An author, graphic novelist and journalist based in Bengaluru, Shweta Taneja has written many short stories, comics and articles on technology, travel, health and lifestyle. Her published books are Ghost Hunters of Kurseong and the graphic novels Krishna: Defender of Dharma and The Skull Rosary.
Anantya, the protagonist of Cult of Chaos, the first book in the forthcoming Anantya Tantrist fantasy series by Taneja, goes around solving mysterious murders in New Delhi such as gory sacrifices of little girls. It will be published later this month by HarperCollins, with whom Taneja has signed a three-book contract. In an interview with Sabin Iqbal, the author talks about her forthcoming book and why she chose to set it in New Delhi.
Edited Excerpts from an interview:
Your forthcoming book Cult of Chaos is a detective thriller based in New Delhi. Tell us more about it.
It is the first Anantya Tantrist mystery. Anantya, the protagonist, has chosen an unusual profession for those of her gender — an investigative detective, that too a tantrik, a black magic witch, who has to go to all kinds of places and meet all kinds of creatures and people while solving a case. In Cult of Chaos, she is faced with a horrific incident in which little girls are being sacrificed across the city. It’s a dark, vicious world she inhabits along with supernatural creatures from Indian folklore and mythology.
What inspired you to base it in the national capital?
New Delhi is a spectacular mix of ancient history, arrogant power and prehistoric violence and fits the bill perfectly for Anantya. When Anantya first came to my mind, I knew she would choose to live in the capital city because of many reasons. It’s big and chaotic and you can be anonymous. Anantya, given that she had lived a very restrictive life in her past, would like that. Moreover, it houses the largest supernatural community and is the new seat of power for Indian tantriks (in the book’s world).
In the wake of repeated incidents of rape and violence against women, how do you look at women’s safety issues in New Delhi?
I feel two things: a mad sense of anger and a helpless feeling of frustration. Anger because I can’t do anything about the senseless violence I see being perpetrated on women everywhere in the country and not just in New Delhi. On the streets, in offices, in bedrooms, in restaurants, in cars, on public and private transport and at homes — everywhere. Forget Delhi, women don’t feel safe anywhere in this country.
My frustration comes from the fact that every time an incident happens, a molestation or rape, usually of a woman, we try and build walls to protect ourselves or if we are men, protect our women. We ask the police to be more vigilant, to patrol, to install cctvs, to put fences, to add more guards, more grills, to track with gps, to have checks and policing in place so that women can feel safe. But the sad truth is that building walls will only make the outdoors wilder, segregating gender will only alienate each gender from the other and increase violence. No government, no men, no police, no institution can make it all go away. What can perhaps make a difference is that if you, me, all of us, in spite of the violence, go outdoors, at all times, at all places, fearlessly own the night. Be there, not in groups, not with men, but alone — until it becomes the norm. We need to own the spaces, only then can we be safe.
What is your experience of growing up in the city? Any lingering memories?
Much to the chagrin of my parents, growing up, I loved to be out on the roads of Delhi rather than stay at home. A love I share with Anantya. There’s a sense of freedom to be able to walk (not ride in closed spaces like cars), take a deep breath, smell the city. But I have always felt a sense of insecurity, a sense of alertness when I walk on the streets. I have grown aggressive because of collated bad experiences for years — creepy touches, bottom pinches, side leers, breast stares and squeezes. I have experienced it all because I refused to get off the road or the public spaces. I refused to huddle within groups. But yes, Delhi has converted me into a hedgehog. When I am walking, I don’t smile at a stranger, I am wary and vigilant. That’s a bit unfortunate.
Does the book have any incidents similar to what we see now on the streets of Delhi? If so, can you give us a snapshot?
The book’s genre is urban fantasy, but most of my scenes come from the re-imagination of actual events that happen in the capital city and elsewhere in this country. To take an example, the first one that comes to mind is a scene in which Anantya goes to a crime scene and while talking, the witness is looking at her breasts instead of at her, which is just so Delhi and its men. They talk to your nipples rather than to you.
Are we selling rape and violence against women? Are we ‘commercialising’ the whole issue?
Maybe. Any incident today is quickly taken up by the media, self-righteous political parties, women’s groups and even corporates. There’s a whole lot of hue and cry for safety, there are products and apps to keep women safe. Yes, maybe by focussing on safety, we actually carry the idea of rape and violence in our minds at all times. But I hope we can be free of it. Of the fear, the frustration and the need to buy things to feel safe.
Why do you write? And why Cult of Chaos?
I write because I itch to tell stories. When I am not writing, I am making up stories and orally telling them to my friends. I want to explore the idea of otherness, of strangeness, of non-humans, paranormals and supernaturals through these stories, which is why I am writing in the fantasy genre. I want to explore ‘us’ versus ‘them’ in all their manifestations.
I wrote Cult of Chaos because I was itching to write a work of detective fiction that mixes Indian folklore and supernatural creatures into a mystery. Anantya Tantrist happened because I was so bored of all the action taken up by male superheroes and superstars while women sat on the side, as pretty eye-candy. I wanted a story in which a woman gets her hands dirty, has all the adventures, kicks the villains and goes to a bar later to celebrate. And Cult of Chaos is all that and more!
Can you take us through the experience of writing this book?
Anantya’s story has been an emotional journey for me. I was creating a female character who is fearless, independent, who just doesn’t give two hoots about what the society thinks, who isn’t dependent on a man. I had to change so many scenes constantly because they were written keeping in mind the ‘limitations’ a woman would have in our society. But Anantya doesn’t adhere to those limitations. I wanted to create a character who will step out of all the gender ideas we have as a society, which is why I rewrote and rewrote, overcoming my limitations as a writer and as a product of our society. And I am amazed at who she has turned out to be. I respect her, am in awe of her, and even have a crush on her.
I sit in my study all day and write while she is out on the streets, taking on powerful people, protecting the helpless, solving violent crimes, also having supernatural adventures of all kinds. She is exposed, while I live a protected life. She is all action while I am all thinking. But just the fact that I have been lucky enough to write her story has changed me too, given me wings. I want to be more like her. I want to own the streets too, fearlessly.
Is it a mystery series? Please elaborate.
Yes, ‘Anantya Tantrist mysteries’ is going to be a series of books. But each book is a standalone in the sense that each mystery is solved in the same book. What gets carried forward is she, the world she inhabits and some of the characters. Each book will be a tantric mystery, served hot and fresh and full of adventure.
I have signed a contract for three books with HarperCollins India, but there are four to five books that I want to write, which will fully explore the world she inhabits as well as her past. That’s the plan for now at least.
When is the release? And where?
Cult of Chaos releases later this month. It would be released nationwide to begin with and would be available in both paperback and e-book formats. By December end, it will be available in all online and offline bookstores.