Mainak Dhar speaks about dealing with the fear epidemic in his post-apocalyptic novel Zombiestan that holds in its pages a significant message for people

While there seem to have been zombies forever in popular culture in the West, lately, the undead have been making their shambling, ghoulish presence felt here as well. And the high priest of Zombieland has to be Mainak Dhar, the 37-year-old “cubicle dweller by day and writer by night”. With his Alice in Deadland series (where a 15-year-old Alice is the hope of a post apocalyptic world overrun by zombies) the Bangkok-based writer has revealed he has the writing chops and the right amount of irreverence for the genre.

With Zombiestan (Duckbill), the horror comes to India. The epidemic, which starts off in Afghanistan, soon spreads around the world and it is left to four people, a Navy SEAL, David, an elderly writer, Hina, a teenager, Mayukh, and a girl, Swati, protecting her three-year-old brother, Abhi, to make the arduous trek from Delhi to Ladakh with the rapidly evolving undead hounding them at every turn. Mainak talks about his fascination for zombies, Lewis Carroll and new media in this email interview. Excerpts:

How did Zombiestan come about?

I’ve always enjoyed post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction because it’s fascinating to see how people behave when all the rules and norms we take for granted in society break down. One day, as I was doodling ideas for what I could work on next, the word ‘zombiestan’ popped into my head. My first reaction was — that could be so cool. One thing led to another, and I started bringing the undead to life, one book at a time.

Why zombies?

Zombies for me are a way of bringing to life in my post-apocalyptic novels how sometimes our worst fears and horrors are our own creation. So, in Zombiestan, I treat zombies a bit differently than just mindless, brain eating monsters, they are almost a metaphor for the evil we are capable of unleashing.

Zombiestan is classified as young adult reading. Do you think it is a little intense for its age group?

Not at all. If anything, the themes of a larger-than-life adventure, fast-paced action and a small band of adventurers voyaging through terrible dangers should appeal to young adult readers. Of course, I have been conscious about not putting in too much explicit gore. If you want to think movie analogies, anyone who’s old enough to enjoy Transformers or The Avengers will be fine with Zombiestan.

What, if any is the subliminal message of the book?

There is one important theme I explore in Zombiestan. The outbreak is in a way a metaphor for religious fanaticism and how those blinded by it seek to spread their message, even if it means destroying innocent lives. The key protagonists were chosen deliberately — a Christian Navy SEAL, a Hindu boy and girl, and a Muslim writer — all banding together to protect a child. That was done to show that irrespective of our religion or background, inherent goodness can unite us all when faced with evil.

Given that the concept of zombies is westernised/Hollywood, do you see your target group as the westernised urban Indian?

I actually think there is huge potential for zombies as a genre in India and rather than impose Western or Hollywood stereotypes, I would love to give a uniquely Indian flavour to it. There are lots of layers that would come into play in India if a zombie apocalypse were to occur.

First of all, private gun ownership is very low unlike the U.S., so unlike typical Hollywood fare where the heroes are armed to the teeth and take the battle to the zombies, the battle for survival would be a much more grim affair in India. Second, the sheer population density would make for a much more rapid and chaotic spread of any such outbreak.

Finally, the social and religious dynamics would be very different.

Did you have fun setting the mayhem in Delhi?

Absolutely, I spent a lot of my childhood growing up in Delhi so imagining familiar haunts like Oxford Bookstore or Khan Market as battlegrounds against zombies was immense fun.

Who is the hero of Zombiestan — David or Mayukh?

I don’t think there is one single, larger-than-life hero. Each of the main characters grows and demonstrates their heroism in their own way.

Can you comment on your fascination with Alice in Wonderland?

I assume you’re referring to my Alice in Deadland series. It started with the first novel (Alice in Deadland) where I tried to infuse some elements of the work of Lewis Carroll (a writer I love for his fantastic imagination and nonsense rhymes) with a post-apocalyptic, dystopian adventure.

I made it available in ebook form on the Amazon Kindle store in November 2011 and was blown away by the reaction. I got hundreds of reader emails asking me to take the story further. I went on to write a sequel (Through The Killing Glass) and a prequel (Off With Their Heads) and am now working on the fourth book in the series.

How does new media help/hinder the new age writer?

I think it offers wonderful new opportunities to interact with readers. In my own case, the ability to reach readers worldwide through ebooks has been a game changer. Also, it allows for more real time feedback and co-creation.

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