The Big Idea: Gourav Mohanty
Author Gourhav Mohanty is on a mission, one that takes on the heritage of his nation, and his own ambitions for story telling. In this Big Idea, he tells you how he’s combined both for his novel Sons of Darkness.
The idea seems simple enough at first glance. Ask any Indian reader, however, and they’ll tell you that, from a historic perspective, the idea is akin to radioactive fall-out in an arable field. The old stunted crops will wither and finally leave space for stranger, more fantastical beanstalks to rise to the heavens.
Let’s talk about the badass women first.
I don’t know when this idea took root in my mind. India has had no shortage of powerful women in history. Whether it’s Indira Gandhi (tyrannical, all-powerful Prime Minister of Independent India) or Begum Samru (Mercenary Warlord in Mughal India), Indian women have always been forged in the fires of bravery and courage. We don’t worship a God of War but a Goddess of War. However, that does not axiomatically translate into the portrayal of powerful devil-may-care women in fiction. Stereotypes and traditional gender roles still persist, limiting the representation of resilient brown women in literature and media.
Don’t get me wrong. Have fictional Indian women been strong? Yes. Resolute? Yes. Have they have faced and conquered innumerable odds? Yes. But they have almost always been damsels-in-distress, and I wanted to read of damsels-who-caused-distress.
Of course it is true that feminist retellings of mythological tales have experienced a renaissance, both within fantasy and beyond. But misogyny was an expected part of the genre. Fantasy so often sips from history, as even I do, but history often comes freighted with patriarchy, which then seeps into the fantasy world. I understand that. It’s empowering to see women throw off the yoke of male suppression. However, for me personally, it has been enriching to write a world where all my female protagonists are vicious Slytherins, not kind Hufflepuffs; envious empire-breakers and not just enduring homemakers.
That was the better half of the Big Idea. As to the other half: Why did I place them in a fantasy reimagining of Ancient India? Before I answer this, here’s a bitter pill to swallow:
The Fantasy Genre is dead in India.
At least it has been for decades, which is disheartening considering Ancient India is the cradle of the genre. From flaming weapons (Astras) to Interstellar-ish concepts of time dilation, from cross-realm travel to magical races (Nagas, Vanaras, Vampires, Centaurs), our ancestors had scratched it down on palm leaves millennia ago, before Europe even printed paper.
But in the aftermath of colonialism – which branded us as heathens – the pride in the magic of our folklore disappeared from our collective ethos. Of course, a select few diaspora authors (single digit number) have written wonderful Indian-inspired worlds, but isn’t it curious how not a single mainlander/native author from India has ever made it to any of the Goodreads? If you open up the 2022 BIPOC Author Year, you’ll find fifteen books listed on page 1. Fourteen of those books belong to Diaspora Authors from the US, and one is authored by a Diaspora Author from the UK. Not a single book on that list is from a Native Author. You will find the same anomaly across Asian Author Lists, BIPOC Fantasy Author Lists, South Asian Fantasy Author Lists and so on.
Did I, therefore, write Sons of Darkness on some Frodo-ian quest to change all that? Subconsciously, perhaps. For the bare bones of the book saw the light after I read A Game of Thrones and could not find a desi contemporary. The vacuum was agonizing, given how the hits of today can trace their constitution to Indian Lore. For example, in ways that are more than thousand: the concepts of Saidar, Saidin, reincarnation, fantastical creatures – plus the Wheel of Time itself in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which has been admittedly adopted from Indian Mythology. Even the concept of ‘Matrix’ from the Keanu Reeves movie is the AI Counterpart of Maya from Indian Mythology.
But strangely, there has been no grand epic fantasy to emerge from India in the last century. The few retellings of Indian mythological tales often show ancient India as a place stuck in the Age of Wheel obsessed with snake-charmers and Gandhian B&W characters. I mean, c’mon. Our myths boast of non-linear time, flying machines, foetal incubation, test-tube babies and cloning. That Age cannot just be viewed from the lens of mud huts. I wanted to read of murder trials, Machiavellian politics, archery duels, castles, siege engines, ports and temples, all festering in a vibrant civilisation whose underbelly seethed with magic, murder and mayhem.
So, as cliche as it sounds, I rode on the Toni Morrison quote – of writing a book I wanted to read – and set out to play Thanos to reimagine a mythological poem in a new universe.
And hence, the BIG IDEA: Badass Women in Reimagined Ancient India.
Because I wanted a tale told which not only marinated in the spices of my country but also discovered an exotic realm built on millennia-old South Asian heritage and history. Whether it is from the eyes of a swordswoman commanding an army of castaway girls; a gender-fluid, cross dressing pirate princess with no conscience and a love for knives; or a forest-born assassin’s apprentice who learns to murder using the age-old concepts of yoga, chakras and mandalas. I know not who might touch a chord with the reader, but I hope the book becomes a telescope to discover the rich tapestry of India’s past while enjoying some deliciously dark characters.
In the movement set on course by Madeline Miller and Natalie Haynes, I hope I am able to carve a tiny space for Indian mythological tales. So… endure the wars, dance in the weddings, strategise the murder trial, and survive the siege (survive? maybe). If, by the end, you order naan bread and curry for your dinner, my mission will be complete.
Author Socials: Twitter