Or – why my books are set in Gurgaon
Reality and Fantasy, Science and Fiction: Which do you inhabit? It is convenient to think of these as separate worlds, their borders bound in the covers of books, best viewed from the seats of cinema halls, rules for engagement written in publisher’s ink, bought at a modest price, and left on your bookshelf when you weary of it. Convenient, but pointless.
Few things are more fantastical than reality. I discovered this when I first began writing fantasy. I turned for inspiration, as possibly every writer does at some point, to the things that interested me; geology, astronomy, mythology, how families become armies, why women work well together – that sort of thing. So if you asked me what was the most fantastical part of The Bones of Stars, I would say, Yellowstone Park. Which, as we all know, is more real than most things, larger and older than most things, and more likely to be the cause of the end of the world, than most things. Or if I were to say what was the most unreal thing I came across in my research for the book, I would say, the ancient provenance of the knowledge of the nebulae in the belt of the Orion constellation. Discovered a mere hundred years ago – fact; evident in myths from ten thousand years ago – also fact, just unbelievable. And if I had to say what was the heart of my books, I would say grandparents and grandkids.
So what I’m not saying, is that Jupiter’s thunderbolts are evidence of nuclear weaponry in ancient Greece, or that Ganesh’s head is evidence of cosmetic surgery in ancient India, or any of that. (Just so we’re clear.) What I am saying, is that the borders of the believable and the unbelievable are porous, and part of the job of the fantasy writer, as I see it, is to keep them that way. To make sure that there is never a brick wall that keeps out all those pesky foreign realities that threaten to cross over into our country of native realities when we aren’t looking. In that sense, Fantasy writing – my kind – is the child of the Romantics. Not just Keatsian, where the second order of ‘real’ things – buildings, monuments, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (!) – is as real as the first order – planets, the cosmos, Nature; but also a Winter’s Tale kind of Romance, where the impossible is shown to be the merely improbable, and slips into the realm of the real via a door that the playwright holds just a teeny bit ajar. It is as well to keep in mind that that door is held ajar, not just for the deeply desired, but equally, for the ferocious, and most intimately feared.
One way to think about this door, is to see it as the one that keeps the real-unreal differential open at all times. Consider the moment in First Contact, the Star Trek movie: when the first Vulcan spaceship finally lands on Earth, the doors open, and the first alien ever seen appears, the success or failure of the entire Star Trek enterprise (small ‘e’) lies in that first glimpse of the face of the Vulcan. Is he too human? Not different enough to move us out of our complacency? Is he too alien, leaving us only with a wry sense of having suspended our disbelief for nothing? Or is he (the answer is yes!) just familiar enough to leave us in our seats, and just alien enough to draw us out, and leave us with the sense of wonder that is the holy grail of the sci-fi or fantasy writer?
This is a question that JK Rowling need never ask herself or her readers, where her books create an alternate universe in which the magical is familiar, although delightful. We would actually be disappointed to find that letters arrived by postman instead of by owl, and the pressure on this kind of writer is to constantly create newer and more unexpectedly unreal things in order to keep the reader delighted. It is also important to recognise that the affect of this kind of fantasy is delight, not wonder. The capacity for wonder is lost the minute the alien world of magic becomes a familiar, Hogwartsian home for the reader and for the characters within the book.
Consider Marquez (for instance: feel free to consider any ‘magic realist’ you like; my own favourite is Allende) – there is always the chance that a woman may actually take wing and fly away while hanging up the laundry, or a house produce extra rooms for guests as needed. Sometimes wonder, sometimes delight, there is the frisson of recognition of other worlds, other lives, other happenings, just out of our reach here in the real world, which may, without warning, enter through arbitrary windows, doors, gables, cracks in the flooring. This, too, is not the wonder consequent upon the real-unreal differential being held open at all times, where the real is always present, the unreal always new.
It is possible, often, to avoid pointy hats, wands, and cleaning implements substituting as transport vehicles. And often, these are, indeed, avoided, especially by writers who write for the ‘adult’. This is where we talk about sex and violence – look out for the exciting new sequel to this potboiler coming to a blogpost near you.
“We can’t hide the fact that we have all been raised from C S Lewis to Tolkien to the rest of them; that we have all been raised on various Hindu mythology and Indian mythologies and know more about pixies and fairies than perhaps even the Irish children…..thanks to Enid Blyton. So there is no hiding the fact that these are who our influencers are.”
This podcast is another in our Radio Brew series where we interview thought leaders on the issues and institutions that matter to us as a country with increasing global visibility.
We felt that after much serious discussion on ethics, social innovation and development, we should change tracks, lighten up a bit, and look at some of our society’s trendsetters.
Our trendsetter this time around is a new author, Giti Chandra, whose first offering, the Fang of Summoning, has been described by critics as a fantasy novel in the same mould as Harry Potter. Its publishers categorise it as a Young Adult or adolescent crossover appealing to a wider age group as well. This genre, in India and worldwide, has largely been dominated by JK Rowling, Teri Pratchett and Percy Jackson.
So here we have a literary academic plunging into a hitherto unexplored terrain in India. Now young adults in India can read stories about experiences and anxieties they can relate to at a more personal level.
As Giti herself puts it: the Fang of Summoning is not about ‘dumbing down’ but about addressing the real issues that India’s adolescents and their parents go through. She said it began as a process of storytelling with her nephews and nieces before morphing into a novel. Giti promises this is but just the beginning. We can expect a trilogy, and perhaps even an entire series of prequels and offshoots.
The Fang of Summoning zigzags chillingly between Iceland and India. The novel is about a war between ancient good and evil; between Vasuki (the Indian snake king) and Edasich (the orange star in astronomy).
Amid the leaping and spectacular Northern lights in the frozen mountains of Iceland, Vasuki — the giver of life, protector and friend — leaves a vital secret with a young girl.
A thousand years later, in the bustling suburb of Gurgaon, six young people discover that they are beginning to manifest amazing powers in preparation for the war ahead, under the tutelage of their grandfather Harish Chandra, the guardian of that secret.
It’s a fast-paced story of six superpower-endowed children finding themselves up against an ugly monster who can raise the dead to serve as his henchmen.
Giti draws on her family and friends for inspiration, giving her characters their personalities and sometimes, even names.
The way Giti describes it: her book is not about Hogwarts-like schools or alternative magic lands. It is, quite simply, just fantasy rooted in reality.
Listen in to hear the author tell it like it is.
In which I talk about The Fang of Summoning and The Bones of Stars at the Bookaroo Festival, for this wonderful this called Author TV 🙂
You can cross the seas to
Witness his birth
Fly the skies, straddle
But he’s born every time he
Touches the strings
Every note, every song
He sings. Its
One way to define
Liberty; its own kind
(The picture below is of Amar Pandey, who inspired this poem, and who is one of the super-heroes in The Book of Guardians series.)
Chapter 15: The Attack of the Ferals
It was an image of the geyser blowing at Yellowstone. The image in the central laptop was odd but unmistakable. The frame had caught the eruption at its peak and the screen was filled with red flecked with gold.
“Well I’ll be darned. It’s the eruption!” Yvonne was the first to speak. “And that is exactly as we saw it. That same, absolutely impossible deep red!”
Ethan leaned in and pointed to the third screen. “Hyun? What on earth are those green dots doing?! This looks like a DNA sequence or something!” Hyun pulled a chart over to her and began to make some calculations in pencil on it. “Well, you see” she began but she was cut short by Adit.
“Is that a face?”
The words were no more than a whisper yet the room fell silent as if felled by a blow. Everyone turned to him as he leaned towards the first screen. It showed the geyser moments after it had subsided. The still pool, still rippling from the after water had been sucked back in and spewed lightly back. It was a dull, rusty red with shadows deep in its centre and gold lights shifting over its surface.
“There. See?” He pointed to a smudge in the centre of the bubble. Hyun hurried over and pressed a few keys. The image enlarged, zooming in on the spot that Adit’s finger had touched. A large blurry image filled the screen with two just discernible patches that could be eyes. Hyun tapped a few more keys and the image sprang into focus. Adit sank to his knees.
With a deafening bang the door slammed shut. In the instant it took the three witches to open the door and whirl out, Adit was armed and battle ready. He hefted the carving knife from the kitchen in one hand and gripped the handle of a smaller blade in the other. Outside the Feral army had massed an attack of gigantic proportions. Adit’s skin crawled as he saw the flat yellow eyes and spotted skin revealed through the patches of fur that clung to the bony hyena-men. He slashed at a large male as it lunged for him, realizing in the same moment that his paltry kitchen knives were no use against a foe that was already dead. The severed arm of the Feral snapped back into place and a shower of its spit hit Adit across his chest, burning its way through his clothes into his skin.
“Use these!” Adit’s arm swung out instinctively when he heard Hsimah’s shout and he caught a long sliver of ivory in his hand. Without stopping to wonder what manner of weapon this was, he bent double under a flying spray of the deadly spit and lashed out at the legs of the Feral. The ivory rapier sliced through the bone almost without effort and the severed legs fell to the earth in a pile of powdered bone.
“Bone to bone!” shouted Hsimah, his grin wild against the raised sabre tooth he wielded. It was at least 6 feet long but Hsimah swung it lightly, his slim body lithe as a whip. Swift as quicksilver, he stepped behind a crouching female Feral and stabbed her backhanded, wrenching the sabre tooth sword out and bringing it about in a wide arc to ground it ferociously in the neck of another.
“Another, Hsimah!” called Adit, and an instant later reached out to catch a short, lethal looking dagger about a foot long. It was slightly curved, like a horn torn from some large animal’s head. But before he could turn a body slammed into his back with gutting power. Forced to his knees Adit dropped the dagger to tear at the bony arms wrapped around his neck, the body heavy beyond belief. Gagging, he felt the muzzle-like chin against his cheek, the spit burning its way down neck and screamed in agony. The stench of the decaying flesh filled his lungs and he choked again, writhing in the dead creature’s grip. Twisting his other arm, he brought the thin rapier about and brought it down on his own back in a flagellating motion. The Feral dissolved in dust as the rapier ripped through it and Adit leapt to his feet, staggering from the pain. His neck and chest were smoking where the deadly spit continued to hiss and sizzle on the blackening flesh. Yet he grabbed the horned dagger and forced an eye open just as the skin was beginning to pucker up around it.
A tall form confronted him inches away. Adit reared back and raised his dagger to strike.
“Easy, easy. Let me take a look at that nasty stuff.” The voice was soft and comforting and the tall shape resolved itself into Ethan, blue eyes shining through the dirt that matted his hair and face. Somehow in the midst of hell he was a spot of silence and stillness. Adit swayed towards him and he caught the boy deftly, placing both hands gently over the worst of the wounds. The teeth gritting agony ebbed almost immediately, subsiding to a dull throbbing. Adit opened his eyes, wondering why he had not been attacked again and stared dumbfounded. The battle raged all about them still, but seemed to flow around them like a roaring river parting around a large rock in its path. Ethan’s robes swirled gently in the current but seemed to mark the outmost boundary of the temporary oasis. Adit gazed up in wonder at him. The warlock’s eyes were shut and a look of intense suffering suffused his face. Suddenly the intense blue eyes snapped wide open and with a hoarse shout Ethan flung out an arm into the battle.
Hyun came skidding into the silent circle, her hair matted with blood where a severed hand clung on. Adit found himself loosed and sprang towards Hyun, burying his dagger up to his fist straight into the face of the enormous creature that clawed at Hyun with its other hand. He barely had time to glance back and mutter “thanks, man!” before another Feral was upon him. Hyun stayed barely still, swearing loudly and furiously as Ethan smoothed her hair with an infinitely gentle hand. Then she strode forward, pulled up her hoodie’s long sleeves and flung a bolt of pure energy past Adit towards Hsimah. Hsimah zipped a hair’s breadth to the left and inclined his head in courtly gratitude as the Feral lunging for his neck went up in flames.
Chapter 13: The Third Witch
Adit gripped Ethan’s hand in his, wondering whether his grin signaled happiness at having cracked a good joke or joy at being, in fact, a witch. Finding no clue in the frank blue gaze, he settled for – “Shouldn’t that be ‘wizard’?”
“Warlock, actually”, smiled the tall blond witch. This left Adit no wiser as to whether he was serious or joking, but Hsimah had no such doubts.
“Ah. The third. But naturally.” He inclined his head in Ethan’s direction. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Yvonne groaned dramatically, sighed and heaved herself out of the depths of the sofa. “Yo. The boy says ‘Yo’! We dress him up, we take him out, and this is how he behaves, the wretched, wretched boy!” She pummeled him on his stout upper arm in despair. He caught her shoulders in a one-armed clasp and mussed her hair with a large hand.
“She loves me,” he told Adit and Hsimah confidentially. Yvonne hrrumphed. They all stood about while an awkward silence descended on the group. Adit looking from one to the other, Hsimah eyeing the three others speculatively, Yvonne pouting, Hyun worried, Ethan beaming from ear to ear. Finally, Hsimah cleared his throat as prelude to speaking. Everyone turned to him.
“So. Three witches. A full coven.”
Ethan reached over and pulled Hyun into his other arm. Then he looked Hsimah in the eye and nodded once. “Aye, Sir.” He managed to appear protective, bashful and proud all at once. Hsimah held his eye for a while. Then he inclined his head in silent acknowledgment. Adit watched this exchange carefully. Clearly some sort of understanding had been reached between the two men that escaped him for the moment. He cleared his throat.
“So are you three really witches? What is a coven? And how can it help me find Akshat?” The flat tone in which the three questions were delivered alerted everyone to the fact that he was beginning to lose his patience; in fact, he was very close to losing his mind. He was almost sure that coming here with Yvonne had been a huge mistake. So far, nothing of great importance had been revealed, no-one had suggested even one course of action towards finding his brother and now here was this tall blond man claiming to be a witch! What was a witch, anyway? Adit and Akshat had stopped reading fiction at age 9 when they discovered that it was not fact. They were not, unlike many of their friends, raised on a diet of fantasy and magic and had trouble identifying heroes and heroines of popular fiction that their peers referred to by first names. Nevertheless, the past few months had certainly brought home to the twins the existence of things they would earlier have firmly labeled ‘fiction’ – and ‘fantasy’ at that. Still, it was one thing to accept your own and your family’s powers, and quite another to find witches in America: where they had specifically been sent to get away from the all that.
Hyun shrieked and broke free from Ethan’s hold. She raced across the room straight towards Adit. Astonished, he stepped out of her way just as she hurtled past him screaming ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod. She threw herself into a chair in front of the laptop in the middle, tapping keys furiously. Numbers and images flew over the screen in a blur. She muttered under her breath, gasping and putting her hand to her mouth as her eyes followed the blurs at lightning speed. Utterly baffled, the room full of people gaped at her trying to track her arms as they snapped from laptop to laptop, the fingers clicking on the keys in a non-stop clatter. Suddenly she reached over, pressed a key and whirled about to face them all.
“See!” The command snapped all eyes to the laptop her slender arm pointed at.