Mainak Dhar talks of his take on Alice in Wonderland where a 15-year-old gun-toting Alice is the hope for a world overrun by zombies

We all know the story of Alice who got bored sitting with her sister and how she followed a rabbit down a hole to a wonderland of the Mad Hatter, magic mushrooms, a sleepy dormouse and crazy queen.

That was Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. What happens when India’s zombie master, Mainak Dhar, turns his eye on Alice? Well she has adventures for sure but this time around the rabbit is a zombie, she is escaping hoards of ferocious undead biters down a rabbit hole and we are with Alice in Deadland (Duckbill, Rs.199)

“I had already written a post-apocalyptic novel in Zombiestan,” says Mainak. “I wanted to try the genre again but with one difference. I wanted to focus on one central character and her journey instead of the ensemble cast in Zombiestan. I had always loved Lewis Carroll for his imagination and fantastic creativity, and the idea of Alice in Deadland was born as a homage of sorts to him by using some elements of his work as a jumping off point, and creating a unique adventure and story of my own about a young girl finding her destiny in a world overrun by the undead.”

Talking about the prequel and sequel to the book, Mainak says: “I didn’t start with a series in mind. When Alice in Deadland was published, I started receiving a lot of mails from readers asking what happens next. That inspired me to follow with a sequel, Through The Killing Glass. By then, I had started a Facebook group where I began to interact with readers and bounce ideas off them, and the idea of a prequel, Off With Their Heads, to explore the back stories of some pivotal characters was born. They say after a while a book or a series takes on a life of its own, and that is what has happened to Alice.”

To the comment of comparing Alice to Katniss of the Hunger Games, the author says: “There are obvious superficial similarities — young women in a dystopian world. The world they inhabit, the issues they face are however very different. As Alice’s character develops in the series, she is a very different person. With the dynamics of who she becomes at the end of Deadland, she becomes much more than just a teenager leading a rebellion.”

Mainak gives two reasons for making Alice a 15-year-old American. “From a story development standpoint, her links to the US through her father are important. Second, at a more personal level, having moved around so much as a kid, I was always the outsider; trying to fit in, and when I develop my characters, I like making them outsiders as well. That makes the journey of discovering who they are and what they're meant to be that much more interesting.”

On whether female protagonists do better in young adult fiction, Mainak says: “I’m not sure they do, but I’ve had a lot of fun creating a strong female character in Alice. I think in India too much of our popular culture, especially movies, has treated women as either waiting to fall in love or waiting to be rescued and having little personality of their own. Having a strong female lead who can kick ass with the best of them is perhaps something we need more of to change how we perceive women.”

The Bangkok-based author describes the bad guys as “The powerful elite who are trying to take advantage of the chaos to subjugate the remaining human population by keeping them in a state of fear, perpetuating the war on terror they claim to be waging against the Biters. Evil has no nationality.”

While insisting that his basic need is to entertain, Mainak says: “if there is a message underlying the entertainment, it is about how precious and fickle our freedom can be. In our history, we have often mortgaged away our freedom for two reasons — the drummed up fear of bogeymen and the promise of trinkets of material advancement.”

Go Goa Gone billed as India’s first zom-com is releasing this week and Mainak says: “Zombies have been very underplayed in India, so it is great to see them getting more focus. However, I hope our filmmakers stay away from some ingrained bad habits — a zombie movie with an item number is not something I’d like to contemplate!”

Future plans for Mainak include “At least one more trip back to Deadland. The latest book I’m working on is about Alice’s life in Deadland as a child before we meet her in the first novel. After that, I’ll see where my mind and my keyboard lead me.”