The fabulous women writers who’ve enlivened – and are enriching – Indian SF

Gautham Shenoy March 10, 2018 9 min

One does not really need a reason to celebrate the fabulous and fantastic women writers of India who’ve enriched science fiction – taking it in new directions with each tale they tell. Their stories are reason enough. The past few years have truly seen a global renaissance of fresh and original SF, and leading from the front have been the women writers, and the same holds true for India as well. Not surprising, when you consider the fact that it was an Indian lady who, over a century ago, wrote what is amongst the first pieces of feminist science fiction: Begum Rokeya Shakawat Hossain who in 1905 wrote Sultana’s Dream, with its portrayal of the feminist utopia of Ladyland, a full decade before Charlotte Gilman’s Herland.

And just as it was then, so it is now, with Indian women writers pushing the possibilities of the genre with their stories, which – while being rooted in our culture – have transcended borders, winning the hearts and minds of readers across the world with their universal appeal. There are so many writers one could list, not least given the fact that the markers of what constitutes speculative fiction is ever-expanding. So here then, are just some works from Indian women writers whose SF you should definitely be reading – if you haven’t already that is!

VANDANA SINGH

‘Big ideas, short stories’ perhaps best describes the fiction of Vandana Singh, a name that would be familiar to the readers of New Worlds Weekly, for her contribution to the Hieroglyph sci-fi anthology, and for being the co-editor of Breaking the Bow, an anthology of SF stories inspired by the Ramayana. With her new collection of short stories – Ambiguity Machines: and Other stories – that came out just a couple of weeks ago, she has shown once again why she is so well regarded not just by the readers, but also by the practitioners of the genre. The titular story of the collection, Ambiguity Machines, which explores new concepts in machine design & function can be read in full over at Tor.com where it first appeared. A mix of culture and history, far- and near-future speculative thinking, blended with real science, and garnished with astute observations on humankind, Vandana Singh’s stories are truly thought-provoking reads. Her previous collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories is a must-read as well.

MANJULA PADMANABHAN

Author, artist, playwright, cartoonist, columnist, Manjula Padmanabhan wears many hats and is considered to be India’s first woman cartoonist. In 1997, her play, Harvest – about organ-selling, souls and human dignity in the global marketplace – won the Onassis award and helped take her work to a global audience. Must-reads from her bibliography that also contains sci-fi tales for children, include The Island of Lost Girls – set in the not-so-distant, and chaotic future when men and women struggle against one another in a grim gender battle amidst which a man risks everything, including his own body, to find a safe haven for his precious young daughter, and the novel Escape, a story about a girl, Meiji who just happens to be the last little girl left alive in a country ruled by a brotherhood of savage generals.

SUKANYA VENKATRAGHAVAN

What if the maiden was the monster? In Sukanya Venkatraghavan’s Dark Things, she is. So to speak. The maiden in question being Ardra, a yakshi without a heart, a supernatural being whose purpose in life is to serve her queen, Hera – the queen a forsaken realm called Atala – by seducing men, and then killing them after drawing out their deepest secrets. And then, the unthinkable happens. Her victim survives, and Ardra’s life, and worlds, spins out of control. Sukanya Venkatraghavan mines the rich folklore of India to introduce in Dark Things a familiar-yet-new universe of mythical worlds populated by gandharvas, apsaras and monsters, in a tale where secrets, sacrifice, and shadows collide to deliver an enjoyable melange of supernatural fantasy and romance if you will. One hopes that a sequel – if not a prequel – is in the works.

SHWETA TANEJA

A journalist, and graphist novelist, Shweta Taneja’s author profile says that her ambition is to write stories that challenge preconceived notions and prejudices. And her Anantya Tantrist mysteries – of which there have been two so far – is proof that she’s succeeded in that. For starters, the hero of her novels Anantya is a woman tantrik. And if that wasn’t mould-breaking enough Anantya is as sassy and independent as they come, and a supernatural tantrik detective to boot, who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but just in time to do the right thing and make things right again. But it’s no ordinary crime that she solves, or mundane circles she moves around in. Anantya’s world is full of the dark occult underbelly of our world, populated by all kinds of tantriks, strange creatures, and her adventures involve not a little bit of violence and gory glory. And then there’s her personal life that Anantya has to balance, including a zombie ex-boyfriend. As Samit Basu blurbs about Shweta Taneja’s books, ‘Anantya Tantrist is racy, rousing, rambunctious and rakshas-ful. Read immediately’. +1 to that!

Also read: ‘No poster and no flag’: An interview with Samit Basu

KRISHNA UDAYASANKAR

I’ve always been an advocate of reading the books first, and then watching the adaptations, because the books are invariably always better. The reason I say this in the context of Krishna Udayasankar is that all her books are headed for the big screen. Sonam Kapoor has picked up the movie rights for Govinda, the first book of the Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy (the others being Kaurava and Kurukshetra). And then there’s her Immortal, which is mythsploitation done right. The Immortal in question is one of the seven immortals of mythology, Asvatthama, who has been roaming the world in various guises throughout history in search of a cure for his immortality. And we’re introduced to him as Prof. Bharadwaj, a historian-for-hire who embarks on an epic adventure along with a mysterious lady in search for an ancient artefact. Fast-paced and entertaining, it was little wonder that Immortal too got picked up for adaptation, by Anurag Kashyap’s Phantom Films. Read it before the Bollywood version comes out.

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

SUKANYA DATTA

With a new collection of her science fiction stories, Other Skies getting published last year, Sukanya Datta has cemented her place as one of India’s most prolific sci-fi writers. What makes it even more of an achievement is that she’s not even a full-time author. She’s a scientist working with the CSIR, and amongst India’s people of science who’ve contributed a lot to Indian sci-fi. Simple stories and adventures told in a very simple manner, most of Sukanya Datta’s sci-fi is set in the near-future exploring science and its impact on people, and society. Infused with humour, Datta’s stories span the gamut of possibilities – from mind transfer, bio-hacking and stories set on Mars, to tales of lost tribes, photosynthesising people, humanoids that don’t just pass the Turing test, but score high on the EQ (Emotional Quotient) scale. Enjoyable and entertaining, Datta’s stories are also educational due to their being rooted strongly in science and scientific principles.

NILANJANA ROY

To enter journalist and literary critic Nilanjana Roy’s world of the wildlings – where humans aka bigfeet are just the backdrop and in which the animal kingdom is a vast, interlinked network of species that communicate with each other telepathically – is to get a whole new perspective on our furry friends. Set in the labyrinthine alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin in Delhi, the thoroughly enjoyable and laced with humour & puns – especially if you love cats – The Wildlings, introduces us to a band of unforgettable cats who communicate via whisker mind-link and have their own code of conduct and tribes. Unfettered and wild, these felines fear no one, go where they will, and do as they please. And as invariably is bound to happen, into this world comes a new cat that is destined to upend things. Highly inventive and wholly original, the fact that The Wildlings was not just critically acclaimed, but also a bestseller says a lot about the book in a world where many novels fail to hit the sweet spot between the two. What’s more, many sequels fail to satisfy the high expectations that come from being a follow-up to a great book, but not The Hundred Names of Darkness, which is the conclusion and a fitting finale to the tale begun in The Wildlings.

SV SUJATHA

Anyone who is familiar with Kerala will know about the Chottanikkara Temple and the goddess who is worshipped there. But you don’t have to be a Malayali who knows its legends to enjoy and appreciate S.V. Sujatha’s debut novel, The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara, a book that is part-fantasy and part-supernatural thriller which reimagines the lore of the temple’s origins, and stays true to the legends about the Goddess. A pacy read with simple language, The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara sees Sujatha humanise the Mother Goddess into a fantasy hero, a fierce young warrior and a protector of fellow beings along with her mount, the fearsome lion, Ugra. Abounding in demons, devils and supernatural creatures, like the brahmarakshasas, kollivaipei, pisaachas, prethas, and vethaalam, the book does get predictable in its plot towards the end, but that doesn’t make it any less a fun read.

TASHAN MEHTA

Tashan Mehta is another young author whose debut created ripples. Her book The Liar’s Weave was published last year. It is set in Bombay of the 1902s, but in an alternate version of our world, where astrology is a mainstream science and where horoscopes are official documents that tell a person’s future and destiny. Into this world, a young Parsi boy is born ‘with no steady birth chart, and planets that change houses at his time of birth’. While this means that that the boy is a child without a future, the other fallout of this is that he can alter reality with his words, his imagination, and his lies. This liar then weaves to change fate and future for all except those who actually know what is going on. All against a backdrop of all-power astrologers, their feuds and motivations, a forest full of hedonistic outcasts, and lots more. Tashan Mehta weaves her tapestry skilfully as the book progresses, and The Liar’s Weave s recommended for those who enjoy a slow thoughtful journey of a read.

I hope you have read some of the books by these fabulous writers listed above. If not, what are you waiting for? Happy reading. Live long and prosper.


Updated at 08:50 pm on March 11, 2018  S V Sujatha was spelled wrongly.

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