Charu Singh talks about her book that draws from Vajrayana form of Buddhism, giving rise to a new Tibetan fantasy series
The Indian English literary landscape is a crowded space with more authors exploring mythological fiction. The newest addition to the segment is Charu Singh’s ‘Path of the Swan’ (Hachette; Rs. 499), her first book as part of ‘The Maitreya Chronicles’. “Many of the Indian mythological fictions explore Hindu mythology,” she says, delineating how her work draws vastly from the Vajrayana form of Buddhism, widely practiced in Tibet. “Many mythological fictions I’ve come across are centred on a deity. I wasn’t keen on taking that route. I wanted to narrate my own story which gives me a better scope to write,” she says.
‘Path of the Swan’ follows the trails of Lama Ozer and young Tashi as they trek through the high slopes of Sikkim and Tibet to fulfil their call of duty from the legendary kingdom of Shambala. The idea of this book came about more than a decade ago, says Charu Singh. “I lived in Sikkim for nearly two years and happened to meet monks, both lamas and rinpoches and this kindled my interest in Buddhism, both Vajrayana and Mahayana schools. I got a whiff of the legend of Shambala and was fascinated. I visited monasteries, interviewed people and read up texts of Buddhism,” she says.
While she has borrowed elements of the Mahayana and Vajrayana myths for the book, she confesses, “Imagination is also at work.” A few of the deities mentioned in the book can be traced to Buddhist texts, but other characters like the golden dakini Yeshe and young Tashi were crafted by her. The names of the characters in the book also hark back to Tibetian Buddhism, particularly lama Ozer. “Tashi was a common name in Sikkim. I liked the simplicity of people of Sikkim. Tashi’s character is reminiscent of people from the region,” she explains. Yeshe, on the other hand, was a name inspired by Tibetan yogini Yeshe Tsogyal. “But this Yeshe’s story is very different from that of the yogini’s,” adds Charu.
While in Sikkim, Charu had written only two chapters. Once she moved back to Delhi, the book had to wait as she was consumed by regular deadlines as a journalist. “Two years ago I quit my job and sat down to finish this book,” she says.
The clash between celestial deities and ‘asur forces’ in the book are almost akin to the clash between devas and asuras in Hindu mythology. “The idea of demons is common to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Tibetian Buddhism mentions at least seven or eight categories of demons. I named the higher demons as asurs instead of giving a complex Buddhist name so that people find it easier to relate to it,” she says.
In the book, she describes the landscape in vivid detail, be it Sikkim, Tibet or the ethereal land of Shambala. “I travelled extensively in Sikkim and this came of use while writing. I’ve seen the Tibetian plateau from Sikkim though I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Tibet. So I relied on texts and cinema,” she says.Charu isn’t sure if ‘The Maitreya Chronicles’ will be a trilogy. “I am writing the second book but not sure if there will be a third. I don’t even know if the messiah will be predominant in the second book or the third,” she says.
Her interest in Buddhism deepened while in Sikkim, she points out. “There was a phase, about five to six years, when I was fascinated with Buddhism and its tenets.”
The second book, she realises, will be challenging. “I’ve noticed how the second books of many authors have gotten worse compared to their first ones. JRR Tolkein was an exception. I am trying to maintain the intensity of the book without letting it exhaust me,” she says with a smile.