S hweta Taneja describes her latest novel, How to Steal a Ghost@Manipal as a “paranormal adventure, full of romance, jealousy, folklore, gadgets and ghosts.” The book is published in an ebook format by Juggernaut Books. The Bangalore-based author talks of her fascination for folklore, becoming a hybrid author and more in this interview. Excerpts.
Why did you choose to set the book in Manipal?
A few years ago, I did a road trip through the Western Ghats and stayed for a couple of days in Manipal. Like many university towns, Manipal is a cauldron of students from across the country, a unique cultural, political and social mix. What is unusual is its location. It is surrounded by towns such as Karkala and Udupi, which are ancient seats of religion and legends, the Malabar beach stretch where fishermen songs, coconut trees and tourists tales mingle and the lush forests of Western Ghats that teem with non-human lives and stories. This contrast, this location of a university town within traditional, tourist and natural spaces, made me literally salivate with ideas.
Twinkle Kashyap, the protagonist was born as I shamelessly eavesdropped on conversations between students who’d left their families for the first time and were living alone at the university, looking for new friends.
Can you elaborate on your fascination for Western Ghats folktales?
The Malabar Coast and Western Ghats are plush with tales, folklores, festivals and legends. Every person, village and district has a plethora of stories. It has been six years since I’ve been listening to these stories. I’ve read books around legends, visited festivals, heritage spots, temples, churches, heard oral tales of families, written blogs, even written this novel inspired by the folklore, yet I feel I’ve just skimmed the surface of the mythological richness of these lands. What strikes me is how different the tales are from mainstream Indian mythology that I’ve grown up with. Right now I’m getting obsessed with the ancient trade routes and experiences that the Malabar Coast shared with Eastern Africa and the Middle East. It’s part of the Silk Route. I wonder if any traveller legends remain behind. I would love to do a story around that.
Any particular reason for choosing seven ghost stories?
Seven is a number with unique paranormal properties — seven sins, seven days in a week, seven planes, seven rishis, and seven chakras according to Hindu myths. In each of the seven stories in the novel, Twinkle moves into a new world, where she’s constantly trying to juggle between her loyalties and what she perceives as right. Initially I had planned ten paranormal tales to weave into the overarching plot, but seven brought out Twinkle’s story much better. Sort of like seven hells she has to go through before she emerges on the other side, stronger and more confident.
Which is your favourite?
There are elements in all of the stories that I love, but I think the Pilikola one (A tiger unleashed) is my favourite. First of all it is the legend that I am in love with. The story remains with me because of the transformation it brings in Twinkle’s character. This is where she actually turns from a starry-eyed first-year student who will do anything for her crush to a confident woman. She faces and survives something much bigger and stronger than humans. It is in this story I think that she drops her teenage insecurities and sees the world through a fresh perspective, demanding respect from those around her.
How did you go about researching the book?
There were two levels of research in this book. One was a recce of physical spaces I wanted to include in the story. That is where scores of photos and memories built during the road trip helped. Once I was back in my study, I scrawled through online news on Manipal, Mangalore, Udupi and the Malabar Coast. I read books, blogs, personal experiences on ghosts and paranormal. The stories emerged out of these news, history lessons, forums, community tension, student fears, urban legends and folklores.
How different from or similar to Anantya is Twinkle?
Anantya Tantrist, the main protagonist of my tantric detective series, is a confident, independent character. She walks the night streets of Delhi, facing monsters of all manners and lives by her own code. Twinkle on the other hand is younger; a timid, emotional first-year-old student who has taken up a course in Manipal because her crush Rohit Dandi is studying there. She gets into paranormal investigation to impress Rohit and is ready to do anything for him. As the story progresses, we see her gain confidence in her abilities and transform into a more independent girl.
Like any urban Indian woman, both my female protagonists constantly clash with society to make their own choices. Anantya does it by rejecting most traditional structures while Twinkle does it by working around them within society.
Why did you choose to become a hybrid author?
It is the best of both worlds. Publishing the traditional way with the big five publishers is an experience of scale and prestige. Self-publishing and mobile book publishing on the other hand are relatively new and changing at a rapid speed. The readers who are picking up e-books on tabs and phones, are younger, living a faster life and need something they can read on the go. With the hybrid author model, I seamlessly publish with mainstream publishers and do smaller ‘boutique’ books with e-book publishers and also self-publish some of my work. This way I experiment and explore all opportunities, mediums, and platforms available out there.
What are the pros and cons of being one?
Experimentation can be scary as the failure rates can be higher with newer forms, but it is also exhilarating since you are constantly pushing your abilities as a creator and figuring out new avenues of readership. With mobile books, I can play with story length, format, form and even content. There is no longer a need to build up a story according to traditional print requirements. I can write an interactive work, with links embedded in it, or flash fiction meant as a social media post, a short story, a novella or a long novel of 1,50,000 words without worrying that it will drive the production costs up. Also, the response time to ebooks is much faster. I was published within a few months and within two days of the book’s launch, I received reviews over Whatsapp, on Facebook and Twitter.
On the other hand, since the only way to read Manipal right now is on your mobile phone within the Juggernaut app, there are a few of my readers who can’t access the book. This limits both readership and sales. These technological and accessibility hiccups need to be smoothened over in the nascent ebook market. The challenges are completely different from traditional routes, where genre authors like me are struggling to find spaces in ever-shrinking bookshelves of top bookstores. This might or might not change in near future. My aim right now is experimentation and patience with each new medium I try.
Could you talk about the writing fellowship in the UK?
The Charles Wallace Writing Fellowship is one of the most prestigious fellowships given to young Indian writers. Three fiction writers are chosen every year to head for an all-paid opportunity at a UK university for three months. They give you the freedom to do what you want in that time — write the book you always wanted to, experiment, interact with faculty and students and grow as an author. I got the fellowship for a science fiction short story experiment I wanted to work on. While writing, I ended up attending history classes and music sessions at the Chichester University; sat with a bunch of comic scholars arguing about the significance of a symbol in a panel; gave a talk on Indian comics in the Cartoon Museum in London and interacted with award-winning British authors. It was a priceless experience and I’m thankful to the Trust for choosing me earlier this year. I encourage all youngsters to apply. The exposure is great for your writing!
Post seven books in seven years, I’m currently recharging creative batteries. My next work of fiction is going to be based in a technology-oriented world which uses magic much like our world uses petroleum to run cars. It is still at a nascent stage and I’m scared and thrilled to see it form into a story. Meanwhile HarperCollins will release Anantya’s second adventure called the Matsya’s Curse in March 2017.