Speculative fiction is not a new genre in India. The point was stressed at the Magical Women and the Blossoming of Indian Speculative Fiction, held last week at Bangalore International Centre. Organised by Toto Funds the Arts in association with Hachette India, the event was moderated by columnist and a fan of speculative fiction Gautham Shenoy. The panellists included authors Sukanya Venkatraghavan, Samhita Arni, and Shreya Ila Anasuya. The discussion centred on Magical Women , an anthology of speculative fiction stories by 14 women writers edited by Sukanya, who has also contributed to the book.
The panelists unanimously agreed that speculative fiction has a long tradition in India. “The genre seems to be in some kind of purple patch. There is Krishna Udaysankar’s Beast; recently there was a young adult anthology called Strange Worlds, Strange Times by Vinayak Varma, which features stories by authors such as Srinath Perur and Vandana Singh, and Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction . For SF fans, Gollancz is a big name,” said Gautham.
Sukanya added, “People keep saying it is a new genre, but there are 14 authors!” There has indeed been a surge in fantasy fiction. Sukanya contended: “Publishers are opening up and I think it is a very bloated genre right now. There seems to be a new book everyday. We live in the age of Avengers and Harry Potter . Look at all the shows on streaming platforms. There are so many speculative fiction shows now. People like wandering off into new worlds.”
Gautham added: “Finally we have stories that represent us.” Samhita, a well-known author, said: “When I watched The Expanse, based on novels by James S.A. Cory, I was so excited that he mentioned the Blue Frog in a futuristic Mumbai. Suddenly it seemed that was my universe. There is an under-secretary of the UN wearing fabulous saris. There was something very affirming in that.”
Shreya, who won the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing in English this year, agreed and added: “Samhita’s contribution to Eat the sky, Drink the Ocean , which featured Indian and Australian women writers and artists, is also speculative fiction. Writing under this genre has happened for a while now. We are following the footsteps of authors such as Samit Basu who wrote The Simoqin Prophecies .”
The discussion veered towards the creative process behind Magical Women . “I felt fantasy would be a little more fun. The process was messy, fun and exciting,” said Sukanya. Shreya said: “My story is called Gul , short for Gulbadan who is the protagonist. Gul is a queer love story, but it is as much a chronicle of courtesan history.
“There was a superstition when the gramophone first came that if you sang for the gramophone a bit of yourself is trapped in it. I asked myself what if that is true and I started writing a few years before the gramophone was introduced. Courtesan history is very diverse and complex, I write specifically about the North Indian courtesan, the tawaifs .
“After the war of independence in 1857, courtesans are persecuted, by the British and the Indian army of independence, who saw them as sex workers. I am interested in that history because it is under-represented. Women contributed immensely to the classical and folk art of this country, but their contribution remains forgotten.”
For Samhita contributing to Magical Women was an opportunity to explore a different genre.
“This is the first romantic story that I have written. I am so grateful for anthologies and short stories because they allow you to break your own identity as a writer. What also inspired me was changing the way we look at what is evil or bad.”
Magical Women explores various themes, said Gautham. “There is comedy in Shweta Taneja's Grandma Garam's Kitty Party. Nikita Deshpande’s The Girl Who Haunted Death gives a whole new spin to the Savitri story.”