Known for The Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy and Immortal, author Krishna Udayasankar is having a big year. Her book, Beast, a chilling urban fantasy thriller, that re-imagines the mythological tale of the Narasimha avatar, is already on the best-selling charts. She tells Archana Pai Kulkarni how she ate a story almost every day along with her meals, why she feels like a nomad, how her latest book came out of sheer hubris, and why we must respect the story.
What was the first myth you remember hearing or reading?
I suspect that it was the Mahabharata…or possibly the Dasavataram – 10 Avatars of Vishnu. I was quite the sucker for mythology as a kid, and the legend (haha!) goes that I required a story with every meal, possibly many stories if the meal involved spinach: Sooner or later, I’d open my mouth wide with wonder at some aspect of the story or the other, giving my mom the chance to shovel in some greens. Needless to say, the next line of the story would be withheld till I actually swallowed said greens. TL; DR: I’m still stuck on myth. I still hate spinach.
What kind of books did you gravitate to as a child? Did you have a favourite character or hero then? What do you remember most clearly from being a child?
My earliest memory of childhood goes back to when I was a little less than two. In my head, I’d come up with a story that involved a rotten tomato, and a rather complex explanation of said tomato’s antecedents. I still remember the house where we lived then, my parents and I, and I remember my father coming back from work, and my being eager to tell him this absolutely fascinating story of a rotten tomato and its adventures.
When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer? When drew you to fantasy?
Again, this is highly suspect hearsay: But apparently at a very young age, I had decided to become an astronaut or a writer. I’m not sure I knew what either of those words meant, back then. But as far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Somewhere along the way, adulthood happened, along with the bargain that there were more acceptable (read: lucrative) careers that still involved writing and a love of language – like law, research, academia…all of which I tried. And yet, here I am. I guess it goes to show, to quote Tolkien, ‘not all those who wander are lost.’ And yes, that’s the fantasy/science fiction buff in me, rearing her head.
As a woman, particularly, on many occasions I have truly felt insecure, even unwelcome in India; my occupying space, claiming a kind of personhood tends to be a conscious effort that often stirs dispute.
You have lived in several parts of the world, and been exposed to diverse cultures. Was there ever a sense of dislocation? In what way has multiculturalism influenced your writing?
Yes. I’ve seen and felt two completely sides of dislocation – I’ve felt like a stranger in the country I still call ‘motherland’ and I’ve also fought to claim a place in the country that, by default, I now call ‘home.’ As a woman, particularly, on many occasions I have truly felt insecure, even unwelcome in India; my occupying space, claiming a kind of personhood tends to be a conscious effort that often stirs dispute. At the same time, it has been an equally effort intensive (and frustrating) process to show allegiance to the country I’ve lived in for 16 years now – not by always singing its praises, but by calling out the things that need to change. Sometimes, I think I am a nomad, and not in the nicer sense of the world – a refugee rather than a child of globalisation. On other occasions, I think I must be one of the luckiest people there is – is there is place in the world I cannot learn to love, or call home? I think not.
As far the influence of multiculturalism goes – I think more than exactly that, my writing has been very much influenced by a quest for identity. My earlier mytho-historical series (The Aryavarta Chronicles) came out of wanting to believe or create a cultural background different from the hierarchical, patriarchal one that had been handed down to me, my next book (“3”) came from my struggle with the twin identity of being Indian and (by domicile) Singaporean, and both Immortal and Beast – the books since – have brought me home in a bookish way, to the genres I have always loved – but not as solace, more as a new device to question the world around me and the way things are.
Your latest book, ‘Beast’, has its roots in the mythological story of the Narasimha avatar. How did the idea of reimagining this myth originate and lead to the writing of an urban fantasy thriller?
Actually, that part of it arose from sheer hubris and frustration. I was going through a difficult period with my writing – to the point that I wondered if I had exhausted my creative juices. I’d begun work on three different manuscripts, all of which I abandoned after spending months, sometimes years, and churning out word counts in the tens of thousands. I’m not sure who made the comment, and possibly it was well-intentioned, but there was this particularly low moment when someone made light of the whole situation by saying something along the lines of: “big deal, just write about another avatar, that’s what you always do…” Yeah, that pissed me off. Big time. To the point where I was like: Here’s your Narasimha avatar, but hey, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Yup, that’s hubris all right. OK, I shall go feel ashamed of myself for a bit now.
I think horror and suspense are effects I can work with on a rational level; think through and plot and plan. Most of the time when I write those scenes, I’m grinning with delight at the impact I hope it will have on the reader.
Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.’ How does it work for a thriller where you have to draw in the reader for an edge-of-the-seat experience, and pack in enough suspense, excitement, and anxiety? Do you experience moments of anxiety and horror as you write the story?
The process – some part of it is instinctive and other parts are more technical. I think horror and suspense are effects I can work with on a rational level; think through and plot and plan. Most of the time when I write those scenes, I’m grinning with delight at the impact I hope it will have on the reader. But when it comes to other scenes, particularly those involving relationships, inner conflict – those I tend to experience to some degree or the other, sometimes excessively so. For example, writing lion-form battle scenes was so difficult because I did not want any animal, even the so-called villainous ones, to be hurt. In retrospect, I should have just given the villain a human-form death. For sure, it would have been much easier to write, in emotional terms.
As it is, mythologies are remarkably complex. In ‘Beast’, you have woven in modern-day genetics too. It must be tough to blend science and myth in a way that suspends disbelief. What kind of research did you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Personally, the toughest part of blending science and myth is avoiding adding to a narrative of “ancient India had all the answers”, of seemingly rationalising and justifying a range of allegorical descriptions and inferences – including flying chariots and nuclear- weapon astras and the like. The truth is, much of myth and scripture is amazingly rational, even agnostic in a way – because it’s actually philosophy. And that offers so many possibilities for a conceptual correlation to things being revealed by modern science. But rationalism is an approach, and to confuse the same with scientific fact or technological achievement can only give us spurious inferences. Indeed, as we make science more dogmatic, we lose all spirit of rational enquiry.
Flowing from this, I end up researching widely, if not deeply, even for what may seem a cursory basis for an admittedly-commercial book. I don’t always research before beginning to write; much of that gets done along the way. I do have rigorous social sciences research training, thanks to my PhD degree process, so those methods also come in handy. I’m a little paranoid about research and logical inference – which doesn’t always bode well for a fantasy/speculative fiction writer!
The different characters in ‘Beast’ struggle with their two personas – man and beast. This has been mankind’s constant internal conflict. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a mythical beast or the base human instinct. Was this thought too on your mind when you wrote this book?
Honestly, not at all. And it was a surprise when a number of people mentioned this to me after reading the book. Call me biased, but I totally believe that animals are way more decent than human beings. To me the struggle is more about shedding socially- constructed notions of rational superiority to embrace the instinctive sense of fairness, or efficiency if you will, if not compassion, that even the wildest of animals display. But perhaps this is what you and others mean when you say internal conflict, and I didn’t quite see it for my prejudice?
‘Beast’ throws up questions of identity, particularly the age-old, universal existential question, ‘Who am I?’ It also explores caste and class hierarchies that are still a part of our society. Why did these themes attract you? Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?
Being a writer is possibly the most selfish, self-indulgent thing one can do; so to have made that choice and then claim that being a writer implies ethical responsibility feels…hypocritical and stupid. Try as I might, I can’t remove myself, my politics, my points of view from the way characters interact and navigate the course in my books. So yes, I present these themes in one form or another in all of my books. Having said, the intent of doing so is far from public spirit – I’m just using books – both the ones I read and the ones I write – to try and answer the annoying questions in my head. If there is even an iota of social responsibility in what I think is personal gain, I take no credit for such an accident. But hey, I’ve already admitted that writing is a self-serving activity; I mean, the thought that I actually have something to say which a large group of people ought to read and pay heed to…come on, it can’t get more egotistic than that.
The truth is, much of myth and scripture is amazingly rational, even agnostic in a way – because it’s actually philosophy. And that offers so many possibilities for a conceptual correlation to things being revealed by modern science.
‘The Aryavarta Chronicles’ will soon be made into a film/films. Do you feel excited or apprehensive? Why?
Excited, yes. Apprehensive, no. Three film/web series deals down (Both Immortal and Beast have been optioned too), I’ve sort of reached the acceptance (not sure if its wisdom) that I’ve done my job as a writer well, then I have no need to worry about how it will turn out on screen, because I have told the story as best as it can be told – and the various creative inputs that come in – from screenwriters, from the director, from technicians and artistes – all can only add value, not detract from the story. I mean, it’s also a matter of professional courtesy, right. Sometimes, you have to step back and let other creatives do their job; because that’s what you’d want them to do, when it is your turn to play.
Do you consciously plan to write one kind of story or another? Or is it impulsive? What are you working on now?
Totally impulsive… Wait, no, I do plan. Quite extensively, in fact. But I never stick to the plan. Which is why, I really would not comment on what I’m working on, because I don’t even know when and if I will finish it. I am notorious for giving up on books that aren’t panning out properly, even if I am midway through; forty thousand words worth of work moved to a junk folder on my laptop.
What were the challenges of writing while holding a day job? Did you leave to have more time and space to write? Is your writing more disciplined and organised than before?
It’s weird, but I went through my longest writer’s block right after I quit my day job. It’s almost like when I was working, I zealously guarded and used every spare moment I got to write – even 15-minute coffee breaks between classes. Once I quit though, I turned into the most undisciplined, inefficient writer there could be. I don’t know if that was a function of feeling that I had all the time in the world. I actually didn’t, those two years’ family members’ health issues took up a lot of my time. In any case, I wrote my PhD thesis mostly from my father’s hospital bedside, so hospitals actually increase my productivity!
I can only suppose it was fear, the paralysing kind. I mean, I was betting everything now on this illusion, this mirage of a writing “career”, which is like a unicorn, a gorgeous mythic animal that does not exist. I was terrified. It took me years to admit that, and then to finally get back to writing. Now, I still would not call myself disciplined, but I am a little more efficient as well as a little more willing to cut myself some slack, depending on the situation.
What book has had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?
The funny thing is, the more a book impacts me, the more I think it’s amazing, the less it makes me want to write because I feel that I can never get close to that kind of sublime writing. When I was much younger, like in my early teens, the two books that had the most impact on me were Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (every single word written by Asimov, actually). More recently, the book that has made me want to give up writing and curl up in bed and die was Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending. That, and Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem. When you have people writing at that level of creativity and dexterity, it’s difficult even to feel jealous!
I am notorious for giving up on books that aren’t panning out properly, even if I am midway through; forty thousand words worth of work moved to a junk folder on my laptop.
What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year? What do you plan to read next?
This year has been a bumper year in terms of reading women/non-binary writers and being blown away by their work. First up: Martha Well’s Murderbot series. I hated the fact that the books ended. Really, I was actually angry that I didn’t get to keep reading on and on. The other book that I’ve read and felt almost breathless during the process has been the Magical Women Anthology of Feminist Fiction. I was moved, amused, angered, delighted, every spectrum of emotion and then some more for thought, for 92.85% of the book. Yup, that’s the exact figure.
What is the best piece of writing advice you ever got? What would like to tell other aspiring writers?
The best advice I’ve got has to be…ummm, tough one. I think at various stages various things people have said have been instrumental in getting me where I am, or even seeing me through a problematic scene or plot point, so it’s tough to pick one out as the best. One piece of wisdom I often recall though, is what a dear friend and fellow author, Sukanya Venkatraghavan told me: that only you can write that story in that way. What she was trying to tell me (I think; wouldn’t it be fun if I’ve got it wrong all these years!) is that the same, absolutely identical idea may strike two or even twenty different people, but the core of the story is not just the events that make up the book or the idea at its root, it’s what you put of yourself into the book. Those twenty people will still not produce identical books even if they started with the same concept.
It becomes important, after a while, to (me to) remember that, to remember that ideas have their own distinct existence, and if the same idea is cropping up across different authors’ works, that is because the idea’s time has come. But you still have to figure out what your equation with an idea is – and it could be something as simple as do you want to oppose it or support it. It’s actually an honour to be part of something so big, in a small way. I used to regret so-called “similarities”, earlier. Now I see that nothing we write exists by itself, it adds to and draws from a collective something; call it shared knowledge, call it hive mind, call it what you like. But it’s there.
As for giving advice; here my two cents worth: Ignore all advice, including everything you’ve just read. This journey is yours and yours alone to undertake, so make your choices count. On a more useful note: Respect the story. Stories have been around before we writers were even counted as vermin, and they will outlive us all. It’s the story that matters. The writer is just an accessory.