A Crown of Wishes

If given space, I could wax eloquent about Indian and Indian-inspired fantasy for days on end. I can tell you all the problems that (I think) beset it, and how these are not any fault of the writers, but the curious definition of ‘fantasy’, such a Western one that depends on a certain severance from belief and faith. Can you write Christian fantasy, for instance, without running into trouble and the waters of offence? Philip Pullman tried, and succeeded, to a certain extent, but I’d argue that the moment he waded into Bible-heavy streams, his books lost much of their magic and power to dazzle, instead walking along the edge of becoming transparently ‘agenda’-driven. Same with C.S. Lewis, who did it a trifle more hamfistedly decades ago. Myth fic in India is plagued by the same troubles, with few authors managing to break the shackles of received wisdom and create something new from the bricks of the old: Samit Basu is a notable example, and some of the newer authors, like Shweta Taneja and Indra Das, have made strides here as well.

crownAnd well, so has Roshni Chokshi. Here, I reviewed her debut novel, The Star Touched Queen. I called it a ‘fairy tale that strides through the cosmos, refusing to be bound to one particular location, though it is quite culturally rooted in a Hindu setting/tradition. Her follow up, the literal ‘sister’ to the first novel is A Crown of Wishes, which tells the story of Gauri, princess of Bharata, and Vikram, the Fox Prince of Ujijain. It is, like its predecessor, a love story, but it also bears some of the more recognizable elements of the fairy tale, especially given its reliance on that staple: the tournament, and its related, seemingly impossible, tasks.

Betrayed by her brother and cast out from her kingdom, Gauri finds herself at the mercy of Vikram, the prince of the neighbouring empire of Ujijain. Vikram has just received an invitation to compete in a tournament held by Kubera, the God of Wealth. He must enlist with a partner, and the prize, should they win through the three tasks set for them, is a wish apiece. Desperate to prove himself a worthy successor to the throne, and not remain the ‘puppet king’ his father’s council seeks to make of him, Vikram convinces Gauri to partner with him. Not only will she escape the death that awaits her in Ujijain, but this way, she can see to winning a wish of her own, and seeking vengeance against her brother, who holds her kingdom and her friend, Nalini, hostage.

What unfolds is an adventure story that moves between worlds and kingdoms, from the glittering harem of Ujijain to the Otherworldly Night Bazar (the site of much drama in TSTQ), from the craggy fortress of the vanars to the glittering wish-granting fantasy of Alaka, the kingdom of the Lord of Wealth and his consort, the Kauveri River. Gauri and Vikram find themselves tested in increasingly harrowing ways, and learn truths about themselves and each other (well, it’s a fairy tale—that’s sort of de rigeur). But along the way, they also make a friend, who is perhaps the most compelling character in the book: Asha, a conflicted vishakanya, who dreams of living a life unmarred by poison. Asha kills everything she touches, and can see through to a person’s deepest desires, but she cannot do something as simple as bathe her feet in water, or stroke a bed of grass without someone or something else paying the price for her actions. She longs, like the Little Mermaid, to be part of a world that at once lusts after and fears her, and out of curiosity, befriends and helps these two strange humans, who are so lost in her magical world.

A Crown of Wishes carries forward Chokshi’s worldbuilding, her creation of a place where Hindu myth comfortably divests itself of the ‘religious’ overtones that both distort and elevate it, instead using its characters and some of its concepts in creative ways to populate and push her story forward. The vanars of Ramayana fame here become an abandoned people, left behind by their queen Tara on her pursuit for vengeance. The Serpent King, a descendent of Kaliya, become a pathos-ridden, Hades-like figure, scorned for his alleged rape of the Kapila River. Their story becomes a tale within this larger tale, and a mirror to that of Maya and Amar, one of misunderstanding and secrets, and a desire to reach out to another, alien soul.

In an interview with Bustle, Chokshi speaks of writing for ‘second culture kids’, those who are not native Indians, but children of the diaspora. These are kids whose ‘exposure was different, but whose claim to those tales is the same.’ ‘It’s a weird limbo’ she acknowledges, but it definitely works well in her case, if this is the result. Chokshi’s ‘limbo’ state might have allowed her to free herself of the derivative prisons that myth, and adherence to its, so often imposes on writers, giving her free rein with the colourful figures and plots that are so rife in Hindu mythology. As a native Indian reader myself, I can only enjoy this liberated look at what’s so often churned out unexamined, and hope that there will be more to come. While Chokshi may have moved on to different projects (her next series is set in ‘a darkly glamorous Paris’), there’s plenty of space for other authors to take up the challenge, and continue the task of building an Indian fantasy trove that works both here and for kids of second, indeed, third or entirely ‘other’ cultures. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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The Star Touched Queen

One of the hardest things about writing epic fantasy is knowing when to stop.

Stop with the worldbuilding. Stop with the background plotting and the side quests. Stop adding new characters and giving them fascinating powers or stories that derail from the ‘main’ quest, and end up padding your book till its the size of a respectable brick and can, conceivably, be used for the same purposes—if you don’t mind your house getting a little soggy during the rain.

One of the ways to avoid that is to take the seemingly less ambitious ‘narrated fairytale’ route. You still have the magic, the mystery and the life altering quest, but if the setting is less clearly realized, its politics and history not so defined, it is alright. What you focus on, in this case, seems to be the voice of the person doing the telling, with all that entails: emotion, beauty, and more often than not, a greater attention to the how of the telling, than the what.

REVISED-Star-touched-Queen-coverIt’s for this reason that I would place Roshni Chokshi’s The Star Touched Queen in the realm of the fairytale, a cosmic romance narrated by the clever, wilful Mayavati (or ‘Maya’, as she’s more commonly known). ‘Partnered with Death’, Maya has always been shunned when not outright bullied by her half sisters and the ladies of the king of Bharata’s harem. Her only friend is her little sister, Gauri, to whom she tells nightly tales of her own spinning. Maya has a talent for riddles and for listening in on the courtly happenings, but she doesn’t have what the harem ladies prize: great beauty, a respected mother, or a good horoscope.

But things seem to turn around when, during a particularly action-packed swayamvara, Maya is taken away to the magical land of Akaran by her new husband, the mysterious Amar. In her new palace, Maya meets Gupta, Amar’s extremely meticulous assistant, and wanders in myriad rooms, each of which seems to have a unique treasure hiding behind its door. There is a courtyard which houses a glass garden, a room whose floor is the ocean, and perhaps most mysteriously, a tree whose fruits are candles, which enclose within them shards of someone’s memory. Most importantly, in Amar and his new queen’s throne room resides a humongous tapestry, each of whose threads represents one life, and it is the task of the rulers of Akaran to tend it and thereby maintain the balance of the worlds.

Of course, every mysterious palace has its troubled prince, and every troubled prince has a hidden story, whose telling, or lack thereof, causes complications. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that though Amar promises his ‘jaani’ that he will tell all when the moon turns, she loses patience and, enamoured by the words of a mysterious woman in a mirror, takes matters into her own hands, with tragic results.

But just as a fairytale can’t exist without someone going off the path and courting trouble, they can’t come to an end without the protagonist overcoming his or her problems, at least to some extent. Maya really comes into her own in the second half of the book, when she has to cross worlds and face down enemies mythical and human in her quest to win back the love and memory of Amar, the Dharma Raja.

The strength of The Star Touched Queen is its writing. Each sentence is soaked in metaphor, offering surprising images that tie together disparate elements, and yet somehow managing to paint to a picture in the reader’s mind. Whether she’s describing the marigold-garlanded halls of Bharata’s palace, or the ice-sharp flowers of the Akaran glass garden, the scent of thunder wreathed around a mystical elephant’s tusks or the bloodlust of a demonic horse, Chokshi’s pen dances through words and worlds, drawing a reader gasping after it. I can forgive elements that seemed strange, unexplained (such as Maya’s shadow, which sometimes goes missing, or the rather jumbled politics of Bharata and its neighbours) simply because of the beauty of her prose. It’s evident that this story and Maya’s voice comes from someone who has dedicated love and effort to crafting every sentence that speaks of it, and Chokshi has the talent to do this mythical, mystical world justice and more.

Finally, what does this novel mean to me, a reader from India, watching as many of the tales she grew up with took on life in a new form? I’ve long felt that one of the hardest things for an Indian writer seeking to write fantasy is obtaining distance from the mythological beings and elements that  we might desire to use in our own work. ‘Suspension of belief’, I called it here. Chokshi has solved that problem by, as I said, positioning her work not as an epic fantasy set in a world that is completely her own, but retreating to the hazy realm that exists between fairy tale and myth, where certain things can be left unexplained, such as the structure of the kingdom, the geography—what prevails is the magic and the character’s adventure through it all. Maya is part of something cosmic and huge, which is greater than the nittygritty of any one kingdom. Her story, and Amar’s, occupies the space of myth, larger than the relatively much more human concerns of an epic fantasy. In her mistake lies the potential for imbalance between the worlds, and the death of Death itself. I’d say that’s a bigger deal than who gets to sit the Iron Throne.

Would I recommend this book? Definitely. It’s beautifully written, and the story is compelling. Maya is a lovely narrator, and her tale the stuff grand love stories are made of. Not to forget, Gupta is a pretty entertaining character. I’d love to read his treatises on the discourses of molluscs some day.

The Devourers

Literature is all about answering the big questions in life: who are we? Where do we come from? What are we doing here? And, subtly different from that, what should we be doing here? Fantasy books take these questions up in some very zany ways, thanks to their ability to spirit us off into completely different worlds where the laws of physics bend at the whim of a controlling spirit (also known as the author) and we get that wonderful thing called ‘magic’.

the-devourers-coverIndra Das’s debut novel, The Devourers, is no exception in this regard. Its many narrators grapple with some huge questions, some of which consume them completely, in spite of all the magic and strength they might possess.

Approached by a mysterious stranger at a baul mela, Alok, an unassuming, largely asocial professor of history in a college, has no idea that his life and what he knows of the world will be taken for a complete spin. The stranger gives him no name, only asking him if he wants to hear a story. And for the record, the stranger calls himself a half-werewolf.

Thus begins a journey through time and space—through the words of the stranger’s parents, Fenrir, a shapeshifter of the Scandinavian icelands, and Cyrah, the human woman he raped in a caravanserai in Mumtazabad of the Mughal empire. Desperate to avenge herself on her rapist, Cyrah journeys with Gevaudan, Fenrir’s one-time companion and fellow shapeshifter, to find the father of her child and bring him to justice. It is, as she discovers, the journey of a lifetime, and one that leaves her with perhaps more questions than those she set out to answer.

The Devourers is a very…sensual novel. Its author paints a vivid portrait of a world lost to most of us city-dwelling, ignorant ‘khrissals’ (the word shapeshifter use for humans, their rightful prey), rife with blood and sweat and musk, the scents and tastes that remind us, painfully, that we are physical beings, and that the characters we read about, for all their supernatural powers, are physical beings of musk and blood too. In fact, that actually seem, in some ways, more vividly ‘present’ than ordinary humans. It is humans who possess these wavering, single souls. Humans who turn into ‘ghost fires’ when consumed by their predators. The wispy and transient is associated with us pathetic khrissals, and the magical beings are a far cry from the removed, ethereal, almost sanitised Elves of the western fantasy canon.

Here, Das paints a powerful, ‘pungent’ portrait of one of these shapeshifters:

He pulls off his boots and stands tall and proud and naked his bare feet, taking his hardening penis in his hands an dpissing a steaming circle around his clothes. The rising smell of his waters fills my nostrils, pungent, clinging to the winter air as the ground melts to frothing mud. He stares at the mausoleum rising out of the ground. The many bone trophies sewn and burned into his skin writhe with his movements, the rib shards down his back bristling like the nubs of worn skeletal wings.

Das’s thesis, and what he attempts to illustrate through the monstrous act of Fenrir, is that what makes us human, what sets us apart from these ravenous, powerful creatures is that fantasy staple: our power to engender and share love. Not just romantic love, but the bonds of family and kin, the emotion that prompts a woman to hug her child to her chest, or an emperor to build a timeless tomb for his wife. Set as it is against the backdrop of the construction of the Taj Mahal, Fenrir’s rape of Cyrah, his attempt to ‘create’ something in a world where is just a ‘devourer’ becomes even more obviously a twisted attempt to possess, for one brief moment, that transient human emotion, to leave behind a vestige of feeling rather than simply snapping up and consuming it in one rending of his powerful jaws.

While this is a classic moral, and one that many many books have grappled with, what derails Das is his attempt to shoehorn another big question into this relatively slim novel: the timeless one of ‘who am I?’. Given the literal split soul of some of his characters, this question assumes fantastical dimensions, but even the humans—the defiant Cyrah, or the timid Alok—grapple with it as well. After undertaking the supernatural journeys they do, having come into contact with worlds they never knew existed, Cyrah and Alok are both forced to confront it. While Cyrah handles it by making her home on the borderlands between the human and the shapeshifter realm, Alok’s fate is left uncertain at the close. Perhaps it was this uncertainty, the multiplicty of the voices that arises at the novel’s conclusion, pointing to no certain path or closure, that left me feeling a little lost and less than enthused.

The Devourers is a rare thing in the Indian fantasy canon, though: a book that does not repeat religious myth in a spunky new format and label itself ‘fantasy fiction’. It is a solid attempt at crafting a new world atop the canvas of an old one, the Taj Mahal gleaming bright in the background as the shapeshifters bay for blood under the star spangled sky.