Interview: Indra Das, author, science fiction and fantasy novels
The author of The Devourers, a hallucinatory dark fantasy about shapeshifters in Mughal and contemporary India, talks about fantasy writing in the country and about his hometown Kolkata’s secrets
What drew you to fantasy?I have loved fantasy from when I was very young. Fantasy is in everything you read when you’re young because, genres and marketing boxes aside, imaginative nonrealism is very common in storytelling across history. The folklore, mythology, tall tales, fairy tales, children’s literature you listen to and read when you are young is rife with the fantastical. I saw no need to lose sight of that as an adult reader. My first memory of reading an adult/young adult “fantasy novel” (rather than children’s literature), as a preteen was The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks.
What is your writing process?I don’t have a single process. It changes according to circumstance and the context. How and when I wrote in college is very different from how I write now, and that too differs from month to month. I tend to make a huge mess in my head before it resolves into a story on the page, so it’s hard to describe. As for inspiration, I draw it from literally everything, from the experience of living itself, from what’s going on in the world, from the art that I absorb day to day, everything I’m reading, watching, listening to. And perhaps less commonly -- from my dreams. I think it’s incredible that we have a second life as oneironauts exploring a constantly-transforming multiverse where anything can happen. I’ve seen things in my dreams that you cannot experience in reality. That’s great for a storyteller.
How did the idea of The Devourers, your last novel, take shape?During my undergraduate years, I attended a baul mela in Kolkata, and, while intoxicated, had a vision (not quite literally, but almost) while protecting a kitten in the mela ground from a circling pack of dogs, of being in the same spot hundreds of years earlier, listening to minstrels around a campfire in the dark wilderness, while monsters hunted us. When I returned from winter break to college, I turned that into a short story in a Creative Writing class, which eventually turned into the first chapter of The Devourers a while later, when I was in grad school.
The Devourers features characters whose bodies are malleable. Some of them are werewolves. Were you aware then that werewolves were an allegory for gender and sexual dissidence?I was certainly aware of the ways in which werewolves and other shapeshifter myths can be an exploration of sexuality and gender (among various other subtexts), and the fear human beings have of recognising the fluidity of these aspects of our identity. But I wrote the monsters in the books as werewolves/shapeshifters because I wanted to, not because I specifically wanted to explore specific themes. That came up organically while writing.Similarly, I write fantasy because I like it. I don’t just write fantasy either, because I love experimenting with all kinds of storytelling. I try not to think of stories just in terms of genre -- I write what I want to, and people can categorise it how they want, or not (even better).
The city of Kolkata features prominently in your many works (in Kolkata Sea and The Devourers). Just like the shapeshifters in your novel, isn’t the city too is changing its form. How have the social-cultural vectors of Calcutta-Kolkata defined your writing? Kolkata will always play a huge role in my writing since I grew up here and live here. And as the city changes that change will also be reflected in my writing, of course, depending on the era I’m writing about. The Kolkata in The Devourers is already quite far in the past now. I do find writing to be a lovely way to remember the city’s past especially as much of the ways in which cities transform is terrible, a diseased side effect of capitalistic “progress” which tears down history and culture to replace it with new and ugly spaces for supposedly maximising commercial returns (while ignoring lower income populations), or strips away valuable ecological resources to pave it all over and thus endanger the future of the city, as global warming marches on. I don’t think artists have a responsibility to be a mirror to their home or society. I think they automatically always are on some level. It’s somewhat unavoidable.
Your work steers clear of the two big notions of what fantasy is in India - JRR Tolkien-high fantasy and Hindu mythology rebranded. It is difficult to break new ground but is that what fantasy and science fiction writing must strive to do?I don’t think writers or artists within any genre have an imperative to strive to break new ground all the time. That would be exhausting. There is great value in the familiar, in stories that we know the shapes of. But certainly, a genre will stagnate unless there is an allowance for the new and unexpected.
Not many Indian science fiction and fantasy books have made an impact. Do you think that this is a problem with the Indian market?I think perhaps ‘science fiction and fantasy’ is a literary space that Indian publishing isn’t quite familiar or comfortable with, on the level of editors and staff (with exceptions, as always, like, for example, Zubaan Books). The exception is mythofantasy based on Hindu/Vedic myth, which is enormously popular here. Indian writers are doing really interesting work that does break down genre barriers and isn’t easy to market as exciting sci-fi like space operas or epic fantasy (like the mythofiction) or straight-up literary fiction. Look at Tashan Mehta’s The Liar’s Weave or Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits, or Gautam Bhatia’s The Wall. These aren’t easily categorizable books. They do unusual things so publishers here don’t quite know how to market them. When it comes to Indian fiction in general, much of what big publishers release is shelf-stuffing, with marketing really focused on books by very famous writers, often in the diaspora.SFF writers here usually aren’t that famous. But on the other hand, from what I’ve heard, both Basu’s and Bhatia’s novels have done fairly well in the market. It’s hard to tell because numbers and figures are difficult to get in Indian publishing. Generally, the recognition and acclaim Indian SFF writers get is from the West (For example, Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s Analog/Virtual is a finalist for the Locus Awards, which is a US award). India doesn’t have any dedicated publications for science fiction and fantasy with the exception of the internationally-oriented Mithila Review, nor does it have very many imprints or small presses devoted to this kind of literature, nor any major literary festivals or awards honouring it. In that regard, there isn’t really the cultural infrastructure for “Indian SFF” to take off as a unified movement or literary space, like it has in other Asian countries. It’s more a group of writers doing quite diverse and original work, who find their own community online and, often, in genre spaces abroad.
Do you think Indian fantasy/sci-fi authors (writing in English and in regional languages) are celebrated enough?No, they’re probably not celebrated enough. Some of the Indian SFF writers whose work I’ve appreciated (some in diaspora, and some who are in short fiction only, so far, which is a thriving space that’s often ignored by Indian cultural commentary on our country’s SFF) are Vandana Singh, Anil Menon, Samit Basu, Tashan Mehta, Gautam Bhatia, Vikram Paralkar, Nibedita Sen, Shiv Ramdas, Arula Ratnakar, Rupsa Dey, Amal Singh and Jayaprakash Satyamurthy. I haven’t yet read Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s Analog/Virtual but I’m very much looking forward to doing so.
Tell us about your experience getting published in magazines abroad. I got into writing when the internet was just making it possible for online magazines to flourish, and for writers to submit online. As an Indian teenager, when I first started looking into how to get my writing read by others, this was a godsend. Of course, at that age, none of my work was accepted, but I still learned how to submit to magazines, and a lot about the burgeoning online science fiction and fantasy space that was internationalizing in a way (especially with the advent of Strange Horizons, which was founded by Sri Lankan-American writer and editor Mary Anne Mohanraj, and one of the first SFF magazines to consciously expand their ambit to writers outside the US and UK) over the internet. It was much more welcoming that the literary (aka realist) fiction spaces and publications, which had much longer response times, no online submissions back then, and often didn’t pay. While things have changed a lot and many magazines have died, the online spaces have transformed with social media. They have become both more turbulent and more inclusive. The essential ease of getting your work out there as an international writer has been preserved in SFF, since online magazines still remain one of the best ways for writers early in their careers to break through and get noticed, whichever country they are in. Marginalizations remain but editors in the West are far more welcoming of international work than they once were, and for better and worse, the nerve centre of SFF publishing is still in the west.
What are you working on?I don’t like to talk about work in progress because it’s never a sure thing until it is. I am working on a book (much shorter than The Devourers) which, if all goes well, should be in the world, but definitely not this year. I have some short stories in anthologies coming out soon-ish that I can’t talk about because they haven’t been announced yet. I just had a new story out in Gideon Lichfield’s Make Shift (MIT Press), the latest book in the science-fiction anthology series Twelve Tomorrows. My story is called A Necessary Being, and is about a mecha pilot and his daughter in a future Kolkata that is in the process of reforestation after great ecological upheaval and an age of plagues. And a Kolkata-set horror story called You Will Survive This Night, about a reluctant guest at a winter rooftop party that gets alarmingly nightmarish. It is available as a standalone in online retailers and also in the audio anthology series Come Join Us By The Fire from Tor Nightfire.
What are the three things about Kolkata that only you know?In Bowbazar, there is a canteen that serves dragon meat. But if you eat there, you must drink a tea that makes you forget that you ever did.In the hard-to-find neigbourhood of Aminah (not to be confused with the restaurant Aminia), there is a famous skyscraper (the tallest in the city, but invisible from elsewhere), which looks like several different houses stacked like Jenga to the sky. Some say it is made of all the houses demolished in the city.Walking alone at night, if you encounter a pack of stray dogs alone, you can convince them to allow you to temporarily join their pack, upon which they will describe the political intricacies of relations between stray dogs, cats, jackals, and wild birds in the city. If you show any fear, they will make fun of you relentlessly.
KX Ronnie is an independent writer. He lives in Kochi.