Dec 16, 2017

The Best Indian SF Reads of 2017: A New Worlds Weekly List

From aliens attacking India, immortals and supernatural detectives to a reality-altering child, and a distraught mother in a near-future dystopia, they’re all in here.

BYGautham Shenoy

It wasn’t the best of years, but it wasn’t the worst of years either. In many ways, 2017 felt like 2016 Part 2, not just in terms of all the artistes we lost but in terms of the comic book scene as well. But this was a year that was relatively better for the reader looking for good homegrown SF, written by Indian authors and – wonder of wonders – published in India and available on shelves in a bookstore near you. Are the tides turning? Has Indian SF arrived?
Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask because Indian SF has been arriving for a long time, all it really needs is more Indian SF readers to welcome it. The very fact that these books below were commissioned and published by reputed publishers bodes well and is hopefully a sign that there is a big enough readership for SF in India, for Indian authors too, and we can expect more such books in 2018. And the best way that SF fans and readers can ensure that happens is to pick up any of these books, and not just read them but talk about them and tell fellow readers about them. With that small appeal, and without further ado – is a quick look at some of the better Indian SF books read and enjoyed this year, in no particular order:

Leila by Prayaag Akbar (Simon & Schuster)

Leila is set in a future far enough to qualify as speculative fiction, but the world it portrays still cuts a bit close enough to the bone. At its core it is the story of a mother’s search for a daughter who was taken from her years ago, but as the tale progresses we see their world revealed, and with each little detail exposed, Prayaag Akbar exposes the fault lines in our current society, and the world of Leila is, but these same existing faultlines are taken to their extreme (il)logical end.
The almost post-apocalyptic world of Leila is a city divided by boundaries and held together by the order imposed by the Council, and if you don’t obey the thuggish Repeaters are there to make sure you will. Purity is treasured, and those who marry outside their own are sent to Purity Camps. People live in fear in the walled-off zones – Kodava Martials, Sharif Muslimeen Precinct, Tamil Brahmin Sector, Catholic Commons, Chitpavan Heights, etc. – segregated by their religion and caste and what began as dietary preferences. It is in this world that the mother Shalini, who dared marry outside her religion must look for her daughter, the titular Leila who was taken from her years ago. It makes for a harrowing world, but Prayaag Akbar turns it into a gripping story, movingly told; a tale of love, longing, loss, hope, and what could be and the things that should not be. This a novel for our times. This is the kind of speculative fiction that takes our darkest fears, the worst – and most hopeful – in us all and turns them into a cautionary tale so we can learn a lesson or three from seeing what could possibly lie ahead. As has been argued in this column earlier, those who don’t learn from fictional dystopias are doomed to live in one. So pick up Leila, enjoy it and take your own lessons from it – there’s one for everyone.

The Matsya Curse – An Anantya Tantrist Mystery by Shweta Taneja (Harper Collins)

Anantya, Shweta Taneja’s sassy 23-year-old tantric detective is back for another go amidst the dark arts in this, the second of the Anantya Tantrist mysteries, The Matsya Curse. And as with the first book Cult of Chaos, Anantya’s second adventure sees her saving the world once again. Label it an urban fantasy or a supernatural thriller, I’d like to call it an enjoyable read that makes you take a second look at what goes on underneath reality and certain myths and creatures.
It all begins in Banaras – or Varanasi – with a black tantrik intent upon controlling all that exists. The action soon moves to the capital where a certain goddess is selling suspicious art. Meanwhile, an army is being amassed, of supernatural spirits, pretas, demi-gods and the number of the undead is rising. In the world of Anantya, there is an actual Association of Tantriks which looks helpless in the face of all the strange goings-on and the Government too chooses to look the other way. Enter Anantya Tantrist, a rarity amongst those who would walk the left-handed path, a female tantrik, who has to grapple with this all as she stands in the path of the black tantrik – with a little help from a friend or two – while also having to deal with an ex-boyfriend who’s seemingly back from the dead. The Matsya Curse can be read as a standalone book, though it would help a bit if you’ve read the previous book in the series, Cult of Chaos that introduced us to Anantya. Not recommended for children.

Aliens in Delhi by Sami Ahmad Khan (Niyogi Books)

The title is as descriptive as it gets, and this book is by far the most science-fictional on this list, featuring reptilian extra-terrestrials, spaceships and an alien invasion, against the backdrop of espionage, India-Pakistan tensions, forgotten history, and lots more including an Illuminati-like secret cabal that controls the world’s affairs. The second book from Sami Ahmad Khan, the author of 2012’s Red Jihad: Battle for South Asia, this sci-fi thriller finally sees aliens departing from blockbuster tradition – eschewing the US of A as the preferred target – and preferring instead to start their invasion of Earth with India first.
A no-frills story (‘anti-highbrow’ as the author calls it), Aliens in Delhi is a throwback to the fast-paced science fiction adventure with elements of a political thriller thrown in, and the whole story takes place over the course of 72 hours of the alien invasion. If you want to know and why you should read it in further detail, do read the full NWW review which appeared in New Worlds Weekly edition no.72 – Aliens in Delhi: When extra-terrestrials finally decide to invade India first.

The Liars Weave by Tashan Mehta (Juggernaut)

This book imagines an alternate version of India in the 1920s, where birth charts are real and everyone’s fate is written in the stars, and their future cast in stone by a guild of powerful astrologers. Into this world, a child is born ‘with no steady birth chart, and planets that change houses at his time of birth’. This presents a problem because it makes him – Zahan Merchant, for that, is his name – a child without a future. But this has an upside – or it seems like one – Zahan can alter reality with his words, his lies, his imagination. He can change fate and future for all except those who actually know. Together with his older brother Sohrab and a friend, Zahan is thrown headlong into a clash between the established order and the ill-fated ones, the Hatadaivas, the rebels who would seek to change the way things are.
If you’re looking for an easy, fast-paced read or adventure, this is not it. But what it is, is a complex tapestry that you follow, and in the end, once you are done with it, it is ultimately satisfying to have caught on to all the many threads in this fabric that Tashan Mehta has woven, and of whatever answers are on offer.

Immortal by Krishna Udayasankar (Hachette)

There’s mythsploitation, and then there’s mythsploitation done right. Krishna Udayasankar does mythsploitation right, as was attested to by her Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy (Govinda, Kaurava & Kurukshetra). In Immortal, Krishna Udayasankar takes it up a notch, by taking a figure almost always relegated to being in the background in the Mahabharata and putting him into our world, front and centre as the protagonist. No, he’s not a time travelling god – just a man cursed with immortality, one of the seven immortals or Chiranjvis of Indian mythology, Ashwatthama, the son of Drona.
Having lived through the ages, and having had his adventures, fighting alongside Chengiz Khan, being a part of Netaji Bose struggle, and lots more, this immortal now goes by the name of Professor Bharadvaj, now a historian and an academic bearing the heavy, dark burden of immortality with whisky making things easier to live with. But the quiet life is not to be, as he is soon approached by a lady – who is not quite what she looks like or who she says she is – who enlists his help in seeking out a legendary artefact that could possibly be real, an object imbued with alchemical power that can transmute objects and that could hold the key to immortality, the Vajra. So begins an adventure that takes Professor Bharadvaj and the enigmatic Maya Jervois on a search like no other – in a race against time, thwarted at every step by unknown enemies. A quest that will take them across South India from the Nigiris and Thiruvannamalai to the west in the temples of Dwaraka and Somnath, northwards into Kashi, and to the Makran Range and deserts of Balochistan, as Ashvatthama searches for the one thing that has eluded him in all the eons that he has been alive, the answer to – and a way out of – his unending existence.
A fast-paced read, well written, and all through peppered with ample and interesting nuggets about India history and from mythology, there is a nary a dull page in this action-packed book. The stuff blockbusters are made of. Little wonder that Immortal was recently picked up by Anurag Kashyap’s Phantom Films to be turned into an Indiana Jones-style quest trilogy (which also hopefully means there will be more books about Professor Bharadvaj coming). But as always, I recommend reading the book before the movie comes out.
And now for the part, I like the most – The New Worlds Weekly giveaway, where you get a chance to win a great book. It’s almost a NWW tradition now. And because it’s gifting season, this week’s giveaway will have not one, but three winners – each of who will get to choose any one of the books listed above for their prize.
To enter this giveaway all you have to do is answer this very simple question, “Which Indian SF book – that you’ve read and enjoyed – would you recommend to a friend, and why?”. Tweet us your answer with the hashtag #NWWonFD, leave a comment below or on the FactorDaily facebook page before 31st December, 2017, and we’ll pick and announce the three lucky winners on January 1st, 2018.
On that note, I wish you a very merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year in advance, and I hope you join me again next year as well as we go exploring SF further, together into new worlds, weekly.
Live Long and Prosper!

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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.