Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Achala Upendran, a consulting editor, writer, and self-confessed “fantasy junkie” based in Hyderabad, India. She blogs extensively about fantasy literature, especially the Potter books at Where the Dog Star Rages. On her blog, you’ll find think-pieces about the women of THE LORD OF THE RINGS alongside analyses of Taylor Swift songs. In other words, she’s my kind of person. You can follow her on Twitter at @AchalaUpendran.
Fantasy, as a genre, uses big, mysterious elements and powers — things not found on ‘our world’ — to tell its stories. Because of this, it’s almost natural that it often takes recourse to myth and the characters enshrined in various pantheons. In fact, this becomes even more natural when you consider that the (arguably) first major work of fantasy (that satisfies our modern understanding of the genre and continues to inform many readers’ expectations) was written literally to ‘create’ a sense of mythology and an epic past for a country. I’m talking about Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS, of course.
But some authors, instead of modeling their stories on the great myths — Greek, Roman, Hindu, Christian — actually use characters from them to tell their stories. Neil Gaiman is famous for that, his SANDMAN graphic novels and American Gods plonking ancient characters and concepts into the modern world and letting madness unfold. American Gods in particular interrogates the very function of the religious aspect of mythology in the modern world: what happens to the ‘old gods’ when they come to the ‘new world’ and their devotees lose sight of them? That’s the question Gaiman tries to answer here, and he does so with the help of an array of deities, from Cornish leprechauns to trickster Norse gods, from Ma Kali with her skin as black as a ‘leather jacket’ to Anansi the clever, clever Spider.
What intrigues me, especially, as a reader of fantasy is how enjoyment of it hinges, consciously or not, on that phenomenon described by the Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge talked about ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ — a tacit agreement a viewer/reader enters into the with the author of a fictional work, wherein she consumes the said work without regard to the question of ‘would this really happen in “real life”?’. This agreement is the only way we can enjoy something as extraordinary and otherworldly as fantasy, horror and, increasingly, myth. ‘Suspension of disbelief’ is the original disclaimer: the events in this piece of art are fictional and any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.
However, when you add myth to the mix, especially when it’s still got a religious significance to a community, this agreement gets shaken up. This is why Philip Pullman’s DARK MATERIALS was attacked by the Catholic League, and also features on a list of banned books that’s been doing the rounds on the ‘net for some time. Pullman’s books literally talk about ‘killing God’, in his own words, and interrogate the founding myths of the Old Testament — especially Genesis. His heroine is ‘the new Eve’, fighting to keep ‘sin’ (or, as we find out, consciousness) in the worlds.
But again, what Pullman does here is to rewrite a founding myth, using vastly different characters from what we might see in the ‘original’. You could read his texts without knowing anything about Genesis or the Abrahamic religions, and feel none the worse for it. At the end of the day, no matter what the author might have been trying to prove or disprove, it’s a great adventure story, mixed in with elements of magic, the supernatural, and the bigger questions about life, the universe, and everything else.
Since it’s your reading journey, effectively your book once you’ve bought it, you can make of the story what you will and ignore those annoying questions.
In India, myth still plays a very important role in daily life. I’ve grown up with stories about gods and goddesses, seen their portraits and idols decorating my home. When I asked for stories with dinner, my grandmother would tell me tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two great ‘Hindu’ epics. The characters from these stories continue to be part of a large section of the population’s religious make-up, and you’ll find them cropping up everywhere: calendars, comic books, decorative plates. You’d understand why using them in ‘fantasy’ books is both tempting and rather unoriginal.
Let me put it more clearly. The problem with a great deal of ‘Indian’ fantasy is that it can fall, very easily, into the mythological fiction category. These gods and goddesses, some of whom make great characters for any book (there’s a reason they’ve stuck around in the popular imagination!), are such a part of the everyday that it is difficult to move out of the shadow of their portrayal and remake them. It’s difficult for an author to convince someone who’s grown up on stories of them, believing in them in a spiritual manner, that they are new creations who can be sent on adventures, or join someone else’s story. It’s hard to move out of the dominant narrative completely.
In this case, it’s important to do the opposite of what Coleridge said, ie, enter into a ‘suspension of belief’. Writers from these backgrounds have to do what Pullman has succeeded so brilliantly in doing: reimagining those basic stories in such a powerful manner that the characters, these age-old constructs, have become theirs completely. I doubt anyone reads Pullman and thinks ‘hey, this is what God is like, an old, dying angel who just happened to get a jump start on everyone else’.
But here, for example, there’s Amish Tripathi, a bestselling author who can be said to have singlehandedly revived interest in the ‘myth fic’ genre through his Shiva trilogy — The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas and The Oath of the Vayuputras. Tripathi’s books retell the story of Shiva, the god of destruction and one of the most powerful of the Hindu pantheon. The people reading his books adore them for the powerful retelling of myths, and, in his latest saga, The Scion of Ishkvaku, the addition of contemporary problems and politics to the Ramanyana serves, in some sense, to ‘modernize’ the stories. And yet, they are still, for all their racy language and considerably de-aged characters, just that — retellings of an old tale, a re-presentation of something known rather than an entirely new tale he’s made up using these old characters. It’s no PERCY JACKSON, where the old Greek gods plunge into new roles in modern USA.
Writing fantasy can, in some ways, be easy. It’s been so well done before, and certain conventions of the genre are so strong that if you’re really not very imaginatively daring, all you have to do is take those ingredients that others have used and try making a cake yourself. It might not be amazing, but if you’re not aiming to blaze a trail of originality, it’ll do.
But I’m not being entirely fair. There are some Indian authors who have managed to maneuver to a certain extent outside of the shadows of the old tales and gods, and made of them something entirely new. For instance, Indra Das’s The Devourers, which tells the tale of shapeshifters in the Mughal empire, recasts the Hindu gods and demons (rakshasas) as shapeshifters whose stories have passed down and accumulated divine or demonic dimensions among their prey, humankind. A ‘werewolf’ tells his human listener (our narrator) that the Durga* he worships was another of his ‘monstrous’ tribe, a powerful shapeshifter from a mythic, more heroic time. In this way, Das attempts to craft his own mythology from the rich trove he himself no doubt grew up with, even if he doesn’t attempt to make it central to his narrative later on.
So yes, there are little shots of daring, little ventures off the beaten path that me and my fellow writers and readers are attempting to make. We can’t, in this case, forget Samit Basu, who really opened the gates for Indian fantasy by crafting a complex world that incorporated elements of Greek, Indian, Viking, Chinese and even Middle Easten myth, building something that was global in scope but also amazingly ‘Indian’ — because many of its main characters hailed from a pseudo-Vedic culture — proving that Indian fantasy can be incredibly diverse without pandering to Western sword and sorcery expectations. But it is a challenge, to move out of the shadow of both Western fantasy and one’s own religious/social heritage. But challenge is what defines fantasy fiction, right? So it’s only expected that up and coming authors, like their heroes and heroines, face down seemingly insurmountable odds, craft brave new worlds, and step into those uncharted areas, one book at a time.