Friday, February 12, 2016

The Cult of Chaos by Shweta Taneja

Cult of Chaos: An Anantya Tantrist Mystery
Shweta Taneja
380 pages, speculative, mystery, detective
Found: some bookstore in Kolkata

I had to pick up this book when I saw the cover for the first time. Just look at this beauty!

In an alternative modern-day New Delhi, supernatural forces have come into the open: the tantrics, who have always practiced a form of magic, have formed an official government organization; gods walk among mortals disguised as fat businessmen; nagas and other supernatural creatures haunt special, magical bars; and one lone woman tantrist works as a detective, trying to keep these supernatural beings from killing each other – or at least, clean up after they are done.

Anantya is an incredibly strong spellcaster who knows her way around potions and magic of all sorts. Being the only major female tantrist (except for her reclusive guru), she faces a lot of scorn and disapproval, and her fiery temper often gets her into trouble. For all that, she is an excellent, quick-thinking detective with a talent for surveillance and fighting - and a need to protect those who no one else will. 

When a string of murders connected to illegal black tantrist rituals shocks the city, Anantya is called in to discover the culprits and their motivations. As the situation becomes more and more dire, she must use all of her skills, training, and contacts to stop these evil rites that hit closer to home than she even dares to think about.

Tantra, Daevas, Rakshasas, Nagas, and more

This novel was the exact kind of Indian-infused speculative fiction that I have been looking for. The author takes figures from Indian (and other) mythologies, mixes them with a historical/religious tradition, throws in a dash of magic, and pours everything into the modern-day metropolis that is New Delhi.

“Tantra” is the name given to a collection of esoteric, transgressive religious beliefs and practices that are used by people of different religions in South Asia and Tibet. There is no one definition of tantrism, but some traits that are usually put in this category are transgressive sexual practices (eg. tantric sex); rituals involving blood, semen, or other bodily fluids; animal or human sacrifice; worship of female deities such as Kali or Tara; and the secretive transmission of knowledge. In Cult of Chaos, it is obvious that the author has done her research: real tantric practices make an appearance, infused with power through the Shakti (female energy) of our protagonist. The practices are not exoticised, but are instead thoroughly integrated into Taneja’s fantasy version of Delhi.

This fantastic vision also includes very real deities and supernatural creatures: everything from daevas to vampires and apsaras to stink-monsters. I loved the author’s extraordinarily creative use of mythology to provide further levels of meaning to the characters’ actions. Not that you need to know anything about Indian mythology to read it – everything stands by itself perfectly well without any background reading - but if you know some of the background, you can understand the deeper significance of each character and their actions.

Not all of these characters/species are taken directly from the legendary/mythological source, either. For example, Rakshasas are described as being able to change their form using maya, having a great resistance to magical attacks, and being unpredictable. These traits correspond to the mythological descriptions. But in Taneja's version, Rakshasa’s urine (or Rakpiss as Anantya calls it) has incredible healing properties! That’s something new.

A feminist reading

Anantya hates the word “feminism,” but I think this book is a fantastic example of a true intersectional feminist fantasy work.

First, Anantya, our narrator, is fully aware of the discrimination, oppression, violence, and other messed up shit that happens around her. According to the male-driven tantric organizations, women cannot be tantrics. Regardless of her talents or powers or actions, Anantya is absolutely unrecognized - a fact that is frequently flaunted by her attackers.  All she can do in the face of this discrimination is to keep doing what she is doing and be herself.

Anantya frequently points out problems with the new tantric power structure created by the white tantrics, the Kaulas. She knows that everyone is in someone else’s pocket, and she hates being manipulated. She also hates the hierarchy that has been created amongst the Supernatural beings (or Sups), in which the tantrics are in charge, the Sups (including daevas and other deities) have to enter Delhi disguised as humans, and the lesser supernatural creatures (the pashyus), while being as sentient as other races, are allowed inside Delhi only under the supervision of a tantric. The tantrics and many Sups, especially the most powerful ones, also look down on normal humans and often don’t mind how many are killed by their actions or neglect.

Anantya makes the reader fully aware of the inequalities that surround her, and does her best to set them right. For example, she handles cases that no other tantric will touch because the client is one of the “lesser” magical races. She has friends from all different races and considers them all to be equals. And her rage when she sees gross inequalities is absolutely palpable.

All tantrism is possible because of Shakti, the female energy. Women obviously have this in abundance, so you would think that there would be more female tantrics. The Kaulas use sex (or rape) as a way to extract Shakti from their female consorts, so the Kaulas really just prevent women from using their own power and take it to increase the male tantric’s power. These so-called "white tantrics" practice a form of tantrism that is no less violent than the animal (red tantrics) or human (black tantrics) sacrificing sects. Sounds really messed up, and Anantya quite agrees – this is one of the reasons that she hates the Kaulas so much.

As a Novel

I loved this book – it made my Best of 2015 list and was unarguably one of the best fantasy novels I have read in a very long time.

The one tiny critique I have is that sometimes it felt like I was watching Dragonball Z. Anantya kept being almost killed and miraculously saved from death over and over again. She also barely sleeps during the entire week depicted in this book. I’m impressed by her stamina but it got a bit tedious after a while, and I spent a while wondering how she was still able to function at all.

I cannot express how much I loved this book. I am eagerly awaiting the next volume, which is supposed to come out this year.

Further Reading: 

Tantric Texts Series Edited by Arthur Avalon (
"Tall Tales," a collection of retold folklore/myths by Shweta Taneja (on her website)
"Interview with Shweta Taneja" by Kiran Manral

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