Mystery, mythology and masala

Shweta Taneja’s latest fantasy novel takes a dig at patriarchy and gender inequality

Published - June 14, 2017 05:05 pm IST

Indian fantasy and science fiction novels that contain a masala version of Indian mythology, Tantric concepts and a kickass female heroine are rare. But that’s the kind of book whose launch Leighton Ernsberger, the Bengaluru head of British Council, recently claimed to introduce. The Matsya Curse , is the second novel in Shweta Taneja’s bestselling series The Cult of Chaos and was recently launched at the British Council in an evening of reading, activities and the author in conversation.

Leighton also added that the launch was taking place in the British Council’s Year of Culture series that celebrates new relations between Indian and British cultures after India’s Independence.

“I wanted to find an interesting way to launch my book,” says Shweta Taneja when she takes the floor. “And since mine is a mixture of mythology, science fiction and mystery, I’ve asked two of my geeky friends to prepare a quiz that celebrates this.”

With much seat shuffling and good-natured calling across the room for teammates, the audience divided themselves into teams of roughly four participants each. Shweta’s friends Prasad and Ashwini then opened the first round of the quiz with five mythology-based questions. The occult fantasy round challenged people to remember the last words of Gandalf the Great and details about CS Lewis’s Narnia . The third round on science fiction spanned from questions on Satyajit Ray to the novel Sultana’s Dream in which men were placed behind the traditionally female purdah.

Cutting open sealed packages of The Matsya Curse and posing for a photograph with the author, a small gaggle of children formally launched the book for Shweta.

Shweta introduces her book and her heroine, Anantya Tantrist, a detective based in Delhi who solves supernatural crimes at night, sleeps during the day and roams through a world filled with tantric concepts and beings from Indian mythology and folklore. “I wanted to focus on Indian fantasy. There are no ideas from Western stories in my book. There are no vampires, for example. Anantya, in fact, thinks that vampires are make-believe.” She reads a short excerpt from the book on Anantya and her companion Madhu reporting a mythological being’s death to an office that specialises in supernatural beings.

In her conversation with Samhita Arni, Shweta says “I created the foundation for this book from stories that people believe in Tantrism and Hindu mythology, that may not necessarily be found so easily in academic books. I went to Haridwar and Banaras, asked people who I thought were holy men, weird questions, and listened to people who actually thought they had black magic done on them.”

Samhita mentions that she liked the book mainly due to its heroine. “She’s ballsy, kickass, a fighter and the kind of woman we all aspire to be.” Shweta replies that the reason why she has a female lead is because she wanted women to have the fun that men traditionally have in detective novels.

“I wanted her to fight monsters, be on the streets at night and walk into bars easily. Placing her on the same streets that I couldn’t be at 3 in the morning gave me a sense of freedom.”

Shweta also says that she wanted to counter the patriarchal aspects of Hindu mythology. “Most texts are written by men. And in my mythological world, women are not considered fighters. In the third book of the series, which I’m hoping to release next year, Anantya faces this issue.” She adds that she grew up on masala books and masala movies. “So of course, there’s a lot of masala.”

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