How did this story come about?
It’s inspired by the rise of violent crimes against women in India. As you may know, India has the highest number of crimes against women and is regarded as the world centre for human trafficking in women and girl children. The numbers have kept rising steadily in the past few years and the situation is only getting worse. As a result, single women—unmarried, widows, abandoned women especially—in a number of communities across the country have begun banding together, arming themselves and training in martial arts to defend themselves and other victims. The dacoit queen Phoolan Devi was, in a sense, an early harbinger of this social phenomenon. There was also the famous Gulab Gang (Rose Gang). And it’s no coincidence that kickboxing is one of the most popular sports for young Indian women, with some of the boxers very competitive at the world level.
Watching these developments, I thought “What If” these millions of victimised women got together to carve out their own safe space in the heart of India (since the heartland is where these crimes are most common), and named it Kali. I wrote a very early version of this story a long time ago, then set it aside. Recently, I revisited it and found it more relevant than ever and revised it.
The scariest thing about “The Goddess Has Many Faces” is that India is now so virulently patriarchal that the very idea of a safe space for women would outrage men and draw violent reactions. To give you just one instance, the recent Indian film Padmavati, about a Muslim invader who covets a Hindu princess, angered meninist groups so much that they put out multiple rewards ranging from a hundred thousand dollars to a million dollars for anyone who would behead Deepika Padukone, the actress who plays the female lead, burn her alive, or rape and murder her. They had no issues with the male lead’s character, just the heroine of the film. The government not only endorsed these attacks but banned the film.
What aspects of the goddess Kali were most relevant to your story?
Kali was actually created out of body parts of different Hindu gods. They were unable to defeat a powerful demon themselves, so they each contributed a body part, which came with that god’s greatest power or weapon, and created Kali. But they hadn’t anticipated how powerful she would be now that she had all their powers (duh). She was a wrecking ball. An unstoppable force of destruction. This part of Kali has been explored extensively in many stories, including my own crime thriller series The Kali Quartet, but in this case, I thought it would be interesting to make the nation of Kali a haven of peace. For one thing, it was made up of women who had suffered terrible violence and brutality under patriarchal society. For another, they had the ultimate power of Kali herself. It’s like a society where everyone is literally part of the same larger being, not a group-mind or a hive-mind in the typical sense, but a collective of equally empowered individuals. They didn’t need to use power or brute force on a daily basis to impose order.
It’s my belief that peace and harmony are the natural ways of the world. Violence is the aberration, and by that I mean unnatural violence, not the natural violence of predators killing prey for food. So the women of Kali have reverted to the natural state, where violence is unnecessary and pointless. It’s a perfectly balanced power equation. And that is Kali in her state of rest, until male aggression (her enemies were always male) rises again and has to be put down with force.
Were your choices of gender significant? Would a reversal have changed how the story had to unfold in your mind? (All-female Kali, male assassin and PM-general.)
All Kali’s enemies were male. Almost all crimes against women and girl children in India are perpetrated by males. As a feminist, I’m not interested in exploring a male-dominated story, which is why almost all my work (sixty books and hundreds of short stories) features women or girl protagonists or as major characters. A gender reversal would have been a meninist reactionary tale, which doesn’t interest me. I would hope the SFnal tropes I use in the story are enough to make it unique and contemporary.
You link the physical appearance of each Durga Maa to a specific group/culture—is this a problematic approach in India?
India is an entirely caste- and class-driven society. As someone of mixed race (Irish-Portuguese-Sri Lankan-Indian) growing up in a Christian family, I was often told that I “couldn’t exist” or “don’t belong here.” It’s the reason why I finally left India, my birthplace and lifelong home, to migrate to the US in 2015, and why I now live here permanently. Even in the US, most Indians you encounter tend to be upper caste, upper class, and regard people like me as “not people” (that’s literally how they view those who aren’t high caste Hindu). This “othering” means they regard us as disposable. India’s caste system was actually a very effective guise for enslavement. There’s an excellent book titled Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla, which I highly recommend. It’s impossible (and irresponsible) to write about India without touching upon caste in some way and it’s unfortunate that the few Indian writers of SF and even fiction in general all tend to be upper caste Hindus with inherent biases and bigotry embedded in their work. Any story about India is inherently a story about bias and bigotry, as well as chauvinism and patriarchy. A story that doesn’t touch, however slightly, these issues, is not credible.
What else would you like readers to know about this story?
Hopefully, nothing. Just enjoy it as an SF story! The info I provide here in this interview is for those who want to know more about me. A story should stand on its own several feet.
Whose Ramayana-inspired work do you most admire/enjoy?
Because of the prohibition against non-brahmins reading or writing for millennia, the only versions of the Ramayana available until recently were by brahmins or upper caste Hindus. They’re all religious works, whether overtly or covertly. Like any rational progressive person, it was depressing and discouraging to me to see this great story dominated (so to speak) by religious bigots.
About twenty years ago, I set out to write the first retelling of the Ramayana. It was published from 2003 onwards as an eight-book epic fantasy series and went on to sell close to two million copies to date, translated into multiple languages and published in several dozen countries around the world. Since in India it’s unacceptable (and dangerous) to publish anything remotely related to mythological or historical personalities as “fantasy” or even “fiction,” it was labelled “Mythology” and shelved in Non-Fiction, Religion, Geography (the book titles had place names, e.g. Prince of Ayodhya, Siege of Mithila), Philosophy, etc. It was so successful, it spawned a category of Mythology which is now the biggest selling category in Indian publishing, with hundreds of authors and thousands of books following.
Which themes do you find yourself returning to in your work?
The struggle for marginalised persons to survive, persist, and succeed in the world. The marginalisation itself may vary—disability, gender, sexual orientation, caste, class, race, etc.—but the struggle, the persistence, and the triumph are what my stories are about, and very often in the form of intense, action-driven fantasy.
You’ve written across genres and formats: Which do you most enjoy? What are the challenges of switching forms?
Fantasy, without any doubt. I write other stories because they sometimes come to me and demand to be written. For instance, crime fiction, SF, even literary fiction. But my first and great love is fantasy.
Has writing screenplays influenced how you write in other genres?
It’s taught me the importance of structure, economy, and precision. So has writing middle grade and young adult fiction—you have to pare down to the lean, mean story machine, and excise all that adult middle-aged fat. I recommend that every writer should write screenplays and children’s fiction, just to learn how to make words count.
Any upcoming projects/news to share?
The first books in The Rise Trilogy (Random House/Delacorte) and The Burning Throne Series (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Adams) are completed and in the publication pipeline. They should both be out in late 2018 or early 2019. Have just finished the first book in a middle grade fantasy series, which will go out on submission soon. Next up is a very ambitious epic fantasy series. I also have a story forthcoming in A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams.
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