Frontlist | Two fantasy writers of Indian origin voted best in the worldFrontlist | Two fantasy writers of Indian origin voted best in the world
on Nov 20, 2020
Here’s why Roshani Chokshi and Tasha Suri, the two fantasy writers who have made it to TIME’s 100 Best Fantasy Books Of All Time, should be your next bookclub pick
In a year that has been overwhelmed with the pallor of gloom, the world of fantasy fiction is the perfect escapist feast. It was earlier this year that TIME staffers enlisted the services of leading fantasy authors—George RR Martin, Neil Gaiman, Marlon James, Tomi Adeyemi, Cassandra Clare, Diana Gabaldon, NK Jemisin and Sabaa Tahir (none of whom nominated their own works)—to compile a list of the 100 most fascinating fantasy books of all time, dating back to the 9th century even.
This 100 has absolute legends like CS Lewis, JRR Tolkein, Roald Dahl, George RR Martin, Neil Gaiman, Madeleine L’Engle, Philip Pullman and JK Rowling. It features, among many other classics, Arabian Nights, Mary Poppins, The Princess Bride and Tuck Everlasting. And nestled in this 100 are two novels, Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time (2018) and Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand (2018)—deeply inspired by ancient Indian myth and mysticism and written by two young women authors of Indian origin, both utterly unassuming of this great privilege and honour.
“The TIME list has brought my books a lot more attention, especially from India, which is wonderful. There are so many great writers in fantasy right now that being specifically acknowledged by such a huge publication is a real privilege,” says Tasha Suri. This 30-year-old author, a self-proclaimed “proud Punjabi”, was born and bred in London; and still lives here with her family, a cat and two rabbits that occupy her time. Until she recently turned into a full-time writer she was also a full-time academic librarian at a university. “I know that's a very stereotypical 'writer-ly' profession, but I loved it,” says Suri. “I am quite domestic and live quietly.”
The unveiling of this ‘list’ was a pretty low-key affair for Suri. She saw it had been released online. It never occurred to her to check it. “A reader sent me an excited message on social media, and I was shocked. I went and checked the list myself. My book was definitely there,” she smiles. She first told her mum, since she literally happened to be in the next room. And her mother of course told her whole family via—yes—the family Whatsapp group. “When you write books professionally there is a lot of rejection involved. You know you cannot expect awards or to be included on high profile lists or even have good sales. These things are not in your control. All you can do is write,” says Suri. “I will continue to try writing good books in the hope they reach their audience.”
Suri’s genre is what she defines as epic fantasy; set in a secondary universe where big, world-changing events take place. Perhaps she has always wanted magic to be real. Maybe she finds the world a little dreary. “I love how escapist fantasy fiction is, and also how it gives us ways to explore real world concerns about power, choice, love, good and evil—through a new lens,” she says. Her books also have a large element of romance. She likes to focus on the lives of women: their experiences, the relationships they build, and the people they fall in love with.
Empire of Sand (2018) is Suri’s debut fantasy novel. It focuses closely on one woman's story within a Mughal-inspired world, her forced marriage, and the difficult choices she has to make when she's tricked into the service of a dangerous powerful immortal. Mehr, the protagonist, is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled mother she doesn’t remember but whose magic runs in her blood.
“Part of the reason I based Empire of Sand in a ‘fantasy version’ of the Mughal era is because of the film Mughal-e-Azam (1960) which I watched as a child and loved.” Her father, who briefly worked as a cinema actor in Mumbai in the 1980s, introduced Suri to the film and instilled in her a love for the magic of those Bollywood classics. “Whenever I visited family in India, they took me to Taj Mahal and Humayun's Tomb, which inspired me too.” Just how traditional western fantasy drew its castles and palaces from the historic buildings and ruins of Europe, Suri draws her magical worlds from the physical reminders of India’s past. “India has always inspired me because I grew up with its stories in my life, in big and small ways,” she says “My nani-ma watched the Mahabharat on ZeeTV. I watched it with her, and it felt real to me,” says Suri.
“I found out about the TIME list early in the morning. I was in my very old pyjamas scavenging through the fridge and deliberating on what I should scarf down before I could return to drafting a new book,” says Roshani Chokshi, 29, an American children’s book author of half Indian/half Filipino origin. This New York Times bestselling author has written a prolific range of short stories as well as commercial books for middle grade and young adult readers—books that draw on world mythology and folklore. Her work has periodically made it to various ‘Best of the Year’ lists and been nominated for the Locus and Nebula awards.
“I was so shocked and extremely humbled by the TIME list. The first thing I did was call my grandparents. Seeing the look on their faces made every hour of hard work worth it,” she says People probably imagine authors as these glamorous reclusive creatures haunting beautifully decrepit estates. Chokshi certainly felt reclusive and creature-like and decrepit that morning. “But following the announcement, I'll aspire to live up to the imagination of others, she smiles. Her baa (grandmother), she says, was her first and favourite storyteller, regaling her with scores of tales about Krishna and the Pandavas. Her mother, who is Filipino, told her tales of the monsters and ghosts of the Philippines.
Chokshi’s book Aru Shah and the End of Time (2018) is the debut novel of her Aru Shah series (also called the Pandava Quartet). It was actually picked as the first book to be released under Disney Hyperion’s ‘Rick Riordan Presents’ imprint (that launched in 2018)—a line of mythology-inspired books curated by Rick Riordan, the bestselling author of the legendary Percy Jackson series. Apart from the thrilling TIME listing, a movie deal is probably in the making too. “Children deserve to see themselves as the heroes and heroines of their journey, and I am so fortunate that my stories have found a home in their imagination,” she says.
The book’s protagonist Aru is a precocious 12-year-old who spends most of her holidays at home in the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture, while her mother is away on archaeological trips. She is known to ‘stretch the truth’ every so often, to fit in with her peers at her elite Atlanta school. But caught in a fib one day, Aru stumbles into a series of unfortunate events. She needs to locate the real day reincarnations of the five Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata in order to stop a destructive demon, unfreeze her mother and travel through the Kingdom of Death. All this must happen as she grapples with the discovery that she is a reincarnation of one of the Pandavas and a son of a god in her previous birth.
“I was extraordinarily spoiled by my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, all of whom took the time to read me stories and tell me myths,” says Chokshi. Between them, she was encouraged to make up stories of her own. “Growing up, it was particularly disheartening to see so little representation of my Filipino and Indian cultures. For a long time, it made me feel erased and otherised by mainstream media.” But there has never been a better time to celebrate non-Western cultural narratives. While Chokshi has written tales inspired by Filipino folklore as well, she has had a great deal more exposure to the Indian branch of her family tree, which invariably attuned her to the intricacies of ancient Hindu fables.
Two elements enthralled her most about Hindu mythology, thus forming the seeds of Aru Shah’s character and journey. One was the idea that heroes could make villainous choices (like when Arjun burned down the Khandava Forest and Yudhisthir gambled away his kingdom in Mahabharata). And the second was that villains/antagonists were capable of great piety and kindness (in Ramayana, Ravana was a great ruler, erudite statesman, learned Brahmin and scholar; Duryodhana from Mahabharata was a perfect friend). “Hindu mythology allowed for nuances in character, and it always situated stories as part of a grander and— oftentimes, sacred—scheme that I found both beautiful and frustrating,” says Chokshi.
The point of artistic expression is to decipher this sort of indecipherable universe, with its shades of grey and moments of ambiguity. And Chokshi hopes for her stories to be a piece of light that can be used to see more clearly into the dark. As she explains, at the very heart, myths and stories are meant to examine and illuminate. It is why she has always been drawn to the realm of fantasy. “Fantasy often deals with emotionally and politically urgent topics, but in a way that allows us to process them through abstraction and, ultimately, gain more empathy,” says Chokshi.