Krishnarjun Bhattacharya is the author of the dark fantasy novel Tantrics of Old, which features an alternate, dystopian version of Kolkata. After writing my raving review of this wonderful novel, I knew I needed to talk to him about his work and the state of fantasy/sci-fi publishing in India. He was kind enough to agree to an interview, and I'm happy to present our discussion here.
Apart from writing brilliant fantasy novels, Krishnarjun-da has dipped his hands in many areas of art and performance. He has degrees in film direction and video editing, and is also interested in graphic design, photography, and gaming. He was a videogame reviewer for the national magazines SKOAR! and Yuva for more than four years. As part of a residency at Khoj International Artist's Association, he developed a fully functional board/card game in which "every person plays as a Mythical Entity racing each other on the road to Reality, towards and for the right to exist." Playable characters include Cthulu and Edward Hyde. (Readers, if this game sounds as interesting to you as it does to me let me know; maybe we can get Krisnarjun-da to share it with us!) He used his knowledge of film and directing to make a great book trailer for Tantrics of Old, and also designed a shadow play in collaboration with Fourth Bell Theaters to celebrate the book launch.
Pulling on his deep interest in horror, the supernatural, Krishnarjun-da's new project, "Stories of the Supernatural," seeks to explore the power of storytelling. He invites you to join him for "intimate, invisible-campfire sessions" in which you can disconnect from the world and lose yourself in passionately told spooky stories, about the dead, ghosts, wraiths, and spirits. You can contact him for more details about this newest project.
Finally, he is working on the second novel in the Tantrics of Old trilogy, Horsemen of Old, which he hopes will be released by late 2015. This will be followed by the grand finale Myths of Old.
Without further ado, on to the interview:
Thank you for taking time to talk about your work!
Thank you for your interest! What would you like to start with?
First, could you say something about the state of Science Fiction/ Fantasy publishing in India? Did publishers think that your book would sell? Why or why not?
SFF is having a difficult time in India. The internal workings of the genre, the machines and cogs—these might be getting more attention because of the recent surge in television series delving in fantasy (Game of Thrones comes to mind) but it’s still TV. I think the habit of reading in itself is diminishing. People simply don’t have the time, and if they do, they refuse to invest in a book. The numbers say people don’t want books that make them think. A badly written romance, for example, is easier to read, finish, and possibly throw away.
When you talk about publishing, things are difficult, and publishers are not really supporting SFF authors wholeheartedly (sometimes not at all). I wish they would, and take the genre forward rather than sit back and play it safe with their innumerable grammatically incorrect paperbacks. Like everything else, the market governs the priorities.
I make it sound extremely dark, don’t I? No, there’s hope. There are people still reading voraciously, a rare species of reader who reads SFF like there’s no tomorrow. I often get letters from them, and I make it a point to remind them how much they matter. SFF authors are also rising in India, and some of them have extremely interesting things to say.
My publisher, Fingerprint! is extremely supportive—I don’t know how much they trusted Tantrics of Old to sell, but they took more than a few leaps of pure faith with me and my harebrained schemes. The Shadow Play, the Book Launch, the Brochure, the publishing of the book itself—they’ve been doing their bit for me. We don’t have funds to rent billboards, of course, but the little things matter the most. We’ll get there if we keep trying, we still need to do more.
Who would you say had the most influence on you as a writer? You list Ursula LeGuin, Tolkein, and Lovecraft among others; what about Bengali-language authors?
I’m a probashi Bangaali, a Bengali born in Kolkata but brought up outside, in Ranchi [the capital of Jharkhand, India]. I have studied the language Bengali when I was a child, but not extensively; I mostly stagger my way through, nowhere close to the fluency I would love to have. That said, my brush with Bengali literature has been with translations, and mostly if a friend/parent is kind enough to read something aloud. I love listening to stories.
I mention LeGuin and Lovecraft because they have affected me in extraordinary ways. LeGuin’s simplicity, making her magic natural as breathing, so subtle, so effortless—it is something I think I’ll have to try for years to achieve. One can see why the experiences of a life well lived reflect in a book, and why authors get wiser as they age.
Lovecraft appeals to the darkness which is one of the true faces of my work. What is horror, and how can horror go past conventional realms, into other worlds attached and detached to the human psyche. What is even real? Lovecraft defined the dark in Dark Fantasy for me; yes, there are serious problems of racial sensitivity in his writing, but the content itself shines.
Every author I read has something new to tell me, something absolutely new. It’s impossible to name a single person as a source of influence—I try and learn as much as I can from anyone who leaves themselves open in their pages.
Among Bengali language authors I like Saradindu Bandhopadhyay for his work on horror. In fact, my diploma film from NID, The Haunting of Somnath Banerjee, is based on his short story, Protidhhoni (Echo). I also admire Bibutibushan Bandhopadhyay for his book Chaander Pahar (The Mountains of the Moon). It’s not strictly fantasy, but it might as well be. I also love Satyajit Ray’s work in horror and science fiction, and for readers of English I would recommend the excellent translations by Gopa Majumdar. He was a genius, and other than his immortal creation Professor Shonku (cult stuff), he made one of the best fantasy films I have ever seen, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.
Can you tell us a bit about Bengali science fiction? I have read some pieces by Premendra Mitra, Muhammad Jafar Iqbal, and Satyajit Ray that I enjoyed. Do you have any other suggestions (translated or untranslated)?
It seems I already ranted about my favorite Bengali authors in the last question! The Bengali Language actually hosts a treasure trove of SFF. The three you’ve mentioned are important names and I’d like to add Jagdish Chandra Bose (yes, the one you’ve heard of, the scientist) who, unknown to most, wrote a book called Nirrudesher Kahini which features a Weather Control Device and the calming of a rogue cyclone [Chelsea's note: actually a short story, you can read the translation here]. Science fiction done right, it’s a fun read, and the conspiracy theorist in me wanted more.
Other notable names to follow up on would be Lila Majumdar, Sunil Ganguly, Shirshendu Mukherjee, and of course, Begum Rokeyya, who wrote one of the earliest, if not the first, feminist sci fi books about role reversal [named Sultana's Dream, read a translation here]. I haven’t read any of these few authors yet, but their stories have been told to me, very fondly, and I can recommend them on good authority.
Now I want to talk about your book Tantrics of Old. Where did you get the inspiration for this alternate Kolkata?
Would it be a stretch to say I see alternate places everywhere? Magarpatta City in Pune seemed to me like New Kolkata; clean, authoritarian, and run with an iron fist. Let your imagination run amok, and you shall see fish sellers selling strange undersea creatures with many tentacles and beaks and eyes, electric meters outside houses will have voices and pincers, stones will rise from the ground with simple hand gestures. Look at the Howrah Bridge, and just for a second, imagine what it would look like broken. Years old. Moss hanging from the steel, birds flocking around, some sort of a wiry, enormous spider rattling through the structure, spinning webs.
Inspiration isn’t the key. Translation is. Molding what you think into a world that can be believed, lived in. It takes hard work.
As I wrote in my review of the book, I was very impressed with the way you integrated the feel of real places in Kolkata with the alternate, magical version of them. But I’m very curious – where exactly is New Kolkata located?
I’ve mentioned that Old Kolkata is like a small country. So let’s look at this logically. Perhaps, in my world the Bengal Partition never happened, and Old Kolkata comprises Bangladesh [and West Bengal]. Or maybe that’s where New Kolkata is. I haven’t mentioned Jharkhand, or Bihar, or Orissa so far—all we hear about is something called the Shadowlands. Too many possibilities, and all of them with their own ramifications. What happened here? Did this come to be from an earlier state, is it an alternate reality?
The one thing I can answer with confidence is that Horsemen of Old will have a map of the Old Country, and certain things will be on display—Ahzad, for example. I’ll also leave a cryptic postscript here, saying that geography has always influenced politics—where New Kolkata is has a lot more to do with the story than I’m letting on.
Could you talk a bit about your creative process? How did you come up with such a diverse cast of characters from different races, and how did you keep them all straight as you were writing?
Process is tricky. I take a lot of time (months) to assimilate the entire thing, the nexus if you will, before moving on to the writing phase. Things must align themselves perfectly, and the soul of the story should reconnect in a giant oroboros. Then I get to writing, where a lot of impromptu changes occur, and the mammoth plan must realign once more. It’s tiring, but worth it. Myths of Old will be a grand finale to this long and winding tale.
About races, you encounter a lot of them in a lot of books—but if you’re a gamer, something like The Elder Scrolls/ Dark Souls/ Bloodborne/ Neverwinter/ Diablo has enough races to bleed your creativity dry. I mean, you close your eyes and think Demon and you see and imagine a hundred different kinds of demon from a hundred different games and books.
Which is why character is crucial. Race is an advantage, a background, a base to build upon, but it’s really the personality, traits and the soul of a character which sets him/ her apart. I adore my characters, they mean a lot to me. I spend so much time working on someone that they mostly turn out okay. All of them are eccentric, unique in their own right. And grey. I don’t believe in simple black and white.
Maintaining them is very taxing, but once I breathe life into them, they mostly maintain their outlooks. I try to get someone to do something they wouldn’t, and they protest from the pages, ‘Nope, that’s not me!’ All right, calm down. Corrections.
It seems that Maya will be a much more important character in the next book(s). Can you give us a bit of a teaser?
Very well. My teaser will simply be a few questions-
Why weren’t Maya and Gray’s parents around? There’s been no mention of them so far, the siblings didn’t need to take permission or anything. No one else but the Angel, Kaavsh, posing as Abriti. Come to think of it, why was the Angel assigned their house? Why was Maya denied a Sorcerer’s education? And when Maya left the Devil Mask, was she completely cured, could it really be that easy? Or did she bring something back?
Maya is extraordinary. Things are going to happen to her. Good things and very, very bad things.
Thanks again for agreeing to this interview! I’m looking forward to reading the next book!
Thank you, it was fun talking! I’m trying to get Horsemen of Old out by the end of the year, let’s hope for the best.
Krishnarjun Bhattacharya can be found on twitter as @Akta_Golpo_Shon, or via email at krishnarjunbhattacharya(at)gmail(dot)com. Tantrics of Old is available for purchase from flipkart and Amazon.