One of the things I’ve been waiting to see, with the current explosion of popular Indian literature, is popular genre fiction. What started out with Chetan Bhagat and the 100-rupee campus novel has grown into something bigger– Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy was massively successful; Srishti (publishers of about two-thirds of the awful campus novels out there) have just published Arka Chakrabarti’s The Secrets of the Dark, featuring a Mysterious Hooded Figure on the cover, and there exists something called Thundergod: The Ascendance of Indra by Rajiv S. Menon. My attempt a couple of months ago to read The Immortals of Meluha went horribly wrong, and yet I’m glad that series exists. Because very few of the Indian authors I know are genre snobs; most of them will happily read across genres and are fans of some major SFF authors that I like, and many will include speculative elements in their work. Samit Basu’s written some genuinely good epic fantasy, Anil Menon has written good SF, Nilanjana Roy even ventures into genre’s beloved talking cat territory. But it’s taken this, a series of books by (from the bits I’ve read) a not-very-good writer to really get popular genre fiction started, and now that this is a thing, it’s possible that some better writers may emerge.
In the meantime, there’s Tantra, by a writer known only as “Adi”. Tantra is an urban fantasy, set in Delhi, and is about a “guardian”/ vampire slayer named Anu Aggarwal who has come to Delhi to track down the murderer of her American boyfriend Brian. As Anu stumbles on a bigger mystery involving the disappearance of slum children in Delhi, she has to deal with other problems–like the loving aunt she’s staying with who insists on trying to arranged-marry her off. Anu has told her parents she’s gay to avoid marriage-related pressure from them, but in Delhi, it seems, coming out would be at least as scandalous as admitting to being a professional killer of vampires. (Indian queer people, like vampires, must be fictional).
I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Tantra, but this is still a set-up that is full of comic potential. Unfortunately the writing makes some of the comedy rather less intentional than I suspect it was intended to be.
So on the first page we have Anu terribly dressed for the local climate and culture. “She’d worn her signature pleather pants, midriff-baring halter top, and cashmere-lined leather jacket for the occasion”. This is already awful, and it’s only slightly mitigated by the fact that the book clearly sees the humour in anyone walking around Delhi dressed like this. Her partner Amit ridicules her, and
“The toughest battle she’d fought was with an elderly couple convinced she was an upscale prostitute who needed saving. After an hour of explaining that leather was not the temptress guise of a lost soul and that she had in fact read the Ramayana, she’d nearly staked them”.
Because I am a lazy person, here are some of the quotes I ended up saving as I read this.
On Anu’s Guardian-angst: “She tried to remember what it had been like when she was more intimate with the smell of uttapams than the smell of blood.”
A character introducing himself: “the quintessential scotch-drinking Indian hypocrite male.”
A character explaining why Indian men don’t hit on women in clubs: “The Indian gentleman is always discreet to a fault.” (you can all stop laughing now)
Anu, lamenting the difficulty of conversations with the man you have a crush on: “It was hard to talk to Gaurav, who continually and wittily flirted with her on the phone.”
A battle: “The vampire preferred to use his hands rather than a weapon, and Anu’s knives kept finding stray limbs to cut.”
Anu’s don’t-call-me-guru guru, lending her his strength: “A gush of crimson threads from his hand invaded her body.”
Some sexy talk:
After Anu grabs the testicles of a man who attempted to chat her up:
(Drink every time Anu punches one of her male companions in the shoulder)
Anu herself is (of course) superlatively fair-skinned (enough that she was pale by American standards) and beautiful enough that every young male in the book, be he dead ex boyfriend, colleague, potential husband, potential husband’s brother, or chief vampire, has a crush. She’s also superpowered beyond the abilities of most Guardians. I think this is as much a problem of this genre as it is of this particular book, but it still caused me to roll my eyes.
For all its various badnesses, though, Tantra makes me realise how starved I am of genre fiction set in worlds I know. A few months ago I read a really good Zen Cho story in which a character is wearing white Bata shoes to school and I remember those shoes, and that they cost rs 80 when I was ten years old and somehow this really mattered. Tantra is set in my city; Anu’s aunt lives about ten minutes away from me and the plot mostly moves between south and central Delhi. And so I did genuinely laugh when Nina aunty was safe from the vampires invading her house because she’d shifted to a more vaastu-compliant bedroom, and I was very pleased when the violet line of the Delhi metro made a cameo (accompanied by an India-Shining-esque bit about how much better it is than New York’s subway). There’s a rather unbelievable bit where the characters manage to do a complete circle of Ring Road in 15 minutes in a Honda City, and a mention of there being “hundreds of white Maruti cars” which would make me wonder, were it not for the Metro reference, if the author had been in Delhi since the mid-90s at all.
There’s a genuine attempt to combine vampire lore with Hinduism and without falling into a Hinduism Is The One Truth trap– though conveniently, pretty much every character (except poor Karim, who is a noneity) is at least nominally Hindu.
There’s a scene in which a disgraced vampire is strung up in public with a sign attached to his belt that reads “Cock-a-doodle-doo, behnchotes”. I almost want this book to be made into a movie purely so that this can be its tagline.
In short, it’s terrible and I will probably still read the sequel.