Know The Women Writers Behind India’s First Feminist Fantasy Anthology

magical women

 Sukanya Venkatraghavan, author of Dark Things and editor of the recently released anthology Magical Women and the contributors to the anthology write about how it came together.

Magical Women is the weird child of my procrastination and ambition. I wanted to forge India’s first feminist fantasy anthology and somehow this wild dream actually became reality. Throughout the course of putting together this anthology and getting it out in the world, I have been constantly asked both in interviews and in conversations, ‘So where did you get this idea from? What was the experience of putting this together like? What was the process of picking stories like?’ Well, the short answer is it’s like a big fat Indian multi-star movie, or even better, a wedding. You get a mad assortment of characters, drama, humour, complete chaos, cold feet and of course a happy ending. But this is my answer.

And I have always been curious to know what this bookish adventure was like for my coven of literary witches. The good folks at SheThePeople asked them and this is what this mad gaggle of writers had to say:


What made you say yes to Magical Women? 

First of all, it was so exciting to be asked to be part of a speculative fiction anthology. Second, I knew I’d be working with an editor who was committed to being collaborative, and building a community of writers and readers. Third, it was an opportunity to write the historical fantasy of my dreams. I have been engrossed in history, mythology and performance histories for quite some time – this was a chance to bring it all together and create something new with it. Why would ever I say no?

What was the process of writing Gul like? 

It began with one simple premise – the fear that the gramophone would trap a bit of your soul inside itself (based on a host of real-life superstitions because of which many legendary singers didn’t record). I worked backwards from there, and built a story around a kotha in Lucknow at the time of the mutiny in 1857-58. It then travelled to the Calcutta theatres of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and finally an epilogue set in the 1990s, in Bombay. It was frightening, exciting, frustrating and it took several drafts to come to a place where I was able to let it go. The relationship between the two protagonists completely changed in between drafts –– they started off somewhere else, but after a while it was obvious that they had to be lovers.

It was an opportunity to write the historical fantasy of my dreams. I have been engrossed in history, mythology and performance histories for quite some time – this was a chance to bring it all together and create something new with it. Why would ever I say no? – Shreya Ila Anasuya

If Gul was turned into a movie or TV series who would you like to see in the principal roles? 

Oh my! This would be a dream.

Gulbadan – Tabu

Munni – Rasika Duggal, or Regina Cassandra

Karim – Akash Thosar (and only Akash Thosar)

Munni’s husband – Vicky Kaushal, or Irfan Khan

Zeenat bai –Neena Gupta


 What made you say yes to Magical Women? 

This seemed like an opportunity to be part of something phenomenal, something groundbreaking. When Sukanya told me about it, I was blown away by the idea. I was thrilled that I could contribute to India’s first feminist fantasy anthology — it was a dream come true really, considering I am a feminist and I lovewriting fantasy.

What was the process of writing ‘Gandaberunda’ like

The process was so cathartic. And a whole lot of fun. What started out as a story about sisterly love and survival, turned into a twisted, dark rollercoaster of a ride about exploring women characters as pleasure-seekers and monsters, driven purely by their ids, motivated by their base instincts and primal urges. I have never felt so free writing anything else before.

If you had to get one of the tattoos described in the story, which one would you choose?

The titular Gandaberunda, surely. I think the two-headed bird is an interesting motif. And a strong symbol to show the ever battling duality inside all of us.


What made you say yes to Magical Women?

It was an easy yes – it’s a brilliant concept for an anthology. I’d just published The Liar’s Weave in 2017 and discovered India’s spec-fic community, so I was excited to learn of the women who were part of that and make something with them. Plus, magical feminist women – who could say no?

What was the process of writing ‘The Rulebook For Creating The Universe’ like?

Simpler than my other stories, actually. The image for the story – a woman snapping open a lotus to find threads of time – came to me a day before Sukanya emailed me, so then it was just a question of building on the image and teasing the story out. It took several drafts though. My favourite part of the process was finding the ending – I was on a beach somewhere – and realising that is what the story is about.

If you could stitch a universe, what would you put in it?

Hmmm. I would give us the ability to fly. Or maybe move through time.


 What made you say yes to Magical Women? 

As a writer who often works with mythology, this anthology offered me the possibility of imagining completely different stories involving women, would allow me to rethink mythic archetypes, turn them on their hand, make evil good and good evil. Also, I wanted to write something completely different — my story is a romance, something I haven’t done before.

What is the inspiration behind your story ‘The Demon-hunter’s Dilemma?’ 

The other creatures — pisachas,  vidhyadharas etc that lurk in our mythology. Also the idea of a flawed female heroine,  mixing up the gender roles.

If you could turn this story into a movie or series, who would you cast? 

Keanu Reeves as the Pisacha, Anupam Kher as the guru, Sanya Malhotra as the demon hunter.


 What made you say yes to Magical Women? 

As a writer, a large part of my work involves making science communication palatable, even interesting, to readers. In that, this wonderful opportunity to take magic, darkness, fantasy and tell a story about wildlife and the current state of the planet presented itself. And it was extremely easy because I trusted the editor and her instinct. It just seemed like a win-win.

What was the process of writing ‘Earth and Evolution Walk Into A Bar,’ like? 

Actually, very fun. I wanted it to be a conversation that’s not pleasant but had tenderness and history, and that included bits of research on the adventures that Earth and Evolution could have embarked upon – like the bringing in and out of dinosaurs, the start of the human race, and so on. I wanted the reader to understand both of them; both were flawed and both did the best they could. What has been a bit of a surprise is the interpretation of readers in seeing Mahi as a Goddess. I never thought of her as one, she’s a planet. But that was the other interesting bit to learn – Once the story was out, it’s no longer yours, and that’s wonderful.

If this was turned into a movie or series who would you like to see as Mahi and Sangha? 

Because I see Tabu as everything ever, Tabu as Mahi, and Adil Hussain as Sangha 🙂 They would make my dialogues crackle and sing all at once.


What prompted you to say yes to Magical Women? 

I read Sukanya’s Dark Things and loved it. I felt confident that she’d bring the same level of awesomeness to any new book she was involved in. I was right.

 What was the process of writing ‘Tridevi Turbulence’ like? 

I wanted to do an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek commentary on internalised misogyny and felt that the goddesses of the Tridevi perfectly represented it. Involving Ganga meant I could also talk about river conservation. It was a fun story to write. Serious issues don’t always have to be presented seriously. Or literally.

If you had to choose one of these goddesses, Laxmi, Parvati, Saraswati, Ganga,  to be your BFF who would you choose? 

I would choose Saraswati. For no other reason than to try and cheer her up. Plus, she’s smart and the only one in the story with no agenda.


 What made you say yes to Magical Women? 

Sukanya was the editor. I completely trusted her to put together a fabulous anthology.

 What was the process of writing ‘Stone Cold’ like? 

I find writing dystopia immensely fascinating because it is based on questions I find myself grappling with. What is the future of mankind, where are we headed, when will the planet tip over, what will post event extinction man be like. I try to bring together all my questions into my dystopian writing.

 If Stone Cold was turned into a movie or series who would you like to see cast in the principal roles? 

The Yakshi would have to be someone who is a classic Indian beauty, voluptuous and sensual, with sharply defined features. Vidya Balan perhaps. And Kubbra Sait would be perfect as Diksha, the pure.


What made you say yes to Magical Women? 

The idea of being able to offer a tiny sliver of a fantasy world, to be read among other fantasy worlds was too hard to pass up. The fact that it was Sukanya Venkatraghavan asking me… Didn’t even consider any other answer.

Where did the idea for ‘The GateKeeper’s Intern’ originate from? 

So when I was a kid, apparently I almost died. I have no memory of that exact moment but I do remember having a fun time in the hospital. That thing, along with a general rejection of the usual beliefs regarding Death and the afterlife, brought this story into my mind.

If you had turn this story into a movie or series who would you cast?

Sushmita Sen as Moira, and Alia Bhatt as the Gatekeeper’s Intern. Internationally, it’ll be Nicole Kidman and Cara Delevigne.


 What made you say yes to Magical Women?

It was love at first voice. As soon as I heard ‘magical’ and ‘women’ through a crackling Whatsapp call with Sukanya, I jumped and nodded and said yes, yes, yes! Much to the surprise of staid Swiss commuters standing, waiting quietly for a train besides me.

Even considering saying a ‘no’ to a title and concept like that brings bad karma from patriarchal trolls and disappointed, angry bees on you. Or worse.

What was the process of writing ‘Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party’ like?
I laughed, giggled, chuckled all the way while writing Grandma Garam. The idea was to take a patriarchal joke, that of a ‘kitty party’, a collective of women, which is talked about so derisively in our society and invert it, give it power and reinvent it into something that makes us laugh, enjoy and celebrate womanhood in all its crazy, fantastical aspects. Why fight patriarchy when you can just ignore it? Once the central idea was in place, characters and dialogues tumbled in.

Which three authors living or dead would you invite to your own chudail kitty party?

That’s such a tough question. Since there is a choice of three, I would choose from the dead ones, for the non-chosen dead authors will haunt me, which can be fun and inspiring. My choices: Mary Shelley, Rokeya Shekhawat Hussain, and Octavia E Butler, all three probably live in a shared feminist fantastical heaven. Just the right venue for a Chudail kitty party.


 What made you say yes to Magical Women? 

I already write feminist fantasy with desi characters and mythology/folklore, so it was a natural fit. Also, I’ve loved Sukanya Venkatraghavan’s writing since I read her first novel Dark Things, so of course I had to say yes. Plus the thought of having my work published in India for the first time—and as part of such a visionary project—was too exciting to turn down.

What was the process of writing “The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds” like? 

Long and winding! I first wrote it for a North American audience in mind, meaning I also included the original tale of Nala and Damayanti, but when it was later picked up for this anthology, I cut that extra narration and used the space to better detail and refine Prajakta’s journey.

During the revision process, it was interesting for me, an American, to learn what references I’d included that would feel like too much to an Indian reader already familiar with them. Taking that into account, I cut and replaced accordingly.

Which other mythological stories do you want to retell? 

I’ve actually already retold my dream story: “Savitri and Satyavan” (as “Daughter of the Sun” in the anthology A Thousand Beginnings and Endings). That said, there are plenty more wonderful options to play with in the future, which would be a wonderful excuse to go back and reread the old stories and epics!


 What made you say yes to Magical Women? 

An anthology so nice, I said yes twice! Yes, to doing the book cover art first, and then to writing a story.

When you’re asked nicely by a witch who lives in a house of bones with a gazillion snapping succulents, and has a great eye for the whimsical & wonderful, the right answer is always, Yes. That, or you could live the rest of your life as a toad under a rock.

What was the process of writing Bahameen like? 

It was fascinating. In more painter-ly terms, it was like painting with a new unfamiliar medium, and that process is always exciting, sometimes frustrating, but always a great learning exercise. I wasn’t sure if I could write something this long, it is the longest short story I’ve ever written, and the challenge was the opposite of what I anticipated, I couldn’t stop writing. In my head, the story of Bahameen is a much longer one and maybe I’ll complete it sometime in the near future.

Pick three places you would like to time-hop to?

  1. The Elven lands from Lord of the Rings
  2. Narnia
  3. The Jurassic period, for the dinosaurs. Or one of the Jurassic parks maybe, and have access to jello and candy bars while dodging becoming a Raptor’s happy meal myself.


 What made you say yes to Magical Women? 

When Magical Women came along, I was trying (and failing) to write my second novel. At that time, it was such a refreshing opportunity to try the short story. I expected to fail, so I found myself excited to try newer, more outrageous things, I guess. That and the chance to write fantasy again, is what made me say yes 🙂

What was the process of writing ‘The Girl Who Haunted Death’ like? 

It was like making a collage. I stole a tiny bit from an old fantasy WIP novel I was working on. Then I would read a bit of the mythology (The Girl Who Haunted Death is based on the story of Savitri & Satyavan), get excited at a new connection that would open up. If I heard a piece of music, it would bring alive some of the strains of Savitri’s longing. But a major turning point structurally was when I started thinking of this movie called Dil Se I had weirdly ‘liked’ as a kid and wondering what would happen if the genders were flipped and the horribly problematic bits were removed.

If this was made into a movie or series who would you cast as Savitri and Death in all their forms? 

Nithya Menen as Savitri. Sobhita Dhulipala as Death when she’s wearing a woman’s skin. I’ve just realised what a huge dearth there is of dark-skinned actors in Bollywood. Maybe Vicky Kaushal would be a nice Death in a man’s skin? But Death in the story is quite genderfluid so it would be amazing to have a non-binary or trans person playing one of the forms.


What made you say yes to Magical Women? 

Because I was terrified Sukanya would turn me into a toad if I refused. Or a rose bush. But I’d have preferred to be a toad, to subvert, recast and celebrate notions of beauty and power and magic and what women are about, in my own little way. But instead I got lucky, and got to do exactly that, alongside thirteen amazing writers. Wait, what was the question, again?

Apocalyptica is widely different from anything you have written before. What was the process like?

Apocalyptica has been one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever, ever written, simply because it required a level of honesty that took me to a very dark and angry place within me. And the realisation that such a terrible inner world probably exists in most of us has been both frightening and reassuring – the latter especially because it gives me hope that the state of things in the world around us might just get better in the future.

If you could get the goddesses to save one thing in the world what would you pick? 

Dogs. All animals, actually. To be absolutely specific, all living beings except humans. In fact, just get rid of human beings and their demons and gods and their so-called rational efficiency, and the rest of the universe won’t need saving. But first, all the doggies have to be safe.

Picture Credit: Hachette India/ Sukanya Venkatraghavan

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