in the genre are received, and hence, written. In the latter, the gods of Olympus are dead. They no longer receive sacrifices and libations and are ripe for reinvention and repurposing, without hurting anyone’s religious sentiments. Some authors, such as the British novelist Neil Gaiman, have used this to spectacular effect. Retooling European mythology seems to be a running theme for Gaiman. In American Gods, he teases out the theme of immigration by asking what happens to ideas from the “old country” when they are brought to a new land. American Gods places Odin, the Norse god, in a modern American context, where he is on a mission to recruit other deities in a battle against the “new gods” of money and media. The book interrogates ideas of belief, home and how a people come to be made. Gaiman uses the bones of old myths to tell his story, presenting a clash where what is at stake is the very soul of contemporary America and the myths by which it understands itself.
American Gods is both a thrilling fantasy ride—with a hero, gods and magic—and a political text that questions notions of what it means to be American. In the South Asian context, authors such as Indra Das, Tashan Mehta, Sami Shah and Prayaag Akbar have written speculative fiction that poses similar questions and holds up a mirror to our contemporary societies.
While they do use some elements from Hindu or Islamic myths, each writer attempts to tell a new story, not loop back to rewrite what has been told before. Even when myths are used, as in Gaiman’s novel, they are placed in a modern South Asian context. This sets them apart from the mythological fiction of Tripathi and others in the genre, and it is also perhaps for this reason that they have not met with the sort of widespread following among readers that the most commercially-successful mythological fiction enjoys. Indra Das’s The Devourers, Tashan Mehta’s The Liar’s Weave, Prayaag Akbar’s Leila and Sami Shah’s Boy of Fire and Earth each has flaws. Still, they are all bold in the manner in which they set out to craft entirely new worlds, or recast disconcertingly familiar ones that challenge the existing order of our societies, and provide South Asian readers with visions of other futures for ourselves.
AKBAR’S LEILA TELLS THE STORY of one woman’s search for her daughter. The book is set in an unnamed Indian city that is divided into blocks, each home to one particular religious or caste community. The elite of this society hover above all others, literally, as they travel on elevated roadways that do not touch the ground; those below must deal with the ever-present dust, and roving bands of the ruling Council’s thugs who act as a moral police.
In the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, Shalini, her husband, Riz—who is Muslim—and others like them who believe they are too enlightened and educated to be touched by the city’s divisions, live in their own sector. Then their world comes crashing down. Riz is dragged away and Shalini is torn from her daughter Leila, then sent to a “re-education” centre where she is indoctrinated in the ways of the Council. When she is released, it is into a circumscribed existence devoid of friends or family, where her will to live is driven only by her commitment to finding the daughter she lost.
The greatest symbol of this horrifying, divided world is the walled centre of the city, which shelters those who hold true power and make all political decisions. Shalini makes a yearly pilgrimage to this great wall, where she meets the ghost of Riz, and imagines the life Leila might be leading at the moment. There are others like her, who stand outside the tall black walls, some attempting to scale them in a desperate bid to get to the world inside. The inequality that divides India finds a dramatic illustration in Akbar’s descriptions of the climbers, scaling the heights of the black walls only to fall, tired and defeated, to the ground below.
The city of Akbar’s imagination is terrifying because of the obvious parallels it has with India today. Shalini moves through a world that is baking hot and inhospitable, and has little room for those who voice dissent against the Council’s puritanical mores. It is impossible to find information, except in hard-to-access places, and usually an exchange, for a woman at least, often involves one’s body. Akbar’s decision to keep the city nameless means that he could be writing about any Indian urban space, making it relatable for many readers. Like most good speculative writing, Leila smacks of enough familiarity to be terrifying. It is easy enough to follow the events that led to this reality, and for most readers, the path that joins us to where Shalini ends up is all too clear.
Leila owes much of its premise, and its worldbuilding, to Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. There are parallels between Akbar’s unnamed city and the Gilead of Handmaid’s Tale, where a woman, torn away from her family by a governmental power, seeks to find her daughter. Gilead is a religious state founded by zealots who interpret the Bible literally, and see the corralling of fertile women as the only means to answer the crises of infertility and a plummeting population. Movement through Gilead is strictly policed, with shadow agents, called “Eyes,” reporting on and imprisoning those who dare to flout the state’s many restrictions. The recent Hulu adaptation, for example, tracks what happens when one character, Ofglen, is found to be a “gender traitor” because she engages in a homosexual relationship, and it describes the punitive price that she and her partner must pay.
Akbar’s dystopia seems less cruel, in some ways. The city does not have the sanitised brutality of Gilead; its thuggish enforcers of morality, while dangerous and unpredictable, lack the cold menace that characterises the Eyes of Atwood’s world. Rather, they seem like the lynch mobs which have become familiar in India today, men who are out to beat and bully for their own fun. Like Atwood, Akbar complicates the narratives of perpetrators and victims as he also explores the idea of women oppressing women. The quest to find Leila culminates in a final confrontation between Shalini and a woman who once worked for her, which resembles the tension between Offred, the eponymous handmaid and narrator of Handmaid’s Tale, and Mrs Waterford, the woman in charge of the household she is bound to. The Hulu adaptation makes clear what is only hinted at in the books: Mrs Waterford knows where the narrator’s child is, and uses this information to keep her in her place.
These similarities aside, there are also noticeably Indian elements in this novel: the division of the city into very specific caste and religious communities like Rajputs, Guptas, Muslims and others; and the environmental markers of open landfills and ever-present smog, for which Delhi has lately become infamous. They make Leila a timely, evocative novel. Akbar lays out what appears to be the emerging future of Indian urban life—a world of walls, where landfills stretch up to the sky, and the only breathable air is literally sealed in enormous bubbles inhabited by the rich and powerful.
DYSTOPIAN FICTION OFFERS diagnoses of contemporary social problems; fantasy fiction can sometimes posit a cure. Fantasy offers more room for anarchic plots than dystopian fiction, and it allows for the creation of alternate worlds that are not limited by plausibility, and where magic can take hold. Samit Basu capitalised on these genre conventions with great effect in his debut novel, The Simoqin Prophecies. First published in 2004 and still perhaps the best example of non-myth-based Indian fantasy, Basu’s novel moves through kingdoms ranging in inspiration from Vedic-age India to the Nordic wastelands of Viking warriors, and beyond. In many ways, his is the perfect postcolonial response to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. How well do the rules of Western fantasy work, Basu seems to ask, when placed in non-European settings? The stock characters, such as the handsome hero figure, or the vigilant knight, are made to seem ludicrous and out of place in his madcap universe. His equivalent to Tolkien’s elves, the Ravians, do not use their beauty and superior abilities for good; instead, they are proto-imperialists, subjugating other races in their desire to build a “perfect” civilisation. It is the “villainous” characters, the rakshasas and asuras, who are the real stars, fighting the stultifying effect of the Ravians and keeping their world free. The “good guys” of the West do not seem so angelic in the East; the heroes of Western fantasies appear as misguided and dangerous villains in this novel. Basu thus posits the traditions of the West in a new context, writing against the canon at the same time that he embraces it. His heroes do not belong to the same races that dominate Tolkien’s world, but are the very “orcs” they might try to oppress. In this way, he blends Western fantasy with an Indian, postcolonial sensibility, creating something new for audiences.
Indra Das, in The Devourers, does something similar, where he uses the Western conception of the werewolf in order to highlight the stifling sexual mores of present-day India. Set in Kolkata, the novel opens at a baul mela, a festival of traveling troubadours, where the narrator, Alok, meets a man who calls himself a werewolf. His story makes up the meat of the book—a tale that moves through different eras and places, from the plains of central India under the rule of Mughal emperors, to reach the mangrove swamps near today’s Kolkata, where the mysterious stranger was born.
Much of the action takes place in liminal spaces: in the tent of a traveling sex worker, in tiger-infested mangrove swamps, on the roofs of an abandoned city. Such places, Das seems to suggest, are where the magic of the otherworldly can thrive. Within the city, identities and sexualities are muffled, forced to take on an appearance of normalcy. Outside of Kolkata’s confines, humans and monsters blossom into their true selves, whether it is to take on the shape of a wolf, or to shed the inhibitions imposed by a homophobic, patriarchal society. In the end, we realise that Alok has a second identity as a woman named Shalini. The story of the werewolf gives Alok the courage to reveal her to us, though whether she will travel beyond the confines of her room remains an open question.
The wondrous elements of his world are nearly overwhelmed by Alok’s worries and epiphanies. The last page of the novel is a long list of questions, through which Alok tries, increasingly desperately, to be free from the limitations imposed on him as a middle-class, intellectual Bengali man. The fantastic is eclipsed by Alok’s worries about his identity, and the monster-man seems merely a device for opening his eyes to the multitude of realities and experiences one might have.
Das uses fantasy as a means to illustrate the constraints of society, but also seems to signal that it is only in otherworldly, uninhabited places that those of a marginal identity can truly be at ease. While this is a compelling argument, it is also a troubling one, since the narrative characterises non-urban places as sites of unbounded wonder, but also of violence and monstrosity. Yet, ultimately the violence of the werewolf’s world is unexplored, as it is drowned out by the clamour of Alok’s yearning to be free of the mundane, human one. Readers are told that the werewolf was brought into the world by the rape of a human woman; we are also constantly given glimpses of werewolves and other shapeshifters hunting their prey, seeing the blood and guts spill onto the ground as they attack. In Alok’s epiphanies, we are asked to forget all this, to instead see the fantastic as a better alternative to the world he inhabits, regardless of the rape and destruction that seem its most salient characteristics. In this way, Das’s world-building is both compelling and constrained, as it also shows the limitations of such alternate imagining of a different kind of social order.
Tashan Mehta’s recent novel, The Liar’s Weave, is in the tradition of The Devourers. It continues with the theme of the human city as a constraining space. In Mehta’s novel, which is set in 1920s Bombay, every person has their “birth chart” read to them at a certain age—a rite of passage that marks the transition into adulthood. To escape the tyranny of the stars, the “ill fated” flee to the carnivorous embrace of Vidroha, a forest outside of Bombay. There, they await the arrival of a hero who can rewrite their fates, and find them release from the misfortune foretold for them. Mehta seems to be creating a metaphor for a society fixed by caste; it is telling that the only “ill-fated” characters we meet come from marginalised backgrounds, poor villages or tribes, and are persecuted well before they think of retreating to Vidroha.
The hero they await is Zahan Merchant, the one human who has no chart. Zahan is blessed with the ability to weave reality with his words. When Zahan says something, he makes it appear real for those around him, a skill that at first gets him out of scrapes, but later appears more a curse than a boon. While Zahan can lie to others, he cannot believe in his lies himself, alienating him from the larger world.
Mehta’s Bombay makes use of a familiar trope: to find oneself and one’s true purpose, one must leave the comforts of home and venture into the dark woods. This is thematically similar to Das’s work, in which heroes only find liberation in the non-human world. Bombay itself is only superficially present in Mehta’s novel, more a token of what Vidroha is not than an important place in itself. It is the antithesis of the magical, shifting forest, where vines claw at intruders, and tangled ropes make a palace in the sky. The city is a place of confinement, where one must watch what one says, as in Akbar’s unnamed city, and where castes and communities must stick to the places and social positions assigned to them.
Mehta does not fully explore the political overtones of Zahan’s powers, and their limitations, despite the fact that the book is set in what seems to be a promising historical moment: the early 1920s, when the Indian freedom movement was well underway. Vidroha is far removed from the realities Mehta’s readers are familiar with, and despite her attempts to tie some of its residents to the turmoil created by the British (she does make an attempt to connect the suffering of one character to the evils of the Criminal Tribes Act), the story has little connection to the political themes of the anti-colonial struggle of the time.
The book ends on an ambiguous note, with Zahan fleeing his old life to lose himself in a new one. The larger ideas, of what exactly such a figure means in a colonised India seeking to shape its own reality free from British rule, or what this freedom means to those individuals or communities who are ill fated, remain unexplored. Liar’s Weave is full of unrealised potential, as Zahan is sadly not utilised to explore the larger social and political questions of what freedom meant during the initial stage of the post-colonial Indian state, of which communities, and individuals, could indeed benefit from this freedom and what path this liberation might take.
This is a tall task to take on for any author, especially in a debut novel. Some might say that it is unfair to hold Mehta accountable for this lack, if it were not for the publishing house explicitly marketing her book as the successor to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a novel which shifted the paradigm of South Asian literary fiction by using magic to write a national narrative.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Gabriel García Márquez described what drove him, and Latin American writers like him, to adopt the stylised, fantastical form of writing which became known as “magic realism”: “Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.” Márquez framed the choice to use the fantastic in explicitly political terms. In the South Asian context, Rushdie adopted this same technique in his writing, both in Midnight’s Children and the Satanic Verses. The latter is banned in India.
In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie made literal the magic of India’s awakening at the “stroke of midnight” in the abilities of children born at the precise moment the country attained its freedom. The birth of a nation, with all its creative and destructive possibilities, was figured in the forms of these children, most notably Saleem, who carries telepathic powers to connect and communicate with the gifted; Parvati, who can create illusions and break barriers between what is real and what is not; and Shiva, a child of violence and destruction. The conflict is framed between Saleem and Shiva, whose destinies are set by a switch at the hospital; the result is that Shiva, angry and abused, is raised in a poor family while Saleem is lavished with care and material comfort. The violence of Shiva is posed against the empathic possibilities personified by Saleem; Rushdie suggests these are the two roads facing India, and it is unclear, at the close, which one it will take.
SAMI SHAH’S young-adult fantasy novel, Boy of Fire and Earth, shows stronger traces of Rushdie, though the comparison is not explicitly stated by blurbs or in other marketing material. Shah places characters from Islamic lore in a contemporary urban setting, in Karachi, creating a city rife with magic and potential.
Boy tells the story of Wahid, a normal-seeming child who turns out to have mysterious powers. When attacked by djinns, Wahid finds that he has the power to see them and harm them in return, and this sets off a series of events that leads to a meeting with the Devil, and a journey to Kaf, the city of djinns. Wahid is set on a quest to avert the coming of Dajjal, the “false messiah,” and save Karachi from a nuclear apocalypse.
At one level, Shah’s book is clearly meant for young readers who enjoy the narratives made popular by series such as Harry Potter, as well as Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which was written by the author Rick Riordan. Shah draws on Islamic lore to create a cast of supernatural characters, much like Riordan brought the gods and monsters of ancient Greece to modern-day America. Like Percy, Wahid is a young boy who learns the secrets behind his true parentage. There is young love and heartbreak, and work to be completed, like in many fantasy novels aimed at young readers.
What makes Shah’s book different from these other novels, though, is the manner in which it gives the city a central role. Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is an entirely fictional space. There are secret alleyways in real-world places, like London, that make an appearance in the Potter books, but Rowling rarely plays up the magic or power of these real places, as she does for Hogwarts. Moreover the magical world is not contained within Hogwarts alone. Harry’s adventures may have begun with an invitation to the school, but the place is only one site in a sprawling world. In contrast, Shah’s novel is set entirely in a Karachi that is swirling in a magical chaos. It is a real-world metropolis sinking under the weight of corruption and fundamentalism. Yet, in the novel, the city is never a mute site where things happen; it actively seems to will events into being, and is constantly surprising its residents with mysteries and secrets. Passages open from its most decrepit buildings into magical worlds, street children morph into lords of the city and djinns appear in the foyers of sweetshops and the branches of overhanging trees. Shah highlights both the ability of the city to astonish as well as its destructive capabilities—the heartlessness demonstrated in the unblinking stares that greet the death of another street urchin, the absence of wails after the shooting of a woman too slow to hand over her phone.
Shah uses religious myths, but his novel is different from the retellings of Tripathi and other Indian mythological fiction writers in that he fuses mythic elements with contemporary reality. In this, he replicates Gaiman’s method in American Gods. Shah localises his narrative at the same time that he gives it general appeal with his use of fantasy conventions. Boy is extremely successful in reeling in readers who are fond of the Young Adult fantasy genre. By paying close attention to setting and the customs of its characters, it manages to add a political layer to the narrative as well. It is a sad fact that, in the present moment, any depiction of Islam or its lore carries with it an added political weight. Shah seems conscious of this, and does a laudable job of presenting Islam as a viable source for fantasy fiction, specifically the kind that could interest teenage boys growing up on video games, Marvel comics, and Harry Potter—the primary cultural diet of Wahid and his friends. Shah shows readers that Islam and its monsters can be as cool and full of adventure as any Greek saga. Readers of speculative fiction in South Asia rarely get to see their own world on a page. It is enormously empowering for a young South Asian reader to find one’s world transformed into a fantasy realm in a film or a novel. In this regard, Shah, like Basu before him, shows how creating a compelling fantasy world grounded in a South Asian context is itself an act with political implications.
It has, historically, been easy for literary critics to dismiss fantasy fiction as the concern of children. Such dismissal has rarely taken into consideration the importance that children’s literature as a whole, and fantasy fiction in particular, can have in a child’s imagination. The most immediate effects can be seen in the fact that many charitable organisations around the world use symbols from the fantasy genre to mobilise action. “Not in Harry’s Name,” for instance, was a campaign organised by members of the Harry Potter Alliance, which got Warner Bros to ensure the chocolate sold in their parks was 100 percent fair trade. There are many other such instances of campaigns and worthy causes propelled by such symbols from fantasy fiction. But there is a deeper impact which is harder to see but perhaps more dramatic and socially significant. In this age of video games and the internet, the Harry Potter books turned on a generation of children to the magic of reading. If a fantasy series set in South Asia ever garners mass appeal at the same level, then one can only imagine the social impact that it would have on a generation of South Asians.
Given the power of these genres, it is no wonder that publishers have been trying to find the Indian Harry Potter for years. Perhaps it is time to stop searching. South Asian speculative fiction has its own monsters to slay; it does not need an imported Voldemort. Harry can stay in Hogwarts, and Offred can worry about liberating Gilead. South Asian authors might not have the mighty resources of the West behind them, nor a bunch of big-budget, award-clinching adaptations to signal their success, but they are here, raising voices, however small, to signal protest against the real with magical weapons. They provide escape at the same time that they question the world we escape from, and stepping into the pages of their stories is a thought-provoking as well as entertaining experience. If these authors are showing us anything, it is that we do have our own heroes, our Shalinis and Wahids, to save the day.
Achala Upendran is a graduate student at the University of Southern California. Her debut novel will be published by Hachette in 2018.